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Reflections on art’s place in peace sponsored by CAST

By Emma Kahn

Section: Arts

November 6, 2015

The Creativity, the Arts and Social Transformation (CAST) program hosted a lecture by James Thompson titled “In Place of War: Digging Up Stories in Ondaadtje’s Sri Lanka.”

Cynthia Cohen, director of the program in Peacebuilding and the Arts and former director of Acting Together on the World Stage, introduced Thompson as a close colleague and practitioner of applied theater in zones of conflict. The two met at a conference in Jordan, where they were both surprised to discover that much of their professional work complemented each other’s in several ways. Both were thrilled to collaborate on the similar projects and for Thompson to speak here at Brandeis.

In his presentation, Thompson presented stories of his past work in Sri Lanka to express the importance of promoting artistic possibilities and bringing together artists in modern areas of conflict. His project “In Place of War” is a product of a 10-year effort to build a network in which artists can collaborate and express their work. Not only does the project support the continued work of arts projects in conflict zones around the world, but it also supports Thompson’s research into the many ways that art mediates war narratives and creates identity. He seeks to understand why art persists and is prioritized in times of conflict, and also what the role of art is in society as a whole, which perhaps can be learned from the ways that art operates under duress.

Thompson concisely illustrated the political, social and ethnic backgrounds of the region dynamically, using hand gestures to articulate the geography of Sri Lanka without the use of other visual aids. Despite the heavy subject matter, Thompson expressed the horrors of war with little euphemistic language, yet kept the audience engaged while setting the difficult scene of tragedy.

In an effort of deep humility and reflection, Thompson centered his discussion around three distinct failures he has encountered in his social justice work. Namely, the challenges of working in an unfamiliar war-torn zone allowed for artistic spaces to be in flux, which undermined his efforts to restore theatrical expression. Devoid of the persistent international aid rhetoric in which tragedies are recounted in order to garner sympathy and assistance, Thompson recounted his experiences only to articulate his process of research and understanding. His third story of efforts gone wrong tells of the massacre of 29 child soldiers with whom he had been practicing theater performance. The small audience in attendance, scattered across the Rapaporte Treasure Hall, could nevertheless feel the abounding palpable optimism in Thompson’s lecture.

Thompson concluded his presentation by making four points about his stories from his work in war-torn Sri Lanka. First, he proposed that war zones are “full of competing groups in search of an audience.” Both violence and art performance, he observed, can fulfill the need to promote a narrative. He then argued that art in war zones reveals individual narratives and desires, and is not about presenting an empirical truth. His next point was that war is a narrative competition of stories, promoted against one another by violent means. Layered over one another at times of war, stories are especially important for the preservation of a societal collective memory; these layered truths are constantly pulled apart and analyzed so that one competing story may trump another. Finally, Thompson suggested that as an artist, visitor, anthropologist and peace activist, he was unable to remove himself from the story and from a part of the conflict. “I carry the ghosts of British colonialism. I can’t take that away from myself. War zones demand partisanship,” Thompson said. Despite intentions to bring back an artistic identity to a war zone, visitors to the area bring their own baggage of political and ethnic identity.

Ending on a less gloomy note, Thompson turned then to express the importance of his work, despite its issues. The role of literature and art is for “perspective-taking rather than the truth” and situates itself at an oblique angle, in which “the story [fills] a vacuum of what was not known … [offering] a means to fill the emptiness of what was lost.” In a final comment that epitomizes Thompson’s humility, he alluded to his youthful, limited understanding of his Northern Irish roots, and stated that “believing one story is true is what continues a war.”

Thompson truly tackled challenging content in a new way, bolstering his argument with field observations and engaging the audience with excited remarks that illuminated the importance of art in peacebuilding. Thompson concluded his lecture by dedicating the talk to his former theater students, the child soldiers massacred in 2000, and detailed his work on creating a memorial that would honor their memory.

Cynthia Cohen’s final remarks encapsulated the tone of the presentation, praising Thompson specifically for his self-reflecting and self-critical work, and promoting his novel, a “classic in the world of peacebuilding and art.” Thompson spent several days at Brandeis workshopping and hosting various free student sessions on campus. He also promoted CAST’s curriculum designed to support Brandeis undergraduates with interests in the arts and creative expression, as well as commitments to understanding and advancing social justice and the transformation of conflict.

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