A Centre that Holds

Rana Aytug is a PhD student at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations. Her research explores the role that young people play in peacebuilding in diverse but divided cities. In this post for the Faith and Peaceful Relations Forum blog Rana reflects on the ways in which the arts can be used as a means of building peace….

An arts-based approach to peacebuilding, viewed through the urban lens can shape a city.  And in retrospect, art can be shaped by the narrative of the city.  These creative acts can embrace or reject the many paradoxes characteristic of highly polarized and diverse communities.  They can blur or magnify inequalities.  They can serve as a stark memory of a painful history or as acknowledgment towards a progressive future seeking to liberate itself of exclusion, discrimination and divisions.  How can creative acts transform the narrative of a city into one that celebrates diversity as a strength?

In 2016 the music group, Black Eyed Peas, released an updated version of the 2003 hip-hop hit, “Where is the love?” reminding us that terrorism, racial divides, hatred, mass killings –are painfully as relevant, and ever more intensified in our diverse world, as they were 14 years ago.   How many more hits do we need before a genuine and fulfilling shift towards peace is made?

Saskia Sassen argues that “while sharp economic inequalities, racisms, and religious intolerance have long existed, they are now becoming dangerous mobilizers in a context where the center no longer holds.”  When faced with this pressing threshold, it can be difficult to consider, let alone prioritize, an arts-based approach in the pursuit to peace.  In this paper Chris Shannahan suggests that the term ‘multiculturalism’ has become a shell, “largely drained of its progressive intent”.  Through his lens of Britain, which provides a window into the wider world beyond, Shannahan reasons that “Identity in Britain is being reinvented but public, political and much academic discourse has largely failed to catch up.”

Conscious of the local concerns and contextual implications of each time, space and place, perhaps acts of creativity can play a positively transformative role in diverse and multi-cultural communities –fostering a collective memory or identity, promoting a heightened sense of belonging and encouraging the grounds for social justice, reconciliation and dialogue.  In his manifesto “Can Cities dream?” Nadim Karam of ‘Urban Toys,’ echoes the unrelenting uncertainty that is coupled with the tension and fear cities grapple with.  Karam sheds light on his affirmation that while “a creative act cannot replace life,” it can certainly “enrich the experience of life,” and that “an accumulation of creative acts enriches humanity.”

In 2012, one way Berlin celebrated its 775th year anniversary was with “City of Diversity,” an open-air exhibition attributed to the contribution of its immigration history to its development.  Featuring a walkable map of Berlin in the heart of Schlossplatz, ten topics concerning the immigrant society (culinary, artistic, literary, musical, political, religious, educational, sporting, economic and scientific diversity) were addressed through the use of place-marked balloons, which flagged interesting stories surrounding each of the key topics.  Cities might benefit from expanding on examples as such that celebrate diversity.

What if we continued to search for, celebrate and create more creative outlets in the city –through art, music, theatre, popular culture, to support and encourage communities to participate in a narrative for their city that embraces and supports diversity?  In London’s Southbank, curious strangers came across a selection of musical instruments awaiting to be picked up and played –the outcome?  An Impromptu Jam session –to begin with.  In coming together, even if briefly, these strangers participate in an act of creation.  What if, through the very act of celebrating or creating something together -music, an art piece, a statue, an open-air exhibition, a conversation –we take part in understanding a little better and perhaps, even genuinely welcoming ‘the other’ into a space that can catch up and hold you and me?

Perhaps it all starts with a dream.  I dream of a city where…you dream of a city where…Jane Jacobs dreams of a city “where the community values and rewards those who are different…where city planning is a war of liberation fought against dumb, featureless public space as well as against the multiple sources of oppression and domination and exploitation and violence.”  An innovative and creative response to spatializing peacebuilding could lend itself to opening up new and meaningful channels of dialogue and meanwhile encouraging social inclusion, which could in turn foster peaceful communities –making it one way forward towards celebrating diversity as a strength and creating a centre that holds.

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