Dr Diana Felix da Costa organises photo exhibition on Murle culture in South Sudan
British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Diana Felix da Costa recently organised a multi-sited photo exhibition on Murle culture and heritage in South Sudan's capital Juba and in the eastern town of Pibor in the Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA).
These exhibitions are part of her long-term engagement and research work in Greater Pibor. The photo series offered a visual journey of how young people across the countryside of Greater Pibor are incorporating new images of power and modernity into traditional practices of body scarification that identify them as members of age-set groups and sub-groups. By exploring the meanings behind these new symbols and images and what these represent for youth identities and sub-identities through connected quotes, the exhibition showed how young Murle men and women are explicitly telling their own individual and collective stories, and making claims on the promises of modernity through striking and powerful permanent body art.
The photo series was first displayed at the University of Juba between the 6-10 October 2022, in a larger 'Safety and Storytelling' arts and heritage exhibition co-organised alongside South Sudanese multimedia arts and education organisation Likikiri Collective and the LSE's Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa.
The photos were used as a platform to start conversations and generate knowledge of an often misunderstood practice and part of South Sudan.
On 7 October 2022 a panel discussion was held at the University of Juba to discuss Murle Heritage and share knowledge about age-sets and their material expressions to an audience of academic staff, students and aid workers. The panel, moderated by Dr. Felix da Costa, was composed by the Minister of Information for the GPAA, Joseph Lilimoy, civil society activist John Boloch, and youth leaders Peter Lebelek and Kabacha Oscar Oleyo, who collectively shared insights on why age-sets remain so important in society but have also been transforming and fragmenting and the challenges that brings.
The photo series in Juba also served to formally launch the website on Murle heritage, a multimedia digital archive of Murle tangible and intangible heritage. The panel discussion was followed by a photo studio set up temporarily next to the photo series where exhibit visitors could take their portrait.
Following this, Dr Felix da Costa then took the photo series to Pibor town. The photos were left permanently in the Kabarze Centre, a women's centre often used as a multi-purpose hall. There, the photos were received as a celebration of culture and a reminder of how the latter is fluid and flowing.
Alongside co-researcher Peter Dacky, Dr Felix da Costa hosted a research consultation and validation exercise with over 150 people from the rural areas surrounding Pibor town, including chiefs, local level government officials, youth representatives and women from the kabarze.
The photos offered the chance to discuss concretely and openly the ongoing research and its objectives, expectations and outputs, as well as validate the lens of analysis and arguments that Dr Felix da Costa is taking in her research and ongoing book project; many long-term research informants were there, as well as many of those in the portraits too.
This multi-sited photo exhibition was made possible with the support of the SOAS Impact and Knowledge Exchange Fund.