Guatemala: Using art and language to process trauma

‘If the hands are busy, the head is free.’ Walter Pichler

The civil war (1960–1996) left deep scars on the minds, souls and bodies of the Guatemalan people.

Many people cannot clearly remember, label or tell other people about the traumatic events. They remain alone with their suffering. Memories of the events that took place are locked deep inside, finding expression through psychosomatic disorders. Feelings cannot be ascribed to the events. The people affected experience them as confused, debilitating, unbearable pain. Traumatic experiences frequently cause physical, emotional and mental numbness and immobility. It is as if the person affected is stuck in the past.

CPS partner ECAP (Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial – Team for joint studies and psychosocial action) has been supporting victims of civil war for 20 years.

The majority of its staff are social psychologists. Their primary tool is language and one of the channels through which language can be attained is art. In workshops, women who were the victims of systematic rape by the army make sculptures.

Thinking in images and symbols and occupying the hands help ease the numbness. Things that were held deep within become visible in the form of a sculpture. While they work, the women speak, tell their stories and are listened to. They use their own handmade puppets to tell the audience about their wartime experiences. Murals created by the women together tell collective stories. For the first time, the group is also working with men, raising awareness of the rights of women and girls as a basis for constructive, happy and responsible relationships.

The most important aspect of psychosocial work with art is that people are able to recount their traumatic experiences in a visually sophisticated form. In this way, they are made accessible to the younger generations, fostering dialogue between the generations.

I myself am a psychologist and, as a CPS expert, assist the local team with methodological aspects, give support with networking and the sharing of knowledge and, through workshops, promote innovative approaches in psychosocial work.

Franz Kernjak, CPS expert in Guatemala

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