Beyond Violence 

Opposites Attract: The Arts and Peacebuilding

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Jana Karaliya perform in Sri Lanka

Peace processes aren’t working. More than half of peace agreements fail within five years and recurrent civil wars are still the dominant form of armed conflict in the world today (PRIO, 2016). John Paul Lederach (2005), who has worked in international reconciliation across 30 years and five continents, blames some of the failings on conflict resolution’s formulaic, methodological and impersonal practice. The arts offer unique tools for transforming conflicts that could here compensate but they remain under-utilised and often underestimated in the field. Maybe this is down to reluctant practitioners who perceive them as decorative and ultimately irrelevant compared to more essential life necessities. Interest is growing (see the 2017 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development) but barriers between the two fields can make for awkward progress. In this article, I will begin by looking at some of the ways that the arts have pushed the parameters of conventional peacebuilding approaches around the world. I will also highlight some of the difficulties in reconciling the often questioning and open-ended practice of art with the specific, practical aims of NGOs.

To begin, the arts are a valuable tool in peacebuilding because they can provide a constructive way to facilitate dialogue and interaction in complex and highly emotional matters. Since traumatic memories are often preserved in images, art is indeed uniquely placed to prompt the translation of image to narrative for those that engage with it. This can be seen in the way that the Afghan play Infinite Incompleteness affected its audience in 2010. Constructed around ten victims’ stories, the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO) noted the collective trauma healing and urge for personalised storytelling that the performance inspired:

The audience shifted back and forth from watching with concentration, taking photos or filming the performance with their mobiles phones to crying – some silently and others loudly and uncontrollably. After the performance, there was a rush to the microphone, as women and men in the audience wanted to tell their stories.

Indeed the arts are privileged in their freedom to bring a personal account to the political. They have irreplaceable value in their ability to reconstruct meaning, which also lends itself to collective spaces for memory. The Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, and its equivalents in Bogota, Benghazi and beyond, forms a collective reconstruction of traumatic events, which empowers victims and communities.

Beyond trauma healing, the value that the arts bring to peacebuilding can also be seen in the common ground that they create. The importance of encouraging fluency in cross-cultural or intra-cultural experiences in peacebuilding cannot be overestimated. In the South Caucasus, where cultural identity is central to the conflict dynamic, literary art has helped bridge difference; a publication that brings together the five languages of the region offers a more conciliatory message around cultural identities. Meanwhile Jana Karaliya in Sunahala, or Makkal Kalari in Tamil, is a multi-ethnic, bilingual mobile theatre group from Sri Lanka that shows that coexistence among the parties in conflict is possible at all. These types of inter-cultural exchange can create space for more inclusive and pluralistic community narratives, which lays the foundations for lasting and sustainable peace in conflict-affected communities.

Of course, a one-size-fits-all arts approach to arts-based peacebuilding won’t work or else we risk falling into the same mechanistic trap of conventional practice. Thankfully, the arts contain enormous potential for an ‘elicitive’ approach, answering the call for peacebuilders to better ‘value participants as resources not recipients’ (Shank & Schirch, 2008; 11) and be ‘rooted in, and…respect and draw from, the cultural knowledge of a people’ (Lederach, 1995; 5). An arts-based approach also encourages inclusivity as art forms, especially those nonverbal, can bring out voices that may otherwise not be heard in prevailing approaches.

The relationship between the arts and peacebuilding, however, has been complicated by some uncomfortable questions about artistic freedom and instrumentalism. In a post-conflict situation as in any other, artistic freedom should be paramount. In some cases, though, the overbearing presence of aid agencies has had the effect of reducing the right of artists to work independently of social and political ends. Indeed if the work of an artist is squeezed or commissioned into fitting certain norms, there is a risk of their artistic freedom becoming compromised. Afghan graffiti artist Aman Mojadidi was disillusioned by the speed to which international donors tried to exploit the creative potential of Kabul’s emerging graffiti artists:

I was trying to generate some genuine street art, but before it had even taken root I was contacted by a contractor for the American government working on a gender awareness project who wanted to use graffiti to raise consciousness of women’s rights.

International funding for arts initiatives is certainly linked with projects that promote these kinds of international development clichés. It is perhaps less surprising then that the Centre for Contemporary Art Afghanistan (CCAA) – working precariously and on shoestring budgets – should define itself as a ‘vehicle for communicating peace, justice, democracy and civil society and to support sustainability and institutionalization of these beliefs in the light of Islamic and national values.’ Arts centres surely should not have to define themselves by their usefulness to development agencies to be eligible for, or attract, funding. It is regrettably much harder to find international support for projects with ‘intangible, unknown and possibly even critical, outcomes’ (Montague, 2014; 48) – even though the very best art tends to be the ambiguous and paradoxical kind anyway. Depressingly, this fits into a more general trend within the neoliberal arts funding structure where art is increasingly expected to ‘do something.’ The irony is lost on governments that they insist and expect that the arts are part of our larger cultural and political framework, but fail to take responsibility for it. In other words, the arts desperately need more public funding, everywhere.

The experience of CCAA highlights the need for better ways to reconcile the discursive, curious practice of the arts with the practical aims of NGOs – whose primary work is probably elsewhere. This tension can also be traced to the desperate calls for empirical research to evaluate art’s impact, when we don’t really have tools for measuring outcomes that can capture all of its benefits. How can one measure the actual benefits of a public mural? Donors and policymakers need to understand that, while there isn’t – and perhaps can never be – a blueprint to tell us exactly how art operates within the politics of peacebuilding, its real usefulness lies in its ability to inject much-needed creativity and imagination to the process. This will help people in post-conflict communities to heal, reach beyond accepted meanings and transcend cultural matrixes. It's time that peacebuilding moved beyond the logic of words and cognitive analysis.


Lederach, J. P. (1995), Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation across Cultures (New York: Syracuse University Press).

Lederach, J. P. (2005), The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Montagu, J. (2014), ‘Contemporary Visual Art in Afghanistan: “An art of laughter and forgetting ...”’ Crimmin, M. & Stanton, E., Art and Conflict (London: Royal College of Art).

Shank, M. & Schirch, L. (2008), ‘Strategic Arts-Based Peacebuilding,’ Peace and Change 33 (2).

The views and content expressed herein represent the positions of the author only and not Beyond Violence.

Sophia Turner recently graduated from SOAS with an MSc in Violence, Conflict & Development. She is particularly interested in the role of the arts in conflict and post-conflict situations, and runs activist filmmaking organization Eye Want Change.

Written by Sophia Turner and published on 15-November-2017

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