Monday, October 12, 2015

Make Art, Build Peace

Image (c) Robert Markey

Robert Markey’s first act of defiance was in school in 1965 when in his graduation speech he advocated the use of civil disobedience to bring about change. Today, Robert is an artist whose work focuses on questions of conflict, violence, protests, peace and human rights. Having witnessed the civil rights movement in America as a child, having participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam War while in college, Robert has worked with well-known names including Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. He is a versatile artist with exposure to living and working with spiritual communities, playing the sitar and engaging with children in conflict zones. Nidhi Shendurnikar met Robert last year in Nepal as part of the CONTACT South Asia programme organized by The SIT Graduate Institute. There he mentored South Asians participants to explore their artistic skills to further peace in the region. Here, he talks about his involvement with peace work, particularly his use of art to help end violence.

You have experimented with various art forms like paintings, mosaics, sculpture and theatre. What motivates you to invest in art as a tool for peace advocacy?
This is a difficult question, I have been working for peace in various ways ever since I was a teenager and there is still so much war, violence and brutality. Artists and musicians have worked in so many ways to stop governments from starting wars, but it has never worked. The main thing art can do is raise awareness and help people understand the violence present in different situations. Many people are totally unaware of the amount of domestic violence that exists or the dangers of child trafficking. What they often ask is, “what can I do to stop this?”
Even when people know about something, seeing a work of art can make them take it in, understand it, feel it in their hearts. If this can happen then they will do more to end it. In my art work, this is what I try to do.

I am sure using art to talk of peace is a challenge. How have you, in your creations, dealt with peace?
Actually peace has often been an inspiration for my work. When I become aware of something violent that has happened, I use that to create a work of art. Sometimes this work just represents my anger at the people who inflicted this violence and sometimes it is more of a push to get people to understand it and work to end it.
Some of my political paintings were inspired by real life incidences of violence. For example, I painted ‘Collateral Damage’ after the missiles sent to kill Saddam Hussein went off target and killed a wonderful Iraqi artist and her family. Another one titled ‘Grieving Mother’ was inspired by a newspaper photo of a Vietnamese woman crying. I wanted to convey the personal horrors that war brought. ‘Trail of Tears’ depicted the brutal killings of Native Americans back in the 1830s. I also did an exhibition on 9/11 which depicted the history of US terrorism in the world. Other than these individual pieces of art, my extended installations have been inspired by meeting children who were trafficked. ‘Superbowl Scoreboard’ and ‘Witness to Violence’ were inspired by the need to stop violence against women here in the USA.

While not everyone may understand a piece of art, yet a subtle connection is possible in some way
Collateral Damage
or the other. Is it easy to use art to communicate peace, because both art and peace represent simple things of life?
This is an interesting question. I don't know if you have had a chance to start reading the book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, but it is basically about this. Fighting, power and logic are all left brain focused. Art, music, creativity and caring for the community are right brain focused. So seeing art, hearing music creates a more peaceful society. Historically when the most brutal governments take over, they destroy art, censor and kill artists and musicians.
There are a lot of ways to work for peace. In working for peace, much of the work is trying to stop violence. Much of my earlier work focused on showing the impact of violence. But also in working for peace we need to show people the beauty of peace. In my very recent installation, ‘See the Beauty, End the Violence’, the attempt is to show the beauty of peace. I don't think it is easy to spread peace with art, I think it is one of the many very good ways to create peace.

I want to learn about your experience of working in conflict zones around the world, using art to heal wounds.
My first experience in a conflict zone was in Nicaragua during the Contra war in 1986 where I worked with Witness for Peace to document the horrors of war there. I then spent time in Guatemala (1988), worked in an orphanage for indigenous children, many of whose parents were killed by US supported and trained death squads. I set up a carpentry school for the older boys and played with the younger kids. I didn’t do much art, only experienced conflict from an outsider’s perspective. It was in 2003 that I started working on mosaic mural projects with kids in Brazil. It was not a conflict zone, but the kids I worked with had difficult lives. Since then I have worked with street kids in Cambodia, orphans and handicapped boys in Sri Lanka, street kids and a gypsy community in India and a Palestinian girl’s high school in Israel.
When I do such projects, I don't think a lot about the conflict or healing wounds, I just do art with the kids and see that they love doing it. The theme of the art is never about the conflict; it is usually about fun things like animals, dancers, flowers or whatever they want to create. Children especially take a liking to working with mosaics because they have led difficult lives, which leave them with a feeling that something damaged/broken can never heal. The art of mosaic lets them express their inner feelings, creativity and shows them that it is possible to heal even broken pieces.

Can art become a bit disturbing when it tries to communicate peace?
Yes, much art is disturbing, which is often the point - to force people to see the horrors, the brutality that is happening. It is one thing to read about something that happened and it is easy to skim over it and not take it in. To see it as a large painting, photograph, sculpture, film is much more difficult to ignore, so these things can move people in ways that nothing else can.

Grieving Mother
What challenges have you faced as an artist and as a human being to spread the message of peace through art?
One major challenge has been to understand and research the subject that I work on. For instance, while creating a piece of art on trafficking and slavery, I read a lot on the horrors that child victims underwent. It was brutal, and after a couple of months I had to stop reading any more. The other challenge is often the response. I have had my work censored and threatened, especially when it involved challenging the government. It is also very difficult to find a place to show work that is political. During the Contra war in Nicaragua, the city where I was showing a piece about the war, threatened to forcibly remove it. They backed out when I threatened to sue them and their lawyer agreed with my right to do so. After 9/11, it was almost impossible to show any political piece.

Any particular art work or artist who has inspired you?
Kathe Kollwitz, is one of my biggest inspirations. And Picasso's ‘Guernica’, which I used to go see in New York as a kid before it went back to Spain when the dictatorship ended. Picaso did very little political work, but the Guernica is extraordinary. And Francisco de Goya is also an inspiration.

Art is multi-faceted. Is it okay to expect artists to consciously strive for peace through their work? Or rather, let peace flow naturally from an artistic creation?
Artists can contribute to the world in many ways and striving for peace is one of these ways. I think artists who are not political in their work often become so when they see or come in contact with an issue that moves them to face it and work to stop it.
I do a lot of street art that is seen by thousands of people every day and hopefully make their day a little happier. Is a happier world the same as a more peaceful world? I don't know, but I believe that there are two ways to help a person who is suffering. One is to decrease their suffering and the other is to increase their joy. As an artist, I think I can increase people's joy, so hopefully I am helping to alleviate their suffering a little.

The world needs more beauty. The world needs more peace. Both are so important and connected.