Take advantage of the search to browse through the World Heritage Centre information.

Dialogue between Rita Keegan and Laura Yawanawa

50 Minds for the Next 50. Towards a Balanced Representation of World Heritage Sites

Rita Keegan

Archivist and multimedia artist

Laura Yawanawa

Mixteca-Zapoteca activist, President of the Yawanawá Sociocultural Association (ASCY)

Vision for the Next 50

In the Next 50… The cultural values and spirit of ‘women of colour’ are respected and celebrated through the rediscovery of their artwork and documentation, all of which contribute to establishing their cultural links and protecting their heritage.

In the Next 50… The culture and heritage of indigenous communities are not obliterated by colonialism and the influence of the West but are successfully transmitted to new generations. Indigenous knowledge and its contribution to economic profits are protected by law.


The dialogue between Rita Keegan and Laura Yawanawa was centred on the cultural and economic protection of people from underrepresented regions. They pointed out that the cultural values and knowledge of minority groups were exploited and endangered by the dominant culture and colonialism. It is vital, they agreed, to protect these groups’ knowledge and its contribution to economic growth, but suggested different ways to ensure protection. Keegan cited ‘respect and ownership’ as a starting point, as problems stem from disrespect of different cultural traditions and creativity. She added that the role of archivists such as herself is crucial to record and recognize the cultural values of women of African descent. Yawanawa recommended instead introducing a law to ensure adequate compensation for the use of indigenous art and design to protect livehoods. She also explained how indigenous people work with their oral stories to transmit their heritage inspired by nature and the spiritual world.


You are a trained archivist; how can documentation and archiving contribute to the celebration of culture and heritage of Black women?

Well, I'm not a trained archivist. I came to it by accident. I was involved in a women's organization and at that time there were lots of exhibitions, and they were acquiring ephemera. They felt it was important that a woman of colour deal with the situation.

I'm dyslexic, so it can be incredibly daunting, but when I talked to librarians and other archivists, they said ‘do it as simply as possible.’ So I thought, I know my alphabet, I’ll start with that. There's also a combination of the ephemera that sticks with you, and the ephemera that when you collect it, you don't necessarily know it's important, but you know that it was a great experience. Collecting objects is another thing because you need the space for objects. Now I am a collector of objects.

Do you collect objects? How do you collect knowledge? Because sometimes the objects are so linked with indigenous people. I know that when I went to Ghana, I was in the market and I bought a little hand loom. I can't use it, but it was so important for me to collect the means of production. And I know that you would have very similar objects, so how do you approach this?

We indigenous peoples, at least my people in Mexico and here in Brazil, we work more with our oral history. Here in the Amazon, the transmission of culture is more through the stories, through singing and also producing certain things like ceramics. But most of the story comes from our vision about nature, about the forest: we believe very much in the spiritual world of the forest.

When it comes to knowledge, like in our stories, we have the animals that teach us about the medicine plants, which teach us how we should behave. We have all these stories that relate basically to nature: the animals, the moon, the sky, the rain, the sun.

So we are very much connected with the spiritual world, not really collecting material things; it's more collecting the stories and passing them on to the new generations. That's our main goal, at least in our work with the Yawanawa foundation. We have been working very hard to bring the younger generations to value our stories more. It was our main concern in the last 20 years, as our heritage was almost lost because of colonization and many interferences from the Western world.

I agree with you! Coming from a diaspora, we try to investigate our truths and cultural links. And, I think a lot of the work with artists of colour over the last 50 years has been done to try to rediscover the spirit, and the spirit that still resides within the people living in a different environment.

That lack of ownership and self-sense that especially comes with young people…how do you give them a sense of self. You just have to offer it to them. And it's like a dinner where you offer this plate and they can pick from it, but here at least they're being offered history and stories. And I think people's oral history is important even if it's the migration of oral history.

Exactly, and in our case, we’ve been working on valuing our own knowledge and at the same time, trying to use our knowledge to bring economic means to our communities. Today our indigenous knowledge is being misused a lot by enterprises. They take our designs and use them in big stores, and nobody knows where it comes from.

Truth is, it comes from native people from Mexico, from the US, from Brazil or even Africa. Indigenous people are never compensated or recognized for those designs that are so meaningful to us. And taking part of this dialogue is so important, to protect that knowledge and art.

Everybody should recognize that there should be laws to protect the indigenous knowledge and preventing the appropriation of our culture. Even songs, sometimes I hear our songs being sung, and not recognized as Yawanawa and they make money with it.

We see that here in the cities and we see our cultural product being taken, changed, altered. I guess the disrespect starts at the source. It starts from not respecting the land and not respecting other cultural traditions and diminishing those traditions and saying they're not important.

Those issues need to be addressed. It costs nothing to acknowledge where the creativity came from, it only brings greater knowledge and a more holistic understanding of the world.

It’s important that the means of production don't come out of our hands and that we get acknowledged. And that's sometimes quite shocking when our experiences are parallel and not part of the dominant culture, how the dominant culture disregards our creativity, our talent, and it is seen as just another resource to use. That's why the ownership of being an archivist is crucial, it means you can record these things.

Watch the dialogue

English French

Explore other sessions

Five dialogue sessions covering five themes take place in 2022, each joined by thinkers in paired dialogue from diverse regions. The interdisciplinary dialogues inspire new visions for the next 50 years of World Heritage.

Safeguarding Heritage against Climate Crisis
Imagining Heritage in the Digital Dimension
Heritage in the post-COVID World
Sustainable Tourism & Sustainable Heritage
Towards a Balanced Representation of World Heritage Sites