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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Number 283: October 2020

Readings in Nonviolence features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome). 

The power of art for peace and conflict transformation

by Stefania Gualberti
Jean Paul Lederach’s theories on conflict resolution have been very influential in the Peace sector in Northern Ireland.

In Lederach’s book “The Moral Imagination” (*1) he affirms that transcending violence is forged by the capacity to generate, mobilize and build the moral imagination. The moral imagination is mobilised when four disciplines and capacities are held together and practised by those who find their way to risk above violence. Those four disciplines are:

  1. The capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationship that includes our enemies;
  2. The ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on dualistic polarity;
  3. The fundamental belief in the pursuit of the creative act;
  4. The acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the unknown.

For a constructive social change that moves from violence patterns to peace, all these four elements are needed.

In his recent Keynote Presentation and Conversation at the ‘Art in the place of Conflict’ peacebuilding conference (*2) organised by The Playhouse Theatre and Peacebuilding Academy (Derry), John Paul Lederach, in conversation with Gerard Deane, talked about how conflict transformation requires art and the creativity process. Art is at the heart of peacebuilding. To move from despair, indignation, resentment and rage you need imagination and hope to create a new reality towards re-humanisation and peace.

He recounted the time when in Nicaragua in 1990 he asked a former child soldier how he kept Hope alive. The young men started to recite this poem by Edoardo Galeano:

“Nosotros.” We. We have the joys of our joys. We have the joys of our pains. We find little interest in the painless life that supermarkets package and sell, and we take pride in the price of so much pain that with such love we pay. We have the joy of our mistakes, the stumbling downfalls that prove our passion for walking and our love for the journey’s path. We have the joy of our losses, because the struggle for justice and beauty are worth the pain, even when we lose. And overall, most especially, we have the joy of our hopes. In the face of disillusionment, when hopelessness has twisted itself into a fad for universal consumption, we continue to believe in the startling powers of the human embrace.

At that moment JP Lederach said he felt transformed and left with a question: How had he let the academic pursuit and the professional life take the poetry out of him?

Peacebuilding is not primarily a labour of social engineering. It is an artistic process that must over and again open up what is known but not seen, and bring into life now that which does not yet exist.

In conflict we are forced to look and look again. Meanings cannot be taken for granted. Meanings cannot be taken for granted. When in conflict we are displaced in a new reality we need to make sense of.. J P Lederach talked about trying a special compass to navigate the new geography as previous maps don’t work any more. We are sense seeking beings, our actions are based on the meaning we give to things. We feel long before we have words for what we feel. But none of them seems appropriate. Poetry and art can help.

Lederach used the image from a painting of A stone bridge in fall.. Mediators use the bridge metaphor as the bridge allows us to cross the divide, makes it possible for people to meet, narrows the distance from the shores. JP Lederach also points out the hidden meaning of this metaphor: you don’t build a bridge from the middle, the key stone is useless without strong foundations, a bridge is made to be walked on, a bridge cannot see the underbelly. In peacebuilding you need to notice both beauty and shadow to see the wholeness and act on integrity.

He describes 12 points he found true in peacebuilding as a compass to navigate the geography of conflict and pain towards re humanisation.

  1. Analysis of human conflict breaks things apart, analysis doesn’t have the heart to put things back together.
  2. Conflict and peace tools are for carving path, don’t show pathways.
  3. How human make meaning remains a mystery. In a midst of conflict if you are seeking meaning, prepare to an epic journey.
  4. Listening is the compass for the epic journey, the Odyssey. A listening compass has a delicate relentless spinning needle which is not interested in finding north but is drawn to other sources.
  5. Listening is whole body, environment and time sensitive. If you cannot feel and hear yourself you cannot feel and hear others.
  6. We listen to deep truth at the same level we listen to our enemy, that is why the needle spins.
  7. Northless is not bad: not knowing in conflict opens up possibilities.
  8. It takes courage to unlearn.
  9. Curiosity is a five syllable word, it has the door that opens and closes every haiku.
  10. Remember that curiosity is a verb. Make note of where the needle points.
  11. Don’t miss the haiku moment when in conflict. You need the ears of the heart to make the compass needle stop.
  12. As soon as you make peace, start over.

JP Lederach said he has found that art brings joy and replenishes the soul when the soul has been battered. Art sits between inner and outer worlds and offers tenacity to insist on breaking through even the hardest crust. Art refuses to forget, art remember gracefully, art dwells at the heart unfolding the mystery of our shared humanity.

Peace requires a constant act of creativity the heart of art. Peace can only be full achieved through our innate capacity to create. Art for re-humanisation. Art is like breathing. Art is a powerful force and can potentially be used to fuel conflict and division. He brings the example of Belfast murals as division and visual portrait of the conflict narrative. He also talked about how in the Somali context songs and poetry were a way to engage in conflict. Art touches our soul holistically.

Social change is an artistic process. Peacebuilding asks us: how do we crack the bubble? How do we reimagine who we are as human family?
We have to find better ways of centring. Art doesn’t have to stay at the edge and margins. We need to think of art as the creative processes not exclusive to the recognised artists (like Picasso) but art can be a part of the way we engage with the world: the creative process is bringing into existence something that doesn’t exist. Critical in conflict, it touches how do we stay healthy, how we heal from trauma, how do we make sense of the world, how do we live with complexity.

He concluded saying how this pandemic has confirmed and showed us how we are interconnected and interdependent and even small acts make difference in the world. That is part of being human.


(*1) “The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace”, Oxford University Press, 2005

(*2) Talks, presentations, conversations, podcasts, artworks, film and a live screening of a theatre production exploring the power of socially engaged art in conflict.

- US English/Americanisms used by JP Lederach have been retained in this piece.

- It is hoped to look at various aspects of ‘art and peace’ in this section in coming months – Ed.

Copyright INNATE 2019