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In Place of War

Think of Syria and you inevitably think of war. Yet out of the rubble of a country torn apart by conflict comes artistry, music and hope. Syrian beatboxer Adam AlNajjar, 16, thrilled an audience at Manchester University at an event to showcase In Place of War - an AHRC-funded research project studying art in war-torn areas.

In Place of War began in 2000 when drama professor James Thompson was invited to Sri Lanka to help develop theatre. “You would not imagine theatre and art flourishing in war zones. Yet it does.” This gave him the idea for In Place of War. “There was so much art being created in Sri Lanka despite the conditions that I felt sure something similar was happening in other war zones. So I decided to find out.”

Funding for nearly ten years from the AHRC enabled James and colleagues to visit war-torn countries to find whatever art was being created so it could be documented. In Place of War includes work of refugees forced to flee. Artists such as Adam who left Syria with his father two years ago. Though settled in the UK Adam hopes to return one day. Meanwhile he wows shoppers on the Manchester streets with his beatboxing - a form of vocal percussion using the mouth and a microphone.

Daily now there are news reports of atrocities, explosions and lives ripped apart by war. But when the cameras leave, life goes on. People go to work, feed and raise their families. And they make art of all kinds: music, drawing, writing, painting, sculpture, dance, drama and song. Art that might be, but isn’t necessarily, in response to war.

Thanks to AHRC Follow-On funding it is now possible for this art to be seen much more widely. “This work deserves a wider audience. So we’ve used some of our grant to create an online platform for artists,” added James. This has resulted in the portal http://www.inplaceofwar.net

The website was launched in Cairo so artists working there could offer immediate feedback. One of the artists featured is Ramy Essam, Egyptian musician best known for his appearances in Tahrir Square during the 2011 Egyptian revolution. His song Irhal meaning “leave” was voted No.3 in listing magazine Time Out chart 100 Songs That Changed History. “Music is the strangest weapon because it’s a peaceful weapon,” said Ramy.

In Place of War hopes to bring Ramy and other war artists to a stage in the UK. “People can access them online but live events have never been more popular. You can’t beat actually seeing something,” said James.

This is why, unusually for academic research, In Place of War is going on the road. This Summer it will feature at a number of boutique festivals including Portmeirion’s Festival No. 6, Bestival, Shambala and Glastonbudget. “I’ll be giving talks about In Place of War in tents all summer. I’ve no idea if anyone will come but I’m going to do it anyway! I’m calling it academics in wellies,” added James.

AHRC funding has given James the necessary time to write several academic books about his research into the impact war has on art and the huge importance art has in people’s lives. Judging from the turnout at his own university to hear about In Place of War, it’s clearly a subject that fascinates a wide and diverse audience. This was further illustrated when on June 11th James gave the highly prestigious Cockcroft Rutherford annual alumni lecture at Manchester University. For an institution with a reputation founded mainly on science - Brian Cox gave the lecture last year - it was quite an accolade for an arts professor to be chosen.

Funding provided by the AHRC has paid for two PhD students, a research associate and part-time administrator Ruth Daniel who went to Egypt to set up the website. “We want to open this up to as many artists as possible and not just privilege theatre and mainstream art,” said Ruth. “We don’t like to act as top-down moderators for the site so artists will be responsible for policing it and deciding among themselves if something isn’t appropriate or gives offence. We’ll negotiate if there are issues. We’re all still learning.”

Ruth stressed the team at In Place of War recognises not everyone has good internet signals nor the equipment to access it, especially in countries ripped apart by war. But it was felt this was the fastest way, initially, to bring war artists’ work to a wider public. Artists upload their own work so it’s empowering people who often feel utterly powerless and overlooked.

This was echoed by rapper Danny Fahey who visited the barrios of Medellin - Colombia’s second largest city - for In Place of War. “I was playing football and a kid rushed up to me and said ‘I want your tee shirt!’ It was just an ordinary tee shirt so I asked why. ‘Because I want to prove someone from outside the barrios visited.’

“Art and protest is everywhere in Colombia. Figures for teenage pregnancy and murder rates are elaborately painted on flat rooftops so travellers in cable cars above can clearly see what lies in barrios the cable cars don’t service. A group of vegans who believe veganism is the key to reducing violence paint murals with the slogan ‘commandos of the potato peelers’. Even a big yellow bus I rode on was highly decorated.”

Tracey Moberly, author of Text-Me-Up, is another artist who’s been out to visit artistic communities in the developing world. In Haiti she found people with literally nothing nevertheless making art from whatever they could find - including body parts! “Burials only last six months after which time the body parts become available. I touched a skull in a sculpture only to be told it belonged to someone who couldn’t get a visa to leave the country but his skull now travels all over the world! Damian Hurst wasn’t the first person to make art from a skull!”

Although it could be argued that all art should be provocative and challenging, art created in war-torn areas is, by its very nature, especially so. Now some of the most inspiring and moving art made against incredible odds by people facing a daily struggle to live can be seen by us all thanks to In Place of War. Judging by the interest shown so far, this art is going to reach a wide audience.

For further information, please go to the In Place of War website.

Feature article by Laura Marcus

All Images provided by Professor James Thompson

  • Feature Image: Kooththu dance class, eastern Sri Lanka after the cease fire
  • Small Girls: Girls practising Kooththu dance in eastern Sri Lanka
  • Bottom image: Feet of a Kooththu dancer, eastern Sri Lanka

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