Freedom of expression is the hallmark of democracy. It is a sign of societies where citizens are free to openly debate and contribute to a myriad of issues affecting their day-to-day lives. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists it as a fundamental human right.
In recent times, freedom of expression has been under siege. Authorities in East Africa have tightened censorship rules, which has further silenced critics, curtailed artistic freedom, restricted the use of online platforms and prevented journalists from exercising their right to access and disseminate information.
Finding freedom elsewhere
But despite these worrisome developments, and perhaps because of them, alternative forms of expression are occupying online and offline spaces. They are voices of freedom offering critical and sometimes provocative narratives through art forms like music, film, photography, ‘disrupt’ design, graffiti, gaming, and virtual reality.
Within these artistic spaces we are seeing the rise of a new generation of artist change-makers who engage in “artivism” to freely express their views on social issues and injustice and share this content in different contexts.
Why is art so important to Hivos?
Art is a uniquely human form of expression that goes far beyond pleasing the eye or the ear. Art can evoke powerful emotions that end up bringing about structural change in society. Artists and change makers know this power all too well and use it to question harmful practices and stereotypes that are considered “normal” in most societies. A “normal” that encompasses injustices like political oppression, discrimination of LGBTI persons, corruption and oppressive gender roles.
This is why for more than 20 years Hivos has supported artists, journalists, bloggers, techies and creative entrepreneurs in East Africa to establish safe and sustainable spaces to express themselves. Their aspirations reflect our own humanist principles that advocate for open societies where people are free to express themselves, make informed decisions about their quality of life and hold governments and authorities accountable for their actions.
The R.O.O.M program
Through the Resource of Open Minds (R.O.O.M) program, Hivos East Africa has funded over 23 partners in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania - all artists, musicians and creative hubs using critical content to question dominant structures in society and propose alternatives.
The program uses a four-pronged approach in supporting these artists.
Financing has been invaluable in bringing partner projects to scale and increasing their resilience. With our grants, partners have created productions that confronted structural issues in various contexts such as: LGBTI rights, police corruption, questioning neoliberalism and redefining gender norms.
Capacity building workshops, tailored to the needs of the partners, have increased the professionalism and sustainability of their initiatives. These cover an array of topics such as intellectual property, gender equality, digital security, financial sustainability and audience development. For example, the Creative Academy - a partnership with Nesta and the British Council - is a learning package to boost the capacity of creative hubs to build a solid local infrastructure for producing critical cultural and media content.
Knowledge sharing has brought partners together using unique events like African Crossroads, an annual gathering of thinkers, doers and shapers. In 2019, African Crossroads – under the theme ‘sense the city’ - convened 170 participants from 30 countries. They debated on cutting-edge developments anchored in African intellectual and technological traditions, and proposed positive changes for African cities.
Experimentation and learning is the final component of R.O.O.M. Together with the British Council and ArtEZ University of the Arts, Digital Earth was set up as nine-month long fellowship for artists and designers interested in the digital world and its impact on the planet. The fellowship provides them with resources, tools, community, and amplification.