Readings in Nonviolence, NN 289

Art and peace series

Moving from injustice to generating alternatives:

An interview with Rita Duffy

Interviewer: Stefania Gualberti

Rita Duffy was born in 1959 and is a Northern Ireland artist. She describes herself as a pacifist and feminist. Her installations and projects often highlight socio-political issues and some of her work is in the permanent collections of the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Imperial War Museum in London. Rita Duffy will have a new website available soon at

1. How did your background and experiences lead to your involvement in art and peacebuilding?

I grew up in Stranmillis, right beside the Ulster Museum. The Ulster Museum became our playground at the weekend. It was a privileged situation to have that in proximity. We went to the Botanic Gardens because our house was a Victorian terrace and that was an escape to greenery and when it rained, we went to the Ulster Museum and slide on polished floors. I would look at the paintings so that was something very guiding and important for a child who was obviously taken with the visual.

My father was from Belfast, my mother was from county Offaly. I didn’t really feel I belonged. I didn’t realize I came from Belfast until I was about 12. The pull of my mother’s people, she had six sisters, was so great, so it became inevitable to start making art, painting, about what was going on around me. It didn’t satisfy me that in art school the conversation was about shades of yellow, concepts, it seemed really bad and poorly argued philosophy, so I made a conscious decision to make work that was on what was around me.

What was going on around me was a battle in the city of Belfast that was a microcosm of what was going on in every conflict area across the planet, so it seemed to me an appropriate place to start. Something that I knew, something that had been formative, certainly the topic of conversation in our household. I went to St Dominic’s Grammar School for Girls on the Falls Road through the ‘70s and that was a very important time. We were safe, I was removed from it every evening. I was questioning my identity, who I was, a young woman and all that seemed to be an inevitable necessary conversation within myself and as a result within my work.

2. What do you feel is special about art to build peace?

I think art is a spiritual force I have come to realize. I have identified art as a spiritual force. Susan Sontag said that first. There is something incredibly powerful about art that stops human beings collapsing into barbarity. I am not talking about middle class, I am talking about stuff that really moves you, how creative thinking, artistic thinking, how artists think provides alternatives. There is a reason why artists, poets, writers, musicians are the first people locked in prison by regimes, because they draw attention to the necessary. It is not about some dislocated discussion about some philosophical concepts. It is about an urgency; it is about a passionate response. It is about drawing attention to injustice, it is about creating a space that encourage people to think and to act, and to respond and to be unsettled.

3. How can art help to transform conflict and connect people?

I suppose it is up to people to engage with art in terms of connecting people and transforming conflict. I have seen projects that are very effective and passionate about bringing people together. I think the fact that art takes place in a space apart from your area or my area, we go somewhere else. We go to a theatre, we go to a cinema, we go to a concert hall or we go to an art exhibition. That gives the opportunity for that third space, where we can argue, where we can allow ourselves to become confused, where we can then create something fresh out of that confusion. And I think transforming the battlefield into something else is what we have done many times. We had to rebuild, rethink, reconstruct and that means potentially there is space for fresh thinking.

4. How do you overcome the barriers in groups especially people who would not consider themselves as “artistic”?

Quite often people would say things like “I can’t draw to save my life” but you try taking people onto a journey where they enjoy and are challenged but they are not put into an excruciating place, because then what they will produce is excruciating. I think it is the artist’s job as a leader to have some sense on what you are working with, and what and how that might work in terms of their involvement into the art project.

You need to be really quite well tuned-in and informed on what, where, how, what your budget is and what are the possibilities. Then you have to take it and do a creative jump with it. If people find they resist too much, they don’t have to be involved, they can do something else, or find another project that suits them better. You don’t cater to the lowest common denominator you try to inspire people and you lead them. You are not finger painting, you are communicating, you are explaining why you are doing this, why this is necessary, and you can always find a place for people, find a way to engage people, even in the most basic situations, even doing a simple task, they feel like they have contributed. You are not being led by the group the artist has to lead.

Too much community art is about process. But if you want to do a fingerpainting exercise where everyone puts their input don’t expect to find something interesting art wise and don’t pretend there is something interesting visually either. You can find methodologies to engage people: like photography is a fantastic way, because everyone can take a photograph, it doesn’t take any skill to take a photograph, and occasionally you get really lucky. I always believe there is magic if you are genuinely trying to really engage with people and there is stuff you can’t plan for! That’s the stuff to go after and to recognize when it appears. As an artist you need to have a vision, if these people are not interested in painting, find another way, if they are very talkative, maybe you should have a writer on board, or they love to sing… you have to work with what is there and you have to suss out what’s possible.

5. How do you think the creative process can help healing trauma at both individual and collective levels?

I don’t know, I am an artist and I trust what I do. There is a level of trust, I don’t measure what I do, I don’t go back to examine, I don’t think. But I do know there is a sense that something has changed even if it’s a molecule of an individual’s psyche. They might not even get that straight away, but it might come back to them in different ways later on. I am interested in art, really, and I think it’s up to everybody to decide whether they were going to switch off the TV and listen to that symphony or be content and watch somebody playing darts. It’s their personal choices involved here. Sometimes people are at different stages of their life and sometimes they are more open to the possibility of transformation, sometimes not.

6. You are one of the best-known artists in Northern Ireland, indeed Ireland. How has this affected your art, if at all?

It’s funny, it either really works really well for you or really badly. In the North sometimes I would experience the attitude “Who do you think you are? I’ll bring you down a level or two”, so there is that aspect. But more times than not, you would get, “We will be delighted to work with you”, it gets a little bit easier to get your foot in the door.

7. How do your pacifism and feminism interact, and do you feel they are equally represented in your art?

I am politically interested. It is not something I think about. It is a subliminal thing. I am very interested in feminism; politics and I am very interested in pacifism. I am also interested in contemporary politics and what is going on around. I listen, I engage, and sometimes I come up with an image that is a response to that. Watching the Trump presidency unravel was something that I thought had a global resonance, that populism, I wanted to do something about that, so I made a list of drawings and a recent painting because it affects us and what was going on in North America, has happened in Brazil, The Netherlands, London. I suppose it’s about what sparks your interest at any given moment. I am reading a wonderful book by an Egyptian feminist, Nawal El Saadawi. She trained as a medical doctor, she died recently. I am reading her writing at the moment, it is amazing, incredible stuff. I am continuing to soak in things, reading and looking and thinking and I am doing lots of writing myself at the moment.

8. In your years of experience is there a particular project or engagement that you want to talk about in relation to this conversation on art and peacebuilding?

I should talk to you about the project I was making at Quaker Cottage* (with Ann Patterson), a portrait of eight women. I was looking at the Ulster mythology, the curse of Macha. The story is all about tribalism, division and not showing compassion to women and children who bear the most suffering of conflict. That is the most amazing story and I went to Quaker Cottage with the idea of choosing one of the women as a sitter for the portrait of Macha. When I was there one of the women was having contractions. Unfortunately, she had conceived as a result of rape. Her partner had a barring order but because of where they were lived, the police couldn’t exercise the barring order, so he occasionally broke in and raped her. I was thinking that was the most horrific story and I was thinking from my comfortable middle-class existence in South Belfast, it really kind of opened my eyes, to what women were experiencing in Belfast.

If I had heard that about a crazy worn torn spot in Bosnia, I would have thought, yes that is believable, but that was Belfast, Belfast, 11 years ago. I thought we don’t reflect these narratives, these experiences. So, I ended up making an exhibition on the portraits of these eight women and I interviewed them, and I recorded their stories, and we called the project “House to house”. From Quaker Cottage you can see clearly across to Stormont. Also ‘house to house’ was how the army searched. At the time there was an argument going on the radio about whether they should be allowed to have Easter lilies or calla lilies because they had had orange lilies. These men in Stormont were arguing about floral decoration in the lobby at Stormont and meanwhile I had heard that story.

That’s an example of how things grow. There is an element of magic, that’s how things develop.

*Quaker Cottage, managed by Quaker Service, is a cross community family support centre which provides services for some of the disadvantaged areas of north and west Belfast.

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Dining with diplomats,

praying with gunmen

Dining with diplomats, praying with gunmen:

Experiences of international conciliation for a new generation of peacemakers”

by Anne Bennett

Quaker Books, London, 2020, ISBN 978 199931 415 6 (also available as e-book), 162 pages. UK£10.00.

– Reviewed by Stefania Gualberti and Rob Fairmichael

Well, given that this is a book based on an internal Quaker process and there isn’t too much demand for international conciliators, what is the point in reviewing the book? Plenty, as we hope this review will reveal.

The first thing to say is that it is impossible to write the history of working for peace in Ireland, or indeed internationally, without mentioning the word ‘Quaker’ or Religious Society of Friends.

Conciliation is defined in the book as “the process of bringing people together and creating enough trust between them for them to talk constructively together. It usually involves the help of facilitators to encourage the parties to move to that point and to engage in dialogue to resolve the conflict that has divided them” (pages 2 and 22).

Anne Bennett tells the story on how the Quakers started to take up the role of international conciliators and how their quiet processes around the world have been successful over the years. They created a reputation based on their integrity and on their principles and values; building relationships of trust with people on both sides of the conflict, starting where they are; not taking sides but listening to all parties with the belief that if each person’s stories are not heard and acknowledged it is difficult to move forward; encouraging parties to explore options, nonviolent responses; working in building capacity of the local peace groups.

Nearly all those processes need to be done in strict confidentiality. Quakers, grounded by their spirituality and in the belief that “there is that of God in everyone”, have held the light of hope for peace even during violence. They trusted and have demonstrated that “peace processes begin with small groups and communities who can exert change amid divided societies” (page 42).

Conciliation isn’t the only show in town but as Andrew Tomlinson says, (page 96) “conciliation is part of an orchestra working for social change.” One particularly effective shout out in favour of conciliation is given by Diana Francis (page 84) where those who might not have listened to each other both listened and learnt.

Another question about the usefulness of this book for a more general audience is its transferability. Does the ‘international’ part of conciliation apply to national or local? And do the specifically Quaker parts apply to others? The first point here is that conflicts are now much more intra-national than international but the same approaches apply. ‘International’ or societal conflicts may be at a different level, and different cultural rules will likely apply in different situations, but these may be differences of scale and context rather than essence.

Some coverage is given to the fact that the Quaker name can provide an entry point, and we can say that cannot easily be replicated by non-Quakers who don’t have (or belong to an organisation with) a long and known track record of being fair and understanding to all sides. The ‘spiritual’ dimension of Quakerdom, however you might define it, also contributes to their acceptability. And the rules apply everywhere, e.g. “never saying one thing in one place and something else in another” (page 68).

But some other points are that Quakers are not infallible – the book mentions failures including in the mid-19th century over Schleswig-Holstein (pages 8-9), times change, and having a name to live up to can be hard work. Quandaries and dilemmas appear in any challenging aspect of life, including in relation to conciliation the balance between confidentiality and justice (pages 17 and 39), and the possibility of appearing to collude with evil in certain circumstances (page 78). Sue Williams is usefully quoted on ‘the purity dilemma’ (page 80). Quakers have a particular moral and spiritual code but it is not necessarily any easier for Quakers than anyone else to traverse this ground.

The book is very comprehensible and also very comprehensive for its length. There is only one point in the book where we feel something was left hanging. In outlining the different parts of a peace process (page 47), it outlines and defines peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding. It simply states “Quaker activity is concentrated on two of the three stages: peacemaking and peacebuilding”. The definition of peacekeeping given includes that “It involves monitoring local activity and being ready to use force if necessary”. Is this a judgement that force is or may be necessary? Lethal or non-lethal? And, if considered necessary, left to others rather than Quakers with their peace testimony?

Of course it may have been felt that going off on this tangent, and it is a bit of a tangent since conciliation certainly does not involve force or violence, was introducing a red herring into things. However a few sentences on why Quakers pick two of these elements and not the ‘peacekeeping’ one could have been helpful.

There are significant Northern Ireland links to this book. Both the author, Anne Bennett, and Sue Williams who is quoted a few times, lived in the North aside from when they worked, at separate times, for Quaker House in Belfast. Another also quoted participant, Clem McCartney, and the illustrator, typesetter and participant Lynn Finnegan are from Northern Ireland. Lynn Finnegan’s intriguing and slightly enigmatic, but highly appropriate, illustrations turn the book into a beautiful work of art.

This is aside from the fact that Northern Ireland has also been the recipient of long term Quaker conciliation efforts; Micheál Martin has remarked before how much he learnt about Northern unionists and the situation through programme organised by Quaker House in Belfast. When you consider that as Taoiseach he is not rushing headlong down a (potentially slippery) slope to a unification referendum, this is worth bearing in mind. And positive outcomes may not be the ones worked for; Nigerian magnanimity towards the erstwhile breakaway Biafra, after the latter’s military defeat, may have been partly occasioned by Quaker conciliation efforts previously, and their work to overcome demonisation of the military enemy (page 71).

The book was a response to an intergenerational conference the Quaker held in Woodbrooke conference centre in September 2019 with the aim of bringing together experienced Quaker peacemakers and younger generations to capture the learnings, knowledge and experiences the Quakers gathered over the years and explore ways of applying them in a fast-changing world. Ways of operating internationally have changed and the limited resources for processes, which can take a long time, as well as having a more widespread presence of other groups and organisations working for peace, made the Quakers doubt if they should still invest in this area or adjust and use their skills and knowledge locally. The willingness and energy to continue international conciliation is there, alongside the need to widen the pool of conciliators to include young Quakers to be able to respond to requests of intervention promptly as they did in the past.

The conference tried to bring together experienced Quakers and younger ones, with their eagerness to get started and learn. They demanded answers on the “mystery” of the stories of what Quaker international conciliation was, bringing hope to continue to do a good and relevant work updated in today’s world. The poem that closes the book (page 139) speaks of those questions the younger Quakers put forward: should we stay or should we go? Give us practical theory and robust framework. How can we join? Is peace work only for privileged volunteers? The Quakers found themselves in a threshold and again (amongst uncertainty, fear, and frustration) chose dialogue and trust to move forward.

The guru was looking glum. One acolyte asked another what was wrong and received the answer “He has forgotten the secret of the universe again.” We all have to keep discovering and rediscovering meanings and realities. When it comes to conciliation, this book is a very worthwhile part of an understanding and it is great that it has been written up in such an approachable style.

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