On Thursday I was in Oxford with my great friend Sonia Boué, attending a conference at Oxford Brookes University. The conference, under the aegis of Oxford Human Rights Festival, was titled Art & Science Vs. Conflict in the Global Present.
It was a conference I’d been interested in attending since I first heard about it a month ago, and on learning that Sonia would also be there it didn’t take me long to make up my mind and book my place.
The presentations covered topics including the effects of conflict on art and culture, the use of art as therapy for conflict-related injury, and the ways in which art and science can help victims of conflict. A common thread was the ways in which we are all affected by loss due to conflict. I’ll not repeat what was in the programme: you can read that on the conference website here.
We learned of the loss of artifacts from Nimrud due to museum looting during the Gulf Wars and the deliberate destruction of the site of the palace by Islamic State: the loss to Iraqi national cultural heritage in particular. This was in contrast to the preservation of bomb-damaged buildings in Belgrade, the scars left by NATO attacks keeping alive memories of that recent conflict in which ethnic divisions in the former state of Yugoslavia tore the nation apart.
In other presentations we saw the products of people working through bereavement and trauma suffered through conflict. Stuffed toys sewn from the uniforms of those killed on active service, boxes of mementos: ways in which families could memorialise their loved ones that were creative and personal. And we saw examples of artworks created as therapy by those suffering combat-related PTSD. Some of those were shocking in their raw depiction of despair, hopelessness and isolation, a reminder that the mental scars of conflict are often deeper and more painful than the more obvious physical injuries.
We were given a fascinating insight into forensic anthropology, from the recovery of remains to the attempts to identify victims of conflict. It’s hard to imagine working day after day, week after week, sifting through a mass grave that might contain hundreds of bodies. Putting bones together, identifying evidence of trauma to try to determine the cause of death. Working against the odds to attempt to put names to the victims: in cases such as the Rwandan genocide whole families, whole villages were murdered so even if DNA can be extracted there is nobody left to whom it can be matched. Most will never be identified.
The missing–those taken and killed by repressive regimes–were memorialised in some deeply moving performances. Christine Brault spoke about the more than 4000 First Nation Canadian women and girls who have either disappeared or been found dead over the last 30 years. We the audience picked poppy petals inscribed with their names, announcing their names and pinning them to her shirt. One that I picked was Kiowa Oakes, aged 1: I choked a little as I read out her age and wondered how anybody could harm a baby.
Veronica Cordova de la Rosa sat behind a desk in a manner reminiscent of a news reader from years ago and simply read a list of names from among the 27,000 missing victims of violence in Mexico. For me her performance brought to mind a wartime radio broadcast of those missing in action.
Also mentioned, in another presentation, were the estimated 140,000 who disappeared in Spain and its territories under Franco from the start of the Guerra Civil in 1936 to his death in 1975. It is hard to believe that the Spanish government to this day continues to do next to nothing to even recognise the atrocities committed under Franco. No process of Truth and Reconciliation as happened in South Africa after the fall of Apartheid, no efforts to prosecute those responsible who to this day continue to live openly.
There was so much I learned at this conference and I can only give a brief taste of it here. I left with conflicted feelings myself: there is so much violence in the world in so many forms and at so many levels that it would be easy to resign oneself to the belief that it is inevitable. Lives and culture are lost and damaged by conflict, but it also pushes some to wonderful acts of compassion, imagination and creativity through which people can come together and healing might begin.