Art and transitional justice

Art and transitional justice is an emerging area of scholarship that explores how cultural and artistic projects (public art installations, photography, dance, music theatre, literature, film, memorials) can open up spaces for new political thinking, possibilities and action (Garnsey, 2016). Cultural interventions can contribute to the aims of transitional justice by making victims visible. They can comprise more accessible forms of transitional justice (d’Evie, 2014). In some cases, they may afford victims the spaces in which to share their experiences safely for the first time (de Greiff, 2014). Free of institutional constraints, such intimate spaces can provide a sense of safety for discussions about human rights abuses (Ramírez-Barat, 2014).

Cultural and artistic projects also have the potential to evoke powerful reactions among the audience to the effects of human rights violations on the lives of victims in ways that other forms of communication, such as official truth commission reports, may not (de Greiff, 2014). By using symbols, metaphors, or parables—or by linking individual and personal experiences to collective narratives—cultural and artistic projects can capture public attention, trigger empathy and foster dialogue (Ramírez-Barat, 2014). Such transformations of societal attitudes towards victimisation are critical in affecting transitions (de Greiff, 2014).

In Afghanistan, participatory theatre oriented around transitional justice has opened up spaces for communities, particularly victims, to share their stories and construct collective meanings. This space has been particularly important given the absence of transitional justice measures in the Afghan context. Approximately 80 percent of the initial theatre participants were women (Siddiqui & Joffre-Eichhorn, 2014). Efforts were made to include participants in as many aspects of workshop preparation as possible and to give them control over the process. The theatre productions have enabled memory and truth-seeking, in different forms than other transitional justice mechanisms. Participants can present their stories simultaneously, enabling multiple narratives to be heard. While theatre provides the spaces to express feelings of fear, anger, pain and suffering, there are risks that re-enacting such narratives could be traumatic for participants.

Cultural and artistic interventions can also amplify the work of other transitional justice mechanisms. REwind, for example, was an art installation created to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the South African TRC. Testimonies from the Commission were depicted in the installation through the use of seven screens and music, drawing on emotive sounds and symbols. Viewers were encouraged to physically engage with the artwork through seeing and hearing it. The individual narratives were activated to take on collective significance (Garnsey, 2016). The exhibit raised questions, however, as to the implications of selecting certain testimonies and not others, and reinterpreting and performing other people’s stories (Garnsey, 2016).

Art projects have also been created specifically for diaspora communities. In Toronto, for example, organisers of a non-state memorialising project, Fragments, invited members of diasporas to submit artefacts that represented their personal narratives, past or contemporary experiences and micro-truths. The outcome was an exhibition that allowed for interaction among diasporas and sharing and acknowledgment of one another’s truths and narratives (d’Evie, 2014). Some diasporas involved submitted objects that symbolised a move beyond victimhood to agency. One survivor of the genocide in Rwanda, for example, submitted a pamphlet for a charitable organisation she founded in Canada to help Rwandan orphans (d’Evie, 2014).