In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing about the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht
In this session, the chair and the panellists unpacked the idea of the role of the artist in bringing the message across to the people, and to tell us about the war to keep the peace.
The conversation moved from the personal to the political, from the micro to the macro, and to question of compassion versus empathy. What is the role of the individual, and what part does government play in setting the tone of any given debate?
Kon Karapanagiotidis, author of memoir The Power of Hope, accused members of the Australian government of poisoning our hearts with a corrosive and hateful discourse on refugees. Chair Ailsa Piper disagreed.
‘Are they poisoning our hearts, or are we responsible for allowing our hearts to be poisoned? I feel as though I have no agency if I think the government is responsible,’ she said.
One of the roles of the artist is to make the invisible visible. Art might not change the world, but it might transform the way you see the world, and that might make all the difference.
As a refugee from the Congo, Future D. Fidel uses his play, and now novel, Prize Fighter, to tell the story of the terrible, decades old war and death the Congo has been enduring, largely unnoticed by the world.
‘Since 1996, 5.4 million people have died in the Congo conflict. To put this into perspective, one million people were slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide. As an artist, it’s my duty to tell what I know.’
Sarah Sentilles, Draw Your Weapons author, told the audience about an Iraqi artist, Wafaa Bilal, who had his back tattooed with dots representing each person who had died in the Iraq war. All the dots were visible only under ultra violet light, except for US casualties, who were represented by black dots.
‘For many years, I thought my pacifism absolved me from my country’s wars,’ Sentilles said. ‘But then a student came into my class who had gone to the Iraq war to earn money he could sit in my class, and I realised that nobody is exempt, least of all me.’
Who decides who is seen, heard, believed and valued and who isn’t?
It is also the role of the artist to make the political personal. Karapanagiotidis invites the reader into his heart, that vast space where all are welcome, to explore how a humanitarian is made.
‘My life is a dance between despair and hope, between the personal and the political. My self-loathing and frustration at my inability to help myself gradually turned into a desire to help others,’ Karapanagiotidis explained.
‘I have traditionally practiced self-care badly – in the hierarchy of needs, I tend to think mine are at the bottom, plus I’m a social worker, so I already know everything about self-care!’ he said.
‘Now, self-care is a daily practice.’
Sentilles, who originally trained to be an episcopal priest, wants to move away from empathy, and its attraction to that which is like ourselves.
‘I can identify what is like me, but what about what is unlike me? If I am standing next to someone who is so different to me that it makes my heart pound, can I recognise that I am in the presence of the Divine, and then ask myself, how can I protect this person?’
In the question of who is responsible for peace – the individual or the government – the answer must be both. Sentilles told us that the most hopeful idea she can offer, is that everything is made up – and if it can be made, it can be unmade.
Sara Runciman is a Southern Cross University Digital Media and Communications student.