In his now well-known monograph on artistic research published in 2010, Julian Klein makes the provocative statement that the question: ‘what is artistic research?’ is, in fact, the wrong question to pose. Instead, he tells us, the question should be ‘when is research artistic?’ This question, with its strong focus on the activities, rather than definitions, of the concepts of research as well as artistry, informed and energised the 2020 event Artistic Research in Africa, presented by Arts Research Africa in collaboration with the Wits School of Arts. An international conference held at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, the conference drew 302 attendees who over three days attended 46 presentations, all centered on the topic of artistic research, specifically in African contexts. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Arts Research Africa project in the Wits School of Arts facilitates artist residencies, conferences and symposia, and provides support for artistic research projects in the Wits School of Arts. The purpose of these activities is to spark dialogue, stimulate practice, enable research and inspire collective engagement in developing artistic research in African universities.

‘Artistic Research’ is by now a term ubiquitous in Higher Education discourse in Europe, the United Kingdom and Australia, and has come to be used as an umbrella term for nomenclature such as ‘practice-based’, ‘practice-led’, ‘practice as’ and ‘creative’ research. What these approaches have in common is that artistic practice plays a central role in the methodology and design of a research project: as artistic research scholars Paolo de Assis and Lucia D’Errico suggest, these are ‘modes of artistic practice and of knowledge production, in which scholarly research and artistic activity become inextricably intertwined’. Over the past two decades, artistic research has become entrenched in especially postgraduate education models in these Global North locales, and dissemination of this type of research has proliferated in large part because of online publications devoted specifically to artistic research output. Although artistic research is becoming better known and more regularly applied in South Africa, it remains comparatively underdeveloped and under-utilised as research praxis; preliminary inquiries reveal that examples of artistic research elsewhere on the African continent are even less common.

The year of the ARA Conference also marked the first year that the South African Department of Higher Education instituted the process of formally recognising artistic practice as worthy of earning research subsidy.  After a long gestation period, the DHET released guidelines for South African universities to submit what were called “creative outputs” for research subsidy assessment using criteria loosely based on the system of peer-review in the Sciences and Humanities. As several commentators have pointed out the DHET policy is riven with contradictions, not least that ‘creative outputs’ can earn a maximum of two subsidy points whereas conventional research outputs can earn up to 10 points. Nevertheless the formal recognition of creative work in the South African higher education and research system contributed to the institutional background to the deliberations at the ARA2020 Conference.

The conference was also organised against the political background of the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student protests that convulsed South African university campuses in 2015 and 2016.  The student protests brought a new term into South African political discourse: decolonisation. As Jonathan Jansen has noted, this was ‘a signal moment in the century-old history of higher education in South Africa’. Decolonisation was never part of the discourse of the struggle against apartheid; but its emergence as a central, if inchoate, demand within the student protests signalled a deeper questioning of the inherited structures of knowledge in South African tertiary education. Against this background, the ARA2020 conference positioned decolonisation as central to the purpose and scope of the gathering, posing the question: ‘How does Artistic Research decolonise knowledge and practice in Africa?’ 

The conference organisers endeavoured from the outset to conceptualise the conference as an event situated in and focused towards Africa. As such, the Call for Contributions read:

This conference invites contributions from African practitioners and academics as well as interested colleagues located beyond the Continent to initiate a dialogue about modes of Artistic Research appropriate to African contexts.

Taking as axiomatic that artistic research in Africa is new and evolving, the conference was structured to operate as an open-ended ‘interrogative machine’: specifically because of the relative novelty of this type of research in Africa, it was hoped that unexpected, unprecedented and innovative perspectives on art, research and knowledge could be generated through this meeting. By enabling contributions primarily generated from an African locale, rather than privileging perspectives from the Global North where the term ‘artistic research’ first became standardised, one purpose of this conference therefore was to collect multiple perspectives that could interrogate and explore artistic research, and suggest ways forward for and through African contributions. By shifting focus to Africa in this way, and positioning African perspectives as a starting point rather than a response to views from the Global North, it was hoped that the conference could make a significant contribution in terms of decolonisation of knowledge, research and research praxis.  

In June 2020 the proceedings of the conference, edited by Christo Doherty, were published on an open access online platform. Using these proceedings as primary resource, we wish to reflect in this paper on some of the outcomes of the 2020 meeting. We proceed with a brief analysis of the types of contributions offered, highlighting what emerged as general themes and considering some of the challenges of representation, especially those conference contributions that are performance rather than text-based. [The full proceedings and the individual conference papers are available at]


Being cognisant of the relative novelty of artistic research in Africa, the conference committee wanted to resist conforming to strict definitions of what constitutes artistic research, opting rather for broad descriptions of the term to allow for wide-ranging participation. As such, the Call for Contributions for the 2020 conference described artistic research as ‘approaches to scholarship where artistic practices are viewed as modes of knowledge production and are integrated with traditional modes of inquiry’.

A review of the 46 conference presentations show that they can be grouped in two main categories: read papers as are common to traditional academic conferences, and performances, performance lectures, workshops and interactive engagements. These two types of approaches were roughly equally represented, with 26 read papers (including panel discussions) and 20 performance-based presentations included in the conference programme.

Henk Borgdorff, a founding member of the international Society for Artistic research and respected scholar in the field, has suggested that debates in artistic research are often informed by considerations of philosophy, or of education politics. The papers presented at ARA 2020 revealed a similar tendency to focus on either of these categories. Philosophical issues that were explored included for example the nature of artistic knowledge; epistemology; the ontology of art objects; the performative turn in academic research; subjectivity; artistic research and decoloniality; and considerations of experiential knowledge and phenomenology. Several delegates grappled with issues pertaining to the area of education politics, including issues of dissemination of artistic research; supervision and examination of artistic research PhD projects; and the position of arts practitioners in academia, vis a vis university funding models that typically cater for traditional research units rather than creative output. This latter point likely gained traction because of the developments in DHET funding models and the newly established recognition and subsidising of creative outputs referred to earlier in this paper.

Many of the philosophical matters raised in the read papers provided an appropriate frame for the subjects explored through the performance-driven contributions. In this way, the conference was indeed able to function as an ‘interrogative machine’: the ontology of art objects were for example interrogated through actual creation of artistic output with which conference delegates could engage through various interactive methods; experiential knowledge could be interrogated practically, not only theoretically. Presentations that were structured as workshops facilitated the sharing of expertise in specific arts practices (such as improvisation, animation, composition and drama therapy), addressing to some degree philosophical questions on the nature of artistic knowledge. Several performance presentations connected on some level with decoloniality, and offered performative engagements with topics such as indigenous knowledge, dream translation, ritual in African theatre practices and African spiritual healing. These presentations offered artistic reactions to philosophical questions that are often under-explored, or are made to rely heavily on theorised rather than practice-driven responses or analyses.   

However, precisely in the powerful impact of the performance-driven presentations lies a particular challenge in artistic research that must be negotiated. Traditional forms of research, such as read conference papers, academic articles and book chapters are contained in textual formats and thus easily disseminated and shared. Text, however, is limited in the degree to which it can represent artistic knowledge – knowledge that relies to a significant degree on experience. As Julian Klein describes it:

Some authors require that artistic knowledge must nevertheless be verbalized and thus be comparable to declarative knowledge. Others say it is embodied in the products of art. But ultimately it has to be acquired through sensory and emotional perception, precisely through artistic experience, from which it cannot be separated. Whether silent or verbal, declarative or procedural, implicit or explicit - in any case, artistic knowledge is sensual and physical, ‘embodied knowledge’. The knowledge that artistic research strives for, is a felt knowledge.

The dilemma thus created for a conference such as ARA2020 is that, if there is a desire for impact beyond the event itself, there must be a strategy to share at least some aspects of the knowledge generated through, and inherent in, the experience of the artistic activity itself. This predicament is acknowledged in the Conference Proceedings, along with a stated intention to utilise in future digital media technology to represent and distribute artistic research. It will likely be productive to turn to existing models of artistic research dissemination for examples, such as online journals (including the Journal for Artistic Research, Vis and Ruukkuu) and digital artistic research repositories such as that of the Orpheus Institute in Belgium and Goldsmith’s College in the UK. Development of such dissemination platforms from and for local contexts should certainly also be explored.


While the distribution and archiving of artistic research was highlighted as an imperative, the epistemological issues were also interrogated by several conference papers.  Should the creative arts, when situated within the institutional framework of the university, produce new knowledge in a manner commensurate with the production of knowledge in the sciences or even the social sciences? Michael Schwab, the founding editor of the European Journal for Artistic Research warned, in his opening address to the Conference, that ‘without such epistemological engagement’, artistic research ‘risks not being taken seriously in a wider context of research’.  Yet, as he pointed out, that ‘wider context’ is currently in a state of transformation and flux with the stability of knowledge claims under pressure not only from the imperative of decoloniality but also from new forms of science such as quantum physics. Schwab offers in his keynote address an image of ‘jumping onto a moving train’ to explain the challenges in working in, for and through artistic research. The still somewhat contested nature of artistic research could, however, enable it to play significant parts in decolonisation strategies: precisely because it is not yet reified as a research praxis, nor ontologically entrenched in Global North hegemonies and traditions, it can act in responsive ways to changing and developing imperatives, not only on the African continent but also more broadly in decolonizing locales.

Several other contributors, although not directly referencing decolonisation, offered arguments that show resonance with decolonisation imperatives. Marc Fleishman, a leader in the international development of Performance as a Research modality, drew on his own experience as the head of Drama at UCT and the artistic director of the Magnet Theatre Company to insist that the artistic object must remain ‘alien to the institutional logics and neo-liberal imperatives of the contemporary university’. His concerns are echoed to some degree by Gerrit Olivier who offers a critique of the ‘meaning and form of the art object’. One may surmise that, because artistic research offers novel ways in which artistic objects – be that in the form of artifacts or performance traces – function or operate within institutions, it could offer productive responses to these concerns. Artistic research, constantly still developing and transforming, facilitates a search for new forms of knowledge creations and, concomitantly, novel ways of resisting the traditional theory–practice, and text-art object binaries. This idea is affirmed by Brett Pyper, the principal investigator on the ARA project, when he highlights the colonial legacies that weigh on our inherited notion of the ‘art object’; he calls for a consciously African approach to artistic research which will have a ‘sober reckoning’ with the limitations as well as the promise of artistic research in the context of decolonial struggles. The potential of artistic research, in his view, is because it promises not just new knowledge but new forms of knowledge. 

The route taken by the Journal for Artistic Research, a dissemination platform referred to earlier in this presentation, suggests one path through the many conflicting demands of artistic research creation and dissemination. Artistic researchers presenting submissions to the Journal are encouraged to structure their work as ‘expositions’, in which the concreteness of the creative work is not subsumed to general statements, but is articulated as a particular instance of research within the multi-modal context of the online journal. This approach recognises the particularity of the submission, that the presentation of a performance or a visual art work within the journal is not the same as the presentation in a context such as a concert hall or a gallery, while also allowing the artist-researcher to ‘expose’ the work as research in its specificity.

Although it was not a point made by Schwab in his presentation, there is the potential in the model of the ‘exposition’ to operate as a decolonising strategy in the sense that it allows for the dissemination of research that does not conform to the general statements of traditional models of Western research.



Several African speakers at the ARA2020 Conference emphasised the importance of recognising that the institutional context in Africa differs significantly from that of Europe or the Anglophone North. This suggests that a different route must be followed in establishing artistic research in African tertiary education. In contrast to the European context, creative arts departments on this continent have generally been part of post-colonial African universities since their founding. However, as keynote speaker Berhanu Ashagrie Deribew from the University of Addis Ababa observes in his closing address to the ARA2020 Conference, the academic leadership and administrators in African universities have never taken creative arts departments very seriously. He suggests creative arts departments were considered appropriate for decorative purposes, such as providing music at graduation ceremonies or providing a mural for the walls of the student cafeteria, but were never considered as sites for significant research or knowledge production. All too often, arts practice in Africa has been regarded as a ‘craft’ without intellectual content. The incremental changes in regulations that have allowed some space for artistic research in African universities have been a belated response to international trends rather than a result of deep engagement with the field. The Zimbabwean theatre researcher and practitioner, Samuel Ravengai, gave a vivid demonstration of  his rejection of this approach in his description of his “Afroscenology” project which uses artistic research to “tap into” and articulate the tacit performance knowledge that has evolved through the practice of African theatre companies.

Returning to the  decolonial  thematic of the ARA Conference, Deribew strongly argues that the points that emerged during the conference from the more philosophical considerations of artistic research within the institutional setting of the university and the peer-review system must be challenged from the position of the knowledges suppressed and eradicated by the colonisation of indigenous peoples in Africa.  In his words: ‘artistic research in Africa must consider our own institutional and cultural realities and worldview. Not only must artistic research bring intellectual rigour and interdisciplinarity to African institutions where African art has been too often labeled as a ‘craft’; but artistic research should be a correctional force for the epistemicide’ that occurred throughout African under colonialism.

It is our hope that the performances, workshops, lectures, papers, panel discussions and general interactions between the 302 delegates that attended ARA 2020 may become a first step in establishing artistic research as such a correctional force: to chart a way forward for the formation of an African artistic research paradigm, which can serve knowledge, the arts and the humanities from and for the African continent.  



Prof Christo Doherty is the Deputy Head of the Wits School of Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; and Director of the Arts Research Africa project in the School. He is also a photographer and video artist with a particular interest in the relationship between new technologies and forms of consciousness in Africa.

Dr Mareli Stolp was the first Arts Research Africa Postdoctoral Fellow in the Wits School of Arts, at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.  She is currently an Associate Research in the School and is a member of the JAR Editorial Board. She is a pianist and artistic researcher based in Pretoria, South Africa.