Sadler’s Wells hosted a free public talk exploring the relationship between art and human rights on the first day of Fly The Flag week, part of a nationwide campaign marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Chaired by Kate Arthurs, Director of Arts at the British Council, the debate examined the role of art in addressing human rights issues. Author, university professor and prominent human rights barrister Philippe Sands QC, Jasmin Vardimon, choreographer and artistic director of Jasmin Vardimon Company, and actor, writer and equality campaigner Kate Willoughby shared insight from their own experiences, work and expertise.
The rich and thought-provoking discussion considered how we are often unaware of our human rights, take them for granted, or think about them as something relating to ‘others’. It highlighted how there is still a lot to be done to build understanding that each and every one of us has a minimum set of fundamental rights at any given time, and how art is uniquely placed to humanise stories, make individual issues universal, appeal to our emotions and foster empathy among people – ultimately advancing the cause of human rights for all.
The evening began with a video contribution by choreographer Akram Khan. Alongside members of his dance company, in the clip he reflected on why art is such a powerful reminder of our shared humanity.
“People connect with art because they find themselves in it.”Akram Khan
Kate Arthurs then invited the speakers to share their thoughts on why, and how, art bears witness to, and shines a light on, our human rights.
“Human rights are the heartbeat of our humanity. They’re the lifeblood of our very existence and the hope for better days ahead – without them, humankind is lost. As creatives, we have incredible power. Art is underestimated as a powerful tool. With it, you can reach people, move and lift them, and change lives.”Kate Willoughby
“Art is firstly a form of expression, a form of communication. It can shine a new light on subject matter, raise awareness, provoke thoughts, stimulate emotions and present a reality from an unconventional perspective. All of this can open new ways in which to view our world, and potentially lead to making actual change happen.”Jasmin Vardimon
Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, gender inequality and crimes against humanity are some of the subjects explored in Jasmin Vardimon’s work. Her productions Justitia, 7734, Freedom, Medusa and PARK all deal with themes relating to universal human rights.
Reflecting on their professional experiences, the speakers said:
“My work means that I am always in one of two places: either the classroom or the courtroom. My audiences are therefore either students or judges. But it’s not enough for just those two groups of people to be part of the discussion – human rights issues are just too important for that. Through my work as a writer, I found out that I can reach an audience much wider than I could have ever imagined.”Philippe Sands
“Courage from the past calls for courage in the present. The fight is tough, but this is not a time to be a bystander. Understanding the history of the suffragettes is understanding that these were brave, ordinary, extraordinary women that we can learn from.”Kate Willoughby
“Working on a piece, I like to look at an issue from different points of view and ask questions. How much does who we are – our cultural background, our preconceptions – influence how we judge situations? Perspective changes everything. A terrorist can be seen as a freedom fighter from the other side. Does our point of view dictate what we see, or does what we see dictate our point of view?”Jasmin Vardimon
On the value and impact of the arts, in society and in our everyday lives:
“What better way to express ourselves than through the body? I think the human body has an endless capacity to communicate and express, to tell a story and to rouse emotions. Using the entire capacity of our body to express can be a very powerful, expressive and communicative vehicle, whether that’s intellectually or vocally. The body is the home for each individual’s thoughts and emotions – it houses what makes each of us unique.”Jasmin Vardimon
“It’s incredibly important that people recognize that there is a crying need out there to provide support to the artistic world to do what it wants to do. It’s an important time for solidarity right now.”Philippe Sands
“It’s important to be true to yourself. When you speak from the heart you are heard by the heart. Feelings trump facts and stories matter. As creatives, we can tap into these truths for good.”Kate Willoughby
In the Q&A session with the audience, speakers discussed the importance of equality of access to arts and culture for everyone, and of democratising the dialogue in ways that ensure everyone can be a part of the conversation.
We closed the talk with a poem from The Unknown Hour, by renowned poet and novelist Ben Okri, which was read by Cameroonian journalist and English PEN’s current writer-in-residence Mimi Mefo Takambou.
To fall is not to fallBen Okri, from The Unknown Hour
From space or height. It is to fall from unity,
From oneness. But it is easier to walk out
Than to work it out. Easier to fall apart
Than to stay together. The romance of independence,
Of freedom, is stronger than the truth of unity.
Fly The Flag week runs from 24 to 30 June and is co-produced by Fuel, Amnesty International, Donmar Warehouse, Human Rights Watch, Liberty, National Theatre, Sadler’s Wells and Tate.