Art Affirms!

women dancing

Dancers interpret the testimony of survivors of forced marriage (institutionalized rape), a practice imposed during the years of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. By both allowing artists to retell their deeply harrowing and sometimes triumphant histories, and contributing input as the performance piece - Phka Sla - was being developed, survivors report beginning to reclaim their dignity after decades of suffering fear, shame and feelings of worthlessness. (Sophiline Arts Ensemble; Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, choreographer; Noboyuki Arai, photographer; 2018)

By Cindy Cohen
Director, Peacebuilding and the Arts, Brandeis University

What is it about the nature of engagement with artistic and cultural processes such that they can be crafted to contribute to the constructive transformation of complex challenges? This article is the second in a series of four, each exploring one dimension of the transformative power of aesthetic engagement. The series is based on the 2021 IMPACT (Imagining Together Platform for Arts, Culture, and Conflict Transformation) report: Invite | Affirm | Evoke | Unleash: How artistic and cultural processes transform complex challenges. For an overview of the project, and particular consideration of the invitational quality of artistic and cultural initiatives, please see the essay "Art Invites" from the February 2022 edition of this e-newsletter.

In the current issue, we are exploring the affirmational quality of artistic and cultural processes.

From the report:

"In aesthetic experiences, interchanges are characterized by a quality of reciprocity in the sense that the work does not impose itself on the viewer or listener (as in propaganda or even argumentation), nor do witnesses impose pre-existing categories upon the work (as in analysis). This reciprocity establishes a relationship of mutual regard and respec... Artistic and cultural productions and processes affirm, celebrate and embody qualities of interdependence and dignity. Recognition of interdependence with and responsibility for the natural world and with and for one another can be inspired, imagined and realized through participation in rituals and ceremonies, and through witnessing works that embody Indigenous and other cosmologies. Collaborative artistic and cultural productions of all kinds afford opportunities to strengthen awareness of interdependence and capacities required to act in accordance with the interdependence that inscribes our relationships... In contexts where people's sense of dignity has been beaten down, responses to complex challenges that fail to address such violations are unlikely to succeed. The beauty of artistic renditions of community stories, invitations to participate in meaning-making, opportunities to craft stories based on experiences — these are some of the ways in which artistic and cultural productions can acknowledge, and in some cases, restore or amplify people's and communities' sense of dignity. On that basis, imagination and action are invigorated."

Polly Walker and Toni Shapiro-Phim wrote research memos on interdependence and dignity, respectively, for the Invite | Affirm | Evoke | Unleash report. These memos are filled with examples from around the world, illustrating the transformative power of ethically and locally rooted practices that affirm these qualities of persons, communities and relationships among humans and between humans and the natural world. These memos are worth reading!

To bring our thinking about the transformative power of affirmation to the current moment, in March of 2022 we convened a small virtual story circle, including the memo authors Polly Walker and Toni Shapiro-Phim, two members of IMPACT's larger orbit — Victoria Gandini of Buenos Aires, Argentina and Jane Sapp of Atlanta, Georgia in the U.S. — and Armine and me from IMPACT and the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts. We challenged ourselves to think about a moment, a story, or an experience in which we've witnessed the power of art-making or cultural practices to affirm dignity and interdependence. Our understanding of the significance of the affirming quality of aesthetic experiences extended beyond the ideas articulated in the original report, in interesting and provocative ways. (For introductions to participants in this story circle, please watch a recording of the Zoom call [0:00-00:07].)

Our stories were about music opening spaces for dialogue and question-asking in communities in Buenos Aires; ceremonies in which Indigenous women on Turtle Island (known as the United States and Canada) paint red images of their hands over their mouths to honor missing and murdered Indigenous women; high-schoolers in South Chicago affirming their right to express their identity through song in spite of their teachers' disapproving gaze; social dances performed by Cambodian people the moment they heard that they were liberated from the Khmer Rouge, affirming that they were alive and affirming their humanity as Cambodians — echoing across space and time to the folksongs sung by Ukrainians in bomb shelters affirming their right to be Ukrainian in the way that they want; an artist in Ukraine unable to make art in the current circumstances, but nevertheless affirming her way of being by helping others in her community; dance therapy sessions led by a refugee from Cameroon with mothers and children from Ukraine, affirming the possibility of moments of joy even in the midst of tragedy and dislocation. (To listen to the stories shared in this story circle, please watch a recording of the zoom call [00:07:47-00:43:40].)

When we wrote the original Invite|Affirm|Evoke|Unleash report, we took as starting points nine qualities of the arts, two of which were interdependence and dignity. But in this story circle, when we took affirmation as the starting point, we realized that while "dignity" and "interdependence" are essential, artistic and cultural practices can be crafted to affirm additional qualities that affirm life, including joy, identities and the human right to individual and collective self-expression. Polly cautioned that while arts and cultural initiatives can be crafted to affirm life, peace and justice, we all know of initiatives in which the power of aesthetic experience has been marshaled to inflict injury or to reinforce existing inequalities. How do we distinguish between these different trajectories? Polly proposed a way of thinking about this: "When arts and cultural work affirm dignity and interdependence, they are moving in the direction of conflict transformation." We discussed the possibility of adding some additional affirmations: of joy, and of vitality, for instance.

Victoria challenged us to think about how to raise awareness of the constructive power of the arts to the level of policy-makers and funders. How can this work be supported at a level that would allow its transformative potential to be more fully realized? In our discussion, Jane Sapp mentioned the transformation that she experiences just by sitting at the piano. In that space, she experiences new ideas, powerful language to express those ideas, and an affirming sense of self-confidence and wholeness. Things that live in your heart and mind become available for expression, she said.

Polly said that she feels a similar kind of power and wholeness when she participates in rituals with other Indigenous people who share beliefs, and whose actions call forth the spirits of ancestors. These examples led us to think about the affirming effects of arts and cultural practices on the artists, cultural workers and community leaders themselves. These practices, and the history, beliefs and capacities they evoke, invite leaders into the fullness of their dignity and power to transform the world. (To listen to the discussion that followed the sharing of stories, please watch a recording of the Zoom call  [00:43:50-1:16:00].)

Our discussion ended with reflections from Polly and from Jane. Polly read “At a Kitchen Table,” a poem by Joy Harjo that resonated with Armine’s story about her peacebuilding work with Armenian and Turkish women.  "... Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory. We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here./ At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks. Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite." (See the full poem, and listen to Polly read it at  [1:15:30-1:17:40].)

Jane spoke and sang "There’s a Lily in the Valley." This song, she indicated, had affected her so deeply. In a group, singing this song, she has found love, and peace, and joy and hope. (To listen to Jane Sapp speak and sing this song, please watch the recording of the Zoom call [1:18:50-1:21:35].)

There's a lily in the valley
Bright as the morning star
There is a lily in the valley
Bright as the morning star
There is a lily in the valley
Bright as the morning star
Amen, amen, amen

These days, our world seems filled with valleys. Valleys of war, disease, environmental destruction, the ugliness of authoritarianism. We are walking in these valleys every day. But somehow, just by being in conversation with each other, in these same valleys we found joy, love, peace and hope: lilies.