The power of the arts as antidote to conflict
Washington - When it comes to conflict, “the arts should be at the grown-ups’ table, not the kids’ table,” said Tara Sonenshine, former US under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. Sonenshine was addressing 70 art and Middle East enthusiasts during the 104th annual conference of the College Art Association in Washington.
The conference, which had a theme of Art in Response to Conflict, featured artists and experts from non-governmental organisations, international organisations and the media. All had witnessed the positive effects of the arts on people living in conflict and post-conflict situations in the Middle East.
Manal Omar, acting vice-president of the Middle East and Africa Centre of the US Institute of Peace, said visual arts, music and poetry allow individuals and communities to survive and even innovate.
“The arts allow people to be heard without taking revenge,” she said. “For communities that don’t have governments that represent them and don’t have the basics of life, like water and electricity, it’s often difficult not to turn to violence.”
Artists are often the first people to call attention to problems, which is why jails are filled with artists, poets, and playwrights. The arts inspire people, foster resilience, promote dialogue, strengthen identity — and provide joy. “Authoritarian regimes have figured that out. Why haven’t we?” said Omar.
“The arts have gone from the margins to the core of geopolitical thinking,” said Paul Smith, director of the British Council in the United States.
Based on 32 years’ experience in 11 countries, Smith has seen “something enormous happen in the relationship between the arts and international relations,” especially since 9/11. He said conflicts, including European secessionist movements, were culturally caused by people’s different concepts of identity, home, history and religion.
When a suicide bomber attacked the British Council’s offices in Afghanistan in 2011, Smith realised first-hand how threatened the Taliban was by culture and the arts. “When people are ready to kill themselves to stop you doing something, that something must be important,” he said.
“We should be careful not to overemphasise the role of culture in conflict and forget the role of politics,” cautioned Casey Hogle, the Middle East and North Africa programme manager at Search for Common Ground.
She said culture and the arts were unifying tools that created a safe space for dialogue on sensitive subjects, such as women’s role in society and the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. To explore the two issues, her organisation produced Madam President, a soap opera about the first woman president of a fictional Arab country during times of crisis.
Lyne Sneige, director of the Arts and Culture Programme at the Middle East Institute, pointed out the difference between arts in social change and arts in conflict. In the “Arab spring”, she said she has seen arts play a central part and authorities react with panic by cracking down on art spaces.
Governments, however, cannot rein in the power of artists’ imaginations or the hopes and aspirations of young people for a better future.
For survivors of violent conflicts, the arts can be therapeutic, Sneige argued. Through performing and visual arts, people can overcome trauma.
“Children can have some time to be children and adults can share so that they can build themselves again to stop being dependent in their new situations,” said Sneige. If practiced long-term, the arts can be preventative. “They need to be at the table,” Sneige said. “They are part of the solution.”
Photographer Laila Jadallah spoke about the arts as provocateur. “What you show and what you don’t show are equally important,” she said. “You’re telling part of the story, not the whole story. Photographs can really shape the way people see conflict.”
To demonstrate, she showed the news photo of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old child who drowned on his way from Syria to Europe, and a black-and-white artistic photo by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei staged of himself lying in the same position on a similar shore. Together, the photos take awareness of the Syrian conflict to a new level, Jadallah said.
Jadallah’s direct experience has included teaching photography to Palestinian children in Bethlehem and participating in a programme organised by the US Fund for UNICEF called Through Their Eyes, which provided 200 cameras to Syrian refugee children in Lebanon to document their daily lives. The children in both places tackled difficult issues through the arts.
“You have less fear when you can create a visual about identity and home,” Jadallah said. But she wondered what happened after she left: “How do we make permanent structures for use of the arts to continue the conversations?”
Sonenshine concluded the event with a similar query, “How do we build an arts-in-conflict community to keep the dialogue going?”