Art and Peacebuilding

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By Laila Sumpton

Coffee and friendship are crucial to our Project of Peacebuilding, and we began the session I facilitated on how the arts can help build peace by placing a single coffee cup in the middle of the circle. I asked the group to imagine 1327 coffee cups in the middle of a town square and to think about what this could mean, and explained the art work of Aida Sehović- whose global installation reflects those who no longer share Bosnian coffee with loved ones due to the war. The number of cups reflected the numbers reburied in 2004, she said:

When I was trying to imagine what the families from Srebrenica must be going through, I kept thinking about this famous Bosnian song in my head. It’s an old, beautiful song called ‘Sto the nema?’ which translates into English as both ‘Where are you?’ and ‘Why are you not here?’

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Project participant Kate told us that “any art is a form of storytelling,” and art in a post-conflict setting becomes hugely influential in defining the narrative of the past, present and possible futures. Another participant added that “art lasts longer than human memory” and we discussed the burden of responsibility on artists and how their work is always in part created by the audiences. There were other examples where art to memorialize those lost in the Bosnian war had deepened divisions, and examples where the people who had been asked to share their witness testimony had been forgotten, misrepresented and left without support by those producing the art. In the rush to campaign the dignity and respect needed for such a complex topics can be forgotten, arts projects urgently need cultural space but they also need to do no harm.

If art can create the space to explore the memory of war and debate what is meant by peace, then this can of course be done both privately and publicly and support a culture of resilience. We discussed when art can shift into therapy, and how the healing process is a part of peace building.

Whether the art is private or public will affect the importance of process vs product in an arts project. Is the end result more important than the process of creation or is the whole focus of the project the process? In Most Mira’s theatre projects with both primary and high school students, both are important and the participatory approach is vital. We help add towards a culture of peace by providing safe spaces for young people to explore different views, challenge views in society and create new possible worlds.

We asked the group who should make art about conflict and what it takes to build peace, and the first response was- “everyone.” On thinking deeper about this we discussed how ensuring that diverse voices were present was vital- specifically making sure that there was a balance of international, diaspora and local. We need to challenge those in charge of funding and programing to make sure that there are legitimate and diverse voices, or the narrative will become unbalanced or even counterproductive. There is a lot of hesitancy and uncertainty around what constitutes cultural appropriation: are you allowed to perform music from a culture different to your own? Can you wear a bindhi or a Native American headdress, can you tell someone else’s story? We discussed how art can thrive on fusions between cultures and art forms, but stressed how acknowledging the roots of cultures is important so that traditions are not appropriated.

Jovana who helped facilitate the Most Mira youth theatre project spoke about how transformative this had been for high school students she said that through art “you are changing and you do not notice that you are changing.” She spoke about how adults resisted talking about the war with younger generations and how ‘for most kids the war is annoying and boring, and hard to imagine.’ Our Most Mira theatre project lead to young people from Serb and Bosniak backgrounds working together for the first time and exploring themes of free speech and gender equality through the plays they devised. Jovana told us that “it is easier for young people to initially empathize with Meera- a Muslim girl from the theatre project, than with an entire nation. I was so moved when a young man with strong nationalist leanings made his first Muslim friends and was the first person to wish the Muslim young people in the project Eid Mubarek.”

We constantly find ourselves having to justify and explain the impact of arts and peacebuilding projects, so the participants explored what working on a theatre project meant to young people and presenting their analysis. We heard how being able to make an audience laugh was so empowering to the young people and how they had helped begin the process of changing public opinions through their performances. They spoke about how theatre can break down social barriers and how we can achieve structural change through creativity. The Most Mira plays facilitated by Maja Milatovic Ovadia and facilitators from Prijedor really filled the young people with confidence and showed how the arts and peacebuilding can work together. I will leave you with a quote from one young actor, and I also believe our fantastic participants will go on to “do anything.”

This has made me a better person, and I love everyone involved. These people love to act – they make me think about the world, others and myself. I would love a few more days of performing. I was so happy when people laughed at my song! We are now famous and we can do anything.

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High school theatre participants being interviewed by Radio Prijedor

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