• Human Rights and Christmas Lights

    Last week I went over to the University of Essex to take part in a collective recital of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I was asked to read the preamble and to learn/be familiar with the 30 articles in case any weren’t chosen, or in case they were chosen but the person didn’t turn up on the day. A marathon of another kind! The Declaration is hard to learn, the language is formal and the sentences are overly long and difficult to get your head around. Some of them take some time to decipher, but others are simpler. The General Assembly calls for all peoples and all nations to keep the Declaration constantly in mind, and strive, through teaching and education to promote respect for the rights and freedoms within it. But it’s not an easy thing to do. It is one thing (quite hard enough) to read the Declaration of Human Rights, quite another to learn them and therefore even more of a challenge to remember to live by them. Of course, most of them, for most people, are common sense, but this is not true for all people, all of the time. Indeed if it were true, would we need the reminder of the Declaration?

    The artist Monica Ross created this performance, initially in response to the killing of Jean Charles De Menezes and it developed into acts of memory – solo, collective and multi-lingual recitations from memory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a performance series in 60 acts). Sadly Monica Ross died on 14th June 2013, the day that the performance reached it’s 60th and final act. However, Monica’s website encourages the hope that people will be inspired to continue promoting human rights, and it is in her memory that Jess Kenny, the artistic director of The Art Exchange at Essex University, commissioned this performance.

    Luckily for me, Jess managed to find lots of people willing to take an article. Some people learned their article and recited it from memory, others read theirs. Some people spoke their article in their own language. Someone added a comment to their article. Some people changed the male pronouns in their articles to non-gender pronouns.

    With fewer articles to learn, I decided to memorise the preamble. I also made sure I was familiar with a lot of the articles and I learnt about half of them reasonably well. When the time came, I was more nervous than I thought I would be. The Art Exchange, together with the Human Rights group at the University had spent the morning chalking the rights onto the steps linking the squares. We set up in front of the steps and spoke into a microphone. The whole thing was filmed. I stumbled on some of the preamble; it’s so important, and often the things that are important are the hardest things to say. I was aware of the responsibility I carried with the words, aware of a need to reach out, beyond the people in front of me, beyond the University, beyond Essex and England and out into the world. It’s no wonder I stumbled!

    I was moved by the whole performance; to hear and see people being brave, doing something out of their comfort zone, but doing it nevertheless, because it meant something to them, was an incredibly powerful thing to watch. People bonded and exchanged stories and details; connections were made; opinions were expressed. Not only did we recite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but we lived it too.

    Despite the dry language (or maybe because of that) I thought that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was very exciting; they have stirred up my creative juices and I think there is so much that could be explored within and around them. Perhaps one of the most important ones for me was paragraph 1 of Article 27:

    “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”

    My practice has evolved to include art, sport and life and here it is, together as ONE Human Right. Oh, the possibilities are endless!!

    The reciting of the UDHR has been made to feel even more pertinent by experiences I’ve had in the week following it: having the honour and the privilege of working with children in hospital – especially those with terminal conditions; seeing the delight of young children meeting Father Christmas at Braintree Rugby Club; taking part in a Carol Concert raising money for charity at The Mercury Theatre in Colchester. This year, more than any year previously, I have felt very passionately that, of course, Christmas is about far more than turkey, presents and pudding; Christmas sits in our hearts, in our willingness to reach out and connect with our families, friends and communities. And after working hard all year, I’ll definitely be making time to look after me too!

    You can read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights here:

    http://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Documents/UDHR_Translations/eng.pdf

    You can read more about Monica Ross here:

    http://www.actsofmemory.net/

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