I was born and raised in South Africa during that country’s anti-racist struggle. When I began questioning the racist apartheid system in high school, I was fortunate enough to have teachers who guided me to art works that taught me a different, radical history from the one included in the official curriculum. The actions of these teachers inspired in me an enduring interest in how teaching and learning shape our ability to function as social citizens, as people committed to social justice and the wellbeing of others. I also learned that rather than distracting us from our troubled world, art can deepen our engagement with complex and difficult social problems, inspire hope, and function as a powerful tool for communities in struggle. My political and art education continued during my undergraduate years when I studied theater and was involved in student politics. The meetings, workshops, campaigns and demonstrations in which I participated were as important to my learning as the lectures and seminars I attended as a university student. Liberal Arts programs like the ones offered at Lang College facilitate this kind of intersectional learning that connects the classroom with the world at large. I have found at Lang a community that supports my lifelong learning alongside the learning of those I am honored to welcome into the classroom.
When I moved to New York City I entered an interdisciplinary graduate program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I also became active in social movements focused on the AIDS crisis and related concerns with sexual, gender, racial and class inequalities. These experiences led me into public health, and for over 10 years I worked and taught at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. During this time I studied and worked on HIV/AIDS related projects across the United States and many other parts of the world, including South Africa. I was also a founding board member of the Ali Forney Center, an organization focused on the needs of homeless queer youth in New York City. My teaching then and now draws from this diverse range of concerns and practices. I am consistently curious to see how art or culture making shapes, challenges, and expands theoretical propositions and helps us address the big social and life questions of our time.
Outside of my teaching at Lang, I remain involved in public health work. Currently, I work with the Center for Social Innovation in Boston and am focused on how changes to the U.S. health care system are affecting the lives of people with mental health and addiction needs. Each summer, I also teach in the University of Amsterdam’s Summer Institute on Sexuality, Culture, and Society, which allows me to contribute the different strands of my work to sustained dialogue between sexual and gender right activists from across the globe. I am also a member of the international art collective, Ultra-red, which was founded in Los Angeles by AIDS activists who were also sound artists and musicians. For the past 20 years, Ultra-red members have investigated the contribution experimental sound art might make to political organizing. The power of working collectively is that we are able to learn with and from each other’s initiatives. During my fellowship with the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School, I initiated Vogue’ology, a project with members of the predominantly African-American and Latino/a LGBTQ community in New York City. From time-to-time I and other member of the Vogue’ology collective teach a course with the same name at Eugene Lang College. As a member of Ultra-red, I have worked with museums, art and educational institutes, and community organizations across the world, including the Serpentine Gallery in London, Arika in Scotland, Fritt Ord in Norway, BAK in Amsterdam, the Istanbul Biennial, and the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Barcelona.
ABD, Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University
M.A., Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University
B.A. Honours, Psychology, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa
B.A. in Theater and Psychology, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Ultra-red (2014) URXX No. 1-9: Nine Workbooks, 2010-2014. London: Koenig Books.
Sember, R. and Rhine, D.T. and Sember, R. (2009) Ten Preliminary Theses on Militant Sound Investigation. New York: Printed Matter.
Padilla, M., Hirsch, J.S., Munoz-Laboy, M., Sember, R. and Parker, R.G. (eds) (2008) Love and
Globalization: Transformations of Intimacy in the Contemporary World. New York: Vanderbilt University Press.
Parker, R.G., Petchesky, R. and Sember, R. (eds) (2008) SexPolitics: Reports from the Frontlines. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Sexuality Policy Watch.
Articles and Book Chapters:
Sember, R. and Roberson, M. (forthcoming) “We have Something to Say . . .” .dpi (issue 31).
Sember, R. (2015) “Three Scenes of Collective Action.” IN Speculation. The Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The New School.
The Pedagogy Group (2014) “Listening, Thinking, and Acting Together.” Rethinking Marxism, vol. 26(3), 414-426. [Text by: James Andrews, Maureen Connor, Susan Jahoda, Lauren Ptak, Robert Sember, and Caroline Woolard]
Sember, R. (2013) “Jules Rosskam with Robert Sember: Interview.” Issue Project Room, New York. http://issueprojectroom.org/
Sember, R. (2012) “White People’s Stories (based on what I have been told by women that I know).” Rethinking Marxism, vol.24(4).
Sember, R. (2012) “Live to be Legend.” IN Andrea Phillips and Markus Miessen (eds.) Actors,
Agents and Attendants. Caring Culture: Art, Architecture and the Politics of Public Health.
Amsterdam, Netherlands: SKOR | Stichting Kunst en Openbare Ruimte.
Sember, R. and Rhine, D. (writing for Ultra-red) (2011) “Art, Collectivity, and Pedagogy:
Changing the World in which we Live.” IN Dmitry Vilensky (for Chto Delat?), ed. Theatre of
Accomplices (Chto Delat? Newspaper), Issue 08-32.
Sember, R. and Rhine, D.T. (writing for Ultra-red) (2011) “A few years ago, rather than asking people simply to listen to what we had made, we began asking, “What did you hear?” IN Sheikh, S. and Winder, J. (eds) The Former West: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art. Utrecht: BAK (Basis for Actuele Kunst)
Sember, R. (2011) “Temporary Structures: Encounters Between Image and Value in the Work of Joo Hwang.” IN Hyoun Youl Lee, ed. Temporary Storages: Joo Hwang (Exhibition Catalogue). Seoul, South Korea: mediabus.
Sember, R. (2009) “Sexuality research in South Africa: The policy context.” IN Sandfort, T. and
Reddy, V. (eds) From Social Silence to Social Science. Pretoria, South Africa: Social Sciences
Sember, R. (2008) “The Social Construction of ARVs in South Africa.” Global Public Health, 3(S2), 58-75.
Beresford, B., Schneider, H. and Sember, R. (2008) “Constitutional Authority and its Limitations:The Politics of Sexuality in South Africa.” IN Parker, R.G., Petchesky, R. and Sember, R. (eds)
(2008) SexPolitics: Reports from the Frontlines. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Sexuality Policy Watch, 197-246.
Sember, R. (2007) “Andries Botha at Bank Gallery Durban.” Arthrob-A Journal of Contemporary South African Art.
Melendez, R.M., Bonem, L.A. and Sember, R. (2007) “On Bodies and Research: Review of Transgender HIV Research.” Sexuality Research and Social Policy.
Sember, R., Kropf, A. and di Mauro, D. (2007) “Images Against Teen Pregnancy.” American Journal of Public Health, 96(8).
Sember, R. (2006) Review: William L. Leap and Tom Boellstorff (eds.) “Speaking in Queer
Tongues.” Journal of Gender Studies, 15(1), 87-107.
Sember, R. and Gere, D. (2006) “’Let the Record Show . . .” : AIDS, Art and Activism.” American
Journal of Public Health, 96(6), 967-969.
Art and Politics
Popular education and other forms of collective learning
Public health and popular culture
History of anti-racist art movements