Issue 82 - Article 12

Art that protects

January 10, 2023

Beatriz Elena Arias López

Laura Jiménez Ospina

Freddy Giovanni Pérez Cárdenas

Berit Bliesemann de Guevara

Street art, Medellín

In Colombia, a country marked by decades of armed conflict, nonviolent self-protection has become a widely used practice in communities’ struggle for survival in violent environments. In both rural and urban areas, social organisations have been at the heart of creating and developing a range of self-protection strategies. In cities, violence is an integral part of everyday life, experienced through forms of invisible boundaries between territories controlled by different armed groups, extortion, behavioural norms, selective killings, finger-pointing and intra-urban displacement. Culturally, militarised masculinity and submissive femininity dominate, affecting the socialisation of boys and girls and favouring forms of cultural consumption that reinforce violence.

Research has shown the crucial role of art and performance in the construction of collective memories of violent conflict. They allow multiple narratives to be debated, especially where power asymmetries are deep. Academics have shown that art has a transformative and even therapeutic function. Artistic-cultural collectives and initiatives have also played an active role in the dynamics of urban conflict, resistance and social cohesion. For some, this has been one of their main objectives; for others this role has emerged incidentally, as a positive side-effect of their artistic work. They have helped to foster communities where members understand themselves, not as passive recipients but as active political agents with a critical understanding of their political and socio-economic circumstances, and to empower marginalised groups such as women and ethnic minorities.

Our project Art that Protects explores nonviolent self-protection through artistic and cultural practices developed by community-based organisations in Medellín. Since April 2022, we have engaged with 20 artistic-cultural organisations to identify their initiatives, activities and impact. A central finding regarding their effectiveness in creating safer spaces for civilians has been that artistic and cultural groups generate legitimacy among communities, including local armed actors. This legitimacy allows them to influence and participate in social conflicts over spaces and people. This is particularly important with regard to young people who are at high risk of being recruited into armed groups or drug gangs. It is this question of the legitimacy of artistic and cultural interventions and their potential for self-protection that we focus on in this article.

Urban conflict in Medellín

In the armed political and social conflict in Colombia, the spaces of confrontation are not only concentrated in the countryside; the cities became strategic sites for the armed conflict between different state and non-state armed groups. From the 1980s onwards, urban conflict in Medellín was marked by a sharp increase in violence related to the growing importance of drug-trafficking in everyday life, the emergence of private justice groups who were predecessors of the countries’ widespread paramilitarism, and the reorganisation of militiamen. Urban settlements were transformed into spaces of armed dispute.

According to Colombia’s National Centre of Historical Memory, between 1995 and 2005 Medellín was transformed into a hotspot of urban conflict. In disputes among paramilitary organisations, criminal gangs, militias, the army and the police, civilians were caught in the crossfire. This period also witnessed operations Mariscal and Orion, carried out as a collaboration between the Colombian armed forces and paramilitary groups. Far from having the welfare and human security of citizens in mind, security policy turned Medellín into a prison for its inhabitants. While the authorities entered into negotiations with the paramilitaries between 2006 and 2014, this did not end the violence but rather transformed it. This period was characterised by armed actors’ rearmament and co-option into different criminal groups, the murder of prominent leaders, an increase in gender-based violence, the atomisation of communities, and the exacerbation of invisible boundaries in neighbourhoods demarcating zones of influence and control.

Yet, even when caught in the middle of violence between different groups, the civilian population was never passive. Civilians engaged in manifold everyday practices and processes of resistance aimed at keeping their neighbourhoods or family members out of reach of armed groups or establishing forms of coexistence with them. These processes were supported by cultural, artistic and social collectives and human rights defenders, who sometimes denounced what was happening in the city, but above all helped civilians in their everyday silent resistance, enabling them to remain in their communities. Their activities made it possible to create safer spaces in which, even if only temporarily, the invisible boundaries that divided neighbourhoods were erased.

This active role was acknowledged by the Truth Commission, set up as part of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016. In its report published in August 2022, the Commission warned that the conflict had caused severe cultural damage. But it also recognised the existence of ‘varied and rich community and social projects that have allowed the transition from armed conflict to coexistence, and from pain to reconciliation’ (p. 574). The Commission’s report emphasised that art and culture are powerful and useful tools to mend a social fabric broken by violence and conflict, as they ‘name the unnamable and make visible the invisible’ (p. 575). Perhaps the most well-known examples are the Singers of Pogue in Bojayá, the site of an infamous massacre by FARC guerrillas in 2002 in which over 100 Afro-Colombian civilians were killed, and the Weavers of Mampuján, who have documented paramilitary massacres in textile form, receiving the Colombian National Peace Prize in 2015. In both examples, art helped to make known what had happened during the war. These groups achieved national legitimacy by confronting armed actors with their artistic products in court, and by disseminating what happened to a national and international public – which in turn helped protect these communities from further violence.

In Medellín the impacts of the war were profound, evidenced not only in the numbers of murders and incidents of other violence, but also in its emotional repercussions and effects on social relationships. Fear, sadness, pain, guilt, shame, desire for revenge and rage have been the breeding ground for much of the violence. In addition, the social fabric of communities has been weakened due to distrust between neighbours. Medellín currently has the second-highest rate of victims of armed violence in Colombia’s cities, according to the Central Register of Victims.

How art creates safer spaces

The classic approach to legitimacy, following Max Weber’s influential definition, has focused on how the state’s power over its citizens is recognised as legitimate rule. However, in the Art that Protects project we seek to understand legitimacy as a basic process of social organisation that is built collectively. This implies that a community reaches a consensus on the common acceptance of certain beliefs, norms and values around a specific social object. Reaching such common acceptance requires a process of local validation in which the object of legitimisation must be linked to a broader cultural framework and collective interests. Consequently, for an arts organisation to be seen as a legitimate social actor within a community, it needs to have a sustained territorial presence over time.

In the case of the artistic and cultural organisations in our study, we found that art functions as if it were a type of passport that allows these organisations to cross certain limits and boundaries established by local armed actors, and to occupy certain territorial spaces off-limits to others. This has been possible thanks to long-term commitment to these areas over time and relationship-building with local communities, which together translate into recognition. It has also been enabled by an identification of armed actors with, or recognition of, the contents and narrative forms of the artistic and cultural projects brought forward by these organisations. Since artistic outputs speak of the context in which people in poor neighbourhoods of Medellín live, and since they are created with the active participation of communities themselves, they also make sense to armed actors from and rooted in these same contexts.

Given such dynamics, the trust and legitimacy gained by these organisations through their initiatives are also shared by members of armed organisations, who recognise the value of artistic practices for their relatives and neighbours. In the following interview excerpt, members of a cultural organisation recall how they were warned by a woman in the community of armed actors’ presence, as their comparsa – a group who parade and dance in disguise in festivities – set out to pass through a neighbourhood in an artistic parade. The women addressed one of their members:

‘Sir, don’t go that way, they’re going to kill you, they’re going to shoot you. Look up, look over there. On those rooftops there are some boys watching with rifles, looking with those binoculars, don’t go over there.’ Then I looked her in the eyes and told her: ‘Madam, join hands with the children and with all of us. In this comparsa there are sisters, mothers, and uncles of those boys who are up there. I don’t think they will shoot at their mother, their girlfriend, or anyone. Come on, let’s sing together and don’t be afraid […].’ We went through the street. Nobody shot at us. The comparsa passed through, nothing happened.

(Group interview, Cultural Organisation 2, July 2022.)

Observations by members of another cultural organisation echoed this sense that they enjoy a specific legitimacy. As another interviewee told us:

With our body made up, dressed up, we have been a shield to protect the community […] Why didn’t they shoot at me as they could shoot at someone else? Even when they could be thugs, violent, or whatever they could be, there is an appreciation of what art is. Even when we arrived here, the guys who were watching over here, ‘the neighbourhood thugs’, came and told us: ‘Welcome, don’t give money to anyone, we don’t ask artists for money here, because we respect artists.’

(Group interview, Cultural Organisation 1, July 2022.)

In this sense, there is a consensus that recognises in art and artists an apparently inoffensive narrative, which becomes metaphor and metamorphosis, that is, an innocuous practice that seemingly does not compete with the violent and masculinised narrative of local armed actors, although it clandestinely pierces the cultural and symbolic patterns that produce and sustain violence. With these strategies, artistic collectives are establishing safer spaces, not so much physical but symbolic: sheltered spaces where it is possible to meet, wonder, imagine and create. As one organisation’s leader reflected:

When the cultural expressions of the neighbourhood, in their different manifestations, come together to protect the patrimony of life […] and this alchemy of solidarity is made and persists over time as a sensitive way to overcome the difficult adverse contexts of the territory, then the culture in its force of creative expression finds a way to contribute to the crises we have in our territories. Through art, songs, hugs and festive creation [a strategy is achieved] to bring together the floating islands of the neighbourhood […] The comparsa brought in the musician, the boy who was on the street, the mothers who sing, who tell stories, and the teachers. Then it generated a living community environment, which is strengthened by the participation of all and the contribution they have had to coexistence. So what happens? The space is valued and recreated, and the boys and girls feel more confident to contribute and participate and strengthen it. When this becomes something permanent, it is a manifestation of the community’s living culture, an alternative meeting space for the communities to socialize and to recreate forms of joyful life.

(Interview with Cultural Organisation Leader 2, July 2022.)

These accounts confirm to us the value of art, and more specifically community art, in strengthening social ties and enabling the community to be an active agent in social transformation, which in turn is a central element for recognising its self-protective role. They also allow understanding of what type of art it is that gains legitimacy, not only because of its participatory and relationship-building nature but also because of its critical and situated position in the contexts where it is created and produced. In this sense, it is an art where people are both consumers and co-creators of alternative forms of resistance, awareness and visibility of political and social phenomena in artistic processes in which they partake. This type of participatory art enables people to interact with and understand their conflicts and seek other forms of coexistence – be it through theatre, folk art, artivism (resistance and activist art) or other forms and examples of community art. It also challenges local armed actors, many of whom are close to their neighbourhoods and families:

The festive act has been legitimised, they [armed actors] are also moved by it, it is what they would have wanted to do, the party is legitimised, and the boundary disappears for a while.

(Interview with Cultural Organisation Leader 3, October 2022.)


Art that Protects is implemented by the Faculty of Nursing, University of Antioquia, and the corporations Arlequín y Los Juglares and Robledo Venga Parchemos. It is supported by the Network Plus ‘Creating Safer Space’, financed by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) [grant number AH/T008024/1].

Beatriz Elena Arias López is a research professor at the University of Antioquia, Medellín, Colombia.

Laura Jiménez Ospina is a research assistant of the Network Plus ‘Creating Safer Space’ at the University of Antioquia.

Freddy Giovanni Pérez Cárdenas is a researcher with Corporación Arlequín y Los Juglares and a co-investigator of the Art that Protects project.

Berit Bliesemann de Guevara is a professor at Aberystwyth University and the Principal Investigator of the Network Plus ‘Creating Safer Space’.


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