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The Transformative Power of Art in Peacebuilding

2011 November 10

Discussing the potential of arts in peacebuilding: Cynthia Cohen, Lena Slachmuijlder, Cynthia Schneider (left to right)

“Art is not what one sees but what one can make others see”

With this quote from painter Edgard Degas, Sheldon Himmelfarb, Director at the Center of Innovation at United States Institute for Peace (USIP) opened the Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum on art and peacebuilding.

The first panelist was Cynthia Cohen, Director of the Peacebuilding and the Arts program at Brandeis University, Boston. Cohen argued that theater can contribute to conflict transformation for several reasons: it can engage the people ecstatically; it connects intellect with the senses, individuals with groups and has the capacity to create a better world through moral imagination. Cohen is the principal investigator leading the “Acting Together” project that documents the contributions of theatre and ritual to conflict transformation through case studies, an anthology and a documentary film. She emphasized how theater can facilitate relationships between adversaries.

The film demonstrates how the power of imagination helps the audience to uncover and discuss underlying issues that contribute to conflict and misunderstandings. For example, the women’s theater in Serbia was able to address stories about the war that people told each other in private, but publicly there was complete denial. The theater opposed the government’s denial by portraying these stories and thus becoming the public voice.

Watch the trailer here.

Cohen discussed the influence of performance at three levels: artist-based, where trained actors perform and thus completely adhere to the aesthetics of art; community-based, where community members become involved and the focus is more on inclusion; and ritual-based, where indigenous communities use traditional rituals to bring about transformation.

Cohen drew on her experience when she summarized a few lessons: Performances are powerful in building communication capacities as well as influencing policies. Theater engages convincingly but not coercively and can negotiate between tensions and address silences. In addition, Cohen pointed out that it is important to collaborate with non-artists such as mayors, truth commissions and others to broaden the transformation of the conflict to more levels of society.

The second panelist, Lena Slachmuijlder, Chief Programming Officer at Search for Common Ground, provided the audience with a comprehensive list of tools the arts can provide to conflict transformation. Art can be a safe and neutral space and is available for large audiences, who can listen to different perspectives without immediately discussing them.

Performances create a safe and neutral spaces for people to come together

Slachmuijlder, who has lived and worked in Africa for 21 years as a journalist, human rights defender, director, performing artist, trainer, and most recently as the Country Director for SFCG DRC, explained how a peace festival in the Democratic Republic of Congo reached thousands of people and provided different perspectives. Before SFCG organized that festival, the Congolese audience had only seen Rwandans as soldiers or refugees. Their performances at the festival helped the Congolese see them in a new light.

Another project Slachmuijlder mentioned is the participatory theater that SFCG has used successfully in the Great Lakes region and beyond.

Participatory Theater is now also used in military and police trainings.

Actors are trained to listen to the community’s challenges and to improvise a drama based on that information. Audience members are then invited to replace the actors and give the drama its own ending. This tool was so successful that it is now also used with police and military. Slachmuijlder explained that these examples all demonstrated how art is able to contribute to shifts in cultural norms and perceptions of the other.

Slachmuijlder also addressed the doubts around the effectiveness of arts in peacebuilding. She explained that SFCG observes changes and strives to measure and evaluate the effects by conducting interviews with actors and participants, and surveys on acceptance and norms.

Concluding remarks were provided by Cynthia P. Schneider, who leads the Arts and Culture Initiative within the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute. She initiated the discussion with the audience by asking the pressing question of why arts are not more accepted as tools of peacebuilding and included in the foreign policy.

Arts, she argued, can contribute crucially to the healing process that needs to be accomplished for transforming conflicts. She invited the audience to rethink traditional models of using arts in peacebuilding by making it more widely known and using it more frequently.

The event’s theme was perhaps best summed with a Marcel Proust quote that Slachmuijlder shared: “Only through art can we get outside of ourselves and know another’s view of the universe, which is not the same as ours.”

Those of you in the DC area will have the chance to be part of the discussion:

Acting Together will be screening at Georgetown on November, 14th

Don’t miss it!

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