Art Unleashes!

a theatre performance: young people standing on each others' shoulders

In a context of various forms of political oppression in Kenya, citizens have experienced, according to Bonface Beti, a “sensual numbing and erasure of peoples’ ability to openly dialogue and use critical thinking to engage with power structures to gain agency over their own lives”. Here, Amani People’s Theatre “consolidates grassroots imaginaries and everyday agencies” as a way of unleashing creativity through which people are addressing issues of concern, including election-related violence, trauma, land struggles, ethnic clashes, police brutality, gender-based violence and revenge.

Photo Credit: Amani People’s Theatre

By Cindy Cohen, Co-Director,
Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts, Brandeis University

If there ever have been moments when the challenges confronting our communities and our world call for an unleashing of creativity, agency, courage and imagination, the present moment would surely be on the list. 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 — like those we are facing now? This is the final of four articles, each exploring a dimension of the transformative power of aesthetic engagement. For particular consideration of the invitational, affirming, and evoking qualities of artistic and cultural initiatives, please see the essays "Art Invites" from the February 2022 edition of this e-newsletter, "Art Affirms" from the May 2022 edition,  and "Art Evokes" from the July 2022 edition.

In this current issue, we are exploring the qualities of artistic and cultural processes that unleash creativity, agency, courage, and imagination,  qualities of character and expression that are necessary to negotiate complex systems. This essay draws on the Invite | Affirm | Evoke | Unleash report (as do our three earlier related articles), and on a set of stories collected in a recent virtual story circle convened to consider, in relation to the current moment, the significance of art's power to unleash the life affirming capacities of individuals and communities.

The Invite | Affirm report explores "unleashing" in relation to two capacities, namely agency and creativity. In her research memo attached to the Invite | Affirm  report, Dr. MaryAnn Hunter explores recent thinking about the meaning of "agency" concluding that:

"Engaging in the arts can cultivate the conditions for both practicing and unleashing agency, although some arts practices in this context are not necessarily liberatory. Arts practice, when appreciated for its embodied, embedded, relational and affective capacities, enables creators, participants and audience to encounter complexity in ways that go beyond linear, ideologically static or results-focused engagement. Holding the paradoxical and the uncertain in everyday life within an aesthetic and/or cultural frame can engender transformational experience. It can do so by making the familiar unfamiliar, mobilizing meaning-making informed by generations past, and animating people to new learnings about themselves, others and the natural systems of which they are a part."

And in his research memo, Bonface Beti notes that in Kenya, "creativity has been conceived and utilized as spontaneous and deliberate responses to life-threatening conflict rooted in our lived experiences (Dietrich, 2004)... Additionally, creativity can act as a lens to imagine the world beyond conflict, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena and to generate creative solutions."

With these ideas as starting points, we recently convened a virtual story circle to consider the "unleashing" quality of artistic and cultural engagement in relation to the current historical moment. The circle included Bonface Beti in Kenya, Jane Wilburn Sapp in the U.S. state of Georgia, Victoria Gandini in Argentina, Armine Avetisyan in the U.S. state of Massachusetts, and me, Cindy Cohen in the U.S. state of North Carolina. This opportunity to connect from diverse locations around the globe, and diverse positions within the arts, culture and conflict transformation ecosystem, felt deeply generative, and significant beyond our small numbers. Here are some excerpts from the stories and reflections we shared, paraphrased for clarity of meaning and brevity.

Bonface initiated the story circle describing a recent report on human security published by the Africa Center for Security Studies. [See a summary of several themes of the report.] The report focused on "mega-trends" related to digitalization and climate change, and the role of various players, including state actors, in communicating about these challenges in ways that are complex and confusing to people. The arts can untangle the complexities, Bonface suggested, leading to greater understanding that is key to a sense of agency. "The arts can bring meaning... and can help people take charge of their lives, and not just leave their lives to be under the control of an entity like the State. [The arts can help make sense of] things that are in flux and very messy... The arts can help unleash human agency in the midst of this messiness."

Victoria followed by saying that where she lives, "arts can create a different space where people see each other in a different way. I see this really happening. People from different fields, different places in society; we work with these every day. I wish people could see how arts unleash ideas and attitudes that give us the chance to meet some other people... Part of the cause of violence is that we don't see each other... We don't really see the person in front of us. We see what we think the other person is. Arts create a special working space... where you really need to work with the other person and you really need to see the other person. I see that as a possibility... Arts also have the capacity... to keep things as they are, because art represents the world as it is, with no intention of transforming it, or it can also represent another possible world, or another possible way of seeing the world."

Jane Sapp extended these themes. "I like to think of the arts as creating a culture of seeking possibilities in whatever we do, and whatever we're involved in, looking at the possibilities of the world and looking at possibilities in each other… What are the possibilities in a range of colors?… Creativity is critical in our world because it keeps us looking for possibilities. We see things we wouldn't necessarily think of if we weren’t in this world of possibilities. I think of the arts as unleashing resistance. It's been a part of my life: how do you speak the words, not speak but sing words, that give you both courage and the willingness to resist? So I think of arts in terms of protest and resisting. And I think about arts as unleashing courage. I think back to the days of Civil Rights: a lot of the songs were there to give you courage, and give you hope as well, but also to buttress your courage. There’s a song that says, 'I ain't scared of your jail, because I want my freedom, I want my freedom, I want my freedom; Ain't scared of your jail because I want my freedom, I want my freedom now.' Listen hereSo if you can think of hundreds of people singing, 'Ain't scared of your jail because I want my freedom,'  I think of the arts as unleashing courage. These things feel sort of ordinary to me. And I think of songs unleashing hope.

"A group of young people once asked me what I thought was most needed, and I said, three things: one is courage, one is the willingness to resist, and the third is being in touch with your humanity and the humanity of others... The arts can help us do all of these things.

"I work with people to create collectively. There's something very powerful about people finding their voices together and finding they can create something together. You might think that creating a song together is a little thing, but if we can create a song together maybe we can create a world together. And when you create collectively, you create a sense of community."  

Bonface then offered a version of a traditional story from Kenya, a folktale he learned from one of his mentors, Babu Ayindo. The story is about a green leopard who intimidates all the other animals into bringing him their babies for him to devour, only to be tricked by the rabbit into jumping into the lake after his own reflection. As he is beginning to drown, he begs for help from the other animals, who have to decide whether to let him drown, or to save him and give him the chance to change his ways. What would we do in this situation, the storyteller asks? When this story is told, a lively discussion about vengeance and justice, and belief in the capacity of evil-doers to change, ensues. We all agreed that this illustrates the capacity of art to unleash moments of critical self-reflection, in which audience members are invited to explore ethical dilemmas from new perspectives and with sufficient distance to think creatively. 

Armine followed with a true story about a young teenage boy from Nagorno-Karabakh, who was forced to flee from his home because of the war with Azerbaijan. While he and his family were struggling to survive under the shelling and bombing, the first thing he grabbed was his beloved trumpet. For a while, as he grappled with the trauma of the war and his home being lost, he wasn't able to play his trumpet at all. He missed his old group from back home, a band which at this point had already been dismantled. He felt lonely, and lost. But somehow, he found the power within himself to take his trumpet out to the street and to start playing. After a while, someone noticed him and invited him to join a local band. So this young boy finds another community, a space where he can practice the love of his life. It is the moment where he was able to find another safe space, and a happy space for him, and this also gave him the capacity to carry on, to find the strength to rebuild his capacity as a human being and continue his life in a meaningful way. It's important to notice those capacities and those moments, and the unleashing of sparks that art can offer us, and to use them to make the change in our lives as individuals, in our communities, and in our global community.

Jane responded with a story about a festival in Greene County, Alabama, begun in 1975 and continuing until today. It started as a small festival, with the Black community celebrating its music and crafts and way of life. As it grew larger it began to attract members of the white community, and businesses, and it is leading the way for the preservation of a historic courthouse. As people realized the beauty and creativity of what they had, of the lives they lead, they also were able to hold on to hard-won political power, year after year. Listen to Jane tell this story in its fullness here.

When used effectively, Jane said, the arts can unleash a lot. They can help lift us out of everyday language and ways of thinking that have all the conflicts and divisions with them, and create something new, a new space, a space for thinking differently.

Bonface noted that when our nervous systems are activated in a fight/flight/freeze mode (such as what many people experience during elections in Kenya) the arts can create opportunities for thinking creatively and acting differently than in the same, old, violent pattern. And we also noted the paradox that sometimes within the traditional — practices and the celebration of them — that innovation and creativity are made possible.

We discussed various possibilities for extending this conversation, noting that the safety of the virtual space we created, and the quality of listening, were key. Reflecting on the richness of our exchange, Victoria commented on the possibility for institutions to do good in the world. It is because of Brandeis, she said, that she had the opportunity to spend four months with the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts, and to sing with Jane, and now, virtually, to meet Bonface and Armine.

And Jane offered a song to close our story circle:

I still have hope; I still have hope

With all the things I've been through, I still have hope.

I still have hope; I still have hope

With all the things WE'VE been through; I still have hope.

I still have joy

I still have faith

I still believe…