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PeaceTimes Edition 98. Singing for Our Lives: The Absolute Necessity of Peace Art

31 October 2009 7 Comments

by Mary Liston Liepold

Peace studies pioneer Johan Galtung defines peace as nonviolence plus creativity. Yes, we eschew violence. But it’s what we do, what we make, that builds the peace. And perhaps the best of what we make as humans is our art.

Shepard Fairey design from Syracuse Cultural Workers

Shepard Fairey design from Syracuse Cultural Workers

Yet art, like peace, is often defined by what it’s not. Is it creativity primarily for its own sake, the play of the spirit, as opposed to the gainful activity that western and northern cultures, at least, prioritize as serious, adult, even virtuous? In these cultures, grand public “high art” has traditionally been linked with the male sphere and smaller-scale domestic art with the female. Today, as we expand the options available to women and men, we’re also expanding our definitions of both beauty and utility.

A song by the beloved folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger contains the line: “If music could change the world, I would only be a musician.” So, Pete, you’re saying music can’t change the world? Or painting, or poetry, or plays―or pottery, baskets, or beads? The Peace X Peace members and friends I polled this month unanimously disagree. To a woman, they answered the question “Can art change the world?” with a firm Yes.

“It allows people to see the impossible as possible,” says Marie-Ange Binagwaho, who calls herself “a Kenyan with Rwandan parents.”

“The music of love is what has kept me going,” says Joanne Collens from Anchorage, Alaska.

“Music is the art form that touches my life most deeply,” says Mary Cordes, a Peace X Peace member in Detroit. “Music changes people by evoking emotions and inviting participation.”

Changing people changes the world. And if the world we want is peaceful, what kind of art do we need? I asked a cross-section of peacebuilding women how art has influenced their development, and the variety of their responses was as wide as the world. We need a world-ful of peace art in every medium and mode, these women tell me, produced by women, men, and definitely children.

My conversations across the Peace X Peace community suggested at least four ways the arts build peace: by expanding our view of war and peace, by connecting people across cultures, by lifting spirits and healing hearts, and by providing the chance to experience ourselves as creators and co-creators.

Expanding Our View

Each of us has only a limited range of personal, lived experience. Art offers vicarious experience, so a child of war can see a harmonious word and one who lives in peace can see the hideousness of discord. My respondents mentioned Pablo Picasso more often than any other artist in any medium. Some mentioned his doves and flowers and some his Guernica, and some disliked both. But love them or hate them, these images have become part of the world’s shared experience.

Huong, the Vietnamese artist now based in Miami, has made the dove a hallmark of an oeuvre that also includes searing red and black images of death and destruction. “I had to spend 20 years healing, absorbing and creating beauty, before I was strong enough to remember the war I fled from in 1975. I finally let the memories come back and I painted them out. Now I display images of war and peace in sections side by side, so that children, in particular, can see both and choose for themselves.”

Cellist Vedran Smailović in the partially destroyed National Library, Sarajevo. Photographed by Mikhail Evstafiev during the war in 1992.

Cellist Vedran Smailović in the partially destroyed National Library, Sarajevo. Photographed by Mikhail Evstafiev during the war in 1992.

The world saw war and peace side by side in 1992, Peace X Peace founder Patricia Smith Melton recalls, when cellist Vedran Smailović sat down in the wreckage of the National Library at Sarajevo to play Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor. “The Sarajevo library was so magnificent, and the people’s grief for it remains. It was destroyed gratuitously … all in an afternoon’s bombing,” Smith Melton told me. The story of Smajlovic’s courage and Mikhail Evstafiev’s photo traveled around the world, inspiring numerous other works of art.

Most of us remember books or films that opened our hearts to experiences outside our own. It’s a process that begins in childhood and continues all our lives. Two of the books most often mentioned were “The Hundred Dresses,” an Eleanor Estes children’s story first published in 1944, and Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson’s contemporary account of his work in Afghanistan and the relationships that inspired it and sustain it. These experiences that open our hearts also connect us to each other.

Connecting across Borders

Michigan member Mary Cordes has been a choral musician for 70 years, and she remembers choruses all around the world singing at the same time after September 11, 2001. “That was one powerful peace song!” Mary says.

Professor Hahn Jeong Sook, a South Korean member, considers cultural exchange “the most human form of improvement” in international relations. “Last year, the New York Philharmonic’s Lorin Maazel gave a concert in Pyongyang. He even played the US National Anthem. One North Korean man was so moved that he stood up. Watching this on television, I saw the wave of emotion spread through the hall and far beyond.”

Because poems and songs add text to music, they also bind it to a particular culture. Yet the happy mash-up of global pop culture and the global passion for Italian opera both show that voices, as well as instruments, can cross language boundaries. I once heard the late US Poet Laureate Joseph Brodsky read several poems in Russian and knew exactly what they meant. Afterwards the two friends I was with reported the same experience, though none of us knew a word of Russian beyond nyet.

Hahn Jeong Sook

Hahn Jeong Sook

Sohini Baliga, the former editor of PeaceTimes, marvels at Muslims in India “who render the majority Hindu culture in a way that makes everyone stop the shouting for at least a couple of hours. There is little parallel, anywhere, of the late, much loved Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, singing or playing a Hindu bhajan to a rapt audience before, during, or after Partition. Or of Lata Mangeskhar singing “Allah Tero Naam, Ishwar Tero Naam” in Hindi, during a war, and in a movie about war… .

Smadar Levy is from Sderot, the town in Israel next door to Gaza where Palestinian rockets frequently land. She has built a musical career around the positive aspects of growing up on the border, and was honored by Seeds of Peace in 2008 “for uniting cultures to build peace through music.”

The poet Hanan Awwad founded the Palestinian section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In a visit to DC last year she described the trials and indignities of living as a Palestinian in East Jerusalem and the many obstacles to peace. Still she continues to work and write for peace. “The answer is peace and justice are absolute, and the committed writers defend absolute norms and values believing that the word cannot be imprisoned, whatever the occupation and the oppressed power attempt to do.”

Though no translation can reproduce the original, some poetry, like that of William Shakespeare and Jalal al-Din Muhammed Rumi, moves freely across cultural boundaries. As measured by bookstore purchases, Rumi’s popularity in the West currently outstrips Shakespeare’s, making him a valuable counterweight to the “terrorist” stereotype of the Muslim world.

Israeli poet Ada Aharoni, the founder of the International Forum for the Culture of Peace, remembers reading the British poet Wilfred Owen at the Alvernia School in Zamalek, Egypt when she 14 or 15. “I could not stop my tears and decided then to dedicate my life to build a world beyond war through my art.” Geraldine Lewis, an American who has lived in Spain since the 1960s, remembers a similar experience with Charles Dickens’ novels. Today Geraldine is a healer whose rituals draw from a deep well of experience and inspiration.

Leymah Gbowee, featured in Pray the Devil Back to Hell

Leymah Gbowee, featured in Pray the Devil Back to Hell

If Dickens had been alive today, he might have chosen to tell his stories through film. Abigail Disney, who will receive the 2009 Peace Media Award at our signature event on November 11, produced the award-winning documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell after she learned that Liberian women had organized across boundaries to end decades of civil war, and our media had ignored the story. Danai Gurira offers a more intimate portrait of Liberian women in her play Eclipsed, which had its world premiere here in DC and is currently wowing Los Angeles audiences. As an African raised partly in the US, Danai relishes the chance to bring the power and dignity and the complex humanity of African women before American audiences. Creativity for Peace evolved from an arts-focused summer camp connecting Israeli and Palestinian girls to a leadership program that supports the young women in becoming adults who make a difference for their societies. The program “nurtures understanding and leadership in Palestinian and Israeli adolescent girls and women so that they aspire to and take on significant roles in their families, communities, and countries that advance peaceful coexistence.”

Lifting Spirits

Art expands our experience and connects us across cultures. For its own sake, and by its sheer beauty, it can also promote healing, lift spirits, and communicate that those who make and experience it are valued.

While all the arts invite participation, dance may be the one with the fewest boundaries. When we’re happy, we all want to twist and shout. From Dec. 9 – 13 in Nairobi, Kenya, Purple Images Production and Capacity Concern Africa are holding an All-Africa International Dance Festival on Peace. According to the organizers, “… individualized and rationalistic approaches to healing and transformation [cannot] solidly address the challenge of holistic peaceful transformation. Arts approaches provide an accessible language, compelling processes that affirm everyone’s creativity, and, above all, an inclusive space that enables healing, genuine dialogue, and transformation to happen, particularly where the violent conflicts and pains are experienced by masses of people.”

Peace Basket

Peace Basket

Everyone I talked with agreed that especially for children, making art is at least as important as experiencing art objects readymade. Chantal Nimugire writes from Rwanda about the Peace Basket (pictured), and describes how women of tribes that were on different sides in the genocide sit together and weave their lives together. “The beauty of handcrafts transmits a peace message. This basket was the sign of sharing among Rwandan women. When a woman wished to send a gift to her friend women she put something into the basket. The person who uses our Peace Basket will know the symbolism of that basket in Rwandan culture: unity, peace, reconciliation and the beautiful work of Rwandan women.”

And of course selling these baskets, and many other kinds of handicrafts and artisanal products, through the world’s growing fair trade networks, sustains the women and their families—a decidedly practical outcome.

Lesley Pocock, who publishes medical education materials from her base in Australia, also has a practical slant on the esthetics of her product.

“We use art and high-end design in our developing nations projects as a gift. . . . For our United Nations project—distance education in oncology (cancer) for low income nations — we deliberately gave them a high-end product to say “We value you and you deserve the best.” During the five pilot country trials, the biggest comment was about the lovely graphics and colours, so it was received as intended. Everyone felt a bit better, more important and loved.

I do the same in my own first world education for doctors and their exams. As the subject matter is heavy, I commission original art for covers – usually something a bit quirky. That’s the ‘gift’ part.”

Says Ada Aharoni, “Creative activity elevates artistic creators to another level of life – artistic creation brings joy, meaning, significance to our lives, and enriches every minute of our work for the betterment of humankind. It also imparts love and understanding to our audience and our readers, who discover a new life in great works of art, of literature, drama, and poetry.”

Maybe beauty IS its own excuse for being, whether it inheres in a poem, a basket or a symphony. The more keenly we feel the beauty of this world with its diverse people, the more motivated we are to work and connect for its survival. My own answer to Pete comes from the one of the signature songs of another folksinger and activist, Holly Near. As women who love peace, who know that the survival of each depends on the survival of all, we are singing (and painting, potting, writing, dancing, weaving baskets, and more) for our lives.

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About the Author

Mary Liepold is the Editor-in-Chief at Peace X Peace. To reach Dr. Liepold, email
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7 Comments to “PeaceTimes Edition 98. Singing for Our Lives: The Absolute Necessity of Peace Art”
  1. Thank you for the great article about Peace Art. It was indeed very well done and I was glad to see something written so well describing it. However, you hit upon something special that struck me about Peace Education and Peace Art. What we do in our project is combine Peace Art with Education and the inevitable result is Peace Education. Rather than focus on those who already understand the impact and emotional commitment to Peace Art, we use the method of teaching peace through art and have for over 12 years by painting 5 x 12 foot murals on canvas with groups all over the world ranging from homeless, imprisoned, street gangs, shelters, refugees, special needs, HIV/AIDS victims, in hospitals and returning soldiers, and victims of natural and human disasters. To date we have created more than 4,000 of our intended 5,280 murals (12 miles) and it all began very close to the segment you wrote about the cellist in Sarajevo (I was there)in an orphanage in Bosnia when more than 300 children painted the first mural on a bullet riddled bed sheet.
    Since that time, it has been the murals that have done so much to unite people and from this effort birthed our Art Miles Shoes of Hope and MUSAIC Project where people who are inspired by mural art can compose either instrumental or vocals and submit them for what we are developing as a virtual Art Miles of Music international orchestra. We have painted with more than 1/2 million people from over 125 countries, completed and sent 35,000 pairs of hand painted shoes, and have our Musaic project on line ( and (Musaic html). Our focus, as it was when we painted a beautiful mural in San Francisco with PeaceXPeace when Patricia Melton first started, was to reach out to people everywhere to use the arts as a method to bring people together. I would like to say that this has all been done through a 100% volunteer effort and we have now established an International Intercultural Mural Exchange Program (IIME) where 2 schools in 2 countries paint one mural by connecting with each other through the internet via video conferencing. It is magical and we have yard arms of stories about all this.
    One of the 12 themes of our Art Miles Mural Project is “women”, and with all the activities around women, it is the least populated with murals. It would be wonderful if PeacexPeace women’s groups would work together and create murals that can be part of this engaging and most interactive project of artists, real artists…those of us who connect that invisible part of us that is deep inside and translates it to creative expression, healing and hope. The testimonies are endless, but the best are yet to be created and recorded. We are the ones who live in the present that can visually document history as we have so well shown. We would be honored to have a PeaceXPeace section of what we are developing as the “Exhibition of the Century”. In fact, I write this to you from Egypt, where we have just made our Inaugural Exhibition and Announcement.
    The bottom line is that we engage real people, as you do with real women and the artists that we work with are the unsung heroes. In September 2010, we will create a 4th pyramid in Egypt that will be in the form of a MURAMID as we call it consisting of 5,280 murals. The MURAMID and MUSAIC will be presented as the most unique and one of a kind collection, a visual documentation of modern history, if you will, and represent the voice of women, children, youth and people everywhere who dream to live among a culture of peace versus a culture of war. We have honored great heros, including Doctors Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle, and many more with our painters of murals and If any award should be considered to recognize artists, it might be given to those who are normally and consistently overlooked and described as voiceless, when indeed these people do have a voice that will not only be heard but seen.

    Please know from my heart that I believe, as do many of our women who make up most of the facilitators of our team, understand and realize that we may be on a pioneering path to peace through our youth who utilize the arts and technology to participate in a real Dialogue Among Civilizations that is not trademarked by a UN program, but embedded instead in their own hearts to teach and live a Culture of Peace. If the UN or other international programs also recognize us, fine.

    In the meantime, what Art Miles and our ARTIVISTS have created has already been realized as part of the World Heritage, the material (monuments and objects that have been preserved over time) as well as the cultural (living expressions and traditions), through their hearts and minds as a unifying voice of PEACE and of something that can be described as nothing less than Awesome Joy. Please join us in 2010 with a PeaceXPeace section of the Women’s Mile for the construction of our MURAMID that will be modular and mobile and travel throughout the world as a tribute to those artists whose names you many have never heard of.

  2. Anne McCrady says:

    Great post!

    I have been inspired by Texas artist Helen Kwiatkowski. An art professor here at the University of Mary Hardin Baylor, Helen wanted a personal way to celebrate the International Day of Peace in September. Bringing together artists, art students, singer-song writers, poets, community leaders and peace lovers, she hosted The Art of Peace Festival — an evening of peace in image, word and song with peace art for auction and peace T-shirts and pinwheels for sale. Partnering with an English professor at Fordham University, the festival printed a poetry anthology for the event. I was honored to be a featured poet and storyteller. The event was amazing; proof that one woman with a dream for peace can lead hundreds of others to join her! I celebrate artist Helen Kwiatkowski!

  3. Last night, here in Vancouver, British Columbia, I was inspired by Holly Near and Emma’s Revolution singing songs of social change. Their concert stirred up my activist spirit which has been somewhat latent.

    In 1999 I created and facilitated an international community art project called The Middle East Peace Quilt. The quilt panels which were made by over 300 people from all over the world toured for nine years, and whenever I could I toured with them and spoke about all the Israelis and Palestinians who are working as hard as they can for a just and peaceful solution to the conflict and an end to the occupation.

    A couple of years ago I was in Israel and Palestine and facilitated a new project. I worked Jews, Christians and Muslims to create fabric art works in which they talked about their lives, and in the case of the Palestinians, sometimes specifically about their lives under occupation. The main part of the work was done by people in Israel/Palestine, but the finishing sewing was done by women in British Columbia. I have not had the time to put this work out into the world the way I would like to, but inspired by Holly, I decided the time had come and seconds before opening the email from peacexpeace I had sent off a proposal to display the work. When I read that you were collecting the names of artists working for peace, I had to include myself among them.

    I am looking for venues to show the work and any ideas would be welcome.

  4. Floost says:

    I liked it. So much useful material. I read with great interest.

  5. Mares Hirchert says:

    Great article, Mary! Peace Art and Peace Education intrisically connected.

  6. Ada Aharoni says:

    Dear Editors,

    I loved this issue – PeaceTimes Edition 98. Singing for Our Lives: The Absolute Necessity of Peace Art – and the thoughtful emblem of the woman decorated with “Make Art – Not War” is fabulous!
    What about having an issue on “Make Poetry – Not War!” or “Create Peace Literature – Not War!” This is the basis of our organization; IFLAC – THE BRIDGE: The International Forum for the Literature and Culture of Peace:
    and my Homepage dedicted to IFLAC:
    You are invited to visit both and you have our permission to use any of the materials you may like for the Literature issue.
    Elie Wiesel, the Peace Nobel Laureate said: WE ARE THE STORIES WE HEAR, SEE AND TELL! And he is so right! Unfortunately, we consume Violent Literature everyday, as often and as much as we do our own food, and it is high time to make our Culture wholesome and healthy not poisonous – to take away all the violent grains we are fed on in the media, films, video games, and on TV, and replace it with Peace Culture and a moving Literature of heartfelt expression, in addition to Peace Art.
    I was delighted to read Joanne Tawfilis’ response! Dear Joanne, how are you? Your wonderful IFLAC Mural from our 2005 Conference in LA is prominent on our IFLAC website at: Please let me know if you permit us to add your name under it. For me, and many other IFLAC members, the sleeping maiden represents SLEEPING BEAUTY PEACE, the blue bird – and the fairy with the wand – are us – the Peace Organizations – trying with our stories, songs, art and poems, and our magic wand to wake her up! Is it what you intended when you painted this so lovely and moving mural?
    It was such a pleasure to see you and work with you at our 5th IFLAC Conference Joanne, and I hope to see you again soon. Please join us on the IFLAC daily Digest, we need your wisdom, your love of humanity and your so deep understanding of what art and literature and education can do for the creation of a world beyond war, violence and famine. Keep in touch with me at: and join

    With all my very best wishes to you Joanne, to Mary,to the Editors and to all, With love and admiration for Peace by Peace Ada Aharoni

  7. Dear Mary,

    I am Alba Sanfeliu and I am working at the School for a Culture of Peace of Barcelona’s Autonomous University, Spain ( where I work on Arts and Peace.

    I am writing you as some days ago I read your article called ‘Singing for our lives: the absolute necessity of peace art’.

    I want to invite you to check my website (, where you can read the objectives of my work, also see some music dossiers about peace and social issues and also I am creating a list on opinion articles for reflection upon the relationship between the arts and Peace from the artist’s own voice or from expertise on the subject. You’ll see that most of the information of the website is in Spanish or Catalan, but in the articles, there are some in English.

    I would like to ask you if I can add your article in my website. I think is really interesting and I will be happy to share it with the people that visit my website, if you are agree, of course!

    Thanks for your attention and hoping to listen from you soon.
    Best regards,
    Alba Sanfeliu

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