Art is a means for creative expressions of powerful past experiences, inner feelings and desires; it can also provide a unique alternative to reflect on our unspoken values. It can help us to encounter our most painful experiences and feelings, explore the pain buried deep in our subconscious, and imagine how we can live with that pain and find hope and beauty in our lives. The power of art for many can be scary as facing and reliving violence and trauma experienced is a complex endeavour, and it is here that art provides a magical opening with its aesthetics, freedom and creativity. When we produce art together within a small group of individuals in a safe, comfortable and creative space, the process becomes less scary and painful and more caring and humanising.
This happened in the fourth workshop for the AHRC-funded Values, Ethics and Trust in Peacebuilding project, in which we explored our unspoken values. In our previous workshops, we considered if and how we might act on peacebuilding values, leading us to question how we could discover such values, how they might be connected to our positionality and trust, and how we might uphold them in practice. As these workshops uncovered multi-layered nuances and sensitivities through the exploration processes and our conversations around values, ethics, morals and trust evolved, we re-designed the fourth workshop to reflect the evolution of our thinking. We worked with a community-based charity organisation (Arty-Folks), which specialises in providing art interventions to address mental health issues, to guide us in art activities. We also had support from a well-experienced psychotherapist joining us online from Bosnia and Herzegovina (Fondacija Krila Nade). We had strict ground rules about confidentiality and paid great attention to creating a safe, comfortable and creative environment for our small group of participants so we could co-experience through a loosely structured workshop. By doing so, we hoped to explore our unspoken values and where they come from and to experience the art activities without knowing where this workshop would lead us.
During our one-day workshop, we experienced something unusual. The moment we sat down on the soft chairs and sofas in the art studio of the charity organisation, a waterfall began – questions, responses and stories flowed from us as if we had been waiting for this moment. We moved from the verbal to the arts, guided by Arty-Folks’ art director. We began by using soft willow charcoal on paper drawing and pressing the charcoal with our eyes closed. We felt the fragile charcoal in our fingers, listened to the gentle noise of the charcoal scratching as we moved it around the paper, felt it break in our hands and sensed each other’s presence in the studio. Next, we began to create a collage by glueing pieces of magazines we felt had meaning to our lives. We then swapped our artwork with each other, ripping the other’s artwork into pieces, which evoked many feelings – some of us felt bad for destroying the beautiful piece produced by others and said sorry – and gave back the pieces to the person who had created the artwork. We then arranged and glued our ripped pieces onto a larger sheet of paper and used compressed and hard charcoal to draw and create a new piece of art, aiming for something different and better but paying homage to our scars by stitching coloured threads onto the artwork. These scars are not meant to be hidden but to be visible.
This brought our small group closer to each other during the workshop. The psychotherapist reassured us that trauma cannot be healed and is something we integrate into our lives, into our being. A sense of safety, comfort and trust with each other was cultivated, as well as a knowing that others would listen with openness. Pain, grief, anger, frustration and guilt that we have been holding deeply within ourselves were set free and shared, along with the realisation that we seldom have the opportunity or space to think about them. By recognising, at the same time, we often try to cope with them by addressing something similar within our personal and professional lives. Some of us may do this through peace-related research or peacebuilding work.
Our values seem deeply connected to and profoundly shaped by our past experiences. This does not suggest moral relativism but rather a conviction and desire, underpinned by our values, to help other individuals and society. How often does one acknowledge or speak about this connection? This may depend on where one’s values come from. It may be easier to articulate those values when derived from and nurtured by parents, guardians and ideological structures such as education, religion or other guiding principles and teaching. When we associate our values with the experiences of pain, grief, regret, guilt and trauma that we live with, many of us may try to find solace and catharsis (consciously or unconsciously) by working with others in similar contexts but without having an avenue to explore why we are doing this. Values may be articulated with words such as ‘integrity’ or ‘belonging’ to each other, but words often do not express the profound meanings of one’s values and past experiences. This is where arts-based activities can help process past experiences and aid in searching for and expressing inner and deep values.
There has been increasing use of art in research or arts-based research (ABR), a qualitative approach to research relying on artistic expression to explore meaning-making and lived experiences of research participants. However, in such research, art is often used to collect participant data or art is used as an output of the study rather than as a self-reflective, experiential or transformative approach. Our workshop, although a short one-off research-related event, has demonstrated to us as both participants and researchers that arts-based research can be something more. Our participants saw art as a way to help you to feel value and be valued in return. It allows you to approach the topic the ‘way you want’. It provides an outlet to express how you may have been deprived of value but also allows you an opportunity to value you, yourself with no pressure. It has also momentarily allowed us to feel the power of art in its magic and transformative nature that enables us to be free to find hope and beauty from within the painful experiences and subconscious and explore our unspoken values.
Dr Miho Taka is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University. Specialised in the political ecology of conflict, natural resource governance, sustainability, business and human rights and responsible sourcing of minerals. She also works on education for peace and sustainability and engages with wider society.
Dr Michaelina Jakala is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University. She is also an ethnographer with a background in Peace Studies. Her research interests broadly focus on the everyday experiences of peacebuilding and transitional justice with particular interest in justice, reparation, and education amongst marginalised groups. She has experience with participatory research and arts-based methods.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 29 Jan 2024.