Conference Report: Can Art Heal the Societal Impact of Conflict?


On 2/3 May, a symposium on “Art and Conflict” was held at Wolfson College, Oxford.  This was an interdisciplinary event that included artists, anthropologists, forensic scientists and literary, military, and cultural historians. The event was co-organised by the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, Cranfield Forensic Institute at Cranfield University, The School of Art, Oxford Brooks University, and the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford. The event also included a production of “5 Soldiers” by Rosie Kay Dance Company.

In the opening theme “Memory and Artistic Representations of Conflict”, presentations included Duraid Jalili (King’s College London) with a discussion of the increasingly important role of graphic novels in representing modern conflict. Of particular note was an analysis of Joe Sacco’s hard hitting graphic portrayal of the conflict in Palestine and Kosovo. This form of narrative is also being used in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by the US military. Edwin Coomasaru, (Courtauld Institute of Art) spoke about “Bursting Bodies, Shattering Selves”. The focus was on skin and subjectivity and the representation of masculine bodies in paramilitary murals and posters in Northern Ireland. In examining Steve McQueen’s film “Hunger” (2008) Edwin looked at how traditional interpretations of warrior bodies become subjected to the violence and trauma of starvation and thus offer up a more realistic interpretation of how the skin is literally broken and ruptured by conflict. The presentation produced much discussion amongst delegates. The importance of memorials to the dead was discussed by Tom Hamilton-Baillie (Cranfield University). Jeremy MacClancy (Oxford Brookes University) looked at the changing place of graffiti art in the Basque conflict. Midnight “Graffiteros” had used their art to redefine public spaces and display physical valour but in recent years the role of unofficial public art has blunted the impact of this form of protest. Collective memory was also an area of research by artist and anthropologist Kazimuddin Ahmed’s presentation on “Stalingrad of the East”. Using interviews and photography he recorded the impact of the Battle of Imphal in 1944 on the local population of Manipur, India. The continuing importance of the telling of this narrative by the elderly in this community emphasised the role of memory as a collective experience. Helen Benigson (The Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford) received a very emotional response to her film documentary “Talmy”. The film told the story of a young girl whose parents were killed in the Warsaw ghetto and in order to survive had to assume a number of differing identities. The film replayed and renegotiated her narrative, through interviews with her and her daughter and by reference to the objects and paintings in her home.

The second theme “War and Civil War: Forensic Science, Art, Memory and Education” examined how forensic science and education can attempt to heal the experience of conflict. Presentations included Roland Wessling (Cranfield University) looking at the scientific investigation of mass graves whether as a result of war, civil war or crimes against humanity. Alongside criminal investigation, forensic teams can support the legal cases by excavating graves, which also assists in the humanitarian effort of identifying and repatriating victims. Layla Renshaw (Kingston University, London) discussed the impact of changing attitudes to the exhumation of the Republican dead from the Spanish Civil War. The paper looked at the impact of this change in attitude on small rural communities. The exhumation of graves elicited a large volume of memory and testimony from relatives of the dead, particularly as a result of found objects such as watches, combs and pencils which were pivotal in the identification process. Sonia Boué (independent artist) presented a film of her installation art “Without you I would not exist”. Sonia is the daughter of a Spanish exile, José García Lora, who was rescued from a French internment camp by an English Quaker, Alec Wainman, during the Spanish Civil War. The film movingly reconstructed objects referred to in his letters and diaries to create a fleeting representation of her father’s life. Presentations by Sarah Williams (University of Sussex) and Victoria Syme-Taylor (King’s College London) looked at the role of poetry, both past and current, in portraying war and as a means of coming to terms with the impact of conflict. The symposium’s first day concluded after dinner with a production of “5 Soldiers” by the Rosie Kay Dance Company. This was open to the public and was followed by an after show discussion. The Guardian 5-star review said of this production:

War is an overwhelmingly male business, but the power of 5 Soldiers derives from Kay’s female perspective. The subtlety with which she illustrates the oppositional tensions acting on Haden’s character. The way a woman in a male environment is required to suppress her femininity, whatever form that might take, and at the same time to be all women. Kay’s squaddies are believable because she has not presumed to second-guess them. Their characters and rituals are born of patient observation; as part of her extensive research, she and her dancers participated in battle exercises on Dartmoor and Salisbury Plain.In consequence, her piece is a world away from the wistful, homoerotic Sparta bequeathed to us by so many male choreographers addressing militarism, all ripped muscles and lingering glances. Instead, Kay gives us five rough-edged and very human individuals compressed with merciless efficiency into a fighting unit. She shows us the boredom, the torment of prickly heat and insect bites, the eerie silence of freefall parachute descent, the icy terror of a night patrol.

On the second day of the symposium delegates considered the theme of “The Missing”. Nicholas Marquez-Grant (Cranfield University and University of Oxford) spoke of the methods used by forensic archaeologists to identify the missing. Sejila Kameric, by teleconference from Sarajevo, discussed her art work “ab uno disce Omnes”. Commissioned by the Wellcome Collection, this presentation/film showed the role of forensic science, with regard to Bosnian society between 1992 and 1995 and the resulting missing and disappeared after the war. Carrie Reichardt and artist/craftist spoke of her work with youth communities in Argentina and Mexico, using ceramic installations as a means of memorialising the missing. Veronica Cordova de la Rosa (Oxford Brookes University) spoke of her artistic responses to the violent situation in Mexico and the desire for the missing to be remembered. Through her art their tragedy was communicated with the specific purpose of preserving their memory. In a teleconference from Lebanon (complete with power cuts and cats!) artist Dalia Khamissy spoke of how her photography seeks to document the suffering of the families of missing persons from the Lebanese Civil War 1975-1990. Ignored by official organisation, their story remains untold. Photographs of personal belongings of young men, school books, cigarette packets etc emphasise the importance of these objects in sustaining memory and belief.

Manca Bajec (Royal College of Art) began the final open session with a performance lecture combining a reading from a memory travelogue written after a trip to Bosnia and Serbia and a critical observation of the political and ethically sensitive issue of memorialisation and denial through the destruction of conflicted sites. Independent artist, Robert Priseman, spoke about the need to challenge the assumption that the only “authentic” art to emerge from the Holocaust was and can only be produced by survivors. He suggested that these were “records” rather than art and that contemporary artists have a duty to reflect such horrors over a longer time, thus acting as a meditation on the dark paths that culture can take. This was followed by a presentation by Sarah Shrimpton (Liverpool John Moores University) on how facial reconstruction in the case of “Soldier 16” from the Battle of Towton (1461) can depict the faces of those who have fallen in battle and how some soldiers have lived with long term disfiguration as a result of battle wounds. The artistic attraction of the “beautiful dead” was explored by Marcus Banks (University of Oxford). The healing power of testimony and narrative was examined by Janice Lobban (Combat Stress) and Aide Esu (University of Cagliari). Aide spoke of the project “Breaking the Silence” in which veterans of the Israeli Army found a space to discuss their experiences of conflict without a political dimension being imposed. This speech act, coupled with walking tours, framed a form of inner reconciliatory self. The session concluded with a presentation by Paula Serafini ( King’s College London). Paula spoke of the work of “Culture at King’s” and the centre’s project on interdisciplinary responses to Art, Belief and Conflict.

During the symposium artists and film makers exhibited on a number of related themes. These included work from victims of PTSD (presented by Janice Lobban from Combat Stress), “The Ballet Girls of Iraq” (Emma Le Blanc, Keble College, Oxford), “Tribute” a sculptural installation by Diana Foster and Record: 2012.09.28 (Sohin Wang, Ruskin College of Art) and by Hassima Sakhri on “The Last Testimony” and Sohing Hwang “Record 2012.09.28” on the Korean War.

In the plenary session it was agreed that, as a result of the thought provoking discussions that had followed these presentations, this first symposium should provide the platform for the launch of a network of academics and artists working in this area and that a follow on symposium would be organised next year. Of particular note was the request from artists to witness practical demonstrations on the method of identifying the bodies of the “missing” in this way emphasising the synergy between practical science and artistic representation and recording.

Image: 5 Soldiers by Rosie Kay Dance Company, Photography by Tim Cross. Dancers, Duncan Anderson, Shelly Eva Haden, Chester Hayes, Sean Marcs and Oliver Russell.

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