Creativity: In Place of War

‘Creativity: In Place of War’, a panel discussion with In Place of War, communicated the necessity of artistic output in countries of extreme violence and conflict.

Ruth Daniel speaking about 'How to Make Something from Nothing'

Ruth Daniel speaking about ‘How to Make Something from Nothing’

In times of conflict, we often look to the past for guidance, to the work of Bertolt Brecht, Wilfred Owen, and Samuel Beckett. Even since the times of Ancient Greece, where violence was not depicted on stage but merely talked about, humans have constantly been trying to learn “what to do with violence when we live in a violent world”.

Professor James Thompson, founder and co-director of In Place of War has been working on art in sites of violence throughout his research in Applied and Social Theatre at The University of Manchester. The project aims to mobilise art and artists to achieve social change in countries of contemporary conflict. The idea for In Place of War began when Thompson was working in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, in 2000 at the time of the civil war. He was met with “a vibrant, dynamic and really a very different artistic community”.In Place of War was “born out of a hunch” that this was going on in other contemporary conflict zones. The project mobilises, empowers, and connects creative communities worldwide, whilst “learning from artists living in contemporary conflict zones”. The project’s interest is in art within sites of “hot active violence, and what happens when artists are displaced”.

Since then, In Place of War has collaborated the work of over 280 artists, 300 organisations from 38 countries. Thompson witnessed a diverse range of artistic projects worldwide: “if you’re sitting in a war zone you don’t do a play about war”. Instead, the projects captured “laughter and celebration in zones of ugliness and destruction” in a remarkable and uplifting antithesis.

Art can help humans survive in the worst of situations.

However, many dangerous and conflict-ridden countries across the world have little access to resources. James explained that in some places, due to curfews and other restrictions, some dance forms have almost entirely died out due to war. Ruth Daniel, co-director of In Place of War and “global force of nature”, has worked to ensure this is not the case. Ruth has over 11 years’ experience working to create cultural spaces in over 40 countries, providing a safe place for creativity in some of the world’s most marginalised places despite limited access to resources. These places have a “blank canvas” upon which we can mark social change using Daniel’s equation: “Technology + Art + Humans = Change”. She describes herself as “activist, artist, and cultural producer”.

Ruth’s talk, ‘How to Make Something from Nothing’, took her audience on a journey around the world, first visiting her “favourite city in the world”: Medellin, Colombia. Since 1987, over 40 000 young people ages 14 to 24 have been murdered in Medellin due to drugs, gang warfare and paramilitary enlistment. This area was home to the infamous Pablo Escobar: ‘king of Cocaine’. The city’s dangerous climate has become the subject of a book by Alonso Salazar titled ‘Born to Die in Medellin’.

However, a hip-hop movement began in the city, inspired by Public Enemy, a political hip-hop group based in New York. This gave young people an alternative. Lupa, MC and producer for Sociedad FB7, a hip-hop group from Medellin, explained, “if it weren’t for hip-hop I would be dead. Hip-hop gave me another option in life, I will always be grateful for that”. This hip-hop movement allowed “identity and expression without gang violence”, and gave young men an opportunity to talk about their everyday realities. Daniel described hip-hop as a form of “grass roots resistance”, which has had a role and an impact everywhere in the world, from Colombia to Croyden: “everywhere there is a hot bed of creative talent”.

Daniel hailed social media for a similar reason, quoting Rami El Fass, who sculpts out of recycled materials, who said “without art and social media the Egyptian revolution would not have been possible”. During the 2011 revolution, Facebook was used to schedule protests, Twitter to co-ordinate and YouTube to tell the world. Daniel’s assessment of social media as a way of “galvanising people” marked the event’s place as the penultimate event in the Humanities in Public War strand, following on from the Photobomb series.

However, regardless of the technology that mobilises us, “humans are the most powerful”: “when humans work together, everything is possible”. Ruth left the audience with an inspirational quote from Ewok, a spoken word artist, who said “Can poetry change the world? Poetry can change people, and people can change the world”.

Another example of the role of art in countries of conflict is capoeira, a Brazilian martial art, dance and game. Zoë Marriage, from SOAS, gave an insight into the political economy surrounding the art-form, describing it as “the art of total resistance”. The martial art developed in slave populations in Brazil in the 19th century. The Brazilian state tried to ban the practice in the 20th century in an attempt to stamp out Afro-Brazilian identities. However, by continuing to practice capoeira players denied state power. They reclaimed identity and “retold history”. Marriage reflects that art is “where people can find themselves”, and this “is a source of strength”.

In Place of War continue to help art to become a form of strength and a political tool to people in the most destitute of places. Ruth Daniel tells me about In Place of War’s future work: “It can be split into 3 strands, creating cultural spaces, mobilising equipment, and mobilising artists”. The project will focus on Bukavu, in the Eastern Congo, West Bank in Palestine, and Mokokoba in Zimbabwe, which suffers from ‘desperate poverty’, HIV aids, and maternal and infant mortality. The project will “mobilise equipment from the UK and take it to places where this is less available”, for example in their Creative Entrepreneurial Programme, which aims to “help people make businesses out of their creativity”. In Place of War aims to unite and mobilise artists, UK and International, and will work this year to “bring over international female musicians” to meet female musicians here in an exchange of learning.

The “tentacles of war” reach from places of conflict to cities further away: contemporary conflict is a global issue. The artistic movements of the past have shown that much great art comes out of climates of conflict, trouble, and social unrest. Mobilising art even in some of the world’s most troubled places is becoming increasingly important in a world that is only becoming increasingly violent. By looking at the art of today in some of the world’s most troubled places, we can learn from each other.

In the words of Daniel, “art is powerful” – for social change, for laughter, and for strength.


This was also published on the Manchester Metropolitan University website.

This event was part of Humanities in Public’s WAR strand.

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