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Readings in Nonviolence 291

Art and peace series

Music is the dialogue

– An interview with Darren Ferguson

“My identity and my history are defined only by myself – beyond politics, beyond nationality, beyond religion and Beyond Skin.”

Darren Ferguson, is a musician, a community worker, and a peace activist. He founded Beyond Skin in 2004 to tackle racism and sectarianism at a local level, to encourage positive social change and empowering people to celebrate diversity.

Beyond Skin is a diverse team of artists, facilitators and peacebuilders who design and facilitate different creative projects using intercultural music, arts, dance, digital media and sensory engagement.

Beyond Skin has been using artistic methods for global education and peacebuilding with local councils, education boards, schools, community groups, businesses and social enterprises across Northern Ireland and has been collaborating with different organisations and individual internationally.

This year Beyond Skin will deliver 35 different projects active involving people from 23 different countries. To name a few: Orchestra for change, Peace in Mind – The 100, Youth4peace, Blueprint are some of the projects which connect local artists and communities with artists and organisations in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Japan, Zambia & Kenya.


The interview was conducted by Stefania Gualberti.

Stefania – How did your background and experiences lead to your involvement in music and peacebuilding?

Darren – I was influenced by a lot of things I was doing as a community worker. In my youth I was volunteering for different faith groups, and I volunteered to go to Romania and worked for a couple of projects which ended up lasting over a decade and set up a charity there with various other people. I was influenced by both the community sector but also by popular culture. Musicians like Peter Gabriel, who was using music for speaking out about human rights and also Nitin Sawhney, a British born Asian artist – we took our name Beyond Skin from one of his albums Beyond Skin. There was another project called “1 giant leap” with these two music producers who travelled the world to try to find out what connects us all as human beings and used music as their narrative. Those three different projects really influenced me as well as popular culture, and as a community worker I just loved being around people and I got involved that way.

Stefania – What do you feel is special about art and especially music to transform conflict, connect and build peace?

Darren – I’m always learning from other people, every day. A good friend of mine Mark Smulian who did amazing thing with music bringing young people from Israel and Palestine together and is doing lots of things with music for mental health, he reminds me constantly that we are all creative, everyone is creative. Some people have talents such as someone can sing, others are really good dancers. We are all creative. Those of us who are blessed with legs doesn’t mean we are Usain Bolt. Some people have talent, and they can run really fast.

People are creative beings, it’s innate in us, it’s in our DNA. We can also clap together in time randomly, no other creature on earth can do that.

We are creative and we are designed to work together. We have all seen the power of music, especially during COVID time, it got everybody through this traumatic experience. When you see the impact of music and other art forms it makes it obvious to connect it into peace building and community work, why wouldn’t you?

I get invited to a lot of peace conference, peace events and they don’t lead themselves in a way that we function best as human beings. Human beings function at their very best around music, art, green spaces, food, and drink. When we are together in these spaces, we create things, things will come out and we have great time building relationships, relating with one another. When you are in four walls in a hotel room for a conference you don’t have that, it doesn’t have that big impact.

I think we have got to look at how we interact and relate as human beings and integrate that more into peacebuilding.

We tend to think of arts and culture as something you go to: you go to the theatre, to the cinema and so on. But when you wake up in the morning art and creativity is in everything. What we choose to wear in the morning is being creative, we create when we cook, and we are creative when we navigate life challenges, how we deal with things. It’s in us and that should be brought more into peacebuilding so people can relate to that more.

Stefania – How do you overcome the barriers in groups especially people who would not consider themselves as musicians or knowledgeable about music?

Darren – At Beyond Skin we try to engage people into music and sound. Sound is very important in how we relate to our environment; it is all around us. A great example is a project we did for Make Music Day4’33. It is based on a famous, very experimental composer called John Cage who is no longer with us. He composed 4’33”, a piece where musicians don’t play anything for 4 minutes 33 seconds and he copy righted. We are replicating that project in collaboration with the John Cage Trust, and we asked 23 musicians from different places in the world to send us videos of themselves not playing anything for 4 minutes 33 seconds and we put a compilation together. https://www.beyondskin.net/433

His thought process as composer was that there is always sound. As I am talking to you, I can hear the fridge buzzing, I can hear birds outside, I can hear traffic from the motorway. That is a composition. When we hear the musician from Sri Lanka you can hear the sounds from the environment there. In the piece from the Victoria Falls in Zambia, you can hear the water in the background. Sounds and music are often separated but they are so connected. If you look at Belfast, in West Belfast you have big diesel black taxis which service that area. That is a sound familiar only with that area, you have always that sound on the background and people do not realize that, but when they wake up in the morning they know where they are when they hear that sound. If you were to take those taxis away people would miss that sound and feel maybe a slight unease, as it wouldn’t sound as their environment.

All those elements are important when we interact music and sound. What makes us feel safe and how we step out of our comfort zone and meet people from different cultures and engage with them because, it is all relevant to all of us as human being. How do we engage people with sound? The 4’33” is a great example of that, and everyone can take part, you don’t have to play an instrument.

It is a mindfulness exercise as well, so important coming out of this pandemic which affected everyone in our mental health, if people say they were not affected they are lying. Sound and music give a great opportunity to be mindful, be still and focus on sound. How our brain respond to music is a chemical reaction and the benefits are widely researched.

Inner peace, once you have inner peace you can bring peace into the world. It is that simple, we have to be at peace with ourselves and with our neighbours and then extend to the wider world. The different levels are very much related.

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

Darren – It has been well documented, especially in the last few years with the neuroscience research, the impact of sound and music in the healing process.

We work with people who live in countries experiencing violent conflict. Music is a good way to process what might have happened to you. Not to put it away, as it will always be there, but to help move on. We all have this music centre in our brain, it is a chemical reaction, which trigger us, music can be used to deal with trauma in a certain way. It works both way for the people creating and playing the music and for the people listening to it. Art is a very personal experience. When you look at an art gallery you could have someone sticking a bit of tape on the wall and that’s considered art, or somebody could consider the Mona Lisa art, but in my opinion, it is all art. That’s the beauty of art. It is not about being good, that’s subjective.

I think art can have purpose and no purpose. Art is about freedom and expression. Sometimes we forget that. Some of the peacebuilding projects which involve art limit people. I have done a lot of research on social media and YouTube and I have done a presentation on how we make peace infectious. You look at YouTube and there might be a well-done video on the issues of refugees, and it might have 2 million views. Then there is a video of a cat in a bath, and it got 80 million views and you go: “how is that more attractive to people?” We are obviously missing something of what attracts people to things and why that is. I believe the peacebuilding sector needs to look at popular culture to bring new people into those spaces and attract new people.

At Beyond Skin we have always done wacky things. An example is one day I noticed there were all these pop-up stands and people sitting behind tables presenting themselves at events, why would we do that? So, we decided to retire our pop-up stand. We had an official photographer to do a story for us, in a very humorous way but also as a way of challenging the sector in a creative way. If you want to do something as an organisation, association or collective, you don’t need a pop-up stand, just do it. Instead of sitting behind a table, sit in front of it, speak to people. You are the pop-up stand; you are the story you don’t need a pop up stand. It was a way to give people a wee shake and look at why we do things? How we do things, and do they work? Why things like the pop-up stand become normal? We love to challenge the status quo in a creative way.

Stefania – How do you work with people who reject certain music as ‘theirs’ rather than ‘mine’?

Darren – Yes, interesting question as here in Northern Ireland music has divided communities. We have a project at the moment with people part of a marching band from Protestant culture working alongside heavy metal rock musicians. We always bring it back to the music.

We did an event at the Black Box- a music venue in Belfast- and we had three Loyalist marching bands (all men) and we had guest musicians from Colombia and female musicians, as it can be very male dominated sector. We did it and it was great. We got great feedback and one guy came to me and said: “It is great what you have done here” and I responded, “What is so great about bringing musicians together into a music venue?” Sometimes the politics take over. Those were just some guys learning to play, read music, the band gave them a place where they felt they belonged and gave them the space to be creative. That’s overlooked.

In the new project we are creating a heavy metal flute marching band. That is to open up to audiences who might have not listened to that kind of music and going beyond the stereotypes. Music is a great way to do that, connect people. https://www.beyondskin.net/marchingmetal

We did another project with Afghanistan and Northern Ireland, and it opened up to people who said “I have never listened to that music” but through these projects they have been introduced to this other music and I find this interesting.

As my friend Mark would say “Music does not assist the dialogue, music is the dialogue”. Getting people together to do art and play music is a way of building relation and relax to talk about their culture. In some peacebuilding events you bring people together, strangers, and they are encouraged to talk about the issues. You would not do that in real life, why would you do it there. You need to build up trust and relationship.

At Beyond Skin we need to justify it with the funders that we are doing it in a different way, but this is more effective. Sometimes peacebuilding can get very boring! I have been to many boring peacebuilding events. Why are we here? I could be doing something much more interesting, fun and get people to talk about serious issues as well.

I was in Japan before the pandemic last year and I was at an event organised by this organisation who is doing music and peacebuilding. They are the largest music peacebuilding organisation, they are called Min-on Concert Association, they have been going on for 40 years and they have one million volunteers. How do we get one million volunteers? How do you sustain that? I had a meeting with the founders to talk about how they did that. I could see their smile the joy was apparent. I thought, whatever you have, I want that and that is what is really attractive. I had been at a antiracism event where lots of people were really angry and they were right to be angry but I left feeling angry. I don’t want that, that is not attractive, no wonder they struggle to get members. In this association, you have people with smiles on their faces, they are well aware of the problems of the world and they say: let’s deal with that!

There is nothing fun about racism and sectarianism but there is a way to use fun and joy to deal with those issues by engaging people in dialogue. We have to find ways to attract people (the cat in a bath).

Stefania – How can global education help tackle racism and sectarianism locally?

Darren – Before Beyond skin I worked with developing organisations who worked with countries struggling with poverty and in global education programmes. The project “1 giant leap” looked at issues that connect us, love, faith, death, sex, money… all the subjects that relate with all of us.


One of the big issues at the moment is health as well as gender inequality. I have a four year old girl and I am thinking about her future and what she will be dealing with, we should have tackled those issues years ago (pay gap, accessibility and patriarchy).

Global education for me is listening and learning from our global neighbours. When the pandemic hit, we contacted our friends in Africa, they always had restrictions and always have done with less than we have. So, we asked how are you doing it? We should be doing the same. Learning from them. Our partners in Zambia are well ahead of us in terms of renewable energies, they are doing tremendous stuff! It is important to learn from our global neighbours.

Stefania – Is there a particular project or engagement that stands out for you that you can talk about in relation to this conversation on art and peacebuilding?

Darren – Not one particular project. We did a conference in a very different way as we left 50% of it unprogrammed, a space for what was emerging. It was March 2017 and it is difficult to describe, it was powerful. At that event my friend Mark got up to the stage saying, “Music does not assist dialogue, music is the dialogue.” We got into this discussion on how the funding can be restrictive and put you in a box. A lot of artists felt like that. If you are from Africa that doesn’t mean you need to do drumming; you like jazz, do jazz. Don’t let people put you in a box, be creative. That opens the door for us. A big initiative called Art Dialogue was born out of that. 30 artists collaborate together from different countries in very creative and innovative ways. That conference was one of those moments of realization, we need to be freeing artists and not being restricted/restrictive. Freedom in art to make a difference; freedom from labels, expectations and stereotypes and bringing fun and joy into the process.

We get invited to help organise multicultural festivals. I ask, what is the difference between a festival and a multicultural festival? Just mainstream it and call it festival so it becomes normal to have a diversity of people collaborating in it. When I hear Chinese people called minority when they are in fact a global majority, I think we need to change perspective, from our inward perspective. Let us focus on our language, what is a minority? What are we saying? It gives a distorted perception of reality. I think with art you can “shake the tree”, challenge people and wake them up a little bit.

Stefania – Could you share or summarise some of your learnings in your years of experience?

Darren – Every day is a school day, every day I am learning. There are no experts in peacebuilding. Peace is a process, a process of learning.

Get people together around food, music, art and green spaces and things happen.

Take risks, we constantly say let’s do this and deal later with the consequences.

Understand where people are coming from, you don’t know what they are going through. We have to be really empathetic with our fellow humans. We can’t judge people from what we see, as we don’t have the full picture -social media doesn’t help as it is very reactive, you wouldn’t do that to somebody in person, we need to bring back people to human interactions.

– – – – – –

Raytheon in Derry

June 2021 StoP webinar report

by Eamon Rafter

The webinar was organised by StoP – Swords to Ploughshares, a new Irish network against the Arms Trade. With Spirit AeroSystems in Belfast grant aided by the UK government to manufacture military drones and their continued support for arms production at Thales, it was decided that it was a good time to get together to celebrate the removal of Raytheon from Derry to inspire resistance to current development in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The webinar was introduced and moderated by Joe Murray of AFRI. He spoke about how he saw a picture of John Hume and David Trimble welcoming Raytheon to Derry in 1999 as the ‘first fruits of the peace process’. The shocking irony of this had inspired him to hold a public meeting in Derry along with Children in Cross fire and this included students from East Timor at a time when weapons from the UK were being sold to the Indonesian military for use in East Timor. Out of this meeting FEIC – Foyle Ethical Investment Campaign was founded who along with Derry Ant-War Coalition (DAWC) and others built the campaign against Raytheon.

Jim Keys was one of the people behind the FEIC campaign and he gave an overview of how this cross community group with no party affiliation operated as a loose alliance who took on Raytheon. Following the AFRI meeting they had worked on an East Timor mural and set up a citizens jury to consider the appropriateness of Raytheon coming the Derry. The jury returned a verdict of ‘not welcome’ and a monthly vigil was established outside the Raytheon offices. A symbolic grave was dug here to mark the innocent victims of the weapons industry and signs around the city, the appearance of the theatrical ‘stealth monster’ and various actions took place which included the use of the Free Derry wall.

Politicians didn’t engage though in 2003 the City Council did oppose the war in Iraq. Raytheon did not engage or make a response to any of this, though they claimed that the Derry operation was essentially a civil one. Jim pointed out that Derry was a place where people understood what it was like to be ‘collateral damage’ and this was important in the development of the campaign. With a vigil in the Guildhall Sq, a shroud covering the Free Derry Wall and the Black Shamrock symbol of Irish neutrality and opposition to war, the campaign broadened across the city and in Feb 2008 a plaque was placed on the city walls dedicated to lives lost as a result of weapons made in Derry. Though the campaign would continue with regular vigils it would take a more public action to have greater effect.

Eamonn McCann, who had been a key leader in the civil rights movement, was one of the six of the Raytheon 9 who stood trial for occupying the Raytheon offices in August 2006. He talked about what had led to the occupation and how they were vindicated in court. A meeting of DAWC had taken place in Sandino’s Bar on 2nd August to hear former U.S. army interrogator Joshua Casteel. Hearing about the recent Israeli massacre in Qana, Lebanon on 30th July, the Raytheon connection was made and it was decided to occupy the plant.

It was felt that everything had been tried to engage the politicians and media and that vigils would not be enough to close down Raytheon. There had been no support from the mainstream who said they were against weapons manufacture but did nothing against it. The occupation of 9th August (the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing) was a last resort and McCann talked about the ‘semi-spontaneity’ of the event. They didn’t expect to get in but had managed to rush the door as an employee went in and once inside proceeded to throw computers and materials out the window. The eventual arrival of riot police in full armour saw nine men seated quietly playing cards and they were arrested and subsequently put on trial.

Eamonn Mc Cann talked about the case that was presented at that trial in 2008 and how the six men were acquitted. The case was based on the fact that the law would not see their action as defensible, so they had to show that they were actually trying to save lives, stop or delay a war crime, not just protest against it. They had to show that they had previously done everything that was possible and only after that failed did they commit to action in the reasonable belief they could stop war. The involvement of the Derry Raytheon plant in the development of rocket guidance systems and interconnectedness of the computer system with the Scotland plant meant they had legitimately targeted this to put the system out of action to help prevent a greater evil. In effect they put Raytheon on trial and their defence was McCann claimed ‘unassailable’. This gave it a certain international resonance and he felt that the Derry action had a real effect on the morale of victims in Qana, who they later went to visit.

He said it was the best thing he ever did and that it is never futile to stand up against war, even though you think it won’t achieve anything. The accumulation of actions, protests and messaging had been important so it was not a one off event. The trial victory was the pay-off for many previous events. It was important that the occupation was not over-planned and had some element of spontaneity. Neither was it just about the ‘burly men’ who were arrested, as women had been hugely involved. He said it was essential ‘to do everything patiently, but not to be afraid to be daring when the moment comes’. You need to wait and be alert for that moment.

Goretti Horgan was one of the nine women who entered the Raytheon offices in a third occupation in 2009. She spoke about being motivated by the Shannon 5 who had earlier attacked a US military aircraft in Shannon Airport and been through a long trial at which they were acquitted. Goretti had been present at the second occupation though at the time left before the arrival of the police to avoid being arrested. She emphasised that women had always been involved in the protests and actions and that Israeli bombings of Gaza had also been an influence on the women’s occupation. The precision guidance systems used in the Israeli attack were developed by Raytheon.

The women’s occupation may not have done as much damage as the men’s but it had stopped the plant functioning and kept the opposition to Raytheon going which was important. This time the main frame computer had been encased in steel so water couldn’t damage it. She said it was an educational process where they learnt a lot about the arrogance and lies of the arms industry. The sheer horror of the weapons they manufactured was shocking and it was hard to conceive how people thought them up in the first place. ‘We have to do whatever we can to end this evil trade for once and for all’ she said. The women were also put under trial and acquitted.

There was some discussion at the end of the session and some conclusions were drawn. Protests had never stopped after the trials and Raytheon eventually announced their departure in January 2010. They denied this had anything to do with the protests but under Freedom of Information it was revealed that they had said they couldn’t stay because the legal system could not guarantee their safety. It was mentioned that global solidarity is important and the protests at Raytheon in Tucson, U.S., had taken inspiration from what happened in Derry.

It is essential to know your rights and work together to get rid of the arms trade. We need to draw on victories like the one in Derry to give us momentum, just as the Dunnes Stores strikes against South African apartheid and solidarity with East Timor had had an effect. A new phase of protest would now be required to oppose recent arms contracts in Belfast and extractive industries. Derry activists were ready to be involved again and this time would make connections with climate change and what arms trade does to the environment.

Readings in Nonviolence, NN 290

Art and Peace series

In the space between –

an interview with Viviana Fiorentino

Viviana Fiorentino is a teacher, writer, poet and activist. She is Italian and lives in Belfast. She published in international webzines, journals and in anthologies (Dedalus Press, 2019; Salmon, 2020); In Italy, a poetry collection (Controluna Press) and a novel (Transeuropa Publishing House).

She co-founded two activist poetry initiatives ‘Sky, you are too big’, a celebration on international migrants day which combines poetry and music from migrant artists living in Northern Ireland https://quotidian.ie/projects/sky-you-are-too-big/ Letters with wings’ (founded on Poetry Day Ireland 2020) is a poetry campaign in support of artists in prison that collected 727 poetic letters to be sent to artists in prison for their art and/for defending their freedom of speech and human rights. ‘Letter with wings’ as part of the ‘Imagine Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics’ in 2021, organised “When art meets activism”, an online event dedicated to the women artists Chimengul Awut (award-winning Uyghur poet) and Nûdem Durak (Kurdish origin folk musician and political prisoner in Turkey).

She is on the editorial staff of Le Ortique, a blog and an initiative that voices and rediscovers forgotten women artists. https://leortique.wordpress.com/

She facilitates the creative writing and photography project “Same/Difference” (Quotidian – Word of the Street Ltd – https://quotidian.ie/projects/same-difference/ exploring themes like identity, belonging, diversity and peacebuilding.

She was interviewed by Stefania Gualberti.

Stefania: How did your background and experiences lead to your involvement in art and activism?

Viviana: The truth is “I don’t know”, exactly. If I look back at my background and experiences which led to my involvement in art, it comes to my mind all the times that I walked back and forward, that I changed my path, all the times I questioned my perspective, interrogated my way of living. My background is made of this: lots of intertwined paths. These doubts and questions led me to my involvement in art.

My first path was to study Natural Science and Biology. The connection to nature and the environment around me was for sure very important for both my involvement with art and activism. My art is a way for me to connect with the world around me, with the nature and the environment. Activism for me is living as communities which means to connect with the world around us, nature. Nature is made of human beings as well. Sometimes we perceive nature as non-human animals and plants, but nature is the whole environment, including us and all the millions of interactions between ‘we’ animals and organisms. If we take care of nature, we take care of ourselves too, this is a form of activism.

My background is also influenced by the fact that I travelled a lot in Europe. I was born in Italy and after secondary school I left the country and l went back to Italy and left again when I was 28. I lived in Switzerland, in Germany, in England, back in Germany and finally in Northern Ireland. These changes in ground and languages gave me the opportunity to shift my point of view many times. I think a revolution of the point of view is at the base of art. When you create art, you have to look at the world around you, or anything that is ‘the other’, from a different, new, perspective. To express it you need to be outside for a moment, in a space which is in between. This space allows you to create something new.

Stefania: What do you feel is special about art to challenge, connect and transform?

Viviana: Every day we listen to thousands of words, from the radio, the media, from the people around us as we receive the news from the world. In a way we become anaesthetized, we lose contact with words, we forget the meaning of words. Art, writing in my case, put these words back in a new context. That way we have a kind of revelation again from the words. This is the challenge. The art has a transformative quality. As we get this revelation, we finally see the new meanings of the words, from which we were anaesthetized, we have the possibility to transform our feelings of rage, despair, sorrow into something new, into something that can be beautiful through the act of creating.

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

Viviana: There are two sides: one side is the power of transformation of collecting your experiences and reshaping them. The other side, the healing process, is not in the art itself but in the connection that art offers us. We create art to communicate with “the other”. For example, when I write a poem, at the end, I create a connection with another person. The healing is there whenever I reach somebody else. It can be just one single person, it can be in the future, it doesn’t matter. This connection, this possibility we have, is a flow of love.

I am not sure that art can be healing for the person who is creating it, it might sometimes, for me the healing happens in the moment the artist and the receiver connect. When you as an artist reach someone and when someone is reached by the art. The healing is not in the art but in the connection thanks to the art.

I think sometimes creating can be energetically tiring as you have to put together your fragmented pieces and you have to recollect your experiences that maybe traumatized you, so it can be a problem of re-suffering. In that moment of recollection the artist does a leap: you leave your specific individuality, your ‘ego’, for making that experiences universal. Before reaching the page, there is a process of growing, so to say, for you as artist. Somehow you are you look at yourself from outside.

This moment when you are in between space, in this outside space, is when you look at your life, and say, look that was me, but now it is an experience for everyone – you want in fact talk to many others – it becomes a universal perspective. It’s the growing of a new possibility, like a seed, you see you can grow from there. You can move forward from that experience. So, at the end, I can heal from that experience thanks to the other person that I imagine will receive my art. Art is art if it is universal, if it has something that can speak to others.

Stefania, you also asked me about the collective levels. In this sense, art can be a glue, because of its power of universality we can stick together. We can find a collective voice, in a poem, in a painting, so we can imagine something together.

Stefania: How do you overcome the barriers in groups especially people who would not consider themselves as ‘writers’ or ‘poets’? How can poetry be accessible to everybody given that it is sometimes seen as the most pretentious of the arts?

Viviana: It is a challenging question because the inaccessibility of poetry comes, I think, from an old way of talking or reading poetry in education. Because of its nature, most poetry can talk to everyone, and it is largely accessible, it depends on how we read it. What is a poem? It is something written on a piece of paper. It is like a stone, it does not speak by itself; we need to give it a voice. How is the stone made? Maybe it is sedimented with water, but where does it come from? The same questions can be asked for a poem.

In a poem, what are the meanings of the words? What are the sediments that made it? What is the poem saying to us? Doing that, we give the poem a voice and doing so we recognise a part of ourselves in there. Looking for the voices inside us and bringing them to the surface is a way to say, Look, that is what I understood, what do you think? This question is poetry.

Each art has its own tools and techniques you need to learn if you want to be a professional, but the kernel is this voice which is inside of everyone.

Stefania: How has your bilingual and migration experience facilitated your engagement in this area?

Viviana: In Northern Ireland in particular, there is a movement from the reality which was true 30 years ago of a net division between two different groups. Now there is a wealth of different cultures which still needs to be recognized by the society. Each migrant here has this beautiful great possibility to be a bridge for those people who think they are still divided. People who have more than one language, more than one culture, can be a present for Northern Ireland.

Stefania: 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?

Viviana: There are two main projects that are part of my art and heart. One is Same/difference devised by Quotidian artists Maria McManus, Nandi Jola, Bernarde Lynn and I. It is a series of creative writing and photography workshops. The project has been implemented for the first time in Portadown supported by Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council  through Peace IV funds. It was then followed by further implementations of the project with two further series. It examines the concept of identity, belonging, home, diversity and peace-building, through creative writing and expressive abilities and explores the lived – experience of migration.

The common thread is to see ourselves with the eyes of the others, being in dialogue with the others, understating my own story and listening to the others’. The groups we worked with actually represent Northern Ireland’s society today, diverse.

Letters with wings was born last year (2020) during the first lockdown when the feeling of constraint in our house was a good opportunity to emotionally connect with artists and people who all over the world were imprisoned for fighting for human rights or for defending freedom of expression. We asked the public to send on social media artistic letters to address to the artists who were imprisoned. We collected more than 700 letters and we are in the process of sending these letters. The letters can be read in our website (https://wingsletters.wordpress.com/). It was fantastic, we had a great engagement as people felt the necessity to reach out to the artists who were imprisoned. It was a community project, which was the strength of it, to do something together, to imagine a possibility all together.

I would love to finish up this interview with a poem that actually inspired many of the projects I talked during this interview. I initially wrote it in Italian then Maria McManus and I worked together toward a translation in English. Please take it as a way to thank you for this opportunity.

I – Landing


Sky, you are too big;

Persian Blue –

I cannot know you.


Instead, I call on you, Land;

give me a place to put my feet,

a home for my uncertainty,

a place to doubt.


A place to live.

– – – – – –

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 www.ritaduffystudio.com

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.

– – – – –


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. www.quaker.org.uk

– 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. https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/albums/72157717185737611

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. https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/51129435906/in/dateposted/

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.

– – – – –

Readings in Nonviolence, NN 287

Art and Peace Series

In praise of gentle disorientation:

An interview with Paul Hutchinson

Interviewer: Stefania Gualberti

Paul Hutchinson is the founder/director of Imagined Spaces, (specialising in creative community relations) and a former Centre Director of Corrymeela, Northern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organisation.

He is a mediator and educator (including Visiting Professor at Dalhousie University and the Atlantic School of Theology), and an award–winning documentary filmmaker and writer. 

Between the Bells”, his book from 2019, recounts the varied experiences of many whose lives have been changed by their visit to Corrymeela.

Waiting and Silence” https://proost.co.uk/downloads/waiting-and-silence-by-paul-hutchinson  his film from 2015 explored a particular Quaker Meeting to ask some universal questions about the role and function of silence and contemplation in our society.

Stefania – How did your background and experiences lead to your involvement in art and peacebuilding?

Paul – That is such a great question because when do you start believing that you are creative and that imagination shapes the world? When you are a child you don’t say this is my future career. You say I don’t understand this, I do understand this.

Both my parents left school at age 14. My mom hated to read, she is dyslexic and left-handed and they frowned on you if you were left handled, so she was shouted at twice (for being left-handed and dyslexic) and she thought she was stupid, which she isn’t. From her, I think, I got the power of movement because she was a dancer. She had a physical intelligence, and so in our house she would be preparing for a class and she would be putting on music and trying to count it out 1234 2234 while we sat watching her in the living room. So that helped me to think to about the mechanisms behind music, behind dance – she was unpicking it before my eyes.

My dad loves books and loves telling stories and he features in lots of my stories. Libraries were a big deal and a love for me. It was a bonding between this macho man of action who liked to read, and me as a child. For me books, libraries and reading, are about connections and windows to other worlds.

I suppose, growing up then music was what really showed me that you needed very little skill to be creative (and skill also helps creativity.) I’m old enough to have been around when punk music came to Northern Ireland and so I formed a band, and we were noisy and awful, and it just gave me confidence to go: “I need to find my voice”. And you start off by sounding like other people and sounding distorted and eventually you might find your own voice, but you certainly develop a voice through pretending to be other people.

I always loved going to the cinema. At first with my Dad – Kung Fu movies, war movies, westerns, blockbusters. And then I fell in love with French cinema (Godard, Louis Malle) and then lots of other countries opened up to me via their films. For example, Iran was a country I knew so little about – it was a cardboard villain kind of knowledge. And then I saw a film from Iran and it was extraordinary – A Moment of Innocence by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. And then that took me to all sorts of places.

So, music, dance, books, films. Poetry was always there. English was probably my best subject. Then going to University doing undergrad, postgrad on Psychology, I became a therapist.

I worked at a mental health centre, when I was 26 (and what did I know at that age?) It was a day centre for people with a range of mental health issues and I suppose I brought my therapeutic practice, my creative practice, into the space to say how do we do things that are holistic? To try and let people know that they were more than their illness, more than their label. So, storytelling classes, art classes, massage classes, dance classes, film clubs. I formed the first youth group for people with mental health problems in Northern Ireland many years ago, like 1992. It was based around creativity, based around mostly not talking about their illness and it was about trying to say: “you are more than your illness, you are more than your pain” and creativity was really helpful.

I then did more post grad stuff in drama therapy and I thought how can I do creative stuff? I realised that: “We get stuck when we can’t imagine alternatives and pain sometimes keeps us stuck, routines, habits, culture… what I saw was imagination could expand our horizons, imagination could show us that we could be contradictory, complex, that we could have five feelings at once.”

I retrained in the early 90s to be a mediator, I had been doing lots of volunteer peace activism in different places and locations and I needed some theory. I did my foundation training with Mediation Northern Ireland and the two main trainers were John and Naomi Lederach (parents of the world-renowned John Paul Lederach). I didn’t realise until later how profound that first training was for me, and as soon as I finished it, I designed something to address mental health and conflict. I was just so excited by having a theory which could help me understand my intuitions.

The therapeutic, peacebuilding, mediation and the artistic are all a part of me so I wanted to use it all. I don’t have a hierarchy on talking is bad, dancing is good, stories are good, and theory is bad. To me it was: “How can I help people find their voice? How can we find our voice to give people lots of possibilities?”

Stefania – What do you feel is special about art to facilitate conflict transformation?

Paul – Symbol will allow two or three things alive in the same space (without competing), so ruling out a binary right and wrong, it allows the possibility of multiple ideas and perspectives not at war in the same space; or in dissonance and yet still part of it, and I just adore that – that there is all that possibility. Empathy is built when we use the arts. You get to jump into another person’s head or feet or smell or language and that seemed to be foundational for conflict transformation. It’s about the nature and quality of relationships; Who are we to each other? What is the multitudes of who we are? I think creativity can give so many languages, so many ways that are not hierarchical. I think creativity allows for the possibility of there being lots of truths.

It is not one or the other. I can do the straight therapeutic “tell me about your childhood” and I can say “let’s create a metaphor” or I can say “let’s watch this movie, what do you see?” or I can tell a story and see if it touches your story. Stories breed other stories – we see and hear and understand through stories so I think art at its best can offer the possibility of a polyphonic inclusive space.

I think art at its worst can be propaganda so it can say: there is only one way (obviously examples of certain propaganda films during the Second World War on both sides were saying there’s only one way). They can be beautiful AND manipulative. Every film is trying to shape us.

Stefania – You are an artist. You create poetry, photography, movies, stories, images and metaphors, movement and drama. Is there an art form closest to your heart? What, or what combination, is most effective with groups and with what groups?

Paul – I don’t know if there is an art form that’s closest to my heart. I think I’m better at some than others, technically. Technically I know that I have more range in words that I do in music or I’m probably more technically gifted in film making than dancing these days, and so that’s about technique and ability to use the medium.

If I take films, movies, they have got movement, they have got words, they have got sound, they have got dance, if you wanted. Everything is in there, however it’s also the most expensive medium so I can’t say I love it more than others. I adore movies, I am a real geek. I think movies have shown me different worlds. In all the mediums, I think there’s a distinction between what I love and what I’m technically good at.

It also depends on the group and what you are there to do with them. Is it just for fun or to learn something?

I remember working with Jonny McEwan, Derick Wilson, Libby Keys, Karen Eyben (what a group of people!) and they had got this amazing piece of research money to look at creativity and growing a learning society. There was a Shared Future document, this is many years ago, where they got to asking people what sort of future do you want? We were invited to eavesdrop, to sit in on all these conversations and then to make art. I mean, it was lovely because people were giving you permission.

There was a group of artists called “Think bucket” which Johnny McEwan founded, which was really looking at how can art help reframe, re-lens, re-language, peace and reconciliation. I do remember though we went to Stormont and we had been given two rooms and then all the civil servants came in to see all this art and there was a complete mismatch. I had created T-shirts with slogans that people had said they wanted the future police to wear (Muslim, Gay, I bleed etc); I remember a civil servant saying “you couldn’t fit that into a filing cabinet”. We hadn’t done enough work between one language and the other, (civil servant and artistic) so I think people thought we were freakish. Sometimes you need to have a form that people can get, other times you need to disorient them out of their language into that new learning space. Now, if it’s too weird people just give up or feel defeated.

So, I guess I’m always looking at: “What’s the point of the session? How much time do I have? What relationship is there?” and then I build something from that.

One example that comes to mind is where I was asked to do ‘something creative’ with a group of youth workers. They were looking at resilience and these were brilliant youth workers doing a lot of amazing innovative frontline stuff. I brought a big bucket of dirt, fresh dirt into the room. I could just see in their faces that I was losing them almost immediately by this big bucket of dirt. I said: “I want you to stick your hands in the dirt and take a fist full of dirt for a walk”. They were like: “What’s wrong with you, mate? Why? And what will be doing next? Why? Why? Why?”, there was lots of resistance and the resistance is the material as I say all the time. You don’t go: “You are stupid, you should get this”, the resistance is telling me they’re uncomfortable, they fear: “Who’s got the power? Is this a test? Will they be valued? Are they going to get it right or wrong?”.

I said: “Go and do it, and come back”. I would say half of them probably just ignored it and came back and pretended to do it. I said: “Now, here is some lovely warm water and some soaps. Wash your hands”. They were really happy to do that, to get all that dirt off their hands. I said: “You folk are amazing, you work really hard and you pride yourselves about getting your hands dirty”. “Yep, that’s us”, they got that. I said: “How do you get your hands washed?”. They went “Ohhhh, now we get it!” They could still feel the dirt in their hands and the warm water when we got into the conversation.

Then the next day we were using that language to say, “how do you look after yourself?” because if you’ve got dirty hands all the time that goes into your partners’, your children’s hair, your food, what you read, everywhere you’ve got these dirty hands. I was trying to say in a metaphor, which had a very physical sense to it, how do you take care of yourself? Could I have just used the metaphor and said how do you get your hands dirty? I don’t think so. because they wouldn’t have felt it.

Stefania – Do you find people resisting creative and artistic approaches in group work?

Paul – Resistances is part of the process and obviously if there’s too much resistance, people can get hurt, nothing can get done, or there is distress or acting out or withdrawal. If there is too much storming, it can disrupt any learning for anybody. Sometimes that happens, people want to disrupt the whole thing in order to escape. The safety of the group, the stretch of the group, the comfort. I mean, we are built to push the genes further ahead into the next generation. We are genetically built to seek comfort and avoid discomfort and yet we have a sophisticated brain, within this very primitive body. Trying to build resilience with discomfort is part of the work, to monitor that and to measure that. Co-working can help a lot because you can’t always see it yourself. Yes, people resist and when they ask questions, that’s very helpful because I can’t mind read. Planning is hugely important for me, you plan very well in order to have the possibility and flexibility of all these options. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But risk is part of the practice.

I’m not there to force people, it is a fundamental principle for me. I’m not going to force people therefore I don’t know what’s good for people all the time. I think that when people resist, that’s telling you something (which I don’t know right away) rather than me going “Stop resisting!”

Stefania – Do you think the creative process can help healing trauma at both individual and collective levels? How?

Paul – Yes, yes and yes. I begin by saying some of my best work has happened because people thought I was only doing a bit of ‘fun art’ . I would get into community to do a ‘silly piece of art’ because they thought I wouldn’t do any damage therefore I was safe. So, some of my best work has happened when people have underestimated art and creativity and it’s allowed me in. If I had said can I come and do some peacebuilding they would have went, ‘no way’ because it would have been viewed as a threat. So, I sometimes downplay what art can do. I would say I will tell a few stories and see what happens and I’ll tell a story and you see what happens, or we watch a film from Iran and we see what happens.

There’s this gorgeous set of films called September the 11th, where eleven film makers were asked to write a response to 9/11. There is tragedy, comedy, metaphor, transformation and they are films from all different parts of the world. I use it in training sessions. The first film is from an Iranian film maker. It’s beautiful, I showed it to people in the American military, and they connected to that. They said, “All we knew was what we were told by Fox News, that the whole Muslim world was cheering when 9/11 happened, which is not what happened” and I remember this woman just going “This can’t be true” and I said, “Why can’t it be true?”, “I just thought Iranians were fundamentalist religious people who hated the West, and here they seem to be sympathetic to the West. It can’t be true, or….. I’d have to change my opinions about the enemy”.

I think creativity has a way in that straight talking hasn’t, art has a gentleness, it has a strangeness, it can be looked at entertainingly. If you watch a movie about something for example you think: “It is a movie therefore I can understand it”. There’s not a stealth, there’s a disguise, sometimes, that art can bring in. When it is otherwise just too hot or too cold for people to get to that place.

Sometimes you distance to get close, sometimes it is too painful to go near, you need to look at something from really far away, another country or a fairytale. That helps you to get a sense of it. Art has the possibility of allowing us to take a glimpse at the pain we have, sometimes from a distance, or masked, or transformed.

For example, I did a piece of work with Susan McEwan, I love working with her. It was coming up to the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, she said “I think we can get some money to do something, let’s dream big!” And I dreamt big and I said: “why don’t we get 3600 volunteers (to represent the 3600 deaths in the Troubles) and we will give them all a birth date and a death date of one of these dead, nothing more, and we will get them to surround the City Hall on one specific day”. She said: “that sounds good, let’s do it and we’ll see what happens!” I went: “okay, let’s do it!”. So, we began to think this up and it became too big for us and we didn’t have enough money. The scale of it was just too big but the idea of it… so this is back to art- the idea of it changed us! When we met, we would go “3600 people! How would that look like?” and so even not doing the project was changing us. Susan said, “let’s do something else”.

So we created “Just for one day”. On the 20th anniversary we invited 10 artists in 10 different locations around Belfast to produce a response to the Good Friday Agreement and the 3600 dead. One of my favourite pieces showed me what art could do. Leonie McDonagh is a dancer and comedian, not from the North. She put this idea to us which was how many times can I fall down and get up in 3600 seconds, which is an hour, and that’s what she did. We invited people who could go on a special bus that visited all the sites or people could go to one site. She performed in An Culturlann, she was downstairs and all you could hear was a bang. It was her falling down and getting up, again and again for an hour. She was bruised all over. People there would say “I need to look away, but I hope she’s okay”, “Every politician should see this, because look at what we’ve done to ourselves”. There was no manifesto, it was a slim woman falling down and getting up. And no one talked about her getting up, they only talked about her falling. This is profound, I am so pleased that we commissioned this. We had ideas about touring it and didn’t get to any of that.

That’s the example: those people were changed, should everybody have seen it? Should we have done the 3600 volunteers? Who knows? Another example was an Esther O’Kelly piece. She does these beautiful abstract paintings we said we’re going to put your really abstract work at a hairdresser in north Belfast. So, the hairdresser, all her clients and her mates, came and the hairdressing salon changed. Something quite abstract was beside a pair of scissors, and a pair of scissors sat beside something bright and beautiful and she had this new conversation, this juxtaposition, which delights me and very few things can do that, you know, talking therapy can’t always do that and art can do that.

My piece was a film. I was trying to find a sports stadium that had 3600 seats to show the scale of the deaths. Crusaders has 3200 seats and so I made a film with me doing a voice over, showing rows and rows of seats. At one point in the dialogue I say something like “Crusaders can only have 3200 people in it, what will we do with the 400, not let them in?” and this notion of heaven, hell, in and out.. I just wanted to weep, thinking “We got to get them in, we have to have them in, we’ll bring them in”. I got a gorgeous cameraman just to do these amazing images, it is 7 minutes long and I’ve shown it all over the world. People go: “What are you saying?” I say “No, what are you seeing?”. In the movie I list the jobs people had, shopkeeper, student, farmer, soldier and I just kept listing, in the end I think I did 50 occupations. It is different every time I see it, because how can your brain, really grasp, that amount of dead. In global terms, when you look at Rwanda, Cambodia, it’s a very small group, but it’s still a large number of people for the size of Northern Ireland.

So, I suppose what art can do is create a language for grief, create a language of remembering, create a language for lament and create language for recovery.

An artist recently said, “Every piece of work I do means nothing and everything. It means nothing in that it’s only a painting, it means everything because that’s all I can do.”

Art making and mark making have to be about everything and nothing. It is only a page with words on it, it is only a movie and yet it can reach to the heart of things.

How do you have a light touch and be passionate about it? How do you be deeply invested in something that may never get seen? Yet, isn’t that what relationships are about? There’s no guarantee of any relationship’s future and so when you start off to do a big piece of work, like write a book or make a film, my big fear is will anybody see this? Would anybody get this? What else could I be doing? I could be playing with the kids, I could be making dinner, I could be cleaning the bathroom.

To me art is about everything and nothing. I am not making it higher than doing the dishes and what I’m saying is I think it has capacity to let us see the world in all these different ways.

I used to think if I do a strong enough poem, everybody who sees it would be changed forever. You want to make a difference, but what does that mean? I think it changes me. I get the most out of it, I am sure.

I made a film about cheerleaders in Sandy Row, I didn’t know I was making a film about superheroes but that’s what they are. They went across boundaries by dancing. Because they were female and from Sandy Row they were disregarded. When I showed the film to them at the Queen’s Film Theatre, they wanted to have the red carpet. They got their own red carpet and the limousine. I said to myself “This is tacky” and then this woman said, “Nobody is ever going to make a film about me again”.

Stefania – 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?

Paul – I was really proud of a piece called “Patrick, Prods and Prams” with a group of women which began talking about celebrations and became an exploration of Saint Patrick’s Day, because they had never been to the Belfast parade on St Patrick’s Day as they felt it would have been dangerous. It became them participating in St Patrick’s Day parade as one of the first Protestant groups in Belfast. I have to say they took far more risk than I did. They said “We’ll do it, we don’t want to wear green and you have to lead us in the parade”. I did.

Stefania: Do you consciously try to use humour and light-heartedness in your work?

Paul – It’s about lightness and appropriateness of touch. I think with a heavy subject I try to hold all that’s in the room and sometimes I can hold it too heavily or too lightly. Other times a light touch can open it up, other times you’re holding it and it’s a real strain and other times you tell a joke, and the room opens up to possibilities. I’m doing a piece of research in West Belfast and we’re looking at cemeteries along Falls Rd and I’m going to start the session (which we do in a couple of weeks time) by saying that “I once went on a date, a first date, in a graveyard”. Now people are just going to be curious because as soon as I say that I know I’ve got the audience because you want to know, they want to know and… “it didn’t end well”, the date…

Stefania: What have been your biggest learnings during the years in your experience with art, creativity and peacebuilding?

Paul – That light touch, how do you develop your touch to hold what’s in the room?

A lot of this work is about practice, you have to practice, you have to prepare and then you have to reflect on what you have done. I have not done enough of that, in terms of reflecting. It is a benefit, part of that is economics and part of that is an odd thing which is a part of me doesn’t want to know how it works (as I might ruin it!). The researcher in me is saying “it is actually good to know that, so you can do it again and again and again.”

The intuitive, how do you develop the intuitive as a skill? Rather than going: “I’m just making it up”. I need to prepare for hours, in order to make something up on the spot. It’s a bit like musicians, you practice for hours so you can improvise with what’s in the room, who you’re playing with.

I remember a language translator saying: “don’t try and understand too soon”. To me that has become a mantra. It has massive implications. I think that creativity is not trying to understand too soon, (and also it stops people becoming problems to solve). When working with mystery and metaphors isn’t to explain things, it is to guide you through something you don’t understand with reason at first. Some people want me, every time I tell a story, to analyse it (that just sounds like a drag). I would like the story to be the story and that’s it. The learnings are practice, intuition, reflection, preparation, create models. Don’t not try to understand too soon. That art is about everything and nothing.

Victor Hugo said “There is nothing like a dream to create the future”; what he is saying to me is Imagination can create new worlds.

I suppose art has been saving and transformative for me, because it has allowed me to be a whole bundle of contradictions and if it helped me, I think it might help other people. It allowed me to be multiple things, to work in tough areas and believe in gentleness, to be good at talking and practice listening a lot, to be good with words and to do movement instead.

For a photo of Paul Hutchinson, see https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/19644887644/in/dateposted/

Readings in Nonviolence, NN 286

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)

Art and peace series

From fragments to beauty:

An interview with Carole Kane

Interviewer: Stefania Gualberti

Carole Kane is a freelance artist, facilitator, expressive arts facilitator (conflict transformation and peacebuilding) and project co-ordinator. Originally trained as a weaver, Carole’s work covers different approaches which intertwine around the expressive arts, creativity, community development, education and leadership. 

Carole initiated and organised workshops during the immediate aftermath of the bomb in Omagh in 1998. This cross-community work involved 150+ people from Primary, Secondary and Grammar Schools together with volunteers from the public and was carried out for Omagh District Council. The result was a series of pictures created from hand-made paper including the flowers which were left in the town in the days after the bomb. Work formed an exhibition and a book called “Petals of Hope”. Pictures were given to each of the families and large pieces made for each town affected.

In June 2017, she graduated with a Masters in Expressive Arts in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding (cited with Honours for Practice) from the European Graduate School, Switzerland. Her thesis title is “In Relation to Traumatised Communities, does the Art Making Process and Accompaniment Lead to Transformation – If so, how?” and her wider work currently explores this context.

With 25+ years experience of delivering courses, initiating and facilitating projects mainly for adults in both community art and education settings across Northern Ireland, Carole has devised arts projects for those in trauma, used creative approaches to community development, delivered leadership training, access to the arts programmes and taught business and professional development skills to those in the creative industries.


Stefania – How did your background and experiences lead to your involvement in art and peacebuilding?

Carole – I got into this work one step at a time. From a very young age: drawing pictures, playing with plasticine and wool. That continued throughout school and I went on to study further at Art College- In Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and then Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, Dundee where I did Constructed Textiles. I had no idea at that point that I would not have ending up working within arts and peacebuilding.

I made a conscious decision to study away from home following the Enniskillen bomb. I was a young teenager when that happened and I was impacted by what occurred at that time- the nuances of it- the hurt that was caused, such loss and subsequent messages of forgiveness from Gordon Wilson. That was a powerful and very moving time.

Studying away from Northern Ireland allowed me to see things differently. The Troubles were happening. I was aware that my study peers were not listening for the hourly news and were quite unaware of what was going on where I came from. Then I returned home after graduation and started tutoring in Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart. This got me into making paper… and doing some very experimental work using different flowers, fruit, leaves and all sorts of things.

So, further tutoring developed, and I built up a lot of skills delivering courses in a range of community settings for Further & Higher Education, including a few peace and reconciliation workshops.

Following the bomb in Omagh in 1998, I saw the flowers left in the town by the compassionate and empathetic community. It seemed that the natural thing to do would be to bring people together to make paper using these floral tributes. So, I approached Omagh District Council, one step led to another and that was literally how the facilitation of this creative response and this long relationship was initiated and developed.

It felt like a pathway of faith, as one thing lead to another- the response went from workshop, to exhibition and book. There was a sense of calling. Well for me, given the experimental work that I had done, what else could be done with these flowers? What else would I do but lead people through the process? It continues to be like that in some ways.

Stefania – What do you feel is special about art to facilitate conflict transformation?

Carole – Essentially, it is a creative act. There is a great potential, especially in a group setting, to be constructive in opposed to destructive. I’m particularly interested in what happens within the group context of people coming together to be led through a lived experience of co-creating a piece of artwork that is aesthetically pleasing and hopefully beautiful. The dynamics of starting, feeling a bit awkward, “not knowing”, working through challenges, struggles to find something that works. The created piece can then be celebrated by those who made it, and they invite their friends to come and see it- it’s just a great process to initiate, facilitate and witness.

Creating the piece allows people to see that they can achieve something that was originally beyond their original expectation and this is one way that this process links to conflict transformation and peacebuilding. So, in its simplest form, I say to groups that if they can work though a creative process in this way, that they can do what seems impossible in peacebuilding.

Participants don’t have to be artists to take part. What helps them is to surrender to the process, relax their guard, be “present”, so that they can play and just have some fun.

A lot that happens within the actual making- how the material responds as it is being worked and shaped. It’s not just the final piece, but the combination between the art-making, material and the group of people doing the work- like a “call and response” really between the art-making and the art. As the facilitator, I don’t have all the answers, but I recognise this relationship between the art-making, participant(s) and the art-work, and can nurture this to take on its own momentum.

Stefania – If ‘art’ is thought of as ‘high art’ is that ever a barrier for your work with groups, especially people who would not consider themselves as ‘artists’?

Carole – People can feel quite intimidated about entering an arts space, whether that is an art gallery, theatre, or a workshop space and sometimes they don’t know what to do in that place- which is natural. They sometimes have negative memories from school where they have tried to do something creative and their efforts have been diminished or they have been humiliated by someone in authority. This is a great shame as it can put people off even trying or appreciating others who practice in the arts. There will always be people who are highly skilled and better than most of us, but this is something quite different to what I’m describing in my workshop spaces and shouldn’t stop us from utilising our creativity as a resource. Our imaginations are powerhouses and muscles that we need to keep exercising. We can apply this as a resource to help us find new languages and frames for all aspects in our lives.

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

Carole – When I have worked with specific communities who have experienced trauma, they have told me as they entered the workshop that they felt “frozen”. They have needed a place like this to come away from the realities of the circumstances that have caused them to feel overwhelmed. I often use a phrase, “when people come to the workshop space, they hang up their coats with their question marks in the way into the space” and this is a good description of what happens. Focusing on making something with their hands leads them to a sense of “otherness” and away from worries of the “real world”. They leave the workshop looking more relaxed and tell me that they are “starting to feel again”- this is quite something. When this practice is repeated, participants start looking forward to this slot in their week and that expectancy can create hope. Also, if this happens to the individual, it becomes a shared experience when it happens in a collective.

This links to what I was saying about finding “presence” in making art. The focus on doing something with your hands, your hand eye coordination is very important, as are the logistics of experiment and exploring. I am currently making a series of bowls and I absolutely love this process. I am very conscious in this space: finding out what to do when it goes wrong… What to do when the glaze surprises me or is better than expected? Etc. And so it is that sense of working on something, pounding, kneading the clay, putting my thumbprints into it, shaping it, knowing when to stop, knowing the dexterity of the material, process and limitations- these are all important skills that can be transferred to peacebuilding. For me, the increase of this sense of presence in the creative space, transfers to my role in peacebuilding. This is how we work in the Expressive Arts theory.

I think as well, there’s something about the fragments that is significant to me particularly when I use papermaking within programs or projects. I’m always finding wee pieces of paper, imagining putting them in collages with a few sequins or something. This idea of finding something and letting it develop transfers to other parts of peacebuilding. I was teaching mediation recently and explaining the importance of listening. When there is a hint of possibility of solution of what is presented in that context, we hold on to that. It could be a very important gold thread in the process helping people find solutions. All you need is that tiny little glimmer of hope and the facilitator/artist or mediator can lead people to find so much beyond themselves. That’s what we really need in the world right now.

Stefania – You trained as a weaver and when working with groups you use visual art, photography, creative writing like haikus and poetry as well as movement, music and drama. Is there an art form most close to you heart? What, or what combination, is most effective with groups and with what groups?

Carole – Textiles in some form remains the “original” for me… fabric, textiles and strings and threads and stuff like that. Since my Masters, I’ve been working a lot more with mixed media, whether that’s been drawing, writing haikus or making films. So, my work has changed quite a bit.

Within Expressive Arts, we use an intermodal methodology, which means moving from one modality (technique) to another so I combine techniques as you say. I am better at some of those techniques than others, but don’t forget, experimenting is important in this process. I’m always exploring and being curious.

Stefania – 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?

My work in Omagh still underlies a lot of my practice. It was unique in lots of ways- certainly in my life as an artist- such a privilege to be able to come alongside a community at such a difficult time. Although I facilitated Petals of Hope, the creative response was made by the local community impacted by the atrocity. This has not happened in any other situation during the Troubles. It was a longitudinal intergenerational process of 20 years, yes, very much of a privilege.

There are other situations, other pieces of work where I have met amazing and resilient people. Usually there are people as we start the creative process who say: “I don’t know if I can do this” but before they know, they’re in the middle of it and having a great time. They will be the ones at the unveiling or the showing, standing beside the art saying, “this is my work. I did this”. I watch for the change and to see that growth of pride.

When I worked for the Workers’ Education Association, I did many projects that I was proud of- MOMA Belfast, and Whispering Belfast, these projects are on my website. The participants made beautiful pieces of work that were displayed and projected in the Ulster Museum- that was a big deal.

I’ve worked with people who, within a few hours, said that they would like to see the peace walls in their area come down and then the projects coming to an end far too soon. That can be frustrating.

I’ve made a lot of friends, a lot of people who have built trust – with me and in a process and now, it’s lovely when we meet as we remember happy times.

Stefania – Can you talk about DARE to Connect Safely you developed during the Covid pandemic, what was special about it?

Carole – Well, it was a lovely part of the DARE to Lead Change, a PEACE IV programme that I am currently working on. The emphasis is looking at race and ethnicity. https://www.brysonintercultural.org/dare

I developed DARE to Connect Safely in reaction to the first lockdown of Covid. My crisis management training clicked in as soon as we stopped having face-to-face contact with groups – when those early days felt like a crisis. The immediate change in routines meant that we had to “reset”, and I knew this would create problems. So, using social media to host a group and platform for creativity and ways to be present at that time, all within the legal restrictions. It worked. Feedback showed that people found it to be helpful and constructive.

Stefania – What have been your biggest learnings during the years?

Carole – Every day is a school day! There is much to discover within the process. I’m still learning and want to keep being curious. It’s the only way.

The older I get, the less I seem to know. When we come to this work with an attitude of discovery- there is great reward. I am less interested in competition. By being resourceful and complementary- then, we find collective ways and go further. Loosening tension is important. Following the steps, one after the other and let the path find the way. Trusting the Spirit that is outside of me and any resources that I have gathered within me… that’s what I have learned as an arts practitioner: the arts process enables that to happen.

This is highly sensitive, emotionally intelligent work, so therefore needs to be measured in different ways. It is soft, while very strong and courageous, and in my experience- the impact is incredibly powerful. I really liked what you said at the beginning as well Stefania, about how you had engaged in the process. I suppose that really touches me. A lot of practitioners, speak of the arts in this context from the outside and looking in. When invited to participate, they are reluctant to do that. There is a threshold right there and unless they experience it, they won’t get it.

Also, for me as a facilitator, I need to be well prepared, “present” and nourished for the work. It can be demanding, so if my resources are low, if I am “running on empty”, this will transfer to the groups. Self-care was a new concept for me when I learnt about on my Masters and relates to creating safe places for good practice. There are clear ethics around this and I’m not sure we are good at that in Northern Ireland, if I’m honest.

This is a slow and very rewarding process. I am proud of my work so far, and trust that these resources will help find a path through what lies ahead in these very challenging times.