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Feminisms Unbound - Visual Cultures of Human Rights

  • MIT Building 4 Room 237 182 Memorial Drive Cambridge, MA, 02142 United States (map)

Visual Cultures of Human Rights

Human rights discourse traditionally has been under the exclusive purview of legal studies, political science, and international relations. Increasingly, scholars in the humanities have entered the conversation, asking about the aesthetic, visual, and cultural renderings of human rights principles, rhetoric, and politics. A central tension in human rights discourse has been that of Euro-American civilizing missions citing the wretched conditions of racialized and minoritized populations as the legitimization to humanitarian interventions that frequently take the form of military, economic and other types of structural domination. Current discourses of human rights also make use of the language of moral superiority, protection, and benevolence. Paying close attention to the production and circulation of visual cultures, this forum invites critical perspectives on differential renderings of human lives, their political subjectivity and social desire.

We invite panelists to respond to the questions of how human rights narrations have evolved and been expressed through fictional imaginations in literature, film and visual culture. How can we conceptualize the ethico-politics of human rights in such a way that it cannot be reduced to humanitarian “right to intervene” in the affairs of others? What political interests drive state, civil society, and activist demands for censorship and representation over various narrations of human rights? How do literary, filmic, curatorial practices in museum and art exhibitions provide a space for critical reflection on human rights institutions and practice? How might memorializations and narrations have an immediate effect on the lifeworld of minority groups affected by human rights atrocities? While in the global intellectual arena, the scope of human rights seems only to justify a ‘crisis narration,’ rethinking its historical, aesthetic and political abstractions not only offers us a new avenue to imagine its many layers but can also provide us a productive scope to frame art, politics, agency and resistance.


Roundtable Participants:

Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman, Associate Professor of American Studies and English, Brown University

Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman is Associate Professor of American Studies and English at Brown University. A two-time winner of the Darwin T. Turner Award for Best Essay of the Year in African American Review, Abdur-Rahman has been awarded fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the American Association of University Women, the Mellon Foundation, the W.E.B Du Bois Institute at Harvard University, and the JFK Institute at the Freie Universitaet, Berlin. Her scholarship has appeared or is forthcoming in African American Review, GLQ, The Black Scholar, The Faulkner Journal, American Literary History, The James Baldwin Review, among other scholarly journals and critical anthologies. Her first book, Against the Closet: Black Political Longing and the Erotics of Race, was published by Duke University Press. She is currently completing her second book, provisionally titled Millennial Style: The Politics of Experiment in Contemporary African Diasporic Culture.

Brian Horton, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Brandeis University

Brian is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of queer studies, critical theory, popular culture, digital anthropology, and South Asian studies. His research projects broadly focus on sexual, gender, and racial minority subjects and the social worlds that they build at the interstices of recognition and discrimination. His current book project Shimmers of the Fabulous: Reinventions of Queer Life and Politics in Mumbai explores LGBTQ+ social and activist networks in Mumbai, analyzing how queer subjects seek out pleasure and fun amid moments of legal precarity and crisis.  Dr. Horton’s next project Cannibalizing Race: Gossip, Rumor, and the Queer Life of Racism in Urban India profiles African immigrants living in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore. This project ties together Brian’s scholarly commitments to queer studies with his interest in recent waves of migration from Africa to India. He considers the sexualized, chimerical, and queer fabulations that narratives of African migrants take on in South Asian popular culture and everyday gossip.

Joshua Williams, Assistant Professor Faculty Fellow of Drama, NYU

Joshua Williams is a writer, director, teacher and scholar currently serving as an Assistant Professor Faculty Fellow in the Drama Department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. His academic research concerns the political figure of the animal in African theatre and performance. His articles, essays and reviews have appeared in ASTR Online, Theatre Journal, The Johannesburg Salon, Theatre Survey, Performance Research, African Theatre, Modern Drama, Africa is a Country, HowlRound, Brittle Paper and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is also translating the complete plays of the Tanzanian playwright Ebrahim Hussein from Swahili into English for Oxford University Press. His own plays have been developed or produced at theatres across the country and abroad.

Lily Mengesha, Tufts University

Lilian (Lily) Mengesha is the Fletcher Foundation Assistant Professor of Dramatic Literature in Departments of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies, and Race, Colonialism and Diaspora Studies at Tufts University. Her research focuses on questions of affect and spectatorship within the decolonial works of indigenous centered and feminist artists throughout North and Central America. This research has been supported by the MIT School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, the American Society for Theatre Research and the Cogut Center at Brown University. She is the co-editor of the 2019 special issue of Women & Performance on “Performing Refusal/ Refusing to Perform.” Her writing appears in The Drama Review, Canadian Theatre Review and Women & Performance.

Sandy Alexandre, Associate Professor of Literature, MIT

Sandy Alexandre’s research spans the late nineteenth-century to present-day black American literature and culture. Her first book, The Properties of Violence: Claims to Ownership in Representations of Lynching (Mississippi 2012), considers how the history of American lynching violence helps us to understand how African-American literature engages matters concerning environmental racism, the American pastoral ideology, Black displacement, and the violence of inequality associated with property ownership. Alexandre is currently writing another book, Freedom Things: Black Aspiration’s Tangibles After Slavery, which explores the relationship between the history of chattel slavery and black desire.  The book will take as its point of departure the premise that the former, enforced condition of black Americans as fungible merchandise can haunt, inform, and morally energize, to some extent, black desire and affinity for certain material objects. This book will explore how Black Americans create what Alexandre calls a “culture of significance” with material objects. Using literary analysis, studying material artifacts, and engaging the work of black collectors, Alexandre argues that such an improvised, curated, and eventually sacralized culture of subject-object relations constitutes an immanent critique of consumer capitalism. Overall, Alexandre’s work takes into serious account the ways in which an ecology—comprised of human characters, places, and inanimate things—is affected by and responds to the various instances of racial violence that mark the aggregate of U.S. history

Moderator:  Elora Chowdhury, is Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Chair of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at University of Massachusetts Boston. Her teaching and research interests include transnational feminisms, gender violence and human rights advocacy, narrative and film with an emphasis on South Asia. She is the author of Transnationalism Reversed: Women Organizing Against Gendered Violence in Bangladesh (2011), which was awarded the National Women’s Studies Association Gloria Anzaldua book prize in 2012; and the co-edited volume (with Liz Philipose) Dissident Friendships: Feminism, Imperialism and Transnational Solidarity(2016). Currently she is working on a book project titled, Transregional Filmscapes in South Asia: Borders, Encounters, Histories (with Esha Niyogi De).


This Consortium for Graduate Studies in Gender, Culture, Women, and Sexuality (GCWS) initiative, Feminisms Unbound, is an annual event series featuring debates that focus on feminist concerns, theories, and practices in this contemporary moment.  This series is intended to foster conversations and community among Boston-area feminist intellectuals and activists. The series, in its open configuration, endeavors to allow the greatest measure of engagement across multiple disciplinary trajectories, and a full array of feminist investments.  

The event organizers, who are also visiting scholars with the GCWS this year, are Elora Chowdhury (Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Chair of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at University of Massachusetts Boston), Faith Smith (Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies and English at Brandeis University), and Kareem Khubchandani (Mellon Bridge Assistant Professor in theDepartment of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies and the Program in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Tufts University). have programmed the events in this series.