Keynote address delivered at the opening night of ‘Watch this space‘ exhibition at the Park Street Mews. The exhibition runs till the 16th of August. Details of the event and the associated public talks, keynotes and theatre here.


When Sanjana Hattotuwa asked me to give the keynote today on the topic “Beyond Violence and War- Imagining a Just Peace” and to center that topic around the question of art, I promised myself that I will not allow myself to slip back into UN jargon. As you know I have been to over 35 countries and armed conflict sites as the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and the Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict. Instead I thought I would speak to you from the heart- what Art requires of us- and the gut- because the sentiments I feel and have yet to articulate continue to haunt me through my life

The first point I would like to speak to you about when it comes to the question of moving beyond war and violence is the issue of communication. It is central to the understanding of art’s link to violence and war and the pain and suffering it causes.

I was rereading Valentine Daniel’s Charred Lullabies  the other day:- we forget that some of the seminal work on war and violence was done in the 1980s by Sri Lankan anthropologists. Daniel interviewed many victims of violence including torture victims and he found a pattern emerging.

The first response of most victims of violence he interviewed just after the event is a stoic silence. I found this to be the case in my interviews around the world. Then many of his interviewees would begin to talk about their experience in terms of material fact, the cells they lived in, the meals, the furniture, and their conversation with fellow prisoners. It was only after weeks of talking and coaxing, when they have established trust that they first begin to talk about the pain and the humiliation. Initially they will hazily sketch in words the broad outlines of what happened without emotional content.

Then there comes, what he calls the “moment of terror”, which is initially inexpressible in language. It may take the form of uncontrollable sobbing, incoherent rage, rolling on the ground, body shivers etc.… It is only when this “moment of terror” passes that pain is dislodged from its fixed site and becomes understandable to the victim and their families. This of course in the center premise of psychotherapy and is perhaps also the basis of exorcism rituals and thoyil ceremonies. I must say that I found my experience with women and child victims of violence to be nearly identical to that of Valentine Daniel.

Taking theories of Peirce and Nietzsche, Daniel then points out how pain is a lot like the apprehension of beauty. If one sees something beautiful like a work of art, we have some type of non-mediated reaction as we do to pain. There is an immediate, present, uncategorized pre-reflexive experience- what my cousin Anjalen calls the “Umf” moment- a real authentic genuine gush of feeling before reason steps in and clarifies the experience. Pierce calls it the “Firstness” of experience.

This pre-reflexive period of authenticity and genuineness then links art, beauty and pain and it is the reason why art therapy is increasingly becoming the way that communities of caregivers help individuals and groups to heal. I was in Gaza in 2011 two weeks after the Israeli operation that destroyed everything that could be destroyed had ended. As I was dealing with children I went into a classroom that was using art therapy and asking children age 5-7 to draw. I went to the first desk. The girl sitting there had drawn a large house where she and her parents were huddled in one corner. On top of the house there was something like a helicopter and in either side of the house there were soldiers shooting at the house. She was six years old. Despite the graphic nature of this drawing, when I spoke to her she was mostly silent. What she expressed in art perhaps she will never express in words. Butterfly Garden in the Eastern Province also used this therapy with children in the 1980s and 1990s, the paintings being an important part of their healing.

I have seen the importance of art and its healing effects in the life of my friend Sonali Derinyagala who lost her family in the Tsunami. She came to New York in 2006 in terrible, inconsolable pain. Her therapist made her write, her most honed skill. She wrote and rewrote from morning to evening; she would drag me along to museum exhibitions and art installations because she found them therapeutic and inspiring and finally she produced that amazing book Wave. It was a work of so much love and so much pain and its authenticity is present in every page. She has not got rid of the pain but she has emerged from her “moment of terror” and can hold that pain and control it. She is a hard-core economist but for those few years she took leave, read every piece of literature on the topic and went to every artistic event in New York that could make her understand her pain, guided by her therapist. Art then healed her- it was her spiritual mentor.

There are some people who believe that denial and the stiff upper lip is the best way to deal with pain. Argenti -Pillen studying survivors of the JVP violence of the late 1980s argues that those who went through some form of therapy were worse off today than those who just got on with their life. One has to wonder at this since it is against world experience.

Could it be that those who went through therapy are just more honest and expressive as a result of confronting their “moment of terror” or that those who did not go to therapy expressed their pain to someone else like a priest or directly to God? The research of Gananath Obeyesekere and Patricia Lawrence at Kali and Pattini temples seems to suggest this. It is also the reason art thrives in conflict situations. Daniel points out that until the war, Jaffna had a more static artistic tradition. With the war came street theatre, Sanathanan and his paintings, and some of the most beautiful poetry you will ever read. Again art became the spiritual mentor.

Besides being a major vehicle for self -expression during and after war, art is also capable of creating the enabling environment for political and social reconciliation. When artists create works of art that resonate with their audiences, they can help create the mental framework where noble sentiments for peace, harmony and good will thrive. This need not be at the national level but even at the local level in street theatre and street art.

Once communication finally takes place we enter the real world and the world of legal and political redress. This to me is a minefield and a danger zone especially in the world of a globalized media. In my dealings with victims I have met two kinds. The first follow the pattern set out by Daniel. Only after hours of conversation and trust do they open up. And then they are ambivalent. They will at one point say firmly take my story to Geneva, let the world know what happened to me, and at a later time they will cry and say how can I live if everyone knows of my shame. This is why those giving voice to women and children’s stories have to be so sensitive and protective.

There is another class of victims, coached by politically interested groups, who will come to you and immediately start shouting with moral outrage as to what happened to them and how the world is ignoring them, blaming everyone and of course the United Nations for doing nothing. Sometimes I ask myself are these people truthful because they do not really sound authentic. Today we have the politics of spectacle because of the global media, especially on the issue of sexual violence and especially in Africa. This is something that must be reversed or guarded against so that we can protect the narratives and interests of the victims and prevent them from being exploited and manipulated.

That is why I am with Daniel and Peirce and Nietzsche: – the rational, analytical words of lawyers may be necessary to get redress but art is the most authentic and genuine way to represent pain because like pain it has that pre-reflexive moment of absolute innocence and lack of guile. To go beyond war and violence, then, art must play it part. It must collect narratives, give representation to them and most of all it must be available to the victims of pain and suffering to express themselves in the way they know how. As a medium of expression it has a central role to play.


The second point I would like to make is that while this emphasis on art is important and its role in reconciliation, we cannot forget the material reality. While I worked for the UN, I worked closely with women victims of violence especially during and after war. If they are single women or female heads of households, they often go into what I will call survival mode. They have no time for communication or art. They do not have many options. They have about three avenues they can pursue- they can take to sex work, they can become domestic aides or become factory workers- the most exploitable categories of work that exist. They are also open to human smuggling and human trafficking. In fact all the great waves of human trafficking are often linked to women fleeing situations of conflict. It is therefore important that while we engage in these topics of representation, we do not forget that one important aspect of healing is to have education, livelihood and employment that will make these women and others in their community self reliant and independent. The material reality will always condition the way we deal with the spirit.


I would now like to talk about the second part of the title of my lecture- imagining a just peace- and relate it to the issue of memorialization. A very important aspect of a just peace is to recognize the pain and sacrifice of everyone who suffered during the conflict. Memorialization through art is one way that suffering is recognized. In fact the International Criminal Court in its seminal judgment on reparations said that memorialization should be an essential part of any reparations package given to victims pursuant to a conflict.

As a Special Representative of the UN, in every country I visited, I was always taken to a monument or a site of memory. These are supposedly places to remind generations to come of what happened and also to help communities heal so that they can get on with their lives. Again art plays an important part.

When I survey what I have seen I realize that the basic purpose of memorialization is for the society to say “Never Again”. We have had enough. In fact Benedict Anderson’s insight that what binds nations together are not moments of common triumph but moments of common suffering is truly present at these sites. They are also places to commemorate those who died, to recognize what they went through and to remember them for centuries to come.

The most traditional monuments that exist in the world today are of course for war heroes- the soldiers and service personnel that died during a war. This was the tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth century. They were masculine and triumphant sculptures or sites. One of the most famous is the Japanese War Memorial that is a sacred ritualized place for extremely right wing Japanese where they commemorate Japan’s military prowess and a site that all the victims of Japanese atrocities in World War II in China, Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines want destroyed. It remains a very controversial place. Another famous one is of American soldiers struggling to raise their flag- not even over their country but over some place in Japan.

Our own country also has recently built these military monuments especially in the North and East. I must say that these monuments scare me to death- they are openly aggressive and very insensitive. They symbolized an intensive period of militarization and the normalization of the values and practices of militarization.  In addition local populations were not allowed to build their own monuments, even if they were apolitical, or have days of mourning for the dead. Hopefully we will slowly move away from all this toward more civilian and humane ways in acknowledging the role the military has played in our recent history.

My favourite war hero memorial is in Arlington cemetery in Washington- an eternal flame in front of a wall with the names of all the servicemen who have died in war. It is a calm place where one can sit, reflect and mourn.

There is one country that tries to combine one monument for war heroes as well as war victims and that is Belgium at Ypres. It is a strange monument- on the one hand it has a snarling lion and very masculine, aggressive looking soldiers that is juxtaposed with a pieta like statute representing the victims. One gets very mixed semiotic signals from this sculpture.

The most interesting monuments and memorialization sites that have been built lately have been for victims only. In Sri Lanka too had a beautiful monument for the disappeared of the late 1980s. In this area of memorialization for victims, there are also different types of approaches.

In Rwanda, where I went a month after the genocide, I was first taken to a school and then to a church where thousands of Tutsis were killed. At that time at least, their skeletal remains were kept in both the school and church, untouched, as a memorial: – hundreds of bodies all over the floor and on top of each other. In Cambodia to commemorate victims of the Pol Pot era, there are pictures and stories of victims who were killed but at the entrance in a graphic gesture there is a collection of skulls of some of those who died. Both these sites have a spectacle quality. Their message is clear- “Shame on you- the perpetrators are monsters, they must be punished and dehumanized and never again will this happen.”

The second type of memorialization is a more general memorialization, without naming individuals but with statues to commemorate the suffering. The Neue Wache in Germany that has a checkered history now is a large room with a Pieta like statue with a powerful light falling over a mother bent over her child. The Children’s War Victims monument built in 1963 in Lidice Czechoslovakia is also another stunning piece in this genre- some very animated, real life statues of children. This was prevalent in the 1950s and the 1960s.

The third type of memorialization takes the form of a classic museum with all the details carefully put together with the help of a curator. The Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, the Yad Vasham Museum in Israel and the ESMA the Museum for the disappeared in Argentina are examples of this. Here the emphasis is on remembering the victims. Yad Vasham Museum that was initially a political history museum describing political event has since 2005 become the museum for the personal histories, stories and narratives of victims. There is a newly built Hall of Names that is two cones with pictures and narratives of victims. It also has a comprehensive data bank including audiovisual work that aims at collecting the name and histories of all the victims of the holocaust as well as their narratives and stories.

The fourth type of memorialization is more abstract and attempts at universality like the Hiroshima Peace Park with a huge granite arc at its entrance. It does not blame anyone or say anything but every 6th of August thousands gather here, say a silent prayer, bells are rung, songs are sung and a thousand doves are released. In Sarajevo there is an eternal flame to commemorate the war dead. It is a huge flame that looks very poignant given the history it represents.

One of the  most talked about memorial in the last decade is the German Holocaust Memorial that is titled, “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”. It is a 4-acre site near the Brandenburg Gate and is made up of gigantic concrete slabs. They are identical with regard to horizontal size but a different size vertically. The Memorial evokes a graveyard where unburied or unmarked bodies may have been thrown. When one walks around in the narrow alleys one gets very claustrophobic as one does in a maze. The names of the victims are kept in an underground space but is difficult to find and therefore this monument has often been criticized – The New Yorker’s Richard Brody in a blistering critique says “The mollifying solemnity of pseudo-universal abstractions puts a great grey sentiment in the place of actual memory.”

I must say the September 11th memorial in New York where the World Trade towers stood is also quite breathtaking. It has cascading waters that fall into a reflecting pool. When you are there the sound of the water drowns out the noise of New York and you feel very peaceful. On the edges of the wall from where the water begins, the names of all those who died are carved- thus avoiding the type of critique that the German memorial received.

These debates within the memorialization schools are actually a reflection of the greater debate of what we mean by a just peace. Like Rwanda and Cambodia is it necessary to do “shock and awe” scream never again and severely punish the perpetrators. Will that really heal our nation? Or like Esma in Argentina do we celebrate the victims but also keep the memory in a curated museum manner. Esma is actually located in the largest detention center where people were tortured during the dirty war. The apparatus of torture are still there as are the notes of the officials and the pictures of the victim. Or do we step back and go beyond the blaming and shaming game and like the September 11TH memorial, just recognize the victims but be soothed by an abstract depiction of grief and suffering.

For me ethnic wars are different to the dirty wars of Latin America. I do think there must be a mechanism to punish perpetrators in Sri Lanka but along the model now common in international practice- that only those who bear the greatest responsibility actually face the full force of the law. This is what happened in Sierra Leone and is happening in Cambodia. For others, the vast majority, there must be another process of reconciliation and healing. For that we need a strong truth and reconciliation process of which the memoralization I have described above is an essential part.

What type of memorialization will be best for us? I must say I am a fan of abstract sites of memoralization  and healing which also contain the names and narratives of victims to remind us of actual reality.  Abstraction reminds us of our place in the cosmos, the universality of certain experiences and often provides us with an atmosphere for solitude and reflection.  Insisting on placing the names of those who died and also their stories makes us recognize the particularity of our history and the individual suffering of so many of our countrymen.

The time will come in the near future where we in Sri Lanka will have to think of memorialization in greater depth. The armed forces would have to find a way of commemorating those who died and communities have to find a way to remember those who were killed, whether at the national or local level. To do this we must go back to Daniel, Nietzsche and Peirce; we must remember the important role of art in this whole process. If we are to have any reconciliation, the artistic community must be fully involved and if I may say so, perhaps take the lead.  It is up to all of you to remind us of our humanity, in a way that only you can, and to help take this country forward. I hope this talk will inspire you in that direction.