By Charalampia Armpounioti
Challenging common stereotypes that undermine youth’s agency in peace processes and portray young people as violent actors or passive victims, youth organizations and activists around the world are actively working to build peace and prevent violence in their own communities. As acknowledged by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security (2015), “youth should actively be engaged in shaping lasting peace and contributing to justice and reconciliation, and a large youth population presents a unique demographic dividend that can contribute to lasting peace and economic prosperity if inclusive policies are in place.”
In order to encourage young people to become meaningfully involved in peace and security efforts, their needs must be addressed, their voices amplified, and their engagement advanced. Ahead of International Youth Day and in support of this goal, we are highlighting inspiring efforts and innovative work by youth organisations and activists in countries where our peacekeeping missions operate, such as Cyprus, in hope of inspiring young people around the world to play a positive role in their communities and abroad.
Visual Voices is a prominent example of such an organization, showcasing the key role of art in peace processes as a uniting force that brings people together. Visual Voices is a non-profit organization supporting young artists from communities affected by conflict. The organisation is based in Cyprus, but it is currently running projects in five countries, works with more than 100 partners in 46 countries and collaborates with a network of more than 60 artists. Its aim is to promote the creation of contemporary visual art reflecting a desire for positive social change and to help establish non-commercial platforms of expression for youth to amplify their voices and advocate for peace. Its vision is to create a global network of peacebuilding organizations, practitioners and artists that acknowledge the value of arts-based interventions and the power of art in peace advocacy.
Thanks to the diverse backgrounds of its team, consisting of artists, social workers, educators, academics, and peace talk negotiators, Visual Voices has a unique multidisciplinary approach to its work. In collaboration with like-minded organizations and individuals, it carries out community projects in support of peace education and positive social change. For example, Color the Court is one such community project by Visual Voices with PeacePlayers-Cyprus, combining arts, sports and peacebuilding in an innovative, participatory approach to informal education aiming to foster dialogue between communities.
The organisation also builds innovative platforms to share the work of socially engaged artists and encourages change within the Cypriot society. A prime example of such a project is the Visual Voices AR App for Digital Graffiti and Storytelling which was developed with support from the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University. This project brought together socially engaged art and augmented reality to promote powerful stories of advocacy and content generated by users. To support fellow artist-activists, the organisation also holds residencies and exhibitions that serve as an opportunity for sharing and exchanging ideas. For example, in their last residence programme that brought together 12 artists from Cyprus, Lebanon and Jordan, Visual Voices helped promote intercultural dialogue through experimental workshops.
As expected, the COVID-19 pandemic affected the organisation’s work to a large extent. According to its team, Visual Voices managed to adapt to the new reality using hybrid or digital approaches to implementing its programmes. However, the lack of overall support for the arts and culture sector made things harder for the organisation, as its key personnel had to continue running the organisation mostly on a voluntary basis.
Visual Voices deplores that youth face a number of significant challenges that make durable peace even harder to achieve. Unfortunately, the long-standing communal division, gender inequality, corruption, and unemployment, along with the abundance of existing conflict narratives, all contribute to making many young people “either indifferent or even negative towards engaging with peace processes and the peacebuilding community.” To address this, Visual Voices incorporates peace education to their projects with the aim to initiate constructive community dialogues. They believe that, “interaction between social art and the public builds awareness. Positive artistic expression supports democratic systems and social cohesion via the advancement of dialogue.”
When asked about the importance of the Youth, Peace and Security agenda, the Visual Voices team stresses that youth’s involvement “brings in new and valuable perspectives along with strengthened youth ownership.” All members of society possess the power and the responsibility to bring positive change within their own community. To achieve this, they first need to topple the existing conflict narratives that promote division, and spread messages that encourage inclusion, collaboration and mutual respect. Even though the organisation focuses on visual artists, it stresses that we should all be included in this effort. “Everyone has existing skills to contribute and everyone should do so by promoting dialogue and civic participation.”
Envisioning a world of peace through visual arts in Cyprus was originally published in We The Peoples on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.