For centuries, the arts have been used to convey messages of human experience. Sometimes these messages fuel conflict, like the recent example of the Charlie Hebdo attack illustrates, and other times the arts nurtures peace, like the Love Has No Labels campaign shows . And sometimes, art is so penetrating that it has the potential to change the course of history, like the recent photograph of the three-year old drowned Syrian refugee boy lying on a Turkish beach. Like the iconic photograph of a nine-year old Vietnamese girl running naked down the road after a bomb attack during the Vietnam War changed the consciousness of the ordinary American and the policy of the American state, this picture of the Syrian boy will – hopefully – change the consciousness of the public and the policy of the European Union towards refugees, and more importantly towards human beings.
The photo of the Syrian boy illustrates that art is a valuable unifying tool able to provide people living in safe societies far away from violent conflicts, with a personalized understanding of the hardship that the direct victims of this violent conflict have to endure. Apart from building a bridge between people whose worlds are miles apart, art is able to connect people living and fighting side by side. Street paintings for example can raise public awareness about conflict by acting as a mirror to society, like the worldwide live reworking of Banksy’s famous ‘There is Always Hope’ for Syria, or they can give a dream vision of the future.
Art is the most peaceful weapon one can fight with. It is a vehicle that can go beyond all man-made political and religious identities and the differences between these identities. Using art as a vehicle to address stereotypes, can stimulate tolerance between people who call each other enemies based on very superficial differences. Street art, like that made by many female street artists in Cairo, is an especially powerful weapon to participate in conflicts non-violently, as the messages are enduring and constantly visible to the public eye .
Art Invades Body and Mind
Using art in conflicts to convey revolutionary messages as well as a peace building mechanism both become more and more effective than traditional approaches. One of the reasons might be that art can be experienced by the senses. Artistic approaches elicit an emotional response within people; it becomes a personal experience, which in turn becomes a mental association. Another reason might be that art allows for a type of engagement between people in completely different circumstances, that words can never create.
Photography has a special impact as photos give the viewer a concrete image of what they used to only know by imagination. They give the viewer an insight into reality, which one has never realised to be reality. For this reason, the reason that it has been just an imagination – or maybe even something you have never thought about – for your entire life, it is this out of the ordinary experience, that makes the photo of the drowned Syrian boy enter your mind with a bodily sensation that will stay with you for a long time.
If we accept that art can go deeper than words on paper, it is still unclear why a person otherwise not interested in the other, may it be the person on the other side of the world or the one who he/she is fighting against, will look at the art. It is because you can’t look away, although you actually don’t want to know it, don’t want to be confronted with reality, you have to look, as it just triggers curiosity that draws you to the image. Performing arts can enter your system even easier and give you a heavily bodily experience. The effectiveness of the ‘toyi-toyi’ non-violent military during the apartheid in South Africa, demonstrate this effect performing arts can have. The black ‘toyi-toyi’ would intimidate the white soldiers by loudly chanting and stamping their feet rhythmically on the ground. With this action they were able to interrupt the cycle of violence non-violently, making real weapons impotent and irrelevant.
Art Makes the Invisible Inescapable
The civil war in the Congo has claimed nearly as many lives as if 9/11 would happen every day all year-round, the Rwandan genocide, the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the mid-90’s, the genocide in Darfur, the amount of lives taken by the Tsunami in 2004 and the number of people who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – now combine these numbers and double them. And yet this is one of the biggest forgotten conflicts of present day. Artist Richard Mosse has given attention to this forgotten conflict by doing exactly what art can do so well: make people stop, because they have to look, making the painful reality inescapable for its viewers. By using an infrared colour palette that turns all green into pink, he created a photo series of the Congo that makes the viewer “see into the unseen, to reveal the hidden and make visible the invisible of this forgotten conflict”.
The “potential art has to represent narratives so painful that they exist beyond language” is why art is such a triggering, useful means of communication. The photograph of the three-year old drowned Syrian refugee is inescapable to the eyes of the world, finally giving the invisible refugees not only a portrait, but a means to make their voices heard.
Written by S. Gehrlein and published on 21-September-2015