In the night of September 21st 2015, thirty-five people gathered at artspace GEMAK in The Hague to listen to two inspiring speakers: The artist Pierfrancisco Gava form Italy and Sylvestre Bwira, a human rights defender from the eastern part of DR Congo. Theme of this night was the relationship between art and activism. Both artists and activists are concerned by what is going on in this world and are often unhappy with the status quo. They want change. But how to change something?
First Sylvestre told about the context where he came from: Eastern Congo. A country destroyed by decades of war, poverty, armed groups and weak leadership. Very often people ask him why he started to work on peace and human rights and why he continues to do so, although he has taken refuge in another country? He explained that it is hard to understand if you live in Europe. Europe is a paradise of human rights and democracy if you compare it to the situation in eastern Congo. Do people understand what it means to encounter day by day women of all ages who have been violently raped? Do we even recognize the smell of human blood? Sylveste says that it was a very common smell in the territory he came from, as he was passing by corpses of people who had been killed. In a situation like that there is almost no other reasonable option than to fight against injustice. Either by taking up arms, or, as he did, by peaceful means: organizing yourselves, creating spaces of dialogue and understanding, negotiating with the fighting parties, campaigning against violence committed by the ruling elite.
Pierfrancesco showed in his film ‘A Glorious Society’ (2015) a glimpse of how global elites manage to mobilize the public in order to reaffirm their own power. Gava stated that public acclaim is necessary for ruling elites to keep their position. By deconstructing public appearances of president Obama and the Pope he posed the question: what would these people be without the cheering and applauding masses that receive them? Thus Gava is trying to make people aware of their own role in the game of keeping the power balance as it is: by applauding and glorifying rulers in staged power-rituals, they legitimize them as rightfully powerful.
This raised the question in the audience about the role of the media in our Western societies and how people could be better empowered to counter the strong forces in favour of the status quo. There are hopeful signs of democratization of the media through the use of the internet. Art could claim its own role in the empowerment of people to understand and to reflect on the world that we live in. It could help us even to understand why there is war and what we as ordinary citizens could do about it. A recent example of the power of an image is the picture of the drowned refugee boy, three year old Aylan Kurdi. Him laying in the sand of a Turkey beach, being picked up by a rescue worker has touched directly the hearts of millions across the globe. As a result of this image thousands decided to contribute time, money and energy for the cause of the Syrian refugees. Above all, it changed the attitude of many who didn’t care about war or refugees before.
Artists and peace-activists face the same world: at times beautiful and other times horrific. In a world flooded with images, many of them showing reality as our rulers like to present it. Art has the power to break through this fairy-tale facade and show something different, something important, true and empowering. Artists and activists could inspire each other to find and show alternatives to the current, violent state of the world.