The latest DPI/NGO briefing, Art as a Tool for Conflict Prevention and Reconciliation, was held last Thursday, November 5th. The briefing was chaired by Nancy Ye, of DPI’s Outreach Division, who serves as President of the UN Arts and Culture Appreciation Association. The purpose of the briefing was to discuss the means by which art can help bring societies together after conflicts tear them apart. Joanna Sherman, of the Bond Street Theater, described the importance of art with an experience she had in Kosovo. She had met a member of Doctors Without Borders, who told her that DWB helps with the necessities of human survival — food, shelter, medicine — but art and theater is food for the soul. “It restores humanity.”
Bond Street Theater uses theater to offer communities the opportunity to discuss social justice, working with theater troupes in Afghanistan, Haiti, and Myanmar. Through theater, communities can discuss issues; Sherman discussed a case how an all-male troupe in Afghanistan performed a play about childhood marriage, and how a troupe at a women’s prison helped inspire the importance of women’s literacy.
While Bond Street is an example of an NGO bringing art to communities, Nicholas Ledner, a communications officer for UNICEF, discussed incorporating artists and social media to help deliver UNICEF’s message. High production value music videos and well known artists come in handy bringing UNICEF to YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram. UNICEF’s programs towards ending child marriage and child abuse were extremely successful; he presented UNICEF’s moving #ENDChildMarriageNow video, featuring RL Grime’s song ‘Always’.
Lily Yeh, from Barefoot Artists, discussed how community art projects help repair society after conflict tears them apart — she started in Philadelphia, where she told us how she “tricked” adults into working with her by first roping in the children; she later ended up in Rwanda, where she worked with the community to turn a mass grave into a beautiful memorial. Mosaics, she says, are beautiful for this; broken pieces, suffering in isolation, brought together by making art. Yeh also brought art to the survivor’s village, where art helped bring inspiration, resources, and eventually jobs to a community in Rwanda. I found Yeh’s work incredible — I was amazed to see first, how beautiful these community pieces were, but also how they affected their communities.
I thoroughly enjoyed David Murdock’s documentary work as well — Murdock worked on Oprah’s series, Belief, and we watched a clip of a joint Arab-Israeli youth orchestra. Documentary can do two things; on one hand, it can inform and enrage the public, but it also offers the opportunity for individuals to tell their stories. Artistic documentaries have to do more than inform, and NGOs that want to make these documentaries have to trust the documentarians.
Carolina Alvarez-Mathies, of El Museo del Barrio, discussed YES, El Salvador’s first contemporary art program, meant to bring Salvadoran art to the international community. Many of El Salvador’s artists are not formally trained artists, but they have helped directly make sense of the civil war, and help diffuse the gang violence that has affected the country.
The mission of the UN, of course, is the maintenance of international peace and security, and towards that, end, it spends millions of hours and dollars toward peacekeeping, economic development, and humanitarian aid. Rebuilding society after conflict has torn it apart, however, is often apolitical, and art can help bring communities together toward that end. Food for the soul, after all, has no indicators.
The briefing webcast can be watched here.