Jessie Wells

Dr. Patrice Repar

Arts in Medicine

11 May 2009

The Impact of Art and Healing on Structural Violence

For the last few months I have been considering what exactly art and healing is, the function of such a concept, how one might go about healing through art.  Violence came to my attention some weeks back and as a result I have also been considering this and how it might relate to my understanding of healing through art.  After mulling over what I thought to be my lack of experience with violence and wondering why this fairly broad topic appealed to me so, I realized throughout my life, especially in recent years, I have been exposed to a particular type of violence.  As it says in Violence and Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding: “Structural violence is the most basic or fundamental form of violence.  It is expressive of the conditions of society, the structures of social order, and the institutional arrangements of power that reproduce mass violations of personhood 24 hours a day, 7 days a week” (Barak 113).  Two forms of structural violence with which I am acquainted are child soldiery and prostitution.  In my experiences with each injustice, I have discovered that an appropriate means for healing from an encounter with structural violence is a creative expression. 

Healing through art is a well accepted and implemented form of coping with many detrimental situations, such as physical and psychological illness, emotional and physical pain, etc.  We know that creating art is conducive to a healthy life after one has discovered the existence of an illness or after one has survived an illness.  But what if a person survives an act of violence perpetrated against them which society defines as acceptable?  “Structural violence occurs in forms that include both physical suffering and emotional pain” (Barak 114).  Physical as well as emotional, mental, even spiritual healing must take place to make an individual whole again.  Art may be the answer for such a person who seeks healing from a single violent occurrence or several instances of violence, or perhaps even hundreds. 

I have experienced the violence perpetrated against others, and many times I have responded creatively to it, while at other times I have not.  Sometimes I respond to situations, sometimes to the art of these people whose humanity has been violated.  Never before did I realize that while I was becoming damaged and hurt by listening to the reality of others, I was already beginning the healing process, even while they were healing through creative means and by sharing their lives with me.  Through this interaction unbeknownst to me, we were having a creative encounter, something that I could not have named before studying Arts and Medicine at the University of New Mexico, but a concept so innate that I myself and these others had already begun to take part in such actions of expression. 

My first experience with humans who have been violently acted against was a film documentary I watched several years ago about enslaved child soldiers in the African country of Uganda.  The documentary entitled, Invisible Children, chronicled the most recent events of a war between the rebel faction known as the LRA, or Lord’s Resistance Army, and the people of northern Uganda.  After watching this film I became increasingly interested in this movement to help these children who were being abducted from their homes, villages and families, and forced to kill loved ones so that they would have no hope of return.  This situation is considered to be structural violence because it has not changed in over twenty years, and it is largely neglected by the global community. 

My connection to this situation grew in emotional depth and geographical location.  In August of 2006 my mother went for a two year commitment to teach mathematics at a university in southern Uganda.  While there she befriended a woman named Catherine from the north.  During the winter intersession of 2007-08 I got the opportunity to visit her for three weeks.  During this visit we took a trip to the north and visited Catherine’s aunt, whose name is Florence.  She is from Gulu, the largest city in the north.  Her daughter Angela was abducted by the LRA in 1996 in an infamous raid on a private boarding school in Aboke, Uganda.  Angela was enslaved by the rebels for eight years.  I met both of these women when I travelled to Gulu with my family.  I did not take the opportunity presented to me to talk to these women and I took time to journal about this experience: “It was around this time during which I found out that Angela had been abducted by the LRA, and that is why Florence began to work for World Vision’s rehabilitation center; Angela escaped and came home eight years and nine months after being abducted.  After finding this out, I cursed myself for not speaking to Florence earlier, and perhaps Angela as well.  Although, I really don’t know what I’d say, but I wouldn’t really have to say anything, I could just listen” (27 Dec. 2007, journal entry).  This is an example of an opportunity for a creative encounter which I missed.  I was able to interact with both women, but I did not hear their stories first hand. 

In the summer of 2007, I read a book called Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade and How We Can Fight It.  In this book, which I read before going to Uganda, I found the story of Florence and Angela; my thoughts were on the chapter in this book concerning Uganda when I met them, I had a feeling of knowing each before but could not place it until later when I checked the copy my mother had taken back with her after a visit home.  Florence encourages former soldiers and sex slaves, young boys and girls, to leave behind their lives in the LRA by burning clothing and other items they carried with them.  For the young women she has them dance.  Dance is significant in many African cultures, especially in Uganda, we were greeted everywhere we went with a dance.  In this case, the creative movements and various drumming patterns have a healing effect.  “Activities like the dance remind the women that they are not alone.  They belong to a spiritual clan of survivors” (Batstone 138).  Dancing in a community is a form of Expressive Arts Therapy.  This creative encounter shared within the group offers solidarity among the women and girls who were formerly trapped in the structurally violent community of the rebel army.  A similar situation to this one appears in an interview with Michael Learner, who works alongside cancer patients using alternative medicine techniques, in which a community situation among women survivors is described: “the average length of life for women who participated in the support group was double that of the women who got only mainstream medicine” (Learner 331).  Not only are there no mainstream medicinal cures for the kind of psychological brutality the Acholi people have endured, but they are drawing from the well of cultural experience and expressing themselves by traditional means, by dance and by drum.

My next encounter with structural violence is a less obviously violent situation, in which women are used as sex objects for money.  Prostitution is not necessarily thought of as a violent act, especially if it is socially acceptable.  Although prostitution is illegal in Thailand, it is completely social acceptable and most often times expected.  “Structural violence includes the actions or inactions of both the public and private sectors.  With respect to governments, corporations, or politics, structural harm or injury refers to ‘business as usual’ and to the bureaucratic realities of social, political and economic interaction” (Barak 113).  Prostitution definitely falls into the “business as usual” category in Southeast Asia, the sex trade being the most lucrative commercial endeavor in this sector of the globe.  The country with the most to offer in this practice is Thailand.  “Thailand, in particular, has been branded internationally as a Disneyland for sexual escapades” (Batstone 60).  While most of the patronage is by local men, I worked alongside an organization reaching out to women working in bars located within the red light district catering to foreign men.  The organization, called The Well, had three centers in Bangkok when I went; it has since expanded.  At the three centers the women who choose to join are taught lessons on the Bible, English and life skills in the morning and then they set to work on making jewelry, greeting cards and bags, at the different centers. 

One of the Americans who lived and worked with these women, asked if I, being a student of the arts, might teach them that certain colors do not look good next to certain other colors.  I taught one of the life skills classes: the color wheel.  While I felt incredibly incapable of teaching the English language, which I was set to simply because I can speak, read and write, the brief course I taught on color theory was more related to my skill set, and I found that I was able to communicate more effectively through this visual representation of color relationships than through words most of which I have been using since childhood.  My communication of these concepts was more effective and articulate, even easier for me with these women, among whom very few spoke English.  They understood the concept of colors working together in complementary relationships, and had practical means for applying it within their jobs at each center.  It was a beautiful sight to behold.

Throughout the five weeks I spent in Thailand, I made many sketches and catalogued my hopes and experiences visually.  One of the most liberating pieces I had drawn was the face of a nondescript Thai woman over words I had previously written on the page, which were: I am free.  The words I wrote about myself, and the image I drew as a hope for all my friends who were not yet free.  We copied that particular sketch and gave one to each center before we left, women who had been freed from a life of entrapment inside of bars bringing others who are seeking to be freed as well.  Also, I coped with the despair which was communicated to me on a daily basis through sketching out my surroundings or feelings while processing the grief of these women who felt trapped with no way out of their present situation.  I saw so many beautiful humans in so much pain.  In the article “Living Pain: Mystery or Puzzle?” pain is described as “a subjective experience, perhaps an archetype of subjectivity, felt only within the solitude of our individual minds” (Morris 14).  Although pain is a purely subjective experience, art is an invitation into that experience; it is a window into the mind and soul of the afflicted.  It is at once a cataloguing, an explanation, a liberation.  Art is a conquering in which pain loses power and is confined to a page, in a form or color; it is prisoner to the creator, to the viewer, to the community, and no longer does it imprison the individual.

In my experiences I have found that expression frees, while repression destroys.  Art goes hand in hand with healing in the cases of structural violence which I have witnessed.  One piece of truth that I have gleaned from my past experience as well as my present studies is to create, and never stop creating because out of destruction and pain comes beauty and healing.  When expressed visually by a fellow member of humanity pain becomes actual, and when we are able to relate with fellow members of humanity, we are able to dispel pain by a mutual acknowledgement and understanding.  We validate one another’s experiences, and by doing so we reaffirm each other’s humanity. 


Works Cited

Barak, Gregg.  Violence and Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding.  Michigan, Sage Publications, 2003.

Batstone, David.  Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade—and How We Can Fight It, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

Learner, Michael.  “Healing.”  Wounded Healers.  323-342.

Morris, David.  Chapter I, “Living Pain: Mystery or Puzzle?”  The Culture of Pain. 1993.  9-21.