“Art can tread where words and politics often can’t”: The Art of Conflict Transformation @The_JHS
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
25 July 2017
As part of the 30th anniversary of the John Hewitt Society international summer school, the Institute for Conflict Research (ICR) sponsored a panel discussion, “The Art of Conflict Transformation”, which explored how visual and performance art have contributed to our evolving conversation of our troubled past, with hope for dealing with legacy as well as prospects for reconciliation.
The discussion was facilitated by Katy Radford (Project Manager & Senior Researcher, ICR), who explained the rationale for organising the event: “Art educates, informs, entertains, and there’s growing evidence of its efficacy with victims and survivors.”
Paula McFetridge (Artistic Director, Kabosh) began by telling us that she was committed to theatre as transformation. While Kabosh employs professional actors to deliver the performances, there was always a participatory process with communities in their creations.
McFetridge gave a quick resume of three samples of work. A purpose of The West Awakes was to challenge and enhance the narrative told during black taxi tourist tours. Working with republican ex-combatants, Kabosh created short dramas of pre-1969 stories, such as industrialisation and the introduction of partition. Later, a similar process was repeated on the other side, as it were, working with the Shankill History Group. The fruits of both were assembled and repurposed in a smartphone app, Streets of Belfast, available to the ordinary curious armchair traveller, but more significantly, to those who are not ready to take a physical tour across the divide.
Those You Pass on the Street is a fictional play based on a single fact of an RUC widow walking into a Sinn Fein constituency office. McFetridge said that an important lesson for the artist is judging when is best to tell a story and to be prepared to deal with an audience’s response: “Are you then responsible for re-traumatising those not ready?”
The dialogue from the play Green and Blue, meanwhile, is derived from transcripts of oral history from those who served in security services during the Troubles. As McFetridge put it, it was about “bringing the narratives to life, out of the computer box”. There was a performance of Green and Blue as part of the programme, shortly after this discussion.
McFetridge gave an impassioned case for the power of art for conflict transformation: “How do I know it works? I see it work.” She gave an example of the delivery of their programmes in South Africa, where local audiences were fascinated to see “white people tell their story of oppression”. McFetridge said that collectively, artists need to share good methodology more internationally, continue with pre- and post-performance evaluations, and lobby for mainstreaming art across public policy, including health and education.
Marguerite Nugent (Curator of Northern Ireland Collection, Wolverhampton Art Gallery) began with a personal story of growing up in Birmingham. She suggested that the detachment demonstrated by her parents during the Troubles (“What does that have to do with us?”) could be one explanation of why museums did not collect art from Northern Ireland during that time. While one reason why the Wolverhampton Art Gallery did so was because it had a political and social perspective, and had already addressed topics such as Vietnam and social division during Thatcherism.
Nugent went through a chronology of their key exhibitions of art of the Troubles, starting with Cease-fire: Reflections of Conflict by 16 British & Irish Artists (1994). She explained how Paul Graham’s otherwise straightforward photograph of a Union flag flying in a nondescript rural landscape provoked controversy with its title, “Troubled Land”; why would this symbol be the cause of trouble, asked mainland British viewers.
From 1999–2004, working in collaboration with the Contemporary Art Society, the gallery increased its collection of contemporary Northern Ireland art, and outputs included a catalogue book and education learning resource. This also led to collaborations with galleries in Ireland, North and South; this included the Linen Hall Library, Belfast Exposed, Queen Street Studios, Catalyst Arts Gallery, and Golden Thread Gallery. There were also discoveries of as yet unseen work tucked away in artist studios.
A partnership among the Ulster Museum and the Imperial War Museum led to a Northern Ireland Troubles art touring exhibition that provided opportunities to collect oral histories from the artists as well as engagement with audiences — talks, events, screenings, school packs, conferences.
So in a relatively short period of time, Wolverhampton Art Gallery developed a nascent collection of Troubles-related art to a useful resource for many — to serve as a catalyst for discussion.
Nugent finished with a most apt quotation from an exhibition viewer: “Art can tread where words and politics often can’t.”
Oliver Sears (with Jane Norton) runs the Oliver Sears Gallery, a contemporary fine art gallery based in Dublin. He is working on a project to tell the story of his mother, a survivor of the Holocaust, through his eyes: “It’s the only way I can.” As a part of this process, he collaborated with Colin Davidson to show a set of the artist’s paintings and drawings of individuals in Jerusalem.
Sears shared a 12-minute film of the relaunch of Jerusalem in London in March 2017. In their recorded conversation, Davidson explains why the portraits only provide the first name of the sitter: “To strip the badge of identity”. Meanwhile, one of the exhibition guests describes the assemblage of portraits as a recreation of the city itself — all human, all individuals, yet all cohabiting the same conflicted space.
Katy Radford asked each panellist whether we need a space to remember and reflect upon our conflict, and what would be two items each would put in it.
McFetridge replied that everyone has a relationship to conflict, even if we’re not direct participants. For example, people remember where they were when the Berlin Wall came down or when Nelson Mandela walked free. What matters is having a space for informal conversations for those who wish to have them, when they are ready. Better this than do nothing and let others “scratch that itch” of conflict.
McFetridge’s two contributions would be the bronze sculpture of Woman in Bomb Blast (by FE McWilliams) and a library of unpublished plays.
Nugent knew this question, already a curator of a Northern Ireland collection. She mooted who decides what goes in it. Radford asked her whether she’d put a mural in her gallery. Perhaps not, Nugent replied; some items might lose too much essence if taken literally out of their context. (Sears gave an example of Berlin, where they have left a section of the Wall as public art; what is important to him is that it is the local community to decide what goes and stays.) Rather, Nugent suggested that more arts organisations should come together and build on good work; this included collaborating on funding such work.
Nugent’s contribution — if not for her own gallery — would be a larger version of the aforementioned Woman in Bomb Blast.
Sears replied that he doesn’t want people to learn about the Holocaust to become Holocaust students, “but to behave better”. And far from thinking that this societal atrocity couldn’t happen again, he knows that it will: “Be sure you’re in a better city.”
Opening the discussion to the attending audience, there was a high-quality set of questions and answers. Topics included art as propaganda (McFetridge answer: she is an artist to challenge subjects for maximum impact); appealing to an uninterested audience (McFetridge answer: find champions within an interested group to network outwards, to discover right time and place to explore project); emphasising trauma when most weren’t traumatised (Sears answer: some may not be able to suppress their emotions forever; Nugent answer: people don’t want to be defined by the Troubles; McFetridge answer: not always about conflict, but how do artists humanise an item so that viewers can see themselves it in); what impact art (Sears answer: at times art is the best response, artists contribute by doing it; Nugent answer: art includes the written and spoken word; McFetridge answer: art is not about being neutral but provoking discussion); art from the enemy (value base) (McFetridge answer: is the time right for that artist and his/her audience?; Sears: was the poem any good?).
This was a richly informative panel discussion and a fine presentation of evidence of the proven impact of art in conflict transformation. McFetridge concluded with an argument that politicians and policy makers should value this power of the arts. When they do, they won’t have to look far to find excellent practice.