Bua Modiri (2019)

Bua Modiri is Setswana for “speak out worker”. The name was chosen by a group of sex workers during a Sisonke meeting. Participants in this project were asked to focus on messages specific to their occupation.

The project draws on previous MoVE (method:visual:explore) work, and follows the 2015 Sex Worker Zine Project, which culminated in the production of 24 zines by the women, men, and transgender persons who participated.

Bua Modiri involved the same people as those who were involved in the Sex Worker Zine Project. It was also conducted in the same two sites as those where the zine project took place: (1) Makhado in Limpopo, South Africa’s northernmost province that shares a border with Zimbabwe, and (2) Nelspruit, a growing metropolis in Mpumalanga, a South African province sharing a border with Mozambique and Swaziland.

The first Bua Modiri workshop took place in February 2017 with 9 out of the 10 of the Nelspruit (Mpumalanga) zine project participants. The only person who did not attend was unable to because they had moved to another province.

Similar to previous MoVE and Sisonke partnerships, the participants involved in Bua Modiri either live in the town where the project took (is taking) place or travelled from elsewhere in the province to participate.

Activist posters have always been critical to social justice movements. Although they can be printed as such, posters can also take the form of stickers: two forms of public engagement that a small organisation like Sisonke can easily reproduce and use for their own purposes.

Of course, the posters/stickers produced by the participants of this project are undoubtedly an important outcome. But equally important, if not more important, is the process that led to their making.

This blog attempts to document the meaning-making process currently taking place in the Makhado workshop. The idea for this blog comes from nearly a decade of experiences using creative, participatory approaches with diverse migrant communities in South Africa.

Over the years we have noticed that the workshop process is rarely (if at all) reflected upon holistically. Often, the attention is on the artefacts produced during arts based projects or short summaries that describe the methodologies, risks, and challenges. This website is an attempt to document the workshop process. In many ways, it’s an exploration in representation; an experiment in recording some of the varied moments that make a workshop possible. The contents involve preoccupation with both the tangible and intangible aspects of arts-based research and the importance for an arts-based research practice to be reflexive, engaged, and iterative.

Some of the posters produced by the Nelspruit participants are featured on this website, but the intention is to document the Bua Modiri workshop that is taking place in the Makhado site of the project.

The workshop facilitators

Each Bua Modiri workshop was conceptualised and facilitated by Elsa Oliveira, a postdoctoral researcher at the ACMS and the co-coordinator of the MoVE project, and Quinten Williams, a visual researcher who has been involved in MoVE since the 2013 Volume 44 project. Katlego Rasebitse — Advocacy and Media Coordinator of Sisonke — was also involved in the Nelspruit (Mpumalanga) workshop, and Linda Dumba — Sisonke Provincial Coordinator of Limpopo, and previous Volume 44 and Equal Airtime participant — is playing a critical role in the workshop process.

Background Info: Migration and sex work

Similar to other contexts, the majority of sex workers in South Africa are internal or cross-border migrants. Many who choose to enter and remain in sex work often report doing so for the high income earning potential, the ability to work independently, and flexible hours.

Although sex work is an important livelihood strategy for many women, men, and transgender persons, all aspects are illegal in South Africa. This includes selling sex, buying sex, living off the proceeds, and other associated activities.

Criminal laws on sex work make it more difficult for those engaged to mitigate danger, and their risks are compounded by migration status, sexual orientation, gender non-conformity, and unsafe working conditions.

Heteronormative religious and moral ideologies, neoliberal anti-trafficking campaigners, and abolitionist feminists who claim sex work as the antithesis to women’s liberation, collectively (albeit from different philosophical and political positions) drive anti-sex work discourses and pose significant barriers to the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa and elsewhere.

Seeking to produce knowledge with sex workers

While there is much debate on “what to do about sex work” the voices of sex workers themselves (and particularly of those who are also migrants) remain noticeably absent in academic literature, and political and popular debates. In an effort to support the development and implementation of appropriate policy, legal, and municipal responses on issues of sex work, some students and researchers at the ACMS are exploring different ways of conceptualising, undertaking, and disseminating research that explores the lived experiences of migrants, including those involved in sex work and sex work activism.

Premised on the idea that research should be driven by a strong social justice agenda, and with a commitment to developing ways to co-produce and share knowledge through public engagement, the MoVE project (established in 2013) at the ACMS aims to involve: (1) the direct participation of migrant groups that are typically excluded, under-represented or misrepresented in mainstream research, policy and public debates; (2) explore the ways that research knowledge and outputs can be co-created between researcher(s) and participant(s); and (3) share outputs produced during research processes that extend beyond traditional academic spaces.

To date, MoVE projects have been conducted in collaboration with Somali migrants and refugees, with LGBTQ+ migrants and asylum-seekers, with migrant women in Johannesburg, and with migrant men, women and transgender persons engaged in sex work.

Working with Sisonke, a sex workers’ rights organisation in South Africa

The Sisonke National Sex Worker Movement is a central partner in MoVE projects. Launched in 2003, Sisonke’s core mission is to advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa and to offer sex workers a platform where they can voice (and share) their everyday experiences, needs, and aspirations.

A central aim of the collaboration between Sisonke and MoVE has been to support the production of sex worker generated—and selected—outputs for public dissemination.

Previous MoVE and Sisonke projects include: 2010 Working the City participatory photography project; the 2013-14 Volume 44 participatory visual and narrative project; the 2014 Equal Airtime body mapping and narrative writing project; the 2015 Sex Worker Zine Project; and the ongoing Izwi Lethu: Our Voices newsletter project.

The publicly shared work produced by the sex worker participants during these projects—such as exhibition posters, poems, newsletters, and zines—continue to circulate widely, generating engagement between the producers of the work and different public audiences.


Funding for BUA MODIRI was made possible by the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa (maHp), a research initiative funded by a Wellcome Trust grant awarded to Dr. Jo Vearey, Professor at the ACMS.