In the face of destruction, we are compelled to create.” (William Cleveland, 2008, Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World’s Frontlines)

The arts offer unique tools to address intractable conflicts and can help divided communities to creatively engage in constructive dialogues for healing and reconciliation. For our 2020 annual meeting in December, Conducive Space for Peace invited two amazing women peacebuilders from two different conflict contexts to share their experiences using the arts for peacebuilding. Rashida Namulondo, Founder of the Sophie Muwanika Institute of Art for Change in Uganda and America Vaquerano, Coordinator of the Arts team with SembrandoPaz in Colombia. Each drawing from their vast experiences working in war-torn communities, they shared the innovative ways they are applying creative approaches to build community resilience, promote inclusion of marginalized groups, and tackle deep-rooted causes to community violence.

Community theatre in Uganda

In the border regions of Uganda, where recruitment to violent extremist groups is rampant, Rashida Namulondo works with local communities to address sources of conflict through using participartory theatre. Neighbouring conflicting communities first meet up seperately and are tasked with writing a story about their lives and the challenges they face. The stories are then exchanged and reenacted by the neighboring community without the theatre instructors sharing that their stories have indeed been switched until after the play has been performed. Before this is revealed, the communities do not realize that their stories have been switched.  

What we try to do with this, is to show them that they are the same people. And we’ve seen that this brings them closer, and that the internal conflicts, biases and segregation thereby decreases. So when we debrief with the communities, they realize that they have the same experiences, the same fights, the same dreams and hopes. We give the responsibility back to the communities, for them to solve their own conflicts. And we provide them with theatre as a tool to create platforms for dialogue to pave a way forward,” Rashida explains.

Peacebuilding has become so technical, so academic. The communities don’t understand this. The communities understand theatre and their own stories that manifest through the workshops. Donors and policy makers don’t seem to understand this approach. This makes it hard for us to capture the community voices into the policy infrastructure. And yet, these voices should be there because these solutions have been created by the communities themselves. When the community performs a play, they provide a suggestion on how to solve the conflict. They know what they need and want, but because peacebuilding has become so security-oriented and so technical, it makes it so difficult for us to use this beautiful method to actually influence the policy infrastructure  and implementation in areas of peacebuilding.”

Co-creation and reconciliation through murals in Colombia

The region of Montes de Maria in Colombia was one of the hardest hit by violence in the end of the 90’s. Today an annual Festival of Reconciliation and Peace is organized by 200 local peacebuilding organizations, grassroots and community groups to promote dialogue and healing, and Montes de Maria is one of the most peaceful regions among the war-affected regions of Colombia. During the festival, America Vaquerano leads the creation of large murals, which are painted over a 3-day period through a co-creation process with around 20 people of different backgrounds, identities, and role in the armed conflict who all come together to contribute.

The idea with this mural is to show people that they can work together in really creative ways. Each person is given a blank piece of paper and are first asked to individually draw their story, and share what they want other people to know which will enable them to heal. We then ask each individual to come forward and share, and what we realize is that a collective image emerges and becomes interlinked. Together the participants cooperate on colors and begin painting the background. When it’s time for each individual picture to come in to be painted on the canvas, this is where agreement, teamwork and negotiation comes in. When the mural is completed, the group stands back and work to agree on whether the mural is conveying the message they aiming at portraying. As all participants are survivors of violence, the group proceeds to agree on whether the violence should be portrayed explicitly or more symbollically,” America shares.

In referring to a concrete mural creation process, America recalls: “As victims would be working with ex-FARC members, there was concern whether there would be problems or friction throughout this process, but that was actually not the case. It was in fact all carried out in a process of brother- and sisterhood. Throughout the intensive 3 days, everyone shared meals and stayed at the same hotel, had time to share, talk about difficult past experiences and get to know each other. When the mural was finalized, everyone were very happy with the result. They expressed that it had been a meaningful process to them.”

Interlinking and integrating arts and peacebuilding

While the arts has the potential to influence peacebuilding, this still remains under-explored in conflict studies literature and attract limited donor attention. Lisa Shirch and Michael Shank offer three reasons for this non-development of the arts in peacebuilding discourse: 

“The arts continue to be marginalized in the peacebuilding field first because they are perceived as soft approaches to hard issues of conflict and violence. Secondly, peacebuilding practitioners frequently originate from social and political sciences rather than the arts and humanities, or because the methodologies are not yet readily available. Finally within the artistic community, many artists feel that their art needs no sociopolitical or sociocultural explanation, no explicit reason for existence” (Shank & Shirch, 2008:2, Strategic Arts-Based Peacebuilding. Peace and Change).

For Conducive Space for Peace (CSP), creative processes inspired by the arts should be seen as an integrated and essential part of peacebuilding, and not as a separate approach within the field. Mobilising the full potential of both the ‘heart and mind’ in the endeavor to build peace is key to transformative change. It is CSPs vision to transform the global peacebuilding system to shift power to local peacebuilders, and even within our engagement with large institutional structures, we believe that creativity in social relations is critical to inspire change and imagine a different way of working. We must rely on the human potential for innovative change in a complex world.

In his book, ‘The Moral Imagination’, John Paul Lederach also problematizes the tendency of peacebuilding professionals to think more as technicians rather than artists when approaching conflicts. This tendency, he observes, weakens the ability of the field of peacebuilding to serve its very purpose:

“ I fear we [peacebuilders] see ourselves be — and have therefore become — more technicians than artists. By virtue of this shift of perception, our approaches have become too cookie-cutter-like, too reliant on what proper technique suggests as a frame of reference, and, as a result, our processes are too rigid and fragile” (John Paul Lederach, 2005, The Moral Imagination). 

In the light of the Covid19 pandemic, which has further intensified the rigidity and cookie-cutter-like approaches to peacebuilding, John Paul Lederach’s observation is a resounding invitation to consider the potential of the arts to advance peacebuilding efforts during and beyond the pandemic. It is indeed by paying more attention to creative approaches to addressing conflicts that the field must recreate itself in the midst of the ongoing crisis and emerge stronger. To this end, may America’s and Rashida’s initiatives continue inviting us to reimagine the effectiveness of the field when the arts are no longer peripheral but central to the peacebuilding agenda.