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Art as instrument for conflict resolution, peace … from a diplomat’s point of view

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Thompson delivering the paper for 11th Ben Enwonwu Distinguished Lecture, in Lagos.

Across the world, people began to look again at the links between culture and health, culture and education, culture and citizenship. Looking at culture not as a separate issue alongside other day-to-day aspects of life, but as an inalienable dimension of all aspects of our lives as individuals and as communities.

As Simon Brault said back in 2005 “Human creativity, in all of its forms, is the prime driver of economic and social growth”. That has been true at every stage of human development, from the domestication of animals, through the invention of the wheel, right up to today’s tech innovations, which come in at such dizzying speeds that I for one can’t keep up – my children are leading the way in our house!

It’s human creativity that has driven all this. It always has been. And if we recognise that, we must recognise the importance of sustaining, fostering, incubating creativity – the heart and soul of how art and, more broadly, culture contribute to socio-economic transformation.

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Culture is clearly central – for good or for ill – too many aspects of social development too. Cultural practices, local customs and values are an inalienable part of society, inextricably woven through every aspect. We know, for example, how much bigger the global economy would be – how many people that additional wealth could lift out of poverty – if women were able to play a full role in society and the economy. And equally, we know that the reasons for women not playing that full role are long-held, cultural values and norms that will take many years to change. That’s true right across the world, not just here in Nigeria. But just thinking about Nigeria, the reality is, if I were Nigerian, my husband would likely be standing here in my place. And so those cultural values and norms must change. Not because I as British Deputy High Commissioner think they should, but because those values and norms are holding Nigeria back.

But just as a culture can hold back change, culture and arts can equally support change, here in Nigeria and across the world.

On a very basic level, there are many examples of traditional arts and crafts being used for poverty alleviation – I would suggest a form of economic transformation, perhaps the most important – as people are supported to turn time-honoured traditions into small enterprises, and, when it’s women producing these works, as is often the case, gender inequality is also tackled.

But looking a little deeper, engagement with the arts has the potential to change each one of us, on a personal, individual level, not only affecting our moods and attention span but also promoting better self-awareness and better social knowledge. There are many and varied studies that demonstrate, for example, how knowledge of music increases the capacity for reasoning, how theatre can teach us how to interpret complex situations or the motivations of our fellow human beings. Regular contact with the arts helps develop our ability for critical thinking, to recognise others, to think differently, to imagine new realities or solutions to age-old problems. Engagement with the arts helps develop empathy, encourages people to look at things from new perspectives, and to understand others better. Even to the non-expert, it’s clear how important these things are for building stronger societies and, after times of trouble, building peace.

Then moving from the individual to society: throughout history, art has been used as a means of raising awareness, changing behaviours, and critiquing aspects of society, politics or leadership. This is the prime opportunity for me to mention Fela Kuti, as famous for his scathing attacks on the regime of the time as he was for being the pioneer of Afrobeat. Less controversially, organisations like Julie’s Bicycle in the UK, and Five Cowries in Nigeria use art to raise awareness of issues such as climate change, sustainable development and education, and ultimately to encourage people to change their behaviours. From the murals in Belfast, in my country, to the paintings under Falomo Bridge just around the corner, this is an art in action, not just something to be looked at in air-conditioned buildings.

And I’m glad that the UK has also been involved in such work here in Nigeria. Such programmes included Disfix, through which the British Council brought together UK dance company Candoco with Nigerian dancers Qudus and Ijodee to challenge perceptions about the aesthetics of bodies and dance, and about disability. The project brought together disabled and non-disabled artists in performances across the UK and Nigeria – including in a public park here in Lagos. The project aimed to shift people’s perceptions of disability, from something that requires fixing or evokes pity, to something more positive, life-affirming and independent. The project managed to reach nearly half a million audience members. I am as proud of this as of anything else we have done.

Gender equality, as you’ll have gathered, is a subject close to my heart. In my time in Nigeria I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with the Female Artists Association of Nigeria, exhibiting work by members to highlight the continuing inequality between the genders here in Nigeria. The theme is carried through to film, for example, Up North, which is great fun, but at the same time helps raise awareness of the challenges faced by the average girl child in northern Nigeria. And in theatre, we see wonderful productions such as Hear Word, which raise awareness of the day to day challenges that mean many women remain excluded from aspects of social, political and economic participation in Nigeria. Put simply, this is not ok. And again, it’s not that it’s not ok just in my own personal opinion – it’s that it’s not ok for Nigeria.

Moving on, then, to art in connection with war, conflict resolution and peace, which could be the subject of a very long lecture all on its own. So here’s my very truncated contribution.

Of course, at today’s event, we have to start the topic with Ben Enwonwu: one of many artists to have used their art to draw attention to the devastating effects of war. For Enwonwu, it was the horrors of the Nigerian civil war, with paintings such as “Children of Biafra” for example, or the piece on the invitation for today’s event, “Storm over Biafra”. From Enwonwu to Picasso to Dali to Goya to Rubens – and the list goes on – so many artists who have used their creativity and talents to highlight the devastation of war. The Dada movement, for example, which started in Switzerland in the early 20th century, brought together artists from many different countries, including those ravaged by war, to advocate for peace and criticise those governments they believed responsible for pushing unwilling victims into war.

It’s worth recalling as well that arts and culture have also been used – are still used – to promote violence and disunity. Those appalling anti-Semitic pictures common through Nazi Germany, together with the nationalistic films and music used to promote a distorted image of the nation, stay with me many years after my own studies of European history came to an end. And more recently in the Rwandan genocide as elsewhere, popular music attracted people to the radio stations that spread the messages inciting violence.

But back to the positives: the Dada movement that I just mentioned was about more than raising awareness and speaking out through art. That process of self-expression was undoubtedly also part of the artists’ own personal healing, as they came to terms with the trauma they’d suffered. Today, art therapy is used with many groups: victims and survivors of war, veterans, those suffering from PTSD. The value isn’t just in the work itself, but in the process of creating it – which can provide a route for self-discovery and to express emotions or thoughts too difficult to put into words.

Last year, the British Council worked with the University of West Scotland to produce a report on “The value of art in post-conflict recovery”. The emerging evidence is clear on the role that arts and culture have to play – alongside security and development – in mitigating conflict and building peace. The evidence is particularly strong regarding the role of such programmes with post-conflict communities, in supporting therapy, reconciliation, and strengthening civil society. Rwanda provides a compelling case study. To commemorate the shocking genocide of 1994, as part of efforts to recover from the trauma, there is an annual Kwibuka period: three months of events to remember the conflict, in which arts and culture play a central role, building pride in the emerging nation. Ben Enwonwu’s sculpture, Anyanwu, also symbolises pride and hope, this time in a continent, as Africa emerged from colonialism. And in Colombia, too, arts and cultural initiatives have been central to reconciliation programmes, with training in music and traditional arts and crafts used to help young people, in particular, to come to terms with the past and look ahead to a brighter, safer future – including providing them with practical skills. The power of arts and culture to bring people together – even and especially people once violently divided – is clear. Sometimes art can fill the gap when politics falls short.

This research shows that arts and culture are particularly effective as they’re able to engage people in their own cultural language and to foster mutual understanding. Locally led art-related initiatives, based on a deep understanding of local values and traditions, can provide a safe space, a more neutral ground than direct peace-building programmes. They bring people together around a shared goal rather than the issues related to the conflict. The opportunity to express oneself helps individuals and communities to heal after trauma, to come together, to be reconciled, to find peace and to strengthen resilience.

In Nigeria, the UK, through the British Council, ran a programme called Acting Together, which used performance in public spaces to promote dialogue about conflict and conflict resolution and to promote dialogue as a means of conflict resolution.

Of course on their own, arts and cultural initiatives aren’t sufficient. They need to be part of holistic programmes that also incorporate security, justice, and development interventions. But neglecting the arts and cultural side of things can risk undermining the sustainability and resilience of reconciliation programmes. The head can’t heal without the heart.

So if art is so effective in promoting peace and speaking out, why don’t we see more of it today? The Nigerian art scene is booming – it’s one of the things I love about being here. But, and this is an observation rather than a criticism, much of it is art for art’s sake, celebrating skills, beauty and creativity; showing new perspectives on the world around us; rather than art to make a point, art as critique or advocacy, art as an inclusive means of expression or of healing and of coming together. I should say here that this is not my own amateur view, that’s the view of the experts I’ve been lucky enough to talk to – and of course, there are exceptions.

Perhaps one reason for this is that using art to make a point can be high risk. Ben Enwonwu’s work during the Nigerian civil war came at a price: he came under so much pressure as a result of his perceived criticism – and at the same time from others who felt he didn’t go far enough – that he was forced to flee the country, taking many of his works with him to London to protect them.

Even if the art doesn’t go so far as to invoke the wrath of leaders and governments, on a far more basic level, artists need to eat. They need to sell their work. Upsetting people is not always the best way to make a profit, alienating potential customers. So it’s often only once artists are well-established that they’re able to take that risk. When Picasso painted Guernica, one of the best-loved and most well-known anti-war paintings in the world, he was 56 and already a successful – and therefore relatively secure – artist. Incidentally, I love the story of when a German Gestapo officer barged his way into Picasso’s apartment, pointed at the painting and demanded “Did you do that?”, to which Picasso allegedly responded, “No, you did”. Now, that is courage.

And then if an artist has the economic security and the courage to use their work to make a point, to criticise or to provoke, how do they make that point land, how do they reach the people they might want to influence, how do they evoke change? In the case of Ben Enwonwu and Pablo Picasso, when they produced some of their anti-war pieces, they were well-known, well-respected artists who counted the influential elite among their clientele. So what they painted was bound to be noticed, to attract attention, and to promote a reaction. Which meant it did reach an audience well beyond the elite. But even in today’s Nigeria, access to the arts is highly restricted – particularly access to the visual arts. Art galleries simply aren’t accessible to huge swathes of the population. One of the many things that impressed me about Art X was the focus on accessibility, bringing in schools and keeping ticket prices as low as possible. Yet still, it’s out of reach for the vast majority. Even access to the cinema is extremely limited: across 200 million people there are fewer than 200 cinema screens in Nigeria. And if people don’t see the art, by definition they don’t get the message. They don’t get to participate and they don’t get to be heard. So plays on the radio, community theatre, music: all of these are ways to increase access to the arts and, as a result, the ability of art to affect social change.

So then, that’s undoubtedly enough from this non-expert but a hugely enthusiastic lover of art and of Nigeria on this complex, fascinating, crucial topic. But how do I sum up? Perhaps to urge all of us – and I’ll include the British Government in this – to recognise the impact that art can have, the centrality of culture to so much of what we’re striving to achieve as we work towards a better brighter future for societies across the world and here in Nigeria. Art isn’t a luxury for the wealthy elites. It’s the means by which people can engage with and understand their complex and messy reality. It isn’t nice to have, it’s who we are. It, therefore, shouldn’t be the first thing to go as governments under pressure look to make savings, and in particular, it can’t be ignored in societies like Nigeria where there are conflicts and so many tensions to be overcome, bridges built and divisions healed. Culture is not incidental but fundamental to humanity. If we want to transform humanity – whether that be through supporting peace or promoting socio-economic transformation – art and culture must be at the heart of those efforts.

That’s why I’m so proud to be here today. That’s why this matters. Nowhere more so than Nigeria.

Ms. Harriet Thompson, The Deputy British High Commissioner to Nigeria, delivered the paper for 11th Ben Enwonwu Distinguished Lecture series, in Lagos.


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