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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

Art as a Tool of Feminist Foreign Policy

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu

Whether it is through visual art, paintings, digital art or sculptures, humans have used and continue to use various art forms to depict historical moments and events. As a site and form of politics, art has and always be an important, albeit scantly discussed, part of international relations. For awaking patriotism during war or conflict, as an instrument of dissent against colonisers and oppressors, a method to disseminate propaganda or as a way to evoke emotions and draw attention to a problem or cause, art has been omnipresent in global politics. In the words of Christine Sylvester, “those who look into issues of fine art, gender, and international relations find that doing so opens doors for better viewing of the state, international actors, and “the people.” [1]

For marginalised and oppressed communities in particular, art can be an empowering form of political participation and representation. In the words of Eliza Garnsey, “art can elucidate rights violations, articulate trauma, and acknowledge individuals and communities in ways which are unavailable by, or more effective than, other means.” [2] Art can also play an important role in feminist foreign policy, which is foreign policy that aims to elevate the human rights of marginalised and oppressed groups and dismantle structural violence as well as patriarchal and male-dominated power structures. In this context, art forms such as statues and videography and the preservation of art through memorials open up new avenues for individuals, non-state actors and civil society groups or members to engage with feminist foreign policy by amplifying the voices and stories of the marginalised and oppressed and giving them space for political participation. By returning the agency to present their own narratives to such groups and individuals, art has the potential to be not only transformative and empowering, but also a radical way of advancing feminist foreign policy by resisting the state’s monopoly over the conduct of international relations.

Comfort Women Statues – Seeking Justice and Accountability

Across South Korea, in public parks and even on buses, statues of comfort women have been erected to memorialise the trauma and human rights violations endured by the tens of thousands of Korean women who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese imperial military. All the bronze figures show the same young girl seated with her hands clenched in her lap, carrying an emotionless expression. [3] The most prominent of these statues, the Sonyeosang or Statue of Peace was installed in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in December 2011. This statue has been the subject of a diplomatic row between the Japanese and South Korean governments and has unearthed decades-old conflict. [4] The Statue of Peace has become significant marker of history, a powerful reminder of the horrible past and a constant reminder to do better in the present and future.

As the remaining survivors are growing older and dying of old age, for activists and advocates, the installation of these statues is a way of cementing history – more importantly, the truthful version of it. As Japan plays with the politics of memory and repeatedly tries to twist history by saying the survivors and victims consented to being comfort women, these statues serve as a powerful reminder of the grave injustices enacted upon these women. By immortalising the stories of these former comfort women in public spaces, South Korea has used these statues to urge accountability, justice and reparations from the Japanese government and increase awareness and curiosity among the public, particularly younger generations, to seek out the truth. With the installation of statues by diaspora communities in countries such as Germany, the US and Australia [3], international attention is also called for to put pressure on Japan to deliver proper apologies and reparations to the victims’ families and remaining survivors. Effectively, these statues are a form of feminist foreign policy in action – memorialising truth, trauma and history, using art as a means to demand government accountability by causing discomfort and centering the marginalised (survivors).

Kigali Genocide and Heroinat Memorials – Preserving the Truth

War memorials are prominent sites of international relations that reveal power dynamics, both contemporary and historical, and multiple sites of authority and politics in foreign relations. Memorials are highly regarded cultural institutions that ideally ensure a legitimate and truthful portrayal of history through objective and impartial facts, unlike state propaganda or some history textbooks. For these reasons, they are trustworthy knowledge sources and are “crucial to creating forms of knowledge and understanding about people and the world that could bring about justice and change.” [5] Such spaces that can tell the stories of historically marginalised groups, memorialise the truth and preserve knowledge that can be used for demanding accountability and justice and, therefore, can become important tools in the pursuit of feminist foreign policies with respect to justice and reparations.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre opened in 2004 and is one of the six memorial centres that commemorate the Rwandan genocide. Aside from serving as a memorial to all the victims of the war and genocide, the centre also documents Rwanda’s colonial and pre-colonial history and genocidal violence around the world and houses peace education tools. [6] The Heronait Memorial in Pristina, Kosovo is a typographic sculpture that depicts an Albanian woman and is made up of 20,000 medals/pins – one for each woman raped during the Kosovo war. [7] Both of these memorials honour the victims of each respective genocide and serve as reminders of the horrors of the brutal cases of ethnic cleansing. These memorials also act as powerful representatives of truth against the doctored lies of Western-dominated institutions such as the United Nations, ICTR and ICTY that justice has been delivered to survivors although post-genocide challenges continue. They also call to question the justification of the use of military and violence in the name of humanitarian intervention. Remain Video Artwork – Depicting Statelessness

Eliza Garnsey’s research shows that artistic representation is a powerful form of political representation in that it renders visible stories and narratives of the marginalised and oppressed who are often deliberately silenced by the state. This is especially the case with asylum-seekers in Australia and is illustrated in Hoda Afshar’s video artwork, Remain, which documents the experiences of a group of stateless men left on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. Through poetry, storytelling and other art forms portraying lived experiences, Remain brings to light the struggles of these asylum seekers such as the separation of families, restricted access to basic needs, violence, hopelessness and dreams of freedom. It also exposes the cruelty of Australia’s policies that mandate the detention and offshore processing of asylum seekers who come via sea. Eliza Garnsey contends that this video artwork, in contrast to dehumanising media reports in terms of statistics, “becomes a crucial form of political representation; political representation which would not otherwise be possible.” [8]

Hoda Afshar’s video artwork can be used as a means of advancing feminist foreign policy by individual socio-political actors, reflecting on the ramifications of state migration policies on the human rights of the individual asylum-seeker. Remain uses art as a form of activism not only as a way of “opening up new spaces of discussion” and as a “method for the articulation of trauma” but also as a way to show how both the Australian state and its citizens are complicity in the abuse of refugees and asylum-seekers. By highlighting the harmful policies implemented by the state, it also serves a powerful rebuke against business-as-usual definitions of Westphalian sovereignty, the idea of citizenship and universal human rights.

All of these examples demonstrate the value and power of art in engaging with and providing a means of conducting feminist foreign policy in that they center the voices of the marginalised and oppressed. These also give the agency to individual or community level actors to speak their truth to power and memorialise their own stories and lived experiences – narratives which are quashed or manipulated by states with vested interests.


1. C. Sylvester, Bringing art/museums to feminist International Relations

2. Interview – Eliza Garnsey, (2020, June 11), E-International Relations,

3. E. Hu, (2017, November 13), 'Comfort Woman' Memorial Statues, A Thorn In Japan's Side, Now Sit On Korean Buses, npr,

4. S. Han and J. Griffiths, (2017, February 10), Why this statue of a young girl caused a diplomatic incident, CNN,

5. D.E. Clover, (2020, April 26), Chapter 10 Seeing the Unseen through the Feminist Museum Hack, Doing Critical and Creative Research in Adult Education,

6. Kigali Genocide Memorial Official Site,

7. Heroinat Memorial,

8. E. Garnsey, (2020, March 3), The Right(s) to Remain: Art, Asylum, and Political Representation in Australia, arts and international affairs,

Further Reading



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