Arts and Culture: The Missing Piece of the Peacebuilding Puzzle

Thoughts from the Beyond Borders International Festival of Literature and Thought 2016

The last weekend of August was a warm and slightly drizzly one in the Scottish Borders. I found myself spending it milling around the grounds of the beautiful Traquair House, in marquees, yurts, and wig-wams filled with diplomats, artists, politicians, and writers. Fumbling and bustling around in my usual style, I managed to luck into a fascinating conversation with Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, Colombian philosopher, lawyer, and author of the award-winning What If Latin America Ruled the World?. It is this conversation, seemingly unremarkable amongst the many meaningful discussions of the weekend, that granted me the most insight, as well as a refreshing answer to the question, ‘What advice would you give to a student seeking a career in peacebuilding?’

He told me to bring a love of the arts to everything that I do. Whether it be art, music, or literature; live and breathe it all, and work passionately and creatively.

Paper Boats made by festival attendees to symbolise their wishes and considerations for refugees. Artists: Inge Panneels and Mark Timmins; Photographer: Karen Lerpiniere

I was admittedly taken aback, having been most frequently advised to ‘keep up to date with current affairs’ or ‘work on your language skills.’ Given the nature of the event I was attending, though, perhaps I should not have been. The Beyond Borders International Festival of Literature and Thought, founded by Mark Muller Stuart QC, prides itself on working “across several different mediums including literature, performing arts, visual arts, heritage, film, politics and dialogue” in efforts to “facilitate wider international cultural exchange, dialogue and reconciliation.”

In fact, Oscar may have inadvertently epitomised the entire weekend. Each morning began with a meditation session led by Rajesh Rai, meditation expert and human rights barrister. The effect of these sessions, at least for me personally, was to establish a calm and compassionate headspace with which to address the challenging deliberations that the rest of the day would bring.

The first talk I attended was entitled ‘Healing the Past’. It was held in a colourful yurt about the size of my living room, and the audience and facilitators alike sat on cushions in a circle around the floor. The conversation was led by Dr. Tim Phillips, innovator in neuroscience and post-conflict trauma. Topics ranged from the legacy of the slave trade to the Hillsborough Disaster, set within the context of situations of post-conflict and, on an individual level, the loss of a loved one. Dr. Phillips’ application of his expertise in neuroscience to these issues was a novel approach for me, and one that highlighted the universality of human experience. While we may sometimes forget our inescapable biological classification as mammals in a rush to identify as human, as unique, many of our impulses still stem from basic hunter-predator survival modes. The feeling of exclusion, cited as one of the most ubiquitous human experiences, served as an example; a most fundamental hunting technique is to single out one member from the herd. Exclusion thus to this day manifests itself in the brain as a danger to our very survival, experienced almost as a physical trauma since, fascinatingly, the brain cannot fully distinguish between physical and emotional pain. And, of course, this trauma is experienced universally as a human. Not as a European, or a Brit, or a St Andrean. A human. The way exclusion impacts upon a child’s development can hardly be overstated, and it is crucial furthermore to explore these implications scaled up to a group or national level. It is this exploration that led the conversation to call into question the dominant paradigms and narratives for dealing with the past, the interplay of individual and group identities, and explore further into the realm of the arts as something uniquely and powerfully democratic and unifying.

Up next was ‘3.5 Billion Cracks and Counting’, a conversation between Lyse Doucet and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon about the increasing role of women in peacemaking and political roles. The issue of gender can be considered fundamental to understanding the marginalisation of the arts within peacebuilding practices and institutions. During the talk, the first minister stressed that while it is great to see increasing numbers of female leaders, there is a real need to see women integrated at every level. As, in their inception, the very structures and institutions that govern peacebuilding interactions have been so male-dominated, they may even now not support women’s participation in the best way. Indeed, they may not support men’s participation in the best way – they may not even serve their purpose in the best way. The exclusion of women doesn’t just exclude ‘women.’ It excludes everything that has been coded ‘female’ – that is, emotion, compassion, nature, dialogue, and the arts. The effect of which is to create an approach which is biased towards the roles of logic, rationality, pragmatism, and aggression. Thus there is an evident and urgent need to reform and create new institutions that utilise equal participation and a ‘female’ perspective from their conception.

Beyond Borders yurt at Traquair House; Photographer: Karen Lerpiniere

These are but a few highlights from the festival, which somehow throughout the contemplation of such somber topics maintained the feel of a weekend-long garden party among friends. Also not to be missed were powerful photo exhibitions, such as Thana Faroq’s ‘Women Like Us’, which featured the struggles and aspirations of Yemeni women of different backgrounds in their experience of war; appraisals of the Chilcot Report by Sir Kieran Prendergast and Andrew Gilmore; foraging walks led by Fiona Martynoga and Fiona Bird; post-brexit debates between Richard Bacon MP, Merryn Somerset Webb, Alyn Smith MEP, John Kampfner, and Sir Menzies Campbell… and so much more.

It all culminated in an alfresco performance of Scottish Asylum Monologues by iceandfire. Asylum Monologues was launched at Amnesty International in June 2006 and has been touring ever since. This, however, was the world premier of this specific piece, focusing on the experience of asylum seekers in Scotland, their journey and the hurdles they continue to face. Such a simple presentation – reading scripts of extraordinary stories, represented a stark juxtaposition that served to prevent the performance from detracting from the realities of the situation, from feeling like fiction. The audience stood around in a circle; there was no stage, hierarchy, or attempt at showmanship, just a facilitation of words speaking for themselves. Words which were simultaneously moving and uplifting, funny and heartbreaking. Words which highlighted the importance of everything that the weekend had taught me so far.

Visit the Beyond Borders website here, and learn more about the work of iceandfire, or request a script to put on your own performance of Asylum Monologues, here.

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