Using art to fill in gaps of our reconciliation: DFAT Reconciliation Networking Forum
by Allan LEONARD for Northern Ireland Foundation
14 December 2016
At the eleventh annual convening of a reconciliation network organised by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Ireland), an afternoon panel discussion explored the role of the arts in Northern Ireland’s reconciliation process.
Entitled “Culture, Creativity and Reconciliation”, the panellists were Lisa Anderson (Cultúrlann), Colin Davidson (artist), Niall Kerr (Nerve Centre), Philip Orr (historian and playwright), and Katy Radford (Institute for Conflict Research).
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“I’m not allowed to say that Irish is a difficult language to learn, but it can be,” was Lisa Anderson’s opening remark.
She shared her story of acknowledging her own cultural heritage — a mixture of being an Afro-Caribbean female from London who has lived in Northern Ireland for over 25 years.
Anderson expressed her interest in identity and how it can form ourselves.
As a case study, she described the work behind the Fleadh Cheoil events in Derry-Londonderry in 2013.
Here, the largest festival of Irish music included the dimensions of the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist community, through a series of informal and formal meet ups and sessions of dialogue.
Anderson argued that understanding another’s cultural identity is key to understanding ourselves.
Yet she added that the media and politicians can use culture as a stick to attack the other side, destructively.
Anderson concluded by calling for defining ourselves not by our past, but by celebrating our cultures through developing relationships.
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Colin Davidson began with the profound question, what is art?
For him, if pure science is always answering the question, then pure art is at home with the question itself.
Davidson explained the process behind his well acclaimed Silent Testimony exhibition, which came from a personal calling:
“Art should always come from here,” he said, pointing to his heart.
Davidson elaborated, saying how the 1998 Good Friday Agreement may have been good for the perpetrators (prison release scheme), but not much at all for those who suffered loss.
“This massive section of the community is paying for everyone else’s peace,” he put it.
Davidson described meeting his subjects, 18 individuals put forward by the WAVE Trauma Centre, as a life changing experience.
He said that he learnt that many who suffered just want what he requested — someone to sit down and talk to.
But what of the accompanying textual descriptions for each? Aren’t they too brief?
Davidson explained, “I don’t believe in text that explains art away. But I needed to tell the story, simplified to the point of using no emotive language. I stripped the text away to allow room for the viewer to fill in the gaps. If we can leave room for a viewer to come up with his or her own conclusion, that is more powerful than telling one what to think.”
The story of Silent Testimony is human loss, and the message is of hope and “right now”:
“This section of the community is here right now. And the legacy of conflict worldwide is the same — a huge section left to pick up the pieces on their own,” Davidson concluded.
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Niall Kerr described they use digital technologies at the Nerve Centre as tools of engagement with local communities.
One example was the Temple project, which brought people together from across the community, to turn the concept of the bonfire “on its head”; the Centre’s FabLab was where many of the wooden panels were created:
This large, wooden structure was erected in a shared space, with individuals left messages of hope and remembrance, then ceremonially the whole edifice was burnt as a cathartic means of opening up emotions.
Kerr also listed three former CD-ROM projects — 1690, 1798 and 1916 — as a way of providing informative content in a medium that younger people were familiar with.
Their Teaching Divided Histories project is a model of teaching conflict in a classroom setting; this has since expanded into informing a similar process in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, as part of the Creative Centenaries programme, they produced a 1916 graphic novel, but cleverly two versions back-to-back in a single volume, representing the two broad perspectives (Battle of Somme/Easter Rising).
Kerr summarised the Nerve Centre’s approach as having fun while learning history, using technology to open up the past:
“We’re not going to change lives, but maybe we can change perspectives,” Kerr said.
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Philip Orr declared his great enthusiasm in political history, and his desire in marrying history and theatre together.
He explained the outline of his play, Halfway House, where two women from Belfast trek to Derry by way of the Sperrins, where they must stay over for the night.
This play takes place in February 1966, and in the pub we learn that one woman has a father who fought in the Somme, while the other’s father took part in the Easter Rising.
The significance of Halfway House set in the time of the 50th commemoration of these events is intentional:
“What conversations that might have happened but didn’t before 1969 [outbreak of The Troubles]? What can we talk about now?
“Halfway House in 1966 is halfway to now ; are we halfway to reconciliation?” Orr asked us.
Another example of history as a prism and refraction, as Orr put it, was Entwined Histories, a project commissioned by Cooperation Ireland, engaging young people.
Here, one character was a young, “angry feminist”, who paints a picture of men at fault of the woes of the world, while another character was an army career officer, who is trying to persuade young men to join a noble cause.
In this way, Orr explained, “History is not just the past, but ways to motivate our current actions.”
He concluded by asking us to trust theatre to explore complex societal issues and help us move on:
“Because that is what art is for, and always has been,” Orr finished.
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Katy Radford stated that arts are writ across their work at the Institute for Conflict Research.
She complimented artist John Baucher (seated next to me) on his work with flags, transforming them into new objects of contemplation.
For her, culture and identity are for teasing out, playing with, not just matters of straight representation.
Radford described arts as a means of giving voice to others who wouldn’t otherwise have one.
She provided an example of the Back to the Future project (DFAT supported), a large, stained glass window as a sister piece done by victims and survivors:
“What began as a contact and engagement exercise, turned to abstract dialogue, and concluding with a concrete piece of art,” Radford said.
She said that reconciliation is a particularly challenging word, and that we need to keep challenging ourselves about this.
And she is not content with considering people as survivors:
“They’re thrivers, and they make the rest of us blossom,” Radford said.
I am a peace journalist, because I believe in transforming conflict-driven narratives. I am editor of Shared Future News, which reports on peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. I am a co-founder and editor of FactCheckNI, Northern Ireland’s first fact-checking service, which works improve civic discourse. I also support the conflict resolution work of the Forum for Cities in Transition in Belfast.