What can we learn from how art has been used in reconciliation?


Dr Rachel Kerr

Dr Rachel Kerr is a Reader in International Relations and Contemporary War in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her research is in the area of law and war, in particular war crimes and transitional/post-conflict justice, and she co-directs the War Crimes Research Group at King’s. Dr Kerr is currently leading a major new AHRC-funded GCRF project investigating Art and Reconciliation: Conflict, Culture and Community (www.artreconciliation.org), of which she explores in this blog.

What can we learn from how art has been used in reconciliation?

How do we contend with the legacy of violence in the aftermath of conflict?

Is there a way for people to come back together in the wake of inter-communal and inter-ethnic violence and atrocity crimes?

Scholarship and practice in this field has grappled with this issue, employing a range of mechanisms and approaches to deal with the legacy of human rights abuses, with varying degrees of accountability, reparation, truth-seeking and exclusion.  In vogue now is the search for so-called ‘guarantees of non-recurrence’, which suggests a transformative approach and a broader conception of justice, beyond accountability to foster structural change, sustainable peace and reconciliation.

Our project

Art and Reconciliation: Conflict, Culture and Community’ seeks to interrogate the concept and practice of reconciliation, and to investigate more effective ways of evaluating reconciliation activities, focussing on the potential role of the arts and artistic practices.

The project focuses largely on the Western Balkans, where reconciliation – however it is conceptualised – may seem a distant goal still at the political/state level, but there are nevertheless plenty of everyday practices that might be characterised as reconciliation.

The immediate impetus was that large amounts of money have been spent funding ‘reconciliation’ projects in the Western Balkans (and elsewhere), with very little evidence of positive outcomes.  Indeed, in some cases, such activities seem only to have reinforced animosities among different groups.  There is therefore both a gap in knowledge about what has been done and an even larger gap in terms of what might be possible.

Mina Jahić from the Rescuers Project PCRC, Credit – Dr Paul Lowe

We are starting from an agnostic position regarding reconciliation.  Rather than impose our own definition, we are interested in finding out how the term ‘reconciliation’ is understood and practiced in different settings and with diverse constituent groups.

Broadly, the project seeks to integrate interdisciplinary work spanning the arts, humanities and social sciences in three strands:

  1. Histories – How has reconciliation been conceptualised and practised over space and time? What can we learn from ‘episodes’ of reconciliation/anti-reconciliation not normally featured in discussions about Transitional Justice, drawing on examples from the Ancient World to more contemporary histories.
  2. Discourses – How is reconciliation talked about? What are the common narratives/understandings of reconciliation?  What are the expectations of those involved in reconciliation ‘practices’?
  3. Activities – What is the extent of reconciliation activity? What kinds of activities have been funded?  What are the aims and objectives, as understood by donors, deliverers and so-called beneficiaries?  What is the actual and potential role of arts and artistic practices in reconciliation activities?

What have we found?

We are still in the early stages, but our initial research has provided the following insights:

  • Reconciliation is a contested concept, not only in terms of its meaning, but more strikingly evident in resistance to using the term. There is a great deal of resistance to the so-called ‘reconciliation industry’ and a sense in which it has grown to accommodate donor priorities and wish-lists rather than in response to, or really tailored to, any grass-roots support for such activities.
  • Art and reconciliation are not necessarily mutually reinforcing. Whilst there is evidence of the potential role of the arts to help people come to terms with trauma, and the power of visual media to relate traumatic experience – where everyday language fails us, we cannot assume that all artistic interventions are aimed at peace and reconciliation – they can also be divisive, resisting narratives of inclusion and cohesion.  The use of the arts also raises significant ethical challenges around issues of appropriation – who has the right to reproduce testimony for artistic purposes? – and carries a risk of creating secondary trauma?
  • On a more positive note, as well as opening up new pathways or ‘sites’ of reconciliation, we’ve found art can help us reconceptualise reconciliation as ‘dialogue’. Rather than look for end-state outcomes, we can think of it as a process through which people can come together in ‘mutual respect’ to hear and acknowledge others’ stories and narratives.
  • Art and culture are important sites of reconstruction and resilience, as well as reconciliation. There is a great deal of activity on the arts front that might be characterised ‘reconciliation activity’ but is not conceived of in those terms.  In this context, artistic practices can help reclaim identity and culture where destruction has been the aim of one or more party to the conflict.
  • There is a serious evidence gap in terms of evaluation of reconciliation activities and evaluation of arts interventions. Both are challenging on their own, let alone together. Translating what is commonly understood to be an intrinsic ‘good’ of fostering arts and cultural activities into measurable outcomes is immensely difficult.  We are grappling with the question of how we might demonstrate evidence of the impact of these activities on peace and/or reconciliation, whilst also taking seriously resistance to the ‘instrumentalisation’ of the arts?  We can observe how people experience such interventions and how they interact with and shape them, but can we measure the impact of this on how they might interact with politics and political discourse?  Is the art of making histories and telling stories in and of itself enough impact?  Is the art that results authoritative as a source of evidence of impact? Can we make a strong enough theoretical argument for the inherent value of arts and culture supporting social cohesion and resilience?  Or, do we need to find ways of substantiating this empirically?

You can follow the progress of the research and access our publications, event and outputs on our website: https://artreconciliation.org/.