Painting for Peace: Walls of Hope

Painting for Peace

The Salvadoran project ‘Walls of Hope’ works with Sembrandopaz to help victims of conflict to come together to paint their personal and shared war experiences as a tool of community strengthening and capacity-building.


In a rural community deeply scarred by decades of conflict, as so many others in Colombia, a group of people are using art as a tool for building a culture of trust and understanding. The goal is peace. The participants are painting a mural; a large painting on a wall on a public place in their community.

Why are they doing this? They share their  personal and shared war stories in an effort to create understanding of each other’s stories, to build trust and to make something beautiful which will tie their stories and their suffering together. In this way, by sharing and understanding the pain and loss of each other, a community can begin to move forward again.

This is the philosophy of the Salvadoran School of Art and Open Studio or “Walls of Hope” in Perquin, El Salvador, which has worked with art as a means of peacebuilding since 2001. A cooperation between Walls of Hope and Colombian community organization Sembrandopaz has meant that four communities, which Sembrandopaz works with in the region of Montes de María, have already come together to paint murals. Sembrandopaz works to promote grassroots building and sustainable development to help these communities rebuild themselves after decades of war, and the cooperation with Walls of Hope is invaluable to this process.

Wounded buildings or walls of hope?

Walls of Hope was founded by the Argentine artist, Claudia Bernardi, who is a professor of Community Arts at the California College of the Arts in Oakland and San Francisco. In 1992, Claudia visited El Salvador together with the UN Truth Commission. Claudia was tasked with mapping the locations of human remains at the exhumation site in El Mozote, Morazán. Perquin is a village just north of Morazán, and when Claudia visited it she saw for the first time, the devastation the war had brought to the country. With the evidence of the sorrow and pain contained on the wounded walls of this village, she wondered,

How could they ever turn into Walls of Hope?

Claudia visited Perquin frequently in the following years and learned more about the violence inflicted to the civilian population during the war. Forced displacements, deaths of family members and loss of livelihood. Because of the fragility of their lives people had become afraid that they would be unable to retain their “historic memory”.

On 8th of March, International Women’s Day, a group of 35 women, ages 35 to 80, gathered to ask Claudia to organize a workshop that could help them retrieve and save their historic memory of the war together. The outcome of life size paintings and drawings “El Cantón de Mi Cuerpo” / “The Hamlet of my Body” traces every stage of the 35 women’s life from birth to motherhood. The loss of beloved relatives during the war, the physical pain, the amputation of both limbs and hopes. By exploring their pain together, the women were able to find secret places of strength still hidden and undamaged within their bodies and their minds. Claudia carried this experience with her.

Walls of Hope were born.

The making of a mural

“Look, a mural is a magical thing”, América told me when I asked her how a mural was actually made. You never know what will happen.

What journeys the participants will take… How the participants will come together… What stories the walls will tell…

America, Rosa del Carmen and Verenice are the Walls of Hope team which works with Sembrandopaz on the northern coast of Colombia.

To them, art is many things and can be done by anyone. It might also be dancing, theatre, music, painting or drawing that helps people to go through personal and collective transformations. It does not take more than a bare stone wall, colours and imagination for a collaborative project to have the potential to become bigger than one person can be on her own.

When making a mural, first of all, it is about what story the participants would like the wall to tell. You never know what is going to happen with the ideas that surface in the beginning. What would they like the wall to tell their children, their nieces, their brothers? This is important.

In practice, we start by asking the participants this idea, and then all sit down and make each their drawing.

A donkey, a tree, a woman.

Each drawing carrys with it very special personal stories, and is a strong symbol for each person. Afterwards, all the participants present their drawings and they discuss how they fit together, or rather, how they can become part of the same story. Disagreements over where the mountains should be, whether there should be a lot or a little sky, in what colours everything should be. In short, what is important for each person for the mural to show.

In the experience of America, Rosa del Carmen and Verenice, in war-torn communities, the one thing the participants always have in common is that they wish to move forward toward a culture of peace. This is very strong. So, when passionate discussions take place, the atmosphere is still one of understanding and team-work. Everyone works at the same time, towards the same goal, something bigger than themselves.

From left Verenice, América, Rosa del Carmen in Sembrandopaz office, Sincelejo

New walls on the Northern coast of Colombia

In Colombia, America, Rosa del Carmen and Verenice have worked with four different communities in Montes de María, and would like to continue their work in the region. There are many communities that would gain from sharing their personal experiences of war and conflict through art. They have noticed that in Colombia, many people are still scared to come forward and share their histories. Maybe because they believe that the story has not finished yet. After many years of conflict, of violence, of displacements, the stories are difficult to tell and difficult to share. A burden that too many Colombians still carry.

A burden that can be lifted of one’s shoulders if it is shared. For a community to come together to paint their shared stories creates not only shared moments and stories between the participants, but also something which will stand forever to remind the community of what they are fighting for: a wall filled with colours, imagination, personal symbols, shared stories, donkeys, mountains, rivers,… and hope.

Walls of Hope website

Walls of Hope on Flickr

Support the work of Walls of Hope in Northern Colombia