Saturday, August 28, 2010

In which We Learn About the Healing Effects of the Arts

As we go about our cynicysm-inducing business in this brutal post-conflict world, there are moments when even the most hardened of us must ask:

But what about the arts? What of the culture?

Funny you are mentioning it. As it happens, HRI actually is very much "into" arts and culture, as long as it serves our interest. For example, many of our innovative "awareness raising" campaigns all over the world involve some sort of "edutainment" based on the time-honored belief that the muses must be slaves to the political agenda, useful tools in getting the message across to people who - between you and me - do not have the sophistication to understand art anyway. Besides, these sort of activities keep youth in the communities away from trouble, provide an opportunity for Peace Corps volunteers with self-perceived artistic inclination to have a go at "directing" and all for a good cause: a 300 words "innovative" textbox in a report plus pictures, apt to put a tear on Emma's keyboard, when she receives the pdf.

What keeps me going though is the satisfaction one gets from imposing one's own artistic mediocrity on others.

We also encourage children off the dump or off the street to paint and, like, be creative? And, as long as their painting talks about peace or lionizes HRI, they often get exposed at the local expat-cafe-that-sells-latte-and-mojito where they even get auctioned. Sometimes, in places such as Mozambique or Cambodia, where the superficially-perceived recent history to number of hipsters ratio is pretty good we thrive in creating sculptures out of weapons under the strict guidance of a HRI endorsed artist/ guru who then sometimes gets "profiles" in glossy magazines where he can speak with humility about "these people's ability to get over their miserable past". Every now and then, we take a liking to one local artist and we do send her to this or the other workshop in New York or Bruxelles, where people get to patronize her and feel good about it at the same time.

Sure one could whine endlessly about this whole thing being a bit dogmatic, what with only encouraging artistic expression of the sort that is endorsed by donors' agenda, but hey, these people are so poor they wouldn't have time to develop their own art anyway. Besides, isn't a painting of a sunset with coconut-palms and fishermen returning in harbor something exotic? Wouldn't you want it in on your wall, next to that lizard made out of recycled rice-bags looking at the Congolese tapestry, an arrangement that is after all a more acceptable modern alternative to the "been there done that" T-shirt?

And how about those beautiful paintings honouring a complex and dignified culture from centuries ago: temples, gods, ancestors? In my tastefully decorated office, i actually have some paintings that combine more of these themes in one: an idyllic, simple peasant landscape (buffaloes and rice-farmers against the rising sun) juxtaposed over a sky where benevolent divinities help erasing the memories of cruelty that country has experienced recently. And how about that charming primitively carved crocodile from Timor, that gets to be the anthropological prop for any small talk in my office: "In Tetum", i say knowingly, "Grandfather and crocodile are homonyms, ain't that cute?".

Presently, one of HRI's for-profit affiliates has perfected a toolkit for the "development of a cultural policy", put together on account of extensive "best practices" acquired in many countries where we work. Often we even place a "Technical Advisor" at the Ministry of Culture (Or "Culture & Youth" or "Culture & Tourism"), who is usually someone with vague artistic ambitions that have never materialized and who has therefore pursued a "Masters in Art History" at a good school and, as a Technical Advisor can become a convenient agent in pursuing both her idealized perception of "exotic" art as well as the more eccentric tastes of the minister, or principal secretary (or their daughter, always a gifted local artist).

Subject like everyone else to Parkinson's Law, the technical advisor will further ensure that a committee will be swiftly formed (sometimes inter-ministerial), as part of HRI's "system strenthening" agenda, that gets to decide whether or not any artistic enterprise is culturally appropriate with direct consequences in that artist's baility to get supported in any way. This committee will be referred to as a "clearing house", a concept much to Emma's liking and consequently warmly embraced by HRI. We sometimnes even expand their portfolio, requiring them to approve any message developed by "the government" (where "the government" is an euphemism for any NGO that works "on behalf" of the government, as we all do). Given that the technical advisor is a HRI person, we happen to have an edge over any other competitor partner, giving us what can be safely described as "domination" of the message agenda - we make good use of that by churning out messages that Emma loves but no-one else understands.

Then, in the sort of restaurants that create a superficial projection of whatever it is perceived as "national symbol" by some British entrepreneur, aptly named and where only expats ever set foot, the technical advisor from the ministry of culture gets to bond with Emma and a junior HRI Program Officer (it's not customary in our world to allow a senior officer to deal with a cultural project; actually, it must be a young female) over "traditional" dishes (not very spicy of course) and the obligatory shared anecdote over the locals' lack of cultural sensitivity, justifiable of course by the brutal recent past.

But how about that French heritage, eh? Well, thank god for that!


  1. I have an innovative idea: how about a photo essay "through the eyes of children"? Where children are given free cameras and take pictures from their point of view (POV)? Then we can put them online and in a book and share their powerful stories.

  2. Yes indeed! There is something absolutely rivetting about watching community theatre that as its base has the messages that are important to HRI. A drama about a mother whose child dies bc she didn't wash her hands and about the grandmother that attends an HRI-affiliate's "grandmother health sessions" and learns about hygiene and then helps her daughter-in-law to prevent the death of future children - why this is surely stuff of a classic canon?! In fact, I re-read classics such as Oliver Twist and shook my head at the absence of NGOs. How can I ever sit through another reading of Antigone and not be dismayed at the lack of strong hygiene messages around the unburied dead? THere is no cultural project as exalted as those that centre around consumption of iodized salt, the correct administration of ORS, and most of all the importance of "knowing" our rights. Nothing is more poignant than the climax of "Naheeda's Dream" than when 12-year old Naheeda proclaims "at first we didn't know our rights but now we know our rights and we will do everything so that our children will not suffer like we did" - says Naheed, exactly 2 years to the day that her own parents will marry her off to a wealthier man 20 years her elder so that they may purchase a high-def TV.

  3. Been there. Done that. Got the community theatre project