Art can make people capable of acting again

This photograph was taken during a study trip to Lebanon as part of the CAS 2019/2020. Photographs: Marcel Bleuler

Rana Yazaji is Co-Director of the CAS Arts and International Cooperation. In this interview, she talks about the challenging situation of artists in conflict zones, the role of international cooperation and the attempt to create equitable conditions.


Yvonne Hachem: What role can international cooperation play in conflict regions?
Rana Yazaji: International cooperation can have great value for communities, artists and organisations, provided it is built on solidarity, perseverance and understanding. We live in a disconnected world in which the arts can help break people’s isolation in conflict regions and precarious situations. They can reconnect to their close or distant neighbours in the world. If we remember that history is full of such situations, we feel less like victims, can regain our agency and reconnect to our humanness.

How is artistic work different in regions of conflict or crisis?
In crises, we can observe a very deep tension between aesthetic processes and the more socially and politically engaged drivers of our actions. Artists are required to position themselves politically, socially and economically — like anyone living in regions affected by conflict or crisis. Self-positioning regarding arts practices stops being pure. It is not only about political opinions, but also about how artists understand their practices within a conflictual context. Artists first need to position themselves, as a starting point for their work, cooperations and well-being.

What do you mean by self-positioning?
As an artist, you leave your comfort zone and feel the urge to connect yourself and your artistic work with an often tremendous and rapid transformation, requiring continuous questioning and reflection on many levels. The basic question of what our role is as part of the art sector becomes very central in times of crisis.

From a global point of view: What expectations do artists from conflict regions face?
In many cases, and at different points in history, artists, for instance, from Palestine or Ukraine, Iraq or South America, will only receive international attention if they address the conflicts in their work and become spokespersons of their country’s conflicts or wars. If they do not meet these expectations, they do not receive funding. Nor will they find an audience or attract media attention because they are not addressing the “hot topic.” Politizising artists in crisis regions amounts to censorship and restricts their freedom of expression.

“We need to devote the energy it takes to shaping cooperation.” Rana Yazaji in a discussion with students.

What role do international organizations play?
Furthermore, in the Global South, international organizations tried for decades to instrumentalize artistic practices for their awareness-raising campaigns and thus change societies’ attitudes. Did that change anything in these societies? Not really, or at least not in terms of the invested resources. Organizations and international structures need to acknowledge that artistic practice is itself transformative. If art has the space to grow organically in a community, it will have a greater impact. In my opinion, the key lies in cultural policy, especially on an international scale. Finally, international organizations need to be more aware of how to deal with art as one of their pillars. They tend to prioritize education, development, small business empowerment and scholarships, but rarely the arts. It is not only about instrumentalizing the arts. We also need to change how we work with the arts.

What steps might help to change that?
Establishing a fair system for art production and international cooperation is a pressing concern for the international community of artists. Their problems and the causes, for instance, the lacking fairness of this system, are interconnected. There is no simple reason. Therefore, the ways of dealing with (and resolving) these problems should also be interconnected. Awareness is growing that institutional systems and international models of cooperation need to be reoriented towards fair and more anti-discriminatory practice. One of the key starting points is good intentions. In many cases, there is great willingness and good intentions to support, express solidarity, engage, etc. Nevertheless, these good intentions could cause as much harm as they do good. Because they are based neither on equal partnership nor on considering how to navigate this inequality in the international system. Our CAS addresses these issues.

What else do you think is necessary for successful international cooperation?
Real cooperation needs to be a joint process from the start. Transparency and open communication between participants are imperative, especially that they come from different regions and therefore have different perspectives and backgrounds. Cooperation needs to be designed to encourage everyone involved to review their positions and learn in the process. Beyond that, participants need to realize and accept that the process is not linear. Communication is not always ideal. This is not only about languages but also about different ways of working. We should give cooperation the energy it requires and the time it needs. We also need to be aware of power imbalances, to talk about them and utilize them instead of being controlled by them.

What significance can art have in times of great global uncertainty?
I remember an example from Clowns Without Borders. The director of this American organization told me in an interview that when they were working with refugees on a Greek island, a boat carrying immigrants arrived. Some of the men jumped on the island and immediately joined the arts venture. One of them said: “it just feels good to laugh.” And that was just after he had escaped a potentially fatal sea crossing. Even in extreme situations, in humanitarian crises, it is human to strive for more than sheer physical survival. The arts give the distressed their creativity back, as well as agency over their stolen futures.

The Certificate of Advanced Studies (CAS) Arts and International Cooperation brings together artists and members of internationally cooperating organizations from the Global South and North. What they share is an interest in the potential of the arts to support processes of social transformation and peacebuilding. Through a study-trip with field visits, they gain an insight into actual art projects in fragile contexts. The application deadline is 12 Mai 2023, with the programme scheduled to begin on 31 August 2023.
Rana Yazaji ( is co-director of the CAS Arts and International Cooperation at Zurich University of the Arts. She is a researcher, trainer and cultural manager.
Yvonne Hachem ( is an editor and a member of the communications team at ZHdK Continuinig Education Centre.
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