Art After Conflict: How Art Can Support Recovery After War

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MEDELLIN, Columbia — The neighborhood “Comuna 13” had been the murder capital of Medellin. In 1991, at its worst, 6,349 people were murdered. Political action, community activism and art have led to a reduction in violence, creating stability and making commerce possible, even across the poorest favelas. In 2016, Medellin hosted 2.5 million tourists, many of whom tour the Comuna 13 to visit murals depicting struggle, strength and life in Medellin. Former gang members, now graffiti tour guides, attribute shared mural-making with helping the community heal and refocus civilly. This community is one example of how art after conflict can change the lives in a community.

Art After Conflict

War scars a country long after the conflict is over. During a conflict, poor and vulnerable populations are hurt the worst. They lose family members; they cannot go to work or attend school in conflict zones. In the early 1990s in Medellin’s Comuna 13, for instance, people infrequently left home for fear of random acts of violence. Even then, stray bullets claimed the lives of many sitting in their own homes.

Art after conflict creates a unique opportunity to express the pain of loss and war, share the burden and potentially begin to heal from it. Many forms of art can circumnavigate language and cultural differences.  Campaigns to reduce violence and support recovery after conflict have used a variety of approaches including humor, music, visual art, written and theater arts, museum exhibits and interactive and temporal displays.

At their best, these efforts can address the loss of dignity along with feelings of fear, mourning and mistrust that people experience. At the same time, they show the need to seek justice, hope for a shared future and efforts break down stereotypes. Seeing the humanity in opposing groups is essential to building bridges after conflict.

Poverty in the Favelas

Colombia experience rapid growth fueled by coffee in the early 1900s and urbanization shortly after as farmers moved to the cities for work. Favelas, unplanned, poor and dangerous neighborhoods, became a feature climbing up the hillsides. Their poverty and isolation made them ripe for gang recruitment to drug cartels. When Medellin hit bottom in 1991, the government began addressing Medellin’s impoverished districts.

The country ratified a new constitution giving independence to their district leaders and started dismantling guerilla paramilitary groups. Sergio Fajardo, mayor of Medellin from 2004 to 2007, and architect Alejandro Echeverri took the opportunity to prioritize the integration of favelas into city life. Through enormous investment in public spaces and escalators and funicular gondolas that make commuting possible to favelas from downtown, the city began to share more across socioeconomic levels.

“The most important thing that happened in this city was not architecture but a ‘social architecture’ made of people – politicians and entrepreneurs understood that they had to build a future for everyone,” says Jorge Perez, former head of urban planning for the metropolitan region. The combination of art and architecture with policies and spaces has entirely changed Medellin and much of Colombia after decades of internal war.

Theater as a Form of Art Therapy

With the integration of art in many recovery efforts, best practices are emerging. In theater, for instance, a theater project between Theatre Without Borders and Brandeis University called Acting Together on the World Stage: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict used 14 case studies of performance and peacebuilding in international conflict regions.

They focused on the contributions of performance. They highlighted the need to create a space where the conflict can be examined but with deep cultural knowledge and understanding of the nature of conflicts. It’s a delicate operation to delve into the pain of conflict. So, after the shared experience, facilitators need to consider how participants can take that healing back into their communities.

Arts Therapy Around the World

Curiosity about art-based recovery efforts after conflicts has been growing. Evidence is showing that arts and cultural programs are important aspect of recovery. In Syria, arts-therapy and theater initiativse for street children have been used to help process the trauma of conflict and build a stronger sense of belonging. Post-conflict recovery approaches in Rwanda and Colombia all included expression through art. After the 1994 genocide killed almost a million people, Rwanda has used art after conflict in its national reconciliation effort, including film, music, crafts, architecture and theater.

In 2019, the University of the West of Scotland commemorated the 25 year anniversary of the devestating violence in Rwanda by conducting a case study to determine the impact of post-war cultural activities on peace. From it, researchers ascertained that activities fostering understanding through deep cultural exchange in the arts offered a neutral ground for mutual understanding more than explicit peace-building. Shared creative expression provided common ground more than directly addressing issues related to the conflict.

Overall, research efforts suggest that the arts are impactful in helping communities rebuild after a conflict. Arts and cultural programs are most successful when they engage in a deep understanding of local and cultural traditions and link to wider reconciliation and recovery efforts. Approaches that involve art after conflict can play a role in building links between culture, security and development.

Heather Hughes
Photo: Flickr

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