‘Art is about truth and the excavation of the truth; giving voice to the voiceless’ - Pauline Ross, Director, Playhouse Theatre, Derry/Londonderry
From 11th to 14th June, International Alert held a South Caucasian “Cultural Dialogue”, bringing 20 writers and artists from across the South Caucasus region to the UK to discuss how they see their role in promoting peace and social change in their societies 20 years after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Little attention is paid in peacebuilding circles to the potentially transformative role that cultural figures can play, despite the fact that artists and writers play a prominent role in social change the world over. In the Soviet Union, the visionary zeal of the early years after the 1917 October Revolution was accompanied by an explosion of avant-garde experimentation in literature, music, art and even architecture. It wasn’t long, though, before this freedom of creativity was repressed, forcing artists into exile or underground – or into the service of the state. During this period, writers and poets provided an important social commentary through both their officially sanctioned and “samizdat” (self-published) literature and satire. Censorship appeared to stimulate creativity as artists were forced to find new forms of expression. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, the influx of “culture” from around the globe, the commercialisation of all walks of life, the erosion of structures that facilitated “friendship of the peoples”, and the devastating effects of the conflicts, cultural figures from different parts of the South Caucasus have become as constrained and isolated from each other as other people living in the region. Alert’s cultural dialogue, therefore, aims to re-establish linkages between cultural figures from across the region and to explore their role in promoting peace.
The discussion on the first day centred on the theme of Culture and Borders and the potential of the artist to help overcome political and psychological barriers in this divided region. While acknowledging the power of the written and spoken word to compete with propaganda and overcome negative stereotypes of the “enemy” which are so prevalent in the media and political discourse, participants grappled with the paradox that often culture is instrumentalised by both writers and politicians for nationalistic patriotic purposes.
This theme was continued on the second day, when participants had a chance to meet cultural figures from Northern Ireland and the Former Yugoslavia. Zoran Milutinovic, Professor of South Slavic literature at the University of London, talked about the challenges and difficulties encountered during the conflicts in the Former Yugoslavia by writers who came under pressure to take sides, often coming under attack for siding instead with “humanity”.
'Art is a means to comprehend and transform reality and empower the community' – Declan McGonagle
Drawing on his experience of using art to build bridges between communities in Derry/Londonderry, Declan McGonagle, former director of the Orchard Gallery there, revealed the important role that writers and artists played in the Northern Irish peace process. His assertion that the peace process only worked after the political process began to address issues of cultural identity and not just governance and territorial issues made a strong argument for the need to involve all sectors of society in building peace both before and after agreements are signed.
Pauline Ross, director of the Playhouse Theatre in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland gave some powerful examples of the profound healing effect that art can play by providing a space for truth to be told and for addressing the communal needs of memory, mourning and expression, essential for the development of empathy and reconciliation between communities.
Throughout the discussions, one could feel the tensions and challenges of the participants' difficult position as members simultaneously of their own national communities which see themselves as under threat, and of the international cultural community which transcends borders. There was no consensus within the group in response to Zoran Milutinovic’s statements on the contradictory role of the writer in conflict, when he stated that on the one hand, it is unacceptable for writers to serve a “national purpose” and literature should never serve a political end, regardless of whether it carries a pro- or anti-war message. Yet if the world that you live in is defined by war, then writers simply must write about it – they even have a responsibility to do so. Whichever view you subscribe to, culture in general, and in particular literature, can provide an opportunity to hold grand dialogues about the things that matter, and about how we live together.
At the end of the meeting, the participants identified a multitude of cultural initiatives which they committed to taking forward within their own societies with a view to strengthening links, fostering mutual comprehension and replacing “enemy images” with images of cooperation and empathy. Lamenting that they knew more about European and Russian literature than each other’s, some of the participants – editors of literary journals – committed to publishing writers from across the Caucasus, translated into different national languages, thus making Caucasian literature available to a wider Caucasian readership. Ideas for events such as regional art exhibitions, literary festivals, pen marathons, joint theatre productions, musical anthologies and even sporting events all shared one thing in common – that they aimed to raise awareness and promote the idea of a common cultural Caucasian space as a model for cooperation and interaction between people within the region.
'We must serve as a “window” for our societies onto the rest of the region' – Dialogue participant
Further initiatives for cooperation will be undertaken by the participants themselves. But International Alert remains committed to working with them as they develop the cultural dialogue further and will continue to support locally led cultural initiatives. The next step in this initiative will be the publication of the third South Caucasus Literary Almanac – a collection of prose and poetry from across the region translated into Russian language, which is still the lingua franca of the region, making dialogue between the different nations possible.
This dialogue was conducted as part of the South Caucasus Initiative for Mediation & Dialogue with the generous support of the European Union.
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