I am in Vancouver to participate in a program called “Give Peace a Chance: Peace Negotiations in Colombia and Turkey,” held at the University of British Colombia and Simon Fraser University on May 10. My host and the mastermind of the conference is Onur Bakiner, a Turkish scholar who has specialized in truth commissions in Chile and Peru, and a recent graduate from Yale University now teaching in the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University. Also participating in the program are two scholars of Turkey: Ceren Belge, a political scientist from Concordia University, and Nicole Watts, a political scientist from San Francisco State University. On the Colombian case, I am joined by two colleagues and friends–Georgetown University political scientist, Marc Chernick, and Pilar Riano-Alcalá, a Colombian psychologist working on issues of historical memory at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia.
The day began with a visit to the University of British Colombia’s spectacular Museum of Anthropology, where we were accompanied by the co-curator of a new art exhibit called “Safar/Voyage: Contemporary Works by Arab, Iranian and Turkish Artists.” It seems appropriate that a conference that brings together scholars of Turkey and Colombia–two countries on different continents that appear to have little in common except that they both began peace processes last year — would be preceded by a visit to this particular art exhibit. The collection of paintings, video installations and sculpture by 17 artists spoke to questions of borders, identities, and the ways that the places we are born shape our lives, our relationships, and our view of the world. It highlighted the complexity of identities in a time when people move around frequently– and not always by choice. The exhibit also reminded me of the importance of art and culture as a way to both express and transform pain.
The opening installation in the Safar exhibit showed a wall of dozens of stylized ovals suggesting faces on faded flags, adorned with Persian cursive that documented the responses of national authorities to requests for entry to each country. The piece made me think about the privilege of mobility that I enjoy as an American and that enables me to travel unencumbered to most parts of the world. The curator who accompanied us told us of the difficulties they had had in getting visas for many of the artists whose work was on display, and also of the obstacles to daily travel within the Middle East, and in and out of the region. In one instance, she noted that an artist in the exhibit who had served in the army twenty-five years ago was required to get a letter from his commanding officer at the time in order to get a visa to Canada. I recalled that Delis Palacios, an Afro-Colombian human rights leader from the Chocó region, could not get a visa to participate in the day’s conference, and I thought about the difficulties that many of my Latin American colleagues, particularly the Cubans, have had in joining the Latin American Studies Association meetings when they are held in the United States. It made me think about how such restrictions limit and shape our knowledge and understanding of other parts of the world.
A series of photographs by the artist Al Ghoussein made me think about another kind of movement across borders–one that is less voluntary. His photos captured a spiritual longing that made me feel the poignancy of being severed from the place you call home. This is a dimension of war that is often overlooked but incredibly poignant.
The UN High Commission on Refugees reports that every minute eight people flee their homes and cross borders because of war, persecution or terror. For the fifth year in a row, there are more than 44 million forcibly displaced people around the world. (See the latest IDMC/NRC report.) This is an epidemic that is almost invisible, and it does not even capture the crisis of those who have been internally displaced by war. In Colombia, in addition to about half a million refugees in more than 35 countries, there are between 4.9-5.5 million Colombians who have been displaced within their own borders. Colombia has the highest number of IDPs in the world. In Turkey, government forces displaced more than one million Kurds from their villages fifteen years ago in their fight against the PKK, an armed organization that strives for Kurdish self-rule. These human legacies of war will need to be addressed if either peace process is to succeed in the long term.
Another striking exhibit was a sculpture of a huge metal globe on which a map of the world glowed in neon red. The sculpture underscored that although we might ordinarily label some places as “hot spots”, globalization means that anywhere and everywhere are places of violence. This is a lesson that we in the United States are learning over and over again, most recently with the horrific killings in Boston.
A video installation in the exhibit allows you to book a trip online to Baghdad and then to visit Iraq via a video that included war scenes of the locales being described a promotional travelogue narrative describing the wonders of the city. The juxtaposition of the visual devastation with the audio voiceover is jarring to say the least.
Perhaps the most piece was a video in which groupings of shadowy figures chatted among themselves and went about their activities in a scene by the water. Toward the end of this short, 4 minute piece, an image of a hanged figure floats upwards across the screen, completely ignored by those on the beach. Shot in a rather tight palette of gray with only a hint of pink drifting onto the screen in relation to children’s playing, the video was highly suggestive and left me a bit perplexed. Was the artist suggesting that life goes on in the midst of violence? That violence is a part of life? That we are no longer shocked, or even affected, by the violence around us? I don’t have an answer to this, but the piece was exquisite.
The exhibit challenges stereotypes, particularly national stereotypes, in provocative ways. It left me wondering about the ways that our ideas about violence and its connection to particular groups, cultures, or nations shape our relationships as nations and as individuals. It was a great way to prepare us to discuss the peace processes in Turkey and Colombia later that day at the University of British Colombia’s Green College and at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre. I’ll share a few reflections on the conference in my next post.