Amid Violence, Art May Serve as a Transforming Language

It’s difficult to figure out how or what to write given the recent events in Connecticut. Violence perpetrated against children is a travesty. But of course the same holds true for any child who lives with violence, or the threat of it, on a daily basis. It seems fitting, consequently, to at least mention one visible example of how the creativity of children—children who experienced unimaginable violence and trauma—has helped reshape an entire community.

In 1994, over the course of three months, approximately 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis (and their sympathizers) were killed by extremist Hutu militia groups, leaving hundreds of thousands of children separated or orphaned from their parents. All the while, the international community turned its back.

A decade later, members of the Philadelphia-based group Barefoot Artists traveled to Rwanda in an effort to help to transform one of the survivor's villages through art and education. The collaborative project involved a variety of initiatives, including a series of workshops that sought to help villagers communicate their stories through words and images:

“Art teacher Fabrice teaches children painting and design. He encouraged children to draw inspiration from their home environment and the landscape around them. Fresh and delightful, many of the images from the workshops were turned into beautiful public art on the walls of many homes in the village. The originality and authenticity of these images give the village a unique look that reflects the local sensitivity, confidence and the daringness to innovate and be different.”  (

The end result is a grouping of buildings adorned with large-scale patterns, flowers and animals painted in bright colors on the exteriors of the cement walls. Heartbreaking in many ways, inspiring in others.

As I wrote in my MFA thesis back in 2008:

“The Rwanda Healing Project demonstrates the power of narrative and the role artists and designers can play in helping communities bring their stories, no matter how painful, into the public realm, inviting participation by a variety of individuals and groups. Moreover, it exemplifies the complex nature of storytelling. How do dichotomies such as tragedy and optimism fit together? How does one acknowledge the harsh realities of genocide yet keep those truths intertwined with the positive outcomes made possible through visual media?

“… the Rwanda Healing Project is a testament to the power of art in the built environment, to say nothing of the role art has played in fueling change...” (Anne H. Berry, "Sense of place: Communities conveying identity through Environmental Graphic Design")

I would never be so trite as to imply that art can prevent human beings from hurting one another. I do think, however, that it can give us with a vocabulary to express both heartache and hope, offering a way out of despair even as we grapple with unresolved feelings of anger, sadness or cynicism.

During a national conversation about violence, I’m thinking about art and how it might serve as a common language advocating for peace and transformation.