Memory and Art: Feminist Ways of Healing and Doing Justice
Updated: May 20, 2021
By Kirthi Jayakumar
A Japanese girl was a victim of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the young age of two. Irradiated severely, she survived for another 10 years. Before she died, she worked hard to fold one thousand origami cranes: a powerful symbol of the innocent victims of nuclear warfare that endures to date. A statue of the young girl, Sadako Sasaki, was installed in 1958 in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park with a plaque at its base, reading: "This is our city. This is our prayer. Peace in the world."
Armed conflict breaks society from ground up, no matter where it happens. Historically, humankind has risen out of armed conflict while holding onto memory, etched in the form of the words Never Again, personified through art. It isn’t a particularly new idea that art is healing, transformative, unifying, and edifying. In fact, when the Taliban gained power in Afghanistan, they banned movies, art, music, dance, and theatre. The ISIS banned art in various forms, including the teaching of it in schools. That armed outfits with arsenals of weaponry to their credit would be wary of art, if anything, is a powerful affirmation of the value it holds for communities that seek to protest in peace, to respond to armed conflict, and to preserve memory.
The arpillera movement, meaning “cloth of resistance” in Chile witnessed women weaving history onto small pieces of cloth, documenting abuses by the military junta during the armed conflict in 1976. Memories of a 36-year-long civil war that resulted in the genocide of the Mayan Ixil community are preserved in photographs of the scapular bones of the dead in the form of angel figures. Graffiti and spray-painted messages of peace edify memories of a ruthless dictatorship in Libya. The Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani (“I am thinking, I am remembering”), a theatre group in Peru, presents plays that place the armed conflict in Peru front and center in public memory. Dance and woven cloth rebuilt communities in Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide, where blue shopping bags and cowhide became memory works that tell of the times of apartheid in South Africa.
In each of these geographies, art helped preserve truth and present stories that did not make it into historical accounts. Art also established a route to healing in ways that adversarial justice – the process of pitting two sides to argue, in order to determine a “winner” did not. The transformative power of art transcends the victim, and also works on the perpetrator, to humanize them. That some take guns to create or respond to triggers that become conflict itself is a reflection of the flaws in society: marginalization, unhealed trauma, systemic and structural violence. Those toting the guns, then, become the symptom, while the disease runs rife in the systems operating that society.
Art has the unparalleled power to address that underlying disease from manifesting as the violent symptom. In this sense, art serves as a feminist tool, calling structures into question and paving the way for silenced voices to find expression. Ex-combatants in particular conflict contexts have been successfully disarmed and demobilized, and prior to reintegration into society, even offered arts-based programs. The rationale is simple: the emerging art is not confined by rules or expected manifestations of aesthetics, but is rather a means to channelize energy, to express unspoken and unarticulated thoughts, emotions, fears, and most importantly, a peaceful means and an ends. The need for arts-based interventions in post-conflict contexts is overwhelmingly urgent. In responding to this call – be it through arts education or through memory-keeping and truth-telling, an artist has a yeoman service to present to society by holding up a mirror in as gentle, yet jolting, a way as possible.