Report: The Fine Art of Peacemaking: The Aesthetics of War

On Thursday March 24, The Hague Peace Projects, a fairly new peace organization in the city of The Hague, organized a Lecture titled ‘The Fine Art of Peacemaking; The Aesthetics of War’. This interesting event focusses on bringing together individuals from different disciplines, namely the field of human rights  and the art world,  whose work focusses on political and social issues. For this occasion, The Hague Peace Projects invited Russian human rights lawyer Oleg Khabibrakhmanov and Dutch artist Olphaert den Otter to discuss their work and engage in a dialogue to explore where arts and activism intersect, what they can learn from one another and how they can help to work towards bringing about sustainable peace.

The first speaker was Olphaert den Otter, a painter from the Netherlands, who uses photographs from newspapers as a basis for his paintings. He started his presentation by showing a series of his paintings. In his work, Olphaert den Otter makes a conscious choice of always excluding people from his paintings. He then uses very bright colors to paint the landscape to attract the attention from viewers. Since his paintings are based on photographs from recent newspapers, he creates a sense of familiarity in the viewer who often state that the painting reminds them of a scene they have somehow seen before. One painting that stood out in particular was a painting depicting demolished buildings in Homs, Syria. This painting shows the chaos of the war and is one of numerous attempts to inform the audience of the differences between natural beauty and essential beauty. For instance, ruins in a landscape are made by the laws of nature and therefore possess natural beauty. Newly constructed shiny buildings with precise proportions are man-made and for this reason possess a form of essential beauty.

This explanation served as a good introduction to the work of the second speaker Oleg Khabibrakhmanov’s.  Mr. Khabibrakhmanov, a Russian human rights lawyer who works mainly in Chechnya for the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, told the audience how the beauty of recently built glass-towers and sky scrapers, luxurious shopping malls, brand new asphalt and mosques with golden domes serve as a cover up of the horror of two wars in Chechnya, which left one-fifth of the population dead.

The war in Chechnya ended ten years ago, but the absence of the war did not manage to bring peace to the region. Mr. Khabibrakhmanov explained the newly created landscape is very deceiving because behind this façade the Chechen population lives in a constant state of fear and oppression as basic human rights are denied. In his work, mr. Khabibrakhmanov deals with cases of missing persons and assists victims and victim’s families who have been subjected to torture and imprisonment, often as a result of expressing criticism of governmental actions.

He explains that it is extremely difficult to operate under these circumstances and his work comes with great danger and risk, not only for himself and his fellow human rights lawyers, but also for their families and friends. ‘There are no guarantees for security on the territory of the Chechen Republic’, remarks mr. Khabibrakhmanov.  In spite of this, mr. Khabibrakhmanov still feels it is a privilege to work as a human rights lawyer and strive towards improving the rule of law in Chechnya. Therefore, we do not think too much about this, whatever is destined to happen will happen, explains mr. Khabibrakhmanov. ‘We simply get in the car and go.’

After the presentations, the audience, consisting of artists and legal professionals, were eager to ask questions to both speakers. The audience members were particularly interested in the views of mr. Khabibrakhmanov for the future.  He stated that based on the current situation, he is pessimistic about the Chechen people’s willingness to work towards change. The audience asked whether protest actions, like the ones organized by Pussy Riot in Russia, are also happening in Chechnya. Mr. Khabibrakhmanov responded by saying that in Chechnya art is allowed, but creating political art, under the current, government is not possible.

The Hague Peace Projects concluded the evening by stating that they were inspired by the stories of both speakers and will examine the possibility to organize an exchange of artists in the region as well as other places in Europe.