This is an excerpt from our publication Can Art Aid in Resolving Conflicts?: 100 Perspectives, authored by Noam Lemelshtrich Latar, Ornat Lev-er and Jerry Wind. In it, over 100 leading and emerging architects, artists, curators, choreographers, composers, and directors of art institutions around the globe explore the potentially constructive role of the arts in conflict resolution. Below, Cape Town-based artist Maurice Mbikayi responds to the titular question. Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1974, Mbikayi ‘interrogates the proliferation of technological commerce in our geopolitical system’ through his work.

Yes, art could play a constructive role, depending on what artistic practice really takes place at the appropriate venue and time, on the basis of problems solved or unresolved by previous attempts. In his book Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud says: ‘Artistic activity is a game, whose forms, patterns and functions develop and evolve according to periods and social contexts; it is not an immutable essence. It is the critic’s task to study this activity in the present.’ He adds that it could build bridges of understanding. For example, it is an interstice, a gap that opens up to unlimited discussions of peace and understanding. In conflict areas, it brings together two conflicting parties on a certain level of consciousness, while addressing basic socio-political issues in a more playful and poetic way. In other words, it acts as a mediation that links society, history and cultural expression, helping parties to understand the need for changes occurring nowadays in our immediate environment.

Also, in politically, historically and socio-economically loaded spaces, certain forms of artistic expressions must be relational, bringing together a mixed audience to poetically make some demands about basic needs.

Building art institutions, art collaborations, running art therapy sessions, workshops and Youth Museum educational projects could contribute to educate about conflict resolution

By building art institutions, art collaborations, running art therapy sessions, workshops, Youth Museum educational projects, etc. All these could contribute to educate about conflict resolution, resulting in better relationships between art teachers, youth, and communities, and thus helping to build a healthier community. Such resolution could develop skills such as self-reinvention and expression, sharing of emotions, creative thinking abilities, respect of self and others, team work, and dealing with domestic violence issues. As an artist, I was primarily part of a five-year community project called Voyage Ensemble (A Journey Together) with South African and other African artists. Our aim was to foster antixenophobia using community art programs throughout Cape Town, as well as a year-long therapy workshop program for Community Welfare and Development (CWD) in some communities in Cape Town, dealing with post war trauma, racism, xenophobia, and domestic violence. Therefore, in some cases, before helping the youth (which appeared to be much flexible ground for us), we used conflict resolution skills to first help them see why those conflicts occur in the first place, and how to change their perceptions concerning those conflicts.

In presenting a more positive yet subversive approach to conflict resolution, the human body becomes a site of reimagining cultural and political identities

Secondly, in presenting a more positive yet subversive approach to conflict resolution, the human body becomes a site of reimagining cultural and political identities. For example, Congolese dandies known as sapeurs, or the Skhothane dandies of South Africa, form particular subcultures that build on self-expression and bring together communities in creative and festive competitions. The ‘body-subject’ thus has the ability to transcend a rather chaotic socioenvironmental situation, which means that the body reconstitutes alternatives for survival.

Unable to oppose successive dictatorial regimes politically or economically, sapeurs artistically transcend this monotony in the hope of a larger cultural transition; they see their transcendence as a form of democracy compensating for political and economic deprivation. This could also be compared to Ross Posnock’s ‘pragmatic political thinking in the realm of aesthetic,’ which more often leads to the transcendence of colour lines within a racialized Western system than to a confrontation with them. He describes a dandy as a ‘political aesthete,’ a figure that uses beauty to liberate and empower efforts for justice.  He posits W.E.B. Du Bois’ understanding and promotion of this aesthetic (in the USA) as essential to those whose bodies and even imagination have been excessively under surveillance.