Art and the Power to Heal


Using her arms as a makeshift clapboard, a Sudanese woman in a black hijab and black-and-white caftan clapped her hands together, signaling the beginning of the rehearsal. The other amateur Thespians, wearing comic stick-on mustaches, moved to their marks, improvising a scene in a women’s beauty salon where one patron’s hair is accidentally dyed blue.

As the scene ended, all the women were in hysterics, ribbing each other over how they could better play their parts next time. Scenes like this are common at the Kuluhenna Creative Workshop, which is held at a community clubhouse on the outskirts of this Yorkshire city. The workshop is open to all local women, but with a focus on immigrant communities, including refugees and asylum seekers.

The 90-minute class, which the Mafwa Theater has held since 2019, is a happy space. Each week, some 15 women gather to tell stories, dance, act and gossip. They are provided with bus passes, a play area for their young children and an on-site health worker in case any of the women want to talk.

Eman Elsayed, a mother of three originally from Egypt, said before she joined the workshop in 2020, she was “depressed, isolated and fed up” with her life in Leeds. But eventually, especially after joining Mafwa Theater’s associate artists program in 2021, she felt her life change.

“Art, it’s a magic wand,” said Elsayed, who now has a paid job doing community outreach for the program. “But you need to believe, and you need to take the time to see what it will do.”

Mafwa’s project is just one example of a larger trend — as more and more groups and individuals worldwide are using the arts to empower, unite and even help heal people who have suffered trauma, from war and natural disaster, or discrimination, poverty and displacement.

The idea of healing through the arts is an overarching theme of this year’s Art for Tomorrow conference, an annual event convened by the Democracy & Culture Foundation with panels moderated by New York Times journalists.

At this year’s event, this week in Venice, the panel “Arts as the Ultimate Mediator” will examine how people and groups are using the arts in community and international development and in peace-building programs.

“What I observed is that the arts allow you to create a space of truth,” said Adama Sanneh, a conference panelist and the co-founder and chief executive of the Moleskine Foundation. Through its Creativity Pioneers Fund, the foundation gives grants to small community-based programs using the arts to inspire social change, including Mafwa, which received one last year.

“It’s neutralizing, and before the public, the political, there is that space that goes straight to the personal,” Sanneh said. “When you’re able to create that type of environment, even for a second, then things can really happen.”

Creative people have long understood the arts’ power to teach critical thinking and give people a sense of agency. Toni Shapiro-Phim, the director of Brandeis University’s Peacebuilding and the Arts program, noted that “communities the world over have long recognized the potency of the arts” to create constructive societal change.

For instance, she said, over a century ago in what is now Myanmar, the tales told through traditional puppetry were “sometimes the only stories that made fun of authorities or offered alternative ways to imagine what is possible, how to be a good person in the world.” Around the same time, in Russia, artists like Marc Chagall taught Jewish orphans art as a way of helping them work through their trauma.

“In a creative setting there is the encounter of the self, an awakening to your own unconscious, your own experiences,” said Tammy Federman, a filmmaker whose new documentary “Memory Game” is focused on a theater troupe of Holocaust survivors in Israel run by AMCHA, an Israeli social support services organization. “But there is also an encounter of the group because one person speaks about this very traumatic experience and another person can relate to it. It gives courage to open up, share their own experience, and there’s also joy in it, there’s humor in it, there is movement and creativity.”

And while research by Brandeis University and IMPACT, a nonprofit organization that grew out of a Brandeis initiative, found that creative sector efforts that address difficult challenges “are inadequately understood, under-resourced, and/or funded,” there is a growing understanding that through art, individuals and communities — including those who “have been suppressed or repressed” — can make themselves heard.

Recognizing this, mainstream institutions and donors have, according to Tiffany Fairey, a visual sociologist at King’s College London’s Department of War Studies, started taking the arts seriously as a “viable kind of soft power” peace-building tool. “The main critique of liberal peace is its neglect of people who are directly affected by conflict, the fact that communities themselves don’t get to have a say in peacebuilding policy and programing,” she said. Now, she said “people are relying on the arts for their capacity to engage communities.”

Ronen Berger, an Israeli drama therapist who will also be a panelist in Venice, said one reason the arts could be so successful in helping people deal with collective trauma was that creative practices like dance, storytelling and song go back to infancy.

“As babies, when we start our communication with the world it is through play, through voices, through songs, through rocking, which is dance,” he said. “So this way of working is very primal and very universal.”

Berger said when he worked in big groups, the easiest way to connect was through rhythms like clapping. “This way it bypasses language, cultural and age barriers,” he said, adding that performance is important because it not only can raise awareness of an issue, but it also allows participants to feel seen and a part of a wider community. “We can get to know each other and feel we are doing something together.”

That idea, of connecting around something simple, led Michael Lessac to found Global Arts Corps, which has produced plays in post-conflict areas including Northern Ireland, the Balkans and Cambodia. It started with “Truth in Translation,” a play that debuted in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2006 and told the story of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission through the translators’ eyes.

The play traveled to a number of post-conflict zones, creating broader dialogue and debate. “I used to have people come up to me in rehearsal and say ‘Well, I don’t think I can join your project because I don’t believe in forgiveness,’” said Lessac, whose TV directing credits include “Taxi,” “Newhart” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

“And at the time we weren’t talking about forgiveness. I said, ‘I am not asking you to believe it, I am asking you to rehearse it.’” Lessac said he has often asked actors to play the opposite emotion of what they feel.

“So if it’s hate, you play love, and they pick up a lot of things as a result of jumping to the opposite,” he said. “In that sense, you’re going through the process that you can never go through if you’ve got three lawyers and the oppressor standing in the way.”

The arts can also draw attention to issues. “No Direction Home,” a London program providing workshops and gigs to empower people from refugee and migrant backgrounds to perform stand-up comedy, has presented shows that have entertained thousands.

Almir Koldzic, the director and co-founder of Counterpoints, which organizes both “No Direction Home” and Refugee Week in Britain, noted that art has “the capacity to improve our well-being, to help with our mental health, to enable people to use creativity to come to terms with loss.”

“On a wider level,” he said, “the arts have a huge potential to open up the spaces of connectedness, to invite people to develop empathy.”



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