Friday, June 17, 2011

The Power of the Aesthetic Dimension

Much has been written on the dire situation of refugees "warehoused" in camps, and in particular of the mental health impacts of this state of dependence. Alternative durable solutions, such as resettlement in a third country or local integration, are often offered as solutions, as are micro-development and sports initiatives to empower refugees. Scholar and accomplished soprano Awet Andemicael (pictured below right) recently published a UNHCR report that suggests an oft-overlooked but promising tool: active participation in artistic activity. In Andemicael's words, the arts can be used "as a vehicle to address psychosocial issues; as an educational tool; and as an effective medium for behavior change communication."
The report begins by situating artistic and cultural expression as a (1) component of basic human rights (freedom of expression and freedom to pursue a profession) and (2) a mechanism to achieve other humanitarian goals. Andemicael describes the many benefits that active artistic activity -- creating rather than observing the arts -- can bring. Aesthetic expression may offer participatory solutions help to empower and restore agency to refugees struggling to adjust to life in the camps. It may present a reminder to these individuals of their multifaceted identity beyond being a "refugee." She suggests that active artistic activity is a form of psychosocial wellness that treats not only individuals but also integrates them into a larger cultural context. Andemicael also reminds us that much artistic expression can be performed at very minor financial cost.
The study next documents reported artistic efforts, noting that her sources are purely anecdotal and suggesting that there is much more research to be done here. Even so, Andemicael presents some compelling suggestions and examples, such as
  • the use of "street theatre, participatory dramatic skits, songs, poems, etc., to disseminate information about [gender-based violence], help reduce the stigmatization of victims and apply behavior change communication techniques to change social attitudes toward GBV, especially among potential perpetrators", and
  • in "Tanzania and Burundi, former refugee Noe Sebisaba‘s organization, STOP-SIDA Nkebure Uwumva (Stop AIDS – Advice to those who are ready to receive it), uses music, dance, drama, posters, and other methods to transform attitudes towards people infected with HIV/AIDS and promote AIDS prevention."
Andemicael recognizes that the use of arts is not, of course, a panacea. Aesthetic expression comes with its own risks -- it may be used to propagate gender oppression, high-risk sexual behavior, or as a tool for manipulation. Even in the best of circumstances, it takes time for artistic activity to influence attitudes and behavior. But this is not a reason to shy away from such efforts but rather a cause for further and more systematic research on the topic.
In Andemicael's words, "[a]t its best, artistic activity is deeply participatory, connective, and empowering, comprising one component in comprehensive, long-term efforts to make a practical impact on refugee concerns." She quotes Palestinian refugee and dancer Manar Faraj,
[T]he best moment is when we stand onstage feeling the wood under our feet, with our legs and hands ready and the people out there […] We are thinking, 'Look, we are here; we are doing something. In the camp we may be dirty and poor, but inside, I feel shiny and rich.'

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