Introduction: Arts After Atrocity

BY JO-MARIE BURT

In the aftermath of atrocity, societies develop diverse mechanisms to cope with the legacy of violence. The experienced trauma involves not only the physical violence visited upon individual bodies, but also the destruction of families, communities, and broader societal networks. Truth commissions seek to develop new narratives to understand past violence, while other mechanisms, including trials and reparations programs, attempt to provide more concrete forms of justice to survivors and relatives of victims of violence. Beyond these traditional transitional justice mechanisms, artistic expression is a powerful tool to convey the lived experience of violence while challenging structures—past and present—that perpetuate violence. Diverse art forms have also been deployed both by those directly affected by violence as well as artists seeking to convey new interpretations of why violence occurred and how it has impacted people and society at large.

In spring 2012, the Center for Global Studies at George Mason University convened an international symposium to explore the dynamic role that the arts can play in denouncing structures of violence, challenging narratives of silence and complicity, and promoting human rights and social change. The Arts After Atrocity conference brought together artists, filmmakers, activists, and scholars—from Latin America, the Middle East, the Balkans, and the U.S.—to discuss how the arts are deployed to represent past violence and reinterpret fundamental understandings of power, truth, and justice. The current issue of the Global Studies Review is comprised of contributions submitted by participants in this conference.

The Center for Global Studies has long sought to promote research, debate, and policy-relevant material on human rights, global justice, post-conflict reconstruction, and peacebuilding. The Center has hosted funded research on human rights and transitional justice in Latin America, for example, and in 2009, the Center convened the conference, Accountability After Mass Atrocity: Latin American and African Cases in Comparative Perspective, in which scholars, practitioners, and policymakers explored progress and obstacles to the pursuit of accountability in post-conflict societies. The Arts After Atrocity conference represents a continuation of these efforts to engage the Mason community in a dialogue about a dimension of globalization that is under-examined by mainstream media and academics: global efforts to promote human rights and find mechanisms, including retributive justice, that can bring effective repair to those who have suffered such abuses.

The Arts After Atrocity conference highlighted the work of artists across diverse media who have engaged these complex issues. On display at the Mason campus during the day’s proceedings was a stunning collection of art works by the Peruvian artists collective, Itinerant Museum of Art for Memory (Museo Itinerante de Arte por la Memoria). Two of the founding members of the collective, Mauricio Delgado and Karen Bernedo, participated in the conference and have contributed articles to this issue. The Itinerant Museum of Art for Memory has played a galvanizing role in recent years by using diverse art forms to challenge current memory practices in Peru, a country that faces multiple challenges in its efforts to overcome the recent conflict between government forces and insurgent groups that, according to the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, resulted in almost 70,000 deaths. The collective has traveled the length and breadth of Peru to bring its artwork to a broad audience and provoke new ways of thinking and talking about the violence that subsumed Peru in the 1980s and 1990s. It is a project of hope that challenges us to think not only about the violence that was inflicted upon so many innocent people, but also about our own complicity in structures of violence. Over 20 different artworks were on display, giving an opportunity to those participating in the day’s proceedings to see and interact with different artistic techniques, platforms, and styles that interpolate dominant narratives of silence, complicity, and exclusion.

Similarly, Lourdes Portillo’s experimental metafilm, Al Más Allá, which explores the impact of international narco-trafficking on poor fishing communities along the Mexico-Belize border, prompted participants to consider their positionality in interrelationships between the audience/observer and artwork/victim. Another highlight of the conference proceedings was a spoken word performance by Sonya Renee whose work addresses the deep injustices within U.S. society as well as globally. Her reading of ”Radical Forgiveness” was a deeply moving call to action to combat injustice and violence in its many forms at home and globally. The keynote speech was delivered by Andy Shallal, founder of Busboys and Poets Café, who has played a central role in building a community of artists, poets, writers, scholars, and activists joined by a shared desire to use their talents and craft to promote social change. Shallal challenged students to think deeply about their role in society and urged them to commit their own talents to build community, challenge discrimination and violence in all its forms, and work for progressive social change.

We hope you enjoy reading this issue of the Global Studies Review. It will be the final issue we publish, as the Center is revamping its online presence to create a more fluid and dynamic platform that will include varied and more frequent content from our staff, our affiliate faculty members—which currently number over one hundred from a variety of disciplines across campus—and invited guests from around the globe. We hope you will join the conversation.

Jo-Marie Burt
Co-Director, Center for Global Studies
March 2013

Jo-Marie Burt is Co-Director of the Center for Global Studies, Director of the Latin American Studies Program, and Associate Professor of Politics in the Department of Public & International Affairs at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a Washington, DC-based nongovernmental organization that engages in research and advocacy in favor of human rights in Latin America. 

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