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"We discuss the presence of conflict, so that it doesn't escalate and transform into violence."

Situated in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat, India, the Conflictorium opened in 2013 and describes itself as the first museum of its kind. Dedicated to dialogue as a means to resolve conflict, it uses art to inspire conversation, offering a mixed programme of performance and installation, professional and amateur work. The team of 10, working a combination of full- and part-time, is led by founder and artistic director Avni Sethi. Working on the calculation that the museum’s upkeep costs 5,555 Indian rupees per day, the Conflictorium runs on a mixture of grants from foundations including the Ford Foundation, charities such as Action Aid, and diplomatic missions such as the British High Commission, plus an ongoing crowdfunding campaign.

Mission: using art and culture to catalyse a dialogue on conflict

In 2002, when Avni Sethi was 12, tensions between the Muslim and Hindu communities of Gujarat erupted into violence, and she was witness to three days of rioting in Ahmedabad. A decade later, while a student of interdisciplinary design in Bangalore, she conceptualised the Conflictorium as her final thesis project, and in 2013, she opened its doors. The building it occupies, says Sethi, “used to be called the ‘line of control’” because of its location: with a mosque to its right, a Hindu temple to its left, a church opposite, and the Parsi community close by. From this vantage point, the Conflictorium attempts to bring everyone in the local population together to discuss “the presence of conflict, so that it doesn’t escalate and transform into violence”.

The museum draws on multiple other organisations and materials for inspiration, including the work of the Centre for Social Justice and grassroots activist groups in and around Ahmedabad; Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence in Istanbul and its mission statement, A Modest Manifesto for Museums; and Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum. Each offered different approaches to the fundamental questions that underpin the Conflictorium: “Who is creating the art? Who is it for? Whose voice has space? And how do we start having these conversations without being threatening, or occupying a moral high ground?”

“Who is creating the art? Who is it for? Whose voice has space? And how do we start having these conversations without being threatening, or occupying a moral high ground?”

A platform for ideas

The Conflictorium employs “a two-fold strategy” to enhance dialogue with its visitors and surroundings:

1: Curating and conceptualising new work

The lower floor of the museum presents a sequence of fixed spaces, each with a story-based installation that between them aim to “deal with conflict in its entirety – so the individual conflict between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is as serious as the historical conflict during the process of nation-building”. It begins with The Conflict Timeline, which refutes the idea that “Gujarat has not seen any ‘major’ conflict” by tracing the history of local violence decades before the 2002 riots. The Memory Lab “invites participants to leave behind an object that represents some conflict in their life and, if they wish, to write the story behind it”, building up “an archive of memories that produce alternate and personal histories”. One room houses “an exact replica of the constitution of India: a book that essentially binds this very diverse country, but that people don’t recognise, or mistake for a religious book”. And the final room contains The Sorry Tree: “In the context of India, apology has been difficult to come by – especially politically. There have been massacres, but the people who have been responsible have never even acknowledged the violence. Acknowledgement of violence becomes the first step towards conflict resolution and humility, so the tree becomes a moment where you have the ability to say sorry.”

“Acknowledgement of violence becomes the first step towards conflict resolution and humility.”

These installations are augmented by a programme of films, photography exhibitions, performances and festivals, each chosen to activate dialogue. The political focus here is wide-ranging and includes gender equality, sexuality rights, caste discrimination, and questions of constitutionalism and citizenship. One music performance, by Askari Naqvi, introduced a mostly Hindu audience to the Shia Muslim tradition of Souls Anmasia, an act of mourning the death of Imam Hussein. Within the context of Ahmedabad, says Sethi, “minorities are imagined as the enemy Muslims especially are met with suspicion. So the dialogue that ensued was unbelievable: there was a lot of finding out about who this Other is, and whether they are really Other.”

2: Opening intimate spaces

The Conflictorium has always sought to “bring in people’s voices. We realised that within Ahmedabad the platforms of expression were minimal: you had to be some form of expert to showcase your ideas, before a dialogue was even begun. So we offer our space to members of the public to conceptualise and show their own work, and offer this at nominal cost.” This offer is taken up particularly by younger artists, working across poetry, theatre and film. Sethi believes the Conflictorium supports these artists to see past the narrow idea that “if you are engaging the arts with a change-making process, it would be necessarily boring, or preachy. They realise that issue-based art can be compelling and creative.” In turn, the museum is influenced by their work: “We get a sense of what young people are talking about, what are their concerns, and what are their aesthetics or politics.”

“We get a sense of what young people are talking about, what are their concerns, and what are their aesthetics or politics.”

The museum also makes space for amateur work: for instance, at a monthly event called Mirzapur Sings, a karaoke system is placed in the building’s courtyard for a community sing-along. The night begins with an “invited local band who sing popular songs that have progressive content, and talk about a brighter, freer, just society, but that eventually turns into an open-mic night where people sing their own songs”. By giving “professional and amateur voices an equal ear”, the programme not only breaks down cultural hierarchy but ensures the Conflictorium “remains open and not intimidating to young groups who are just finding their voices, while producing dialogue with a certain depth and integrity”.

Multiple strands of conflict

The Conflictorium faces three key challenges:

1: A divided city

“The river Sabarmati flows through Ahmedabad and divides the city into all kinds of binaries. Old city, new city; poor city, rich city; minority and majority. There is a massive stigma about crossing the river – so a major challenge for us was how to convince an audience who have a stereotype about the part of town where the Conflictorium exists, as unsafe and occupied by the minority, to cross the river and attend an arts event.”

2: A gentrified space

Sethi recognises that all of the Conflictorium’s work must be “relevant to a cross-section of people. How can the same exhibit be seen by college-going students, but also by the neighbourhood whose exposure to the arts has been Bollywood songs on the radio?” She combats this by “bringing multiple languages into the museum”, which has the added benefit of preventing the institution becoming “synonymous with the personality running it”.

3: A spectrum of activity

The Conflictorium’s ability to access funding is impacted by the fact that it sits in between “the development sector and contemporary art. Most donors are interested in either end of that spectrum – so what happens to the space in between? Part of the problem is that these two ends of the spectrum are not speaking to each other,” says Sethi: and so the work of articulating the Conflictorium’s mission becomes another aspect of its attempt to catalyse dialogue across a divide.

What next?

When the Conflictorium opened, “we were the only alternative space in Ahmedabad”. In its wake, “at least 10 new small-scale spaces have opened”. For Sethi, this is a profoundly positive change: “if the idea is to get people talking, now we have 10 other spaces doing this. Instead of one massive monolith dialogue, there are many dialogues”. But it also sharpens the question of how the Conflictorium should continue beyond 2018, when its current funding ends. She doesn’t want the museum to become a powerful gatekeeper: “if we started controlling the work that was popular, that was accepted, that wouldn’t be fair”. She also questions what she calls an “obsession with ideas of the perennial institution. Aesthetics, mindsets, tools, methods, receptibility, all change over time, and if an idea has served its purpose, served its time and its relevance in a particular context, why are we afraid to move on?”

“If we started controlling the work that was popular, that was accepted, that wouldn’t be fair”.

She can see two possible futures for the Conflictorium. One would be to “think through a systemic framework: breaking down the idea into such simplicity that every little town or community or jaded gathering or office could imagine a Conflictorium in their shared space”. As such, Sethi is already in conversation with people in Kashmir and Jaffna, Sri Lanka, about the possibility of opening Conflictoriums in those areas.

At the same time, she wants to recognise that the Conflictorium might achieve its aims just as effectively by transforming into “a tea stall”. To navigate both possibilities, she says, it will be vital for the museum to “keep that spirit of self-reflexivity alive, to continuously check its relevance and not become an elephant in the larger public sphere.”

(Image courtesy of Conflictorium)

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