How Art Heals Trauma and Urban Upheaval

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Feb 08, 2017
by Oscar Tollast
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How Art Heals Trauma and Urban Upheaval

Creative minds discuss art’s role in post-conflict settings and times of upheaval One of the panels at Session 573 The Art of Resilience explores the topic of refugees, migration, and integration

According to the UN Refugee Agency, the world is experiencing the highest levels of displacement on record. Around the planet, 65.3 million people have been forced to leave their home. Of this number, 21.3 million people are refugees. 

It is an ongoing complex challenge which requires cross-sector support and knowledge. Each day, nearly 34,000 people are reportedly forcibly displaced. Each sector can provide a skillset to meet this challenge, including the arts and cultural sector.

The role of the arts and cultural sector and resilience is being discussed by Salzburg Global Seminar at the session The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage, and Renewal. Fellows at this session have a vast amount of experience in their fields. Here are a few of their thoughts:

Art can give people a safe platform to “kill” others and express anger

In times of upheaval and chaos, people should have the freedom to express their inner feelings and opinions on the challenges they face. The conflict in Syria, which has left a mark on people for “six horrifying years,” has let their desires and feelings rise to the surface, whether right or wrong. It is important those suffering in times like this have an artistic platform to express these feelings in a safe space and have scenarios acted out on stage, rather than in real life. 

“All this violence is initiating vengeance and initiating more killings and revenge. I think the arts is a solution in this case because it gives a safe platform for the whole desires and feelings, no matter how extreme they are through the medium of fantasy. On stage, you can kill who you want, and in a film, you can do this, but you can’t do it in real life. I think if we provide art as an alternative platform for violence, we can release all of these sentiments that [otherwise] result in such an extreme cases of violence.”

Art can be used to respond to urban upheaval in cities

The world is becoming more urban by the minute. By 2030, six out of 10 people will be urban dwellers. Mexico City is a young, dynamic metropolis but it also has the oldest urban agglomeration on the continent. Organizations such as Laboratorio Para La Ciudad, made up of architects, designers, editors, urban planners and more, are looking for creative ways to connect governments and citizens. Laboratorio Para La Ciudad has attempted to map Mexico City’s transit system. Unofficial routes have sprung up over the years in response to demand. The Lab helped create Mapaton, a government-civil society collaborative initiative that provides a database of the formal and informal public transportation system. Riders can share GPS data with a database, mapping their routes as they ride. Users are incentivized as the more points they attain, the increased chance they have of winning a prize. 

It’s an example of how civil society, private enterprise, and government can have a successful partnership. It's working in Mexico City - and could work elsewhere. Creating access to information can create more opportunities.

Art can play a part for those seeking justice

Art can teach those in times of war how to cope during and after the conflict is officially over. As part of the self-healing process, we have to ask ourselves where acceptance of past atrocities features. Does it come before forgiveness or can it only feature afterward? Acceptance does not necessarily lead to reconciliation, which can be a "dirty word" in some circles. In the hope of stopping atrocities happening again, art therapy can help people to accept and admit what happened, regret their actions, and ask for forgiveness - which may or may not be given. The difficulty lies in understanding that justice can differ from person to person. In some cases, one generation has had a process of reconciliation and yet the next generation felt that that experience been taken away from them. "Justice is not simply justice. It could be any number of things. Justice for one person is very different to justice for someone else."

Art can help later generations understand traumatic experiences

The devastation which occurs after war can be hugely disorienting. It can cut across generations affecting parents, children, and grandchildren. There’s a “massive disruption” to the fabric of inter-generational relationships. Art is a tool to reconnect with people’s pasts and tackle uncomfortable areas. Art and performance can begin to fill some of those gaps and play an integral part in explaining points of history otherwise incomprehensible to those not present. Inspiring examples can be taken from projects and work in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Uganda. If there are a lack of trained professionals to deal with a mental health crises, arts organizations can step in. In Uganda, for example, spaces have been created where people can talk and make art together, helping people feel human and have something to offer the world. As Pablo Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”


The Salzburg Global program The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage, and Renewal is part of the multi-year Culture, Arts and Society series. The session is being supported by the Edward T. Cone Foundation. More information on the session can be found here. You can follow all the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SGSculture.