Can Art Heal Nations?
The Artistic Activism After Atrocity project examines how post-atrocity societies remember and engage with past violence, particularly the role of art in changing minds and attitudes that can lead to meaningful reconciliation.
A University of Arizona researcher is studying how artists impact the way societies respond to atrocities and political violence, particularly the role of art in changing minds and attitudes that can lead to meaningful reconciliation.
Kaitlin Murphy, an associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, says her Artistic Activism After Atrocity project examines how post-atrocity societies remember and engage with past violence, along with how that violence impacts the present and future.
With fieldwork conducted in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, South Africa and Rwanda, Murphy is exploring the role of artistic activism in how countries and marginalized populations move beyond atrocity and support democratic processes to prevent future sectarian and racial violence and human rights abuses.
“How can the arts – including artists, artworks, and artistic projects and spaces – impact the way people understand, remember and engage with past conflict and human rights abuses?” Murphy asks. “The role of artistic activism in supporting democratic processes and the prevention of future atrocity is to initiate and contribute to open and meaningful public dialogue. It has the potential to create empathy, encourage people to suspend judgement and hear each other in new ways, empower groups often excluded from civic discourse, and increase tolerance and respect among people who hold different beliefs and values.”
During the first phase of her research this summer, Murphy traveled to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Cambodia, researching specific memorial sites and artistic projects. She also attended the “Memory in Times of War and Its Aftermath” conference in Sarajevo and the International Association of Genocide Scholars conference in Phnom Penh. During her spring sabbatical, Murphy will travel to Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal and Bosnia to continue her research.
A Latin American specialist, Murphy has a background in performance studies and visual culture. Artistic Activism After Atrocity builds on the last decade of her work, including extensive research into memory politics and human rights in Latin America.
“Some of the themes we focus on academically are importantly regionally specific, but when we’re thinking about notions of human rights – reconciliation, hope, violence and atrocity – it’s really important to broaden our scope in order to understand both how all of these themes are universal but also how interconnected we all are,” says Murphy, works on human rights and atrocity prevention as a consultant with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, conducting research, program evaluation, and regional and international trainings.
After World War II and the Holocaust, a collective understanding and commitment to human rights began to take root around the world, along with a general idea of what it means to reconcile and how to do it. Truth commissions and the Nuremberg trials, between 1945 and 1949, became cornerstones of the transitional justice movement, with war crimes prosecutions among the first measures implemented in order to redress legacies of human rights abuses.
But what about society beyond elected officials, policy makers and non-governmental organizations? Murphy argues that “artistic and activist practices work from the bottom up to demand redress for past wrongs, strengthen the discourse surrounding human rights, and create a space for new conversations and orientations relating to past violence.”
“I analyze political processes, but, as a cultural studies scholar, I’m extremely interested in civil society, and within that, artistic expression. What people believe and what they do is immensely powerful. In this sense, politics may shape civil society, but so too does civil society shape politics,” Murphy says. “I’m seeking to more broadly identify the role of cultural intervention in political processes, not just to reconcile, but to prevent atrocities.”
Murphy’s research extends from Latin America around the world, to Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Africa, focusing on the sites of the biggest and most recent genocides.
“I’m not seeking a single answer to say the same things happen everywhere, but looking more broadly at different instances of conflicts, different kinds of cultural signifiers and different responses,” Murphy says. “Transitional justice is a process of reconciliation that seeks to understand what happened during the conflict and, ideally, transitional justice also helps a country to heal and move forward.”
Violence is fundamentally cyclical and reconciliation efforts that fail to address the root causes of conflict – such as prejudice, racism, discrimination, oppression of certain groups, uneven access to opportunity – leave conditions under which violence is likely to reoccur.
“In this sense, reconciling from past conflict is also entirely about preventing future conflict. Some of the most important interventions are cultural because they can change how people see and talk to each other. You have to change what people believe and how they feel,” Murphy says.
Murphy is examining art in the public sphere, including theater, performance art, murals and other forms of visual culture, street activism, architecture, and memorialization, to evaluate their connection to atrocity prevention.
In Bosnia, Murphy met with a group of prominent war photojournalists who are helping to develop arts and community spaces in Sarajevo and creating a training program to equip future generations of artistic activists with the skills to use photojournalism for interventions. In a city still actively recovering from violence, and with uneven government support, Murphy says these kinds of programs are invaluable because they bring together participants to reflect on violence and human rights and the power of artistic intervention, but also the kind of future they want to build.
In Phnom Penh, a former school that was used by the Khmer Rouge as a death camp is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a memory site where evidence of the brutal conditions is preserved in a stark artistic statement about both the atrocity and resilience of the people.
“Being immersed in the site is incredibly powerful, seeing the blood stains still on the floor and the shackles still on the walls,” Murphy says. “Visiting these spaces and experiencing how past conflict is being narrativized through different memory sites provides important insight into how a country is framing its own past and its ongoing impact on the present.”
Murphy also visited the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation’s “Artivism: The Atrocity Prevention Pavilion,” an independent exhibition running as part of the 58th Venice Biennale. The exhibit of international artists displayed work that reflects on and responds to systematic violence, large-scale atrocity and mass genocide. The exhibit was focused on the idea that “art acts as an instrument of social transformation through prevention, memory and recognition of what has happened to the communities.
In the pavilion’s final room, the Auschwitz Institute and other human rights organizations from around the world share their work with visitors and offer a series of concrete steps that each individual can take at both the local and global levels to build a world that prevents genocide. The Auschwitz Institute invited government officials and policymakers to learn about how atrocity is being addressed and processed through artistic works.
“This exhibition is powerful and it’s important to recognize that this kind of artistic intervention is really different from many of the others. This is true in all kinds of ways, but especially because the audiences are different. The Venice Biennale is probably the most important international art show and government sponsorship is built into the Biennale structure,” Murphy says. “Ultimately, it’s important that my work has a real-world impact, whether through my research and writing, my teaching, or training public officials.”
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