Visual Voices against Conflict Narratives
The transformative power of Art in Community Dialogue and Peacebuilding
A portrait of the organization Visual Voices, as featured in Folios V4: Creativity in Conversation: On Culture, Community and Transformation
“Youth organizations and activists around the world are working to build peace and prevent violence in their own communities. Youth should actively be engaged in shaping lasting peace and contributing to justice and reconciliation, and a large youth population presents a unique demographic dividend that can contribute to lasting peace and economic prosperity if inclusive policies are in place.”
United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security (2015)
Visual Voices is an apt example of such an organization, showcasing the key role of art in peace processes as a uniting force that brings people together.
Visual Voices is a non-profit organization supporting young artists from communities affected by conflict. By positively addressing challenges in their communities and in their own lived experiences of conflict within their art, artists stimulate dialogue and peace-oriented social narratives. In these visual voices lays the beginning of global narratives for peace. The organization is based in Cyprus, a place deeply affected by violent conflict, works with more than 150 partners in 48 countries, collaborating with a network of more than 80 artists.
Its aim is to promote the creation of contemporary visual art reflecting a desire for positive social change and to help establish platforms of expression for youth to amplify their voices and advocate for peace. Its vision is to create a global network of peacebuilding organizations, practitioners and artists that acknowledge the value of arts-based interventions and the power of art in peace advocacy. Through continued involvement in network activities, artists are able to learn from and collaborate with artists from other communities. Additionally, having artworks that address universal challenges travel to around the world creates new opportunities for audiences to reflect on common challenges faced as a result of conflict. Thanks to the diverse backgrounds of its team, consisting of artists, social workers, educators, academics, and peace talk negotiators, Visual Voices has a unique multidisciplinary approach to its work. In collaboration with like-minded organizations and individuals, it carries out community projects in support of peace education and positive social change. The Visual Voices methodology revolves around artist in residence programs specifically designed for young visual artists seeking to expand their own practice of socially engaged art and community engagement with the intention of promoting positive social change as related to challenges resulting from violent conflict.
Visual Voices deplores the fact that youth face a number of significant challenges that make durable peace even harder to achieve. Long-standing communal division, gender inequality, corruption, and unemployment, along with the abundance of existing conflict narratives, all contribute to making many young people “either indifferent or even negative towards engaging with peace processes and the peacebuilding community.” To address this, Visual Voices incorporates peace education to their projects with the aim of initiating constructive community dialogues. They believe that “interaction between social art and the public builds awareness. Positive artistic expression supports democratic systems and social cohesion via the advancement of dialogue.”
Over the past three years, Visual Voices has applied their methodology in carefully designed residencies with talented visual artists/ activists from Cyprus, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. At the same time, research is being carried out on the potential of youth artists from communities affected by violent conflict to promote positive social change and peace both in their communities but also around the world! They believe in the power of visual arts in storytelling, raising awareness and also in being a very effective tool that evokes emotional responses.
For me, they are quite bold, sharing something very personal, and some went beyond what they had previously experienced, they went beyond their previous comfort zone to find something new, to explore a little bit more, to try and understand another perspective and incorporate that in their work.
Alden Jacobs, Co-founder of Visual Voices
Visual Voices uses different channels to disseminate the output of its programs. These include exhibitions, conversations, conferences, the wide use of media, interactive online platforms, and the use of augmented reality technologies that connect socially engaged artworks from areas of violent conflict. Their practice shows that visual arts can be an important peacebuilding tool, especially when supported by peace education, community engagement, and long-lasting dissemination opportunities.
One striking example for their effective projects is the exhibition Crossing 24/31: I always confuse south to north, north to south which took place in 2020 in Cyprus in the framework of the project “Falling Walls — Looking Through Conflict Narratives in Cyprus”
Nicosia, the divided capital of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, is marked by the conflictual traces of the past. A buffer zone controlled by the United Nations forms the border between the Greek-speaking south and the Turkish-speaking north of the city. Cyprus has been divided since 1974, with Nicosia being the last divided capital city in the world. Just a few blocks away from the Visual Voices office, there are militarized zones, barbed wire and borders.
The presence of the flags of Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is overwhelming. The media, the basic education system, politics, family, and others perpetuate stereotypes as well as hatred and mistrust between the different communities on the island on an everyday basis. This is what is called “conflict narratives” and they control public perception and hinder conflict resolution. The problem Visual Voices is trying to solve is best described as the “continuation and promotion of conflict narratives in communities affected by violent conflict.” Finding solutions to this problem is crucial in addressing the larger issue of violent conflict and the social divisions that perpetuate this phenomenon currently exacerbated by nationalist movements. Every member of the Cypriot society is affected by this problem. Conflict narratives are associated with the ongoing conflict which the organization engages with in their projects and especially in this exhibition. It brought together artists from both parts of the island to address the island’s conflicts with the aim of creating cultural and artistic space for communities to express themselves and ultimately improve their understanding of one another. In particular, this project brings the voice of young artists into the social discourse as a means of challenging existing nationalist narratives.
“Falling Walls — Looking Through Conflict Narratives in Cyprus” is an arts-based approach that establishes a safe space for young artists to positively express themselves. This approach is critical interdisciplinary methodologies that combine the arts, storytelling and peacebuilding. It is through building a space for expression that we are able to integrate different perspectives in the prevailing social narratives.
This exhibition is the result of the three-month peace education residency program organized by the Visual Voices that brought together eleven Greek and Turkish Cypriot visual artists — Irene Kattou, Zoe Polycarpou, Ioanna Neophytou, Lenia Georgiou, Nurtane Karagil, Dize Kukrer, Panagiotis Achniotis, Stephanie Lemesianou, Fetine Sel Tüzel, Hayal Gezer, and Christina Christofi.
In Cyprus, we see more and more nationalist narratives stemming from media, education, and it is becoming part of our lives. We don’t question what is happening around us and what kind of labels and identities we are being given.
Marina Neophytou, Co-founder of Visual Voices
Over a period of several months, these eleven artists sought to confront the collective, universal yet opposing conflict narratives that are unconsciously imposed on daily life. The exhibited artworks share a bold and activist approach to the subject matter. Artists from across the island meet here to draw a new trail together, with their hands that have different stories, with their own genesis, with their own family narratives. Bringing these works together allows for a sense of new perspectives and longlived togetherness. The works speak in stark contrast to the common narratives found in today’s media, media, which exacerbate people’s common beliefs. The works are the personal journeys of going beyond what is told, entering the mirrored universal.