Cover image: ©Yücel TÜRKOĞLU

It isn’t the first time that we are being tested – and like many before us, we turn into a creative refuge and bond with one another through the stories of peace and hope that have been carried by artworks. We have compiled a list of artworks and creative initiatives that illustrate the power of art. Let’s not forget that art has tremendous potential for peacebuilding, but further than that it also provides solace and a way to ease into post-conflict reconciliation as well as healing.  

Eugène Delacroix | La Liberté guidant le peuple, 1830
This sizeable painting which is exhibited at the Louvre in Paris commemorates the 1830 July Revolution ( Interesting myth debunking – contrarily to popular belief this painting doesn’t depict the French Revolution of 1789! ). This painting represents a woman leading the people over the barricades (and bodies of the fallen), it has long become a symbol of revolution, liberty and democracy.  The backstory? On July 25, Charles X publishes four ordinances with the aim of crushing the liberal opposition. These measures included the suspension of the freedom of the periodic press, the dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies of the departments, the reform of the property-based suffrage favourable to the aristocracy and the convocation of the electoral colleges for the month of September. The opposition calls for disobedience and this is what Delacroix immortalised in his famous painting.

Paul Klee | Angelus Novus, 1920

This is how one pictures the Angel of History.” – Walter Benjamin

Angelus Novus, the Paul Klee painting barely known during his life, became Klee’s most famous painting, mostly because of the exceptional story of its connection to German-Jewish philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin. Benjamin purchased Angelus Novus in 1921, frequently referring to the work as his most treasured possession. The angel was to make appearances in Benjamin’s writing until his death in 1940.    
Discover more about Angelus Novus on The BBC website or The Israel Museum one 

Pablo Picasso | Guernica, 1937 
An accurate depiction of a cruel, dramatic situation, Guernica was created to be part of the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exposition in Paris in 1937. Pablo Picasso’s motivation for painting the scene in this great work was the news of the German aerial bombing of the Basque town whose name the piece bears, which the artist had seen in the dramatic photographs published in various periodicals, including the French newspaper L’Humanité. Despite that, neither the studies nor the finished picture contain a single allusion to a specific event, constituting instead a generic plea against the barbarity and terror of war. The huge picture is conceived as a giant poster, testimony to the horror that the Spanish Civil War was causing and a forewarning of what was to come in the Second World War. The muted colours, the intensity of each and every one of the motifs and the way they are articulated are all essential to the extreme tragedy of the scene, which would become the emblem for all the devastating tragedies of modern society. 

Guernica has attracted a number of controversial interpretations, doubtless due in part to the deliberate use in the painting of only greyish tones. Analysing the iconography in the painting, one Guernica scholar, Anthony Blunt, divides the protagonists of the pyramidal composition into two groups, the first of which is made up of three animals; the bull, the wounded horse and the winged bird that can just be made out in the background on the left. The second group is made up of the human beings, consisting of a dead soldier and a number of women: the one on the upper right, holding a lamp and leaning through a window, the mother on the left, wailing as she holds her dead child, the one rushing in from the right and finally the one who is crying out to the heavens, her arms raised as a house burns down behind her. 

At this point it should be remembered that two years earlier, in 1935, Picasso had done the etching Minotauromaquia, a synthetic work condensing into a single image all the symbols of his cycle dedicated to the mythological creature, which stands as Guernica’s most direct relative. 

Incidents in Picasso’s private life and the political events afflicting Europe between the wars fused together in the motifs the painter was using at the time, resulting both in Guernica itself and all the studies and ‘postscripts’, regarded as among the most representative works of art of the 20th century. 

Paloma Esteban Leal on the website of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia 

Initial Members of Magnum Photos and their war photography (and its impact) coverage | Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Vandivert, David Seymour, and George Rodger. 

Two years after the apocalypse that was called the Second World War ended, Magnum Photos was founded. The world’s most prestigious photographic agency was formed by four photographers – Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour – who had been very much scarred by the conflict and were motivated both by a sense of relief that the world had somehow survived and the curiosity to see what was still there. They created Magnum in 1947 to reflect their independent natures as both people and photographers – the idiosyncratic mix of reporter and artist that continues to define Magnum, emphasizing not only what is seen but also the way one sees it. 

Discover more about the history of Magnum Photos and how they grow to have a rooster of more than sixty worldwide based photographers just a little 75 years after its inception.

Gershon Iskowitz  

“My paintings are not abstract, they are real, they are very very much real, I see those things…I paint what I see.” 

Gershon Iskowitz (1920 or 1921–1988) was about to begin his studies at the Academy of Arts near Warsaw, Poland, when the Nazis invaded. He survived the Holocaust by drawing, as a means of psychological resilience, on scraps of paper that he found after bomb raids. Gershon Iskowitz: Life & Work traces the life of this incomparable artist, from his early days as a student in Poland to his captivity at Auschwitz and Buchenwald to his remarkable artistic trajectory in Canada. 

In 1949 Iskowitz immigrated to Canada where he quickly established himself in his new country’s artistic scene. His first recorded exhibition was at the 1954 Canadian Society of Graphic Art annual show, held at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). In the decades to come, Iskowitz would have many solo exhibitions, including a forty-year retrospective in 1982. 

“For Gershon Iskowitz, his art and life were inseparable and we must try to understand his circumstances—the trauma of the Holocaust and the uncertainty of the immediate post-War period. His early figurative images are his world observed and remembered. With the later abstract works, he made his own vision of the world, even as he made himself a ‘new man’ in it.” Ihor Holubizky 

The Atlas Group

The Atlas Group was a project undertaken by Walid Raad between 1989 and 2004 to research and document the contemporary history of Lebanon, with particular emphasis on the Lebanese wars of 1975 to 1990. Raad found and produced audio, visual and literary documents that shed light on this history. The documents were preserved in The Atlas Group Archive with a selection available on this site. 

You can discover more about this project here

Steve McCurry | Afghan Girl, 1984
Two piercing green eyes and a penetrating stare stopped the world in its tracks in 1985. A photograph of Sharbat Gula became immortalized on the cover of National Geographic magazine, jolting governments and society to acknowledge the human price of the conflict in Afghanistan. 

The haunting expression, a mixture of pain and resilience, of a child thought to be around 12, was dubbed the “Afghan Girl.” She became a symbol of war, displacement and defiance after American photographer Steve McCurry captured her image in a refugee camp in Peshawar, on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. 

This image is internationally renowned but it is only in 2002 that the identity of the woman we knew as the Afghan Girl was revealed when McCurry and a National Geographic team returned to the region to track her down.

Alfredo Jaar | Rwanda’s project

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Largely derived from investigations and photojournalistic field research in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, this exhibition seeks to investigate how one can engage with trauma as an outsider and also serves as a critique to the world’s indifference and a lack of global visibility to the atrocities in Rwanda at that time. 

Images have the ability to evoke strong emotions from us. Photography as a medium creates a relationship between the photographer as an observer, the subject of the photograph and the viewer of the image that reminds us to consider the ways in which we see and perceive any given image.  Alfredo Jaar’s multidisciplinary practice challenges the medium and the ways we consume images, news media and its facilitation of a voyeuristic gaze. Jaar asks the viewer to consider what is not immediately visible and the possible ways in which an image can live beyond its moment of creation and outside of its frame. 

Presenting poignant images, video works and arresting installations, Jaar examines the politics of the image, offering a critique that exposes and frames the mechanics of the ways in which photographs circulate and are consumed. Reflecting on the historical nature of the photograph as representation of fact, these works challenge us as viewers with regards to the way that we absorb and understand the function of images. Utilizing various forms of presentation in the gallery, there is a slowing down of thought that attempts to highlight the complexity of memory and trauma. 

Through this experience, Jaar reminds us of our connectedness, our shared experience of trauma and the room for mourning and healing that can occur in the post traumatic space. An affirmation of the power of the image as a means by which we can draw closer to one another through the aura left behind by what is seemingly absent and still able to remind us of what it is to be human.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) · Alfredo Jaar: The Rwanda Project 

Emily Jacir | Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages which were Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel in 1948, 2001
The work resulted from a three-month community-based project in New York. Jacir erected a family-size refugee tent in her New York studio, stenciling the names of all the destroyed, depopulated, and occupied villages on it, which were archived in Walid Khalidi’s book All That Remains. The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (2006). She invited over 140 people to come to her studio and embroider the names with her, while sharing stories, sometimes recounting how the villages were destroyed. Most of these people were Palestinians (some actually coming from the villages in question), some were Israelis who grew up in the remains of these villages, and others came from a multitude of backgrounds. The memorial is accompanied by a book with a daily log, which documents all the participants in the project. 

ARTLAND MAGAZINE: Female Iconoclasts: Emily Jacir and the Politics and Poetics of Palestine

Banksy | Armored Peace Dove, 2007

Banksy’s Armored Dove of Peace is a political message meant to criticize those who are part of the Palestine-Iranian conflict. Painted on the concrete part of the West Bank Wall used to separate Palestine and Israeli, the graffiti art features a white dove with its wings out wide in an open arm stance holding an olive branch in its beak which is supposed to be the symbol of peace, but the dove depicted here wears an armoured vest with the target pointed at its chest.  In an area where tensions between the two groups are at their highest, the image of the armoured dove makes a bold statement: Peace cannot be made when the people involved do not want it. 

Kathleen Zheng in Art, Identity and Culture  

What are the artworks that you think of when you are looking at art that promotes peace and ease trauma? We want to foster conversation online about the power of art in testing time – please send them our way!