“The arts can help us to create and bear witness to a better future.
Interpreting people’s experiences and stories is vital to healing trauma and mending communities.
The arts can give voice to marginalised and stigmatised groups and help to foster empathy and tolerance.
Arts provide a positive mode of expression and an alternative to threatening and destabilising actions. They humanise rather than dehumanise and provide a language that we all can share in.”
The above quotations come from an article by Winston Irvine on Eamonn Mallie’s blog called Gauntlet thrown down to Custodians of Arts in Northern Ireland.
I was immediately shouting Amen! Preach it Winston! My co-conspirator in reconciliation Fr. Martin Magill took up Winston’s theme in our column in the Irish news today. I have been preaching how vital art is to our healing and transformation for a long time. It was the subject of my Masters in Theology.
It was taking regular Chaplaincy trips South Africa in the noughties that I started to see the importance of art in the healing of a nation. Now, don’t get me wrong, South Africa has a long way to go on its journey but in many ways it is ahead of us and the violence on our streets this summer, the bickering at Stormont and the cold war in our churches.
I always remember the first time I visited the District 6 Museum in Cape Town. The story is that the Apartheid Government declared District 6 a “whites only” area in 1966. Like its equivalent Sophiatown, in Johannesburg, District 6 had been a huge challenge to the Government, being a wonderfully harmonious mix of all races, religions and colours. On the edge of the city centre, snuggled under Table Mountain, District 6 was an eclectic mix of culture and art that needed destroyed so that it didn’t disprove the bizarre theories of a separatist approach to nationhood. So the bulldozers came and levelled it.
In the Museum, I headed for the book shop to pick up The History Of District 6. There wasn’t one. There were poetry books, photographic books, plays, memoirs and even a fascinating programme to The Public Sculpture Project but nothing more concrete (did I really use that word). It was in this little alcove, that I started surmising the power of art to tell stories of past divisions.
We in Northern Ireland have an obsession for the tribunal, the inquest and the history book; we are focused on finding justice. South Africans seem more interested in healing and restoring souls. The poems, the plays and the prose seem to be seeking catharsis and a re-humanising of one another.
Certainly when I was spending those long summers in South African I sensed more empathy, more re-humanising of the other, more desire to tell the truth, forgive and move on into a shared future. As I said, South Africa has a long way to go on all of those but there seemed more soul in the reconciliation, dare I say more grace than law.
So I am with Winston… and Fr Martin. We need soul and grace and to re-humanise the other. We need to invest in our Arts. We need to make the arts accessible to all corners of our society. We need to encourage our writers and painters and singers to see themselves as the prophetic transformers of our society.