The Art of Forgetting: Art and Peacebuilding in Moldova and Transnistria

As we prepare to meet in Newcastle, we will present some of the papers and panels that the WG sponsored at our last online annual conference in 2021.  As we are aware of the visa and financial restrictions that make attendance difficult for scholars based in South East Europe, we hope that we can share new research more widely and build a broader community. 

BISA 2021 was host to the South East Europe Working Group’s roundtable, The Art of Forgetting IR: Reflections from South East Europe and Beyond. Taking the provocation to ‘forget’ International Studies, the roundtable engaged in conversations about the role of art, aesthetics, and creative methods in critical engagement with the politics of war and peace. The roundtable brought together scholars working at the intersections of cultural studies, feminist IR, and peace and conflict studies. Building on the longstanding work of feminist and critical IR scholars, the roundtable turned to aesthetics and creativity as a research ethos which challenges us to reimagine the stories we tell about the global politics of violence, war and peace from South East Europe and beyond. In this blog, we hear from one of the contributors Giovanna Di Mauro, Lecturer at Collegium Civitas, Warsaw. The roundtable was convened by Maria-Adriana Deiana and Lydia Cole served as editor for this post.

This article was written by Giovanna Di Mauro
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During the roundtable, I had the opportunity to present how I have engaged with art in my research and to discuss with the other panelists how the arts can contribute to peacebuilding.


Art and political engagement

Having engaged in theatre for many years, I have always found it ‘natural’ to link art and politics, especially art and political engagement. For this reason, my research has focused on these subjects and their intersections. My PhD thesis investigated the way artists in Moldova and Transnistria express their political engagement through their art. Through a focus on different types of artistic forms (theatre, music, performance, film), I demonstrated that art and its distinct mode of knowledge production can be an important vehicle for citizens to actively participate in current political debates. In this same research, I have also questioned the term “political engagement” and have exhorted researchers and practitioners to look at alternative ways of engagement, according to the contexts in which they take place. Contextualising the definition of political engagement means to broaden it without excluding the perspective of those who contribute in visualising and implementing social change. Applied to different contexts, the concept can assume a variety of meanings and can even sometimes be rejected by those who refuse to be associated with it. For example, in countries such as Moldova, some artists might feel uncomfortable with being defined as politically engaged. The reasons for this uneasiness can be found in the country’s past history, during which being politically engaged often translated into some kind of affiliation with the state-apparatus. Furthermore, some artists may avoid the label “politically engaged” to defend their work’s aesthetic value, as they believe that most political artworks do not evoke aesthetic pleasure in audiences.

Another important issue discussed during the roundtable concerned the need to take into account the fact that not all art is suited to serve as a political tool. Some art forms can be considered more ‘accessible’ in terms of political engagement. Music, for example, is easier to circulate and the messages it carries can be spread around faster and more efficiently. With other art forms, such as theatre, on the other hand, it could be challenging to reach audiences. In Moldova, for example, most theatres are located in the capital Chisinau, thus those living in remote areas have less access to them. Hence the necessity to contextualise and recognise local artistic practices as those that matter most in political engagement.


Art and peacebuilding

The discussion we had during the roundtable underlined the importance of considering peace and conflict as entangled elements which work in complex ways. Because of this complexity, it is important to embrace the ‘messiness’ and incompleteness derived through their interaction. The question we tried to answer was “what kind of opportunities emerge when we let creativity work?”. In my work, I have explored how art can offer alternative visions of peace in post-conflict societies. These societies are often portrayed by certain media as stuck into intractable conflicts, where limited opportunities for dialogue or peace can emerge. This seems to be a reductive perspective which does not take into account the variety of voices participating in the construction of everyday peace. Artists are part of these voices. Through their contribution of aesthetic knowledge, they can demonstrate the intricacy of peace and conflict narratives. It is the case for example of photographers working in post-conflict zones, immortalising life in the aftermath of a conflict. In doing so, they challenge epistemic violence and open ways to new thinking, overcoming conflict’s binary divisions and facilitating peace processes. Looking at these ‘unconventional’ ways to approach peacebuilding can help us to better understand the influence that art can have in the aftermath of violence and to recognise the role that artists play in healing divided communities.