In this year’s Annual Conference on Human Rights, Northwestern University Community for Human Rights (NUCHR) is choosing to turn the spotlight toward ... art?
NUCHR held the keynote address for its 14th Annual Conference on Human Rights on Thursday, inviting Emmy award-winning filmmakers and world-renowned artists Nomi Talisman and Dee Hibbert-Jones to Harris Hall to kick off the three-day long event, which invites 47 student delegates from colleges across the country to focus on the relationship between art and human rights.
Katie Mayer and Maria Fantozzi, Weinberg seniors and co-directors of NUCHR, chose the filmmakers to lead the keynote address after seeing how they embody the intersection of art and human rights.
“We thought that they would start off the conference in a way that demonstrates a combination of art and a different medium, this idea of storytelling and film and all these different things coming together to really kick off the conference with this idea that art goes beyond paintings in a museum,” Fantozzi said.
Hibbert-Jones and Talisman began the address with a slideshow presentation outlining some works of art, quotations and film clips that inspired them.
“What we want to talk to you about is the relationship between art and human rights,” Hibbert-Jones said. “We chose some quotations, images, and strategies that we’ve been mulling over, and a compilation of things that inspire us, and questions we have. We hope that they’ll provoke some thought for you, and resonate with you.”
The artists presented some works of art that they said have spoken to them, then proceeded to go through a history of activist art, showing famous images including the Tiananmen Square protester, Rosa Parks sitting in the front of a bus and Omran Daqneesh, the 5-year-old Syrian boy whose bloodied face became the image of the refugee crisis.
“Culture is a part of human rights, I just want to emphasize that” Talisman said. “Having the opportunity to have your culture respected, and bodies seen and heard.”
Talisman, a previously undocumented Israeli citizen, and Hibbert-Jones, who holds a dual citizenship between the U.S. and U.K., documented their struggles as a same-sex couple trying to navigate a legal system that, at the time, did not give Hibbert-Jones the ability to grant any form of legal recognition to Talisman.
The first work that the artists showcased, “I-140,” named after the form that allows an alien worker to petition to become a resident of the U.S., was created out of this struggle. In the video, the couple held up road signs along highways and street corners with such messages as, “status pending,” exemplifying the struggle they faced.
The artists then played a clip of the short film for which they are most well-known, “Last Day of Freedom,” a story of the agony and trauma faced by a man who turned in his murderous brother to police, only to learn that he would be sentenced to the death penalty.
In describing the inspiration for the short film, Talisman spoke about working for a non profit organization where she recorded testimonies for capital defense cases.
“I would come home and describe the family stories, and Dee and I realized we wanted to make a film to bring to life larger issues in criminal justice and civic responsibility through the story of families of people that are killed,” Talisman said. “This is a voice that’s totally missing from any conversation about criminal justice.”
After speaking about the film and its meaning, the artists turned their attention toward the relevance of art in this day and age, opining that, with Donald Trump soon ascending to the presidency, art holds a special importance.
“These questions of resistance and the power of art to express and act are more relevant now than ever,” Talisman said.
The keynote ended with a time for audience questions, in which students asked about the artists’ work, as well as their thoughts on the future of the death penalty and the ongoing Dylann Roof trial.
The address laid out a theme for the conference far different from any seen before, and Mayer and Fantozzi took an optimistic view of the conference’s approach.
“Art was a little bit out of left field, and I think that’s why everyone grabbed onto it so much,” Mayer said. “Ultimately, everyone ended up being much more excited about it than we’ve ever had before.”
In planning for the conference, the co-directors were able to reach out to some people and groups they had never talked to before, allowing for connection that otherwise may have never occurred.
“I don’t think it’s every day that a human rights organization sits down to meet with people at the Block Museum,” Fantozzi said. “Katie and I found ourselves, multiple times over the course of the past year, having conversations with people that we had never spoken to before, never taken classes with or never really thought of this conference as being in conversation with.”
As they prepare for the events in the coming days, which include three panels Friday and Saturday on the intersections of art with propaganda, power and protest, Mayer and Fantozzi hope that students will take away more than just the words spoken at the conference.
“I would hope that people take away some kind of story,” Mayer said. “I think my main hope is that people take what they learned here, and they apply it.”