How to Make Art and Culture a More Powerful Tool for Peace and Democracy

FROM: Regula Gattiker, Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 17. October 2019

In June 2019, I asked myself the question: “are we becoming captives to tools in development cooperation while missing out on the purpose they’re created and used for?” Among the different tools that I knew or used in the past, I have never seriously thought of art and culture as a tool.

In other words, I saw art and culture as an expression of our thoughts, emotions, intuitions, values, and desires. But this had been before I spoke to my colleague Regula Gattiker, a passionate expert of conflict transformation, conflict sensitivity and culture.  

So, what do theatre, singing, dancing, cinema and painting have to do with peace and democracy? Here’s our conversation.

Zenebe Uraguchi (ZU): Defining and understanding the links between art, culture and conflict is a necessary first step before examining how art and culture can contribute positively in pre- and post-conflict societies.

I remember in 2001 when the Taliban demolished the ancient sandstone carvings, once the world’s tallest Buddhas, in the Bamiyan province of Afghanistan. More than a decade later, the Islamic State also looted and destroyed extensive cultural heritages in Syria and Iraq. The ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali also lost a lot of cultural heritage due to the civil war. In all these cases, works of art and culture at museums, mosques, and churches were targets of hammers, axes, bulldozers and bombs. Indeed, art has also been used to promote war in other societies including Europe where artists, willingly or forced by rulers, created propaganda to generate popular support for wars. Why has this been the case?

Regula Gattiker (RG): The reason is that art and culture are expressions of people’s identity and their very reason of being. Powerful people know what the potentials are: art and culture shape people’s minds. Very often, the existing narrative conveyed by art and culture don’t serve the parties in a conflict, as they want to shape people’s minds in their way, so they support them in their cause. This’s why conflict parties often attack artists and cultural heritage.

ZU: The opposite can also happen: art and culture playing a role in creating and sustaining peace. I passed through civil wars in the Horn of Africa. During that time, we used art and culture – from music to plays, poems and simple drawings – as a source of resilience. I remember back then people lost hope, not only because of the intractable civil wars, but also due to other related challenges such as famine and poverty. I guess art and culture gave people an outlet for difficult emotions in deprived places.

RG: I have a good example from Palestine which very well fits your experience. I once met a guy who was working for the Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank. We were both invited to a conference to present our work on arts and peacebuilding. The Freedom Theatre aims to support people to address their chronic fear, hopelessness and trauma through the arts and culture. The population, particularly youth and children, sees the theatre premises as a refuge, to escape the grey life in the camp shaped by poverty, a lack of perspectives and a lot of violence.

In this case, art and culture not only offered an outlet for their emotions, but also a space to feel safe in, to enjoy beauty and be happy. The arts are a means to foster dialogue and healing for the population in conflict-affected communities.

ZU: Let’s get even more concrete. I think it’ll be an oversimplification if I say that the relationship that art and culture have with conflict and peace is linear. Rather I believe that it’s complex. It doesn’t also mean that art and culture are the sole means to peacebuilding and democracy. As much as I learnt a lot using different tools, I’ve stopped thinking of tools as a solution to complex problems like violence and conflict. Some tools can be useless, if not counterproductive.

Within such complex relationship, do we have good cases that showed how artistic involvement and cultural activities contributed positively to peace and reconciliation processes?

RG: Let me take you to Colombia. Farmers in Colombia have been displaced from their land several times through different armed actors because of the rich resources on their land. I've lived with these farmers for a while as a Human Rights Observer. In the region where the farmers live, there’s a strong singing culture. Quite a lot of people compose their own songs. The farmers, instead of singing songs about love and betrayal, sing about their history of displacement. When I lived with the farmers, they decided to return peacefully to their land despite the paramilitary that occupied it and a palm oil company that actively worked their land.

Only after announcing their return, did state officials start to visit the farmers, trying to understand their case. The farmers, of course, were sceptical towards the government officials as they were the ones who allowed the palm oil company to displace them. Now imagine a state official coming to their village. One of the farmers sang a song, directly in the face of the governmental official, with a smile on his face, criticising the government, and when he finished, the government official smiled and applauded. This example motivated me to set up a project with the singing farmers. We made a CD, they sang at concerts, we made a musical documentary and audio-visual exhibitions. Through this, the farmers received the National Peace Prize and regained their official status of victims that they had lost before due to a defamation campaign by the palm oil company.

ZU: That was a very good example, Regula. From my observation while working in Eastern Europe for the past five years, I got the sense that rebuilding a society in the aftermath of violence requires careful context-specific interventions. This’s because during periods of protracted violence, new cultural patterns develop and extend a culture of violence even after the conflict. It takes time for the cracks to fill and the wounds to heal. In such a delicate context, how can arts and culture be drivers for conflict transformation?

RG: Let me share an example from Myanmar with you. In one of our projects, we're supporting a local artist and his team to enable individuals to share their own, personal view on history and share their viewpoints with others. These different perspectives on local history are presented together in a participatory exhibition. Also, the exhibitions are recorded and will be exhibited in a virtual museum where they can be visited and compared.

As the conflict context in Myanmar is so complex, with different situations and actors in all parts of the country and in one place, to exhibit memories can be very delicate. To understand the symbolic meaning of memories is quite difficult even for people from Yangon (the former capital and the larger city of Myanmar). Therefore, a lot needs to be invested in creating conflict-sensitive content that promotes pluralism and peace. 

ZU: I read once what the legendary Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, replied to a German officer who was visiting Picasso’s studio in occupied Paris. Picasso painted Guernica in 1937, one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history, which was displayed in his studio. The officer asked: “Did you do this?” Picasso shot back and replied: “No, you did.”

With this example, I want to illustrate that I think it’s much easier to point out perpetrators of wars and conflicts than to use art and culture to build peace and democracy. Even if we succeed in using art and culture to transform the lives of people, sometimes it’s challenging to know what works and what doesn’t and why. Perhaps one reason for this’s the dynamic environments − like post-conflict contexts − in which stakeholders, relationships and situations are constantly evolving. How do you tackle such a challenge?

RG: It’s true that the role of art and culture in conflict can be both in- and decreasing tension and we need to be careful when supporting arts initiatives, to well understand the messages they convey, while refraining from limiting artistic freedom. Moreover, while the role of arts and culture in building peace and democracy has been acknowledged by many experts, it’s not widely recognised by the wider public as it’s challenging to create direct evidence on a larger scale. Throughout my work, I did a lot of research, took another degree and experienced a failed project before implementing a successful project. With the few projects I've been able to set up by now - and I hope there’ll be many more - I strongly believe that culture projects do make a difference and have an impact on the people that in one way or the other get in touch with them.   

Art and culture create space for reflection and exchange. Particularly in places where there’s little space for diversity and exchange between different members of civil society and where the space for human expression in all facets is small and shrinking constantly, it’s important to find means to strengthen these spaces in subtle, uncontested ways. Through exchange and dialogue, we work on people’s attitudes towards each other and often, the consequence is that they change their behaviour as well.

A good example is the upcoming arts for peace festival in Cambodia, where artists will deal with stories about people who were affected by the conflict, while those who come to see their play, exhibition or movie identify with these stories. I’ll be present at the festival because it coincides with our SEAD project, and look forward to experiencing personally what the productions evoke in the audience.

Above all, it’s important to document successful cases and learn from failed ones, so that we can use our experiences for stimulating long-term and large-scale changes.  

Additional sources




Programme Coordinator, East and Southeast Europe, Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies