Realising the potential of art for peace-building

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There is still little documentation of how art creates
social and personal change. We must develop this language, argues Charlotte
Onslow



Every morning news bulletins wake me to a violent global
reality. This morning it was “Libya’s slide into anarchy and its threat to
Europe’s security”.

But on some days I pass up current affairs programmes
for music, any music. Music talks directly to me, offering another, more
peaceful, more enlivening reality.



In the depths of conflict, art can provide respite for
those disempowered and made insecure by violence. The hedonism of drama, dancing
or music-making during war is powerful. Professor James Thompson reflects on
applied theatre as a tool for social change, not just for its capacity-building
effects but also for the way if affects people in aesthetic, emotional and
sensory ways: “It’s beautiful, sometimes scary, and aesthetically interesting in
its own right. We need to learn a language that can talk about these sorts of


things in order fully to appreciate what the work is about.”

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Dara, a South Asian history play about Islam, has now
completed its successful run at London’s National Theatre. Pakistani playwright
Shahid Nadeer explained at International Alert’s peace talks on 1 April how his
play, originally written for audiences in South Asia, offers insight into the
history of Islam and contemporary conflict, violence and extremism in Pakistan
and beyond.



For 30 years, Nadeer and his theatre group Ajoka have
used performance to transform conversations with thousands of Pakistanis around
democracy, pluralism, religion, identity and disenfranchisement. This kind of
theatre is helping to build a shared South Asian cultural identity beyond
religion.

“By blending drama, poetry, theatre, visual and
literary arts with traditional peace-building tools, conflict-affected people
can renegotiate power and catalyse dialogue between opposing
groups.”

Such arts-based peace-building projects are increasingly
seen as complementing institutional and structural approaches to peace-building
programming. Art is unique: we experience it through the senses, on a bodily and
emotional level. Theatre, music and other creative art forms move beyond
discussion and cognitive analysis. They can deeply affect individuals and
groups, de-centring people from the world view and polarised standpoints that
are common to conflict.



Research by arts project In Place of War in conflict
sites around the world reveals how art is used by grassroots communities for
violence prevention, socio-political resistance, trauma healing, and
reconciliation. Likewise, peace-building practitioners and organisations are
utilising the arts and creativity as a force for social transformation. By
blending drama, poetry, theatre, visual and literary arts with traditional
peace-building tools, conflict-affected people can renegotiate power and
catalyse dialogue between opposing groups.



In the highly polarised region of the South Caucasus,
where cultural identity forms an intimate part of the conflict dynamic,
peace-building groups have harnessed literature to explore the boundaries
between cultural and political identity. Publications bringing together the five
languages of the South Caucasus have helped cross divides. Using narrative form,
well-known writers can safely explore and promote a diverse ‘Caucasian’ cultural
identity, as well as celebrating individual ethnic cultural identities,
something direct dialogue is less able to do.



Combining literary art with more traditional dialogue
methods can help transform and influence political discourse and generate a more
conciliatory message around cultural identities, shared cultural values and
whether art can play a role in peace. Addressing stereotypes can help to build
tolerance, as people rediscover the ‘human’ face of their enemies. Cultural
identities run at a much deeper level than political identities.



While the existence of these projects demonstrate the
use of creativity for peace-building, there is lamentably little documentation
about how art and creativity actively create social, political and cultural
change.



Not only is each context different, but the success of
art in transforming an individual or group rests with its ability to connect and
to elicit an emotional response. As Michael Shank and Lisa Schirch point out in
their work on strategic arts-based peace-building, the ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘why’
are yet to be satisfactorily expanded on by artists, academics or
peace-builders. As Thompson says, we are yet to develop the language.



But we must. The World Bank concedes that the majority
of Millennium Development Goals will not be met in conflict-affected countries
by this year’s deadline, and heralds a bleak reversal of progress if conflicts
return. Traditional development and peace-building professionals are
increasingly recognising that favouring only facts and figures is hampering our
capacity to build peace.



By offering evidence as to how the arts can support
peace at different levels, we can leverage creativity for greater effect for
those affected by violence.



First published by Open
Democracy

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