Art Evokes!

art installation - woman in a coffin covered with flowers

Portrait of Daniela Maldonado. As part of the project Un lugar en el mundo (A Place in the World), transgender women in Bogotá, Colombia, embrace and publicly celebrate the ambiguity of their position, simultaneously inside and outside of mainstream society, by placing themselves in relationship to other “extra-ordinary” women – nuns venerated in spectacular portraits on the walls of the Museums of the Banco de la República.

Photo Credit: Liliana Parra, photographer; Sebastián Mesa, art direction; copyright Banco de la República; 2018

By Cindy Cohen, Co-Director,
Program in 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 third in a series of four, each exploring a dimension of the transformative power of aesthetic engagement. For an overview of the project, and particular consideration of the invitational and affirming qualities of artistic and cultural initiatives, please see the essays "Art Invites" from the February 2022 edition of this e-newsletter and "Art Affirms" from the May 2022 edition.

In the current issue, we are exploring the qualities of artistic and cultural processes that evoke change by supporting honest expression and by nourishing and deepening capacities to tolerate (and even embrace) paradox and ambiguity. Such qualities of expression and capacities are necessary to negotiate complex systems. This essay draws on the Invite | Affirm | Evoke | Unleash Report, and on a set of stories collected in recent virtual story circles convened to consider, in relation to the current moment,  the significance of art's power to evoke.

From the report:

“People and communities living in the shadow of many interconnected complex challenges often experience a numbing of emotions, which limits the ability to engage creatively with those challenges. Ethical artistic and cultural processes can be crafted to reanimate people who have faced trauma.” (p. 26) Examples of expressive arts and community-based arts practices evoking honest expression can be found in the research memo by Jasmina Ibrahimovic and Carole Kane 'Fostering honesty, disruption and exploration: starting points.' They offer examples from Northern Ireland and from immigrant communities in The Netherlands.

“Tolerance for ambiguity is a central aspect of systems-based approaches to complex challenges. Research documents the ways that, in contexts of continued violence, the language and images of dominant discourses tend to be inadequate to capture and convey the ambiguities and subtleties of people's experiences. Victims' perspectives are often invisible in news reporting and historical accounts, and language becomes polarized, as evidenced in the media and social networks. Such polarization renders empathy and new creative frameworks much more difficult."

Powerful examples and analysis are available in the research memo by Dr. Ángela Pérez Mejía, Chief Cultural Manager, Banco de la República, Colombia: "Negotiating ambiguity, nuance, and uncertainty: a view from Colombia."

"Thinkers from different eras and regions have identified paradox as an indicator of the limits of logical thought, and a pathway to discover new — often deeper — perspectives to a given question. Paradox often points to critical tensions between opposing poles (tradition/innovation, public/private, freedom/discipline, stability/change, etc.), and leads the way to discovering new levels of truth that can reconcile the tension, a new synthesis. Many of society's challenges are complex precisely because they are understood by different parties in the light of contradictory and competing narratives. Cultivating curiosity about the paradoxical nature of such apparent contradictions is an important way in which arts and cultural initiatives can contribute constructively to addressing complex challenges." (pp. 28-29)

Examples of arts-based initiatives that cultivate paradoxical curiosity can be found in the body of the report (p. 30), and in "Embracing paradox and contradiction" written by Dr. Ameer Shaheed and informed by notes from Dr. Dagmar Reichert.

In June of 2022, we convened two small story circles via Zoom, including the memo writers Angela Perez, Ameer Shaheed, and Carole Kane ; and our colleague and friend Jane Wilburn Sapp; and Armine Avetisyan and me from IMPACT and the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts. We challenged ourselves to think about a current moment, story, or experience in which we've witnessed the power of art-making or other cultural practices to evoke honesty and to strengthen capacities to negotiate situations characterized by ambiguity and paradox.

Angela launched the first story circle with a moving narrative based on the experience of a young woman, a teenager, who is one of six million Colombians who are currently displaced from their homes. This young woman found a path towards recovery, to a place where she could tell the story of an enormously traumatic event: the assassination of her father on the day she was displaced from her home and community. Please listen to her powerful description of how drawing a piece of fruit, an orange, evoked in this workshop participant the capacity to shape into words what had been unspeakable. Angela’s story opens windows onto the lives of displaced people in Colombia, and builds on insights from Indigenous philosophy. Interestingly, it links the power of art-making to evoke stories, and the potential of that "place of enunciation" to unleash action. (In the next issue of PBA — Now, we will explore the theme of "unleashing.")

Then Jane discussed the ways music and song are always evoking something for and within her and within communities. She discussed her childhood curiosity about the paradox she recognized in that members of her church community used to sing the spiritual, "Everything's gonna be alright," when, in fact, her experiences as a Black person in the Jim Crow south1 led her to understand that "everything was not alright; everything was in some ways pretty horrible and scary… " Jane also recounted a moment recently when she was listening to music, and found it evoking memories of both suffering and joy, not just for herself, but also for her community. Listen to Jane's evocative story and Angela's comments.

Angela and Jane also reflected on the power of art to evoke memories in individuals in ways that simultaneously link them with recovery. Listen to the reflections. A few days later, Armine and I were joined by Carole Kane, the artist and expressive therapist from Northern Ireland who co-authored the memo, "Fostering Honesty, Disruption and Exploration: starting points" (pdf). She had listened to the recording of the earlier conversation, and further developed the themes of displacement and the linking of the individual and collective memories in processes of recovery, especially in light of her work as an expressive therapist in Northern Ireland. Listen to Carole's story.

Armine shared a powerful story about how carefully composed processes of food-making and sharing evoked honest exchange between Turkish and Armenian women. Listen to Armine story.

I then brought up the Jan. 6 hearings in the U.S. Congress, pointing out some of the "artful"2  dimensions of the shaping of these events, such as the selection and sequencing of testimony, and the making of many controversial and contested points through expressions of highly regarded conservative members of the Republican party. I asked Carole and Armine if they could imagine actions that could be taken by artists and cultural workers to address the fact that so many Americans "honestly" believe untruths. Carole made comparisons with the dishonesty and lack of trust surrounding Boris Johnson in the UK.

"It will take much longer to rebuild trust than it took to break it," she noted. Armine raised the limitations on journalists’ and artists’ freedom to speak honestly in the context of the current Russian regime. "There is a real price that they've paid," she said. Carole made the case that working with materials with our hands can bring those numbed by trauma back in touch with the sensory dimension of their lives. Perhaps initial efforts should be more about evoking sensitivity to ourselves (bringing people to themselves) before bringing people together. We asked about the restoration and rehabilitation of human capacities for creative thinking or feeling or sensing, for empathy and compassion, among people who have been in the grips of ideological (and all too often violent) groups.

On a hopeful note, Armine mentioned a recent conversation with a young Russian girl who made comments far different from the views of her parents and the dominant narrative being promoted by the government. "Maybe the young generation is really going to fix this!" said Armine. Carole ended the conversation by evoking the idea of wholesomeness, as John Paul Lederach expresses it in relation to Mennonite traditions such as the making of quilts. Listen to our conversation!

The first story circle ended with Jane's reflections on the song, "“I Know I've Been Changed," which can serve as a fitting ending to this essay. Jane linked the quality of transformation evoked by the ritual of Baptism to the quality of transformation associated with making other kinds of  commitments, for instance to the Civil Rights Movement. Listen to Jane's reflections and a moving rendition of "I Know I've been Changed."

I know I've been changed, hey, oh, I know I've been changed

You know, I know, I know I've been changed

You know the angels in Heaven done signed my name

… Oh, follow me down to that old Jordan stream

(Angels in Heaven done signed my name) I stepped in the water

And the water was cold (The angels in Heaven done signed my name)

Oh, it chilled my body but not my soul

(Angels in Heaven done signed my name)

(I know I've been changed

I know I've been changed

I know I've been changed

Angels in Heaven done signed my name)

  •  1. The Jim Crow South refers to a period in US history, roughly from the late 19th century to 1968, when local and state statutes legalized and enforced segregation based on race. During this period, many African-Americans were denied the right to vote, hold jobs, get an education or pursue other opportunities. Those who resisted faced fines, jail sentences, violence and death.
  • 2. The concept of "artfulness" is explored in the Invite | Affirm | Evoke | Unleash report (pdf) on pages 39-42.