Art in place of conflict: exploring voices from the heart

Art in place of conflict: exploring voices from the heart
by Allan LEONARD
17 September 2020

The Playhouse theatre hosted a one-day conference that explored the power of socially engaged art in conflict and post-conflict societies. The event examined themes of truth recovery, ethics, reconciliation, legacy, and intergenerational dialogue. As conference coordinator Elaine Forde explained, “We wanted to create a space for artists to discuss artistic methods, outcomes, challenges, and highlights of their practice.” Available to all free of charge online, the conference was one of several new events of The Playhouse’s new global broadcasting programme.

Among the presentations was Joe Campbell’s work on the creation of the graphic novel, Peacemakers, which features stories of Alan McBride, Reverend David Latimer, Margaret O’Donnell, Laurence McKeown, David Ervine, Sarah Kerrigan, and Eamonn Baker. 

In what was described as an insightful, moving, and inspirational discussion, Joe Campbell conversed with Rev. Latimer and Sarah Kerrigan. Campbell described how he spent 40 years as a painter and taught himself how to use computer software to create graphic novels. Peacemakers enabled him to tell a story while doing portrait work. Kerrigan said that she was coaxed into telling her story, having not shared it with many before; she still finds it painful to recall. Latimer likewise said that he was persuaded to “come into the ring” and was very proud to be associated with this group of individuals sharing their experiences in a refreshingly different way: “A graphic novel is a powerful medium.”

Campbell gave some insight on the artistic process in creating the individual panels in the novel:

“If you’re doing history, it has to be accurate. I had to be very careful what I was doing. There were nine-year-old children; their coffins were being carried on top of people’s shoulders. I had to draw the coffins and I could have taken two to three hours per panel. At times that emotionally got you. The accumulation of that—from people starving themselves to death, people being brutalised, people having been shot, people having mass riots, children getting killed—at times I had to walk away from it but I had to think like a professional.

“The word ‘graphic novel’ is very important. There’s no shying away from it; you have to have it graphic. Short of showing somebody that’s dead—I don’t think there’s much value in that—but I think that there is value in ‘as this happened, my wife was blown to bits’. How do you draw that, perhaps not as an action but a reaction? You show the pain on the person that’s left.

“The fact that I’ve experienced pain and loss was brought to play as well, because I had to be tasteful as well. I had not to cause any damage. It was a strange and odd thing to put together. In a way it’s a fabrication, it’s a creation, it’s not real life. But it’s realising memory.

“I’ve often found drawing as a way to get ideas out. It’s also a way to say, ‘Look, here’s our story. This is what we look like. This is what it looked like 30, 40 years ago.’ I think that when you get something out, it’s a bit like exposing a wound to the air. There’s a healing that starts immediately and I think there’s a healing hopefully in this.”

As for the timing of this project, Campbell explained that at the time of the peace process, leading up to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, there was a silence among victims and survivors: “We didn’t want to insult anybody, we didn’t want to say anything adverse about somebody else’s culture.” But as people are ageing, he felt that something precious would be lost if nothing was said.

An online version of Peacemakers is available now and a printed version will be distributed as a key education resource.

After a set of breakout sessions, Gerard Deane (Holywell Trust) introduced keynote speaker, John Paul Lederach, who discussed “Relationships between Unlikely People”. Lederach is an internationally acclaimed pioneer in conflict transformation.

Lederach spoke about his experiences during the Sandinista revolution and subsequent peace. But he said that for those involved in the lower ranks of the conflict, such as those who carried the guns, “penned promises [of peace] carried few rewards”. Lederach added, “In the battle between dignity and humiliation, despair is winning.”

Lederach applied nature to a process of peacebuilding, starting on the margins of hearth and using decomposing material to grow and form branches that feather out into narratives.

Peacebuilders are also called bridge builders, and this was another metaphor that Lederach explored. He said that a bridge crosses divides, is a meeting place, and narrows distant shores. Yet these shores may be hidden from the vantage point of the bridge. Indeed, that lesson is to not start building the bridge from the middle but rather the distant shores: “A keystone is useless without strong foundations.” Lederach also said that a bridge is made to be walked over; as peacebuilders, “be prepared to be walked on.”

After providing the audience with his “twelve musings”, Lederach said that art brings joy and replenishes the soul: “It tilts eyes and ears towards the heart. Art refuses to forget; it remembers gracefully. Art dwells at the hearth of our shared humanity.”

Giles Duley explained his evolutionary development in his presentation, “The Legacy of Conflict”. Duly described himself as a “photographer and journalist”, as distinct from a photojournalist. 

Duley started with a question he was asked some years ago, “Do you think your photographs can change the world?” to which he responded, “No, but they may inspire someone who can.” He compiled a compendium of his work into a volume, Legacy of War, in 2011. This included his own physical injuries of losing a leg and arm, due to a land mine. In 2013, he returned to Lebanon to revisit Syrian refugees, motivated by portraying them not as victims: “That is only a condition.”

He learned the changed circumstances of his subjects—some had moved on, others were dealing with new life chapters. Duley struggled to locate one person in particular, Kholoud, until he was told that she hadn’t moved from her original place; she was still confined to bed, two years later. He felt that he had let her down and  resolved to take more photos and to tell her story better. Duley described one image Kholoud and her partner Jamal as “a photo of a couple in love with each other”.

One could consider this as Duley’s epiphany. He explained that he wanted to make images “not just to document but to be more active; not just to record but because people have to hear it.” Duley “told a love story” about Kholoud and Jamal, raising funds on a Kickstarter campaign, to assist them and others. “It was important to me to put images in front of people for action,” Duley explained.

With these new images, Duley organised an exhibition in Geneva. He invited Kholoud to open the exhibition; it was important to him that they be able to tell their own story. Duley hates the expression that photographers give voice to others: “They have their own voice.”

“I’m an angry man with a camera,” said Duley as he described his transition as complete. “I inspired myself to become active with my images. Photojournalists are detached from their subjects; I’d rather use images to write stories of those that I meet.”

The session moderator, Mary Cremin, suggested to Duley that he has built relationships with those that he’s photographed. “Yes,” he replied, “because the story doesn’t end when you leave. Typically, in a newsroom, you’d say, ‘Nope, don’t return there; we’ve done that story.’ Rather, the way I see it, she’s still in the same situation. I want to know who these people in the news story images are. Their identities are a more nuanced thing than the headlines.”

Duley declared, “There’s no truth in an image.” By this he explained that what is published by newsrooms can emphasise the dramatic, to provoke an emotional response. Meanwhile, during a riot he could be sitting with a camera, in a tent with terrified people, hoping and waiting for the violence to end. He said that it is important to be honest with your images: “Reality can be showing the banality of life.”

Duley’s presentation was followed by Khaled Barakeh describing his own exhibition, “The Muted Demonstration”. He explained how he learned about the power of art, and he especially applies participatory and socially engaged art. In this case, he complemented a courtroom trial with an outdoor display of mannequins dressed in the clothing of locally residing refugees. Using a metaphor of the court as theatre, his objective is the message, “We are listening; it is our trial.” Barakeh wishes to create art with the contribution of victims and survivors, and with public visitor interactions.

Teya Sepinuck reviewed some of her theatre work in “Healing Divides of Difference”, introduced by the chairperson of Holywell Trust, Eamonn Baker. 

Sepinuck lived in Northern Ireland for five years, seeding the Theatre of Witness programme, where participants tell their own story on stage. Sepinuck said that “the medicine is in the story”, whether it’s one of seeking justice, transcending one’s past, or standing to talk. The medicine is shared with themselves and the audience.

Sepinuck screened some video footage of a documentary by Margo Harkin, here about dialogue between two women in “I Once Knew a Girl”—one who joined and served as a member of the IRA and another whose husband was murdered by the same organisation. It is fair to say that both had a transformative journey through their participation in the programme. “This is the work of the true peacemakers,” said Sepinuck.

She also said that you never know when one story will be the seed of someone else’s story. Sepinuck described the challenge of attracting participants from the police service in Philadelphia, in a project called “Walk in My Shoes”, developed with Altovise Love-Raigshead in 2016. One story by an RUC officer in “We Carried Your Secrets” motivated Coz, who admitted to dealing with PTSD after his military service in Iraq.

“Walk in My Shoes” concludes with a challenge for the imagination: “Can we all breathe together, exhale together? What can we dream together?” Sepinuck added, “There is a field; we’ll meet you there.” Also, she said, that it is worth thinking about what it means to be on the margins of the field.

Baker asked Sepinuck how is it possible for each of our own uniqueness—our singularity—to connect with each other. She replied that it is our common place of humanity, but told through stories: “Whereas on a radio talk show, no one is listening; a personal story allows us to listen. Everything in life can be fraught, but telling stories makes it easier.”

Hector Aristizbal spoke about “Art as Antidote to Conflict”. He is known for his theatre work, directing plays including those with the subject of Northern Ireland. Aristizbal uses theatre as a space for dialogue, “to project on stage issues we don’t know how to resolve”. Or as he put it, “war is an eclipse to issues that are alive in the community,” which theatre can help to address.

Aristizbal was born in Colombia, “in a matrix of trauma”. He left at age 28, for a period of 28 years. He was tortured at the age of 22; he told his story at age 44 and with a play, to honour the death of his brother. Sharing his personal story of torture “opened the doors of the world”, and he left his professional practice of psychotherapy to work with communities, through theatre.

Aristizbal asked himself what was it that divided him from the paramilitaries and military, who he spent years hating: “Now I work with them.” For him, art is a place to allow us to face naked truth—or perhaps, using a parable, naked truth with storytelling. He added that there are people who witness trauma but say nothing. Facing truth with stories could be a way to address this: “To find beauty in ugliness.”

He also sees the potential of art as a means of navigating uncertainties presented by dealing with COVID-19. For him, the industrial revolution has put us in a state of delusion of living separate from nature, and that the current situation is an opportunity to see what we’re doing with the world. Artistizbal suggested, “Art is a place where we ask questions and give birth to new meaning. Art is a place of healing.” He wants to confront mystery and unknown futures through art and creativity.

Anthony Russell closed the main conference, saying that he sat “in awe” at the courage of participants, the skill of the facilitators, and the anti-COVID-19 technical miracle: “Something wonderful happened in the shadow of COVID-19.” He expressed his gratitude to The Playhouse, especially Pauline Ross, Elaine Forde, and Liam Campbell. Russell also thanked “his old mate” Eamon Baker at the Holywell Trust and his friend Tommy Fagan at the Thomas Darcy McGee Foundation.

Russell said that the day was about people on the ground, those who suffered and the artists who have come to help them to tell their stories. He highlighted all of the presentations, such as how Declan Keeney showed how virtual reality can be a powerful tool for collaboration. Russell also spoke about the artists’ perspective panel discussion: “Jo told us about the craic; Ailin told us about the boxes that she opened in people’s minds; Conan told us about the ‘Forgive Me Not’ film; and [Pamela] told us about legacy, [with her] innovative and wonderful book and podcast.”

Russell concluded with Aristbizal’s comments about how decomposition brings life, and in our terms decomposition of hatred and anger can release nutrients for the soul: “I think throughout the day we saw the release of nutrients for the soul and I for one am very glad I was here to experience it.”

Afterwards, a new play, “Anything Can Happen 1972: Voices from the Heart of the Troubles”, was performed and broadcasted live for three evenings. Written by Damian Gorman and directed by Kieran Griffiths, a selection of people told their own stories on stage: Richard, Victor, Hazel, Siobhan, Tom, and Susan. The chairs in the physical theatre space were occupied by stage lit photographs and mementos of those who lost loved ones in the Troubles, to COVID-19, or any other circumstance. This was to evoke Seamus Heaney’s “a sunlit absence”.

After one broadcast, academic Paul Arthur chaired a conversation with Gorman, Griffiths, and storytellers Susan, Richard, and Siobhan. Arthur began by noting that while the play’s present tense takes place in the year 1972—the worst year of the Troubles—it stretches before then to the present day, talking about COVID-19. Griffiths replied that they called the stage design “the stretching of history”, describing how certain episodes covered the pre-, current-, and post-1972. He said that there was something tangible about spanning these timeframes: “It stays in our mind for all the times.”

Arthur recognised the character, Eamon the caretaker, as the philosopher, asking fundamental questions about forgiveness, the suppression of memory, and intergenerational aspects. Eamon asks, “When is the right time to let this out?” Arthur asked, “In a peace process, when can we face the truth?” Gorman answered that he saw one of his roles as looking after whoever would come onstage to tell their stories. But he saw the need to look after the audience as well: “Because if you don’t, what you’re doing is moving weight from here [stage] to there [audience]. I had to make this bearable [so] that it can travel from the stage and people can take it away.” Furthermore, Gorman explained how this lent itself to devising the use of a caretaker character as a conduit, but with the caretaker also having his own story to tell.

Arthur said that he found the audience responses to this show’s performances as harrowing, but also something that we can go away with a better sense of what we can do. Gorman said that they say “people meet on the steps of stories”, where if you know the human detail of somebody’s story, it’s harder to hate them, harder to dismiss something they believe in that’s different from what you believe. “Either you believe that people belong together in some way fundamentally or you don’t. I believe [they do] and it’s a belief that’s massively reinforced by these people alongside me today,” Gorman added.

Stories were described as gifts, and Richard spoke about his theme as anything can happen to anyone: “I never set out to be blinded. I never set out to forgive the soldier [who blinded me]. I never set out to do the things that I did do … but what took over was a human element.” He thinks that sharing stories brings people in: “If you can tune into the person, change can happen. People can start to think differently. They begin to see life or the other side or the other story.” Richard also thinks that if there’s to be true reconciliation, “it’s got to begin somewhere in your own heart.”

Arthur noted that politically, as a community in Northern Ireland, we haven’t been able to deal with the past; there’s never been a consensus to move forward. He cited the South African expression of “the gentle art of free perceiving”—where people just tell their own experiences and what comes through is common humanity.

But better listening matters. Arthur said that the culture he grew up with was one where communities talked at each other, but didn’t talk to each other. Gorman agreed, saying that visitors may think our definition of listening was holding your tongue before diving in to correct someone. He described how the six people in this show were further down the road than the rest of us, because they had to listen to their own stories so closely, to get the shape of them: “And in doing that, they have a kind of grownup, 360-degree version of a life experience which isn’t just supporting a narrative. I am pulled along by them and they teach me to listen. It’s an art form to me, to listen very carefully so that you incorporate, take into your own being, somebody else’s story. I know that’s what’s happened to me with these six [stories]. I have had to take them into my being and I become bigger with them inside me.”

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