The power of the arts as antidote to conflict

Friday 11/03/2016
A photo taken by Syrian refugee children in Lebanon who were given cameras to document their lives.

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?”