Innsikt: Strategic Non-Violence and Security Constellation through Photographs and Coloring Pages: Ten Years After the Arab Spring

Written by: Yelyzaveta Glybchenko

As “a strategy for political change”[1], non-violence is a choice – and a choice widely made by the participants of the Arab Spring uprisings in the MENA region.  The focus on the strategic nature of non-violent protests highlights that “[a]lthough nonviolent action may be used when no weapons are available, it may also be used instead of violence”[2]because it may be more effective. Online activism was one such strategic choice, with e.g. the blog A Tunisian Girl by Lina Ben Mhenni covering the events in Sidi Bouzid during the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. The New York Timeshighlighted the impact of Mehnni’s work, especially when the authorities blacked out news media in Tunisia:

She took photographs and wrote accounts, posting them on her blog and on her Facebook and Twitter accounts. Several French media outlets that could not enter the country were able to report on the violence because of her work.[3]

Ten years after the Arab Spring, I explore the social media aspect of the project Color Up Peace, which I started in 2016. Color Up Peace invites people from all over the world to submit photographs of what peace is to them, and I turn the photos into coloring pages for others to color and transform. The photos and coloring pages are posted on the project’s social media and several coloring books can be downloaded from the project’s website. The idea is to create a freely accessible online space for visualizing peace, sharing peace visions and interacting with peace visions of others  – with the hope that the mixed-media art-making process will serve as a metaphor for dialogue. Throughout the years, the project also received photos from the MENA region or photos taken elsewhere by photographing artists, as I call them in Color Up Peace, from the region. Some coloring pages created based on those photo submissions can be seen in the collage opening the essay.

Not only can the artistic transformation process within Color Up Peace be seen as dialogue, but it can also be useful for non-violent building of security as part of quality peace. Conceptualized by Peter Wallensteen, ‘quality peace’ refers to such a post-war arrangement that has the required qualities to prevent relapses into violence.[4] While the qualities would differ from context to context, and even from one MENA country’s Arab Spring to another’s, security is one of the three pillars of quality peace, along with dignity and predictability. As it has been pointed out numerous times during the 2021 Nordic Security Conference, some of the grievances that led to the Arab Spring non-violent uprisings, e.g. unemployment and inequality, have not been (successfully) addressed by the post-uprising regimes and have thus led to further tensions or devastating wars in the region. That is, the quality of peace the uprisings aimed to bring about are, unfortunately, lacking in many contexts.

Although security is not something one can easily grasp to be able to build it as a pillar of quality peace, visual art-making within Color Up Peace can be of help to communicate experiences of (in)security and thus enhance our understanding of it.  Re-engaging Theodor Adorno’s work in critical security studies, Carolin Kaltofen emphasizes that ultimately (in)security cannot be grasped by a concept because experiences of it are ineffable.[5] These experiences cannot be fully described or reduced to a single articulation of ‘security’. Yet, (in)security of one can be understood by another through experience – not least enabled by visual art-making.

In Art as Experience, John Dewey considers the relationship between artists and those interacting with their artwork to conceptualize an ‘experience’ of artwork:

For to perceive, a beholder must create his own experience. And his creation must include relations comparable to those which the original producer underwent… But with the perceiver, as with the artist, there must be an ordering of the elements of the whole that is in form, although not in details, the same as the process of organization the creator of the work consciously experienced.[6]

This way, a photo vision of peace (and security) submitted to Color Up Peace is artwork to be experienced – through engaging with the coloring page. The outline is then an opportunity to ‘include relations comparable to those the original producer underwent’ – to experience the (in)security of the photographer. This experience does not (have to) stop at a greater understanding of one’s context, i.e. greater empathy. It can be further understood as an act of non-violent resistance.

Consider the outline of one of the coloring pages I included into the opening collage, one I drew digitally on the basis of one of a photo submitted by a photographic artist from Jordan.

Set against what in graphic design is called ‘negative space’ (here the seemingly empty white areas between the lines), the contours in the outline present an opportunity to re-distribute the sensible, the visible and the experienced.

In Politics of Aesthetics, Jacques Rancière conceptualizes the distribution of the sensibleas  “the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it”.[7] A certain distribution of the sensible defines what is visible, what can be seen out of what isvisible, and what can be known from the seen and the visible. Filling in the above coloring page with color, adding details or digitally erasing them, the coloring artist, could, for example, challenge the distribution of the sensible in the initial photo by introducing different cultural patterns into the fabrics on the camels’ backs, imagining the surroundings their own way and even changing what animals are shown (through a digital graphic intervention).

Every coloring artist would distribute the sensible their own way. The experiences and the end results of each such artistic transformation would be a non-violent challenge to the conventional ways in which (in)security is shown, seen and (made to be) experienced. The experiences of and the colored art by the coloring artists, although rooted in the outline of the original photo, would not be identical to the shot. The differences would not result in a unified understanding of  (in)security. Rather, they would form a hybrid composite, which Kaltofen would refer to as a security constellation, i.e. a “cluster of changing elements that resist reduction to a common denominator, essential core, or generative first principle”[8].

I thought of the 2021 Nordic Security Conference itself as a security constellation as well, which metaphorically and in artistic terms can be presented in the form of a collage. Thinking of the Nordic and the MENA regions coming together for the conference, I created the opening collage so that it contains more than the outlines of the coloring pages I created on the basis of the photos from and by photographing artists from the MENA region. It brings these outlines together with the visions of peace and security from the Nordic region  – the photographs I took in Copenhagen, Denmark, Tampere, Finland, and Oslo, Norway. In addition, I included the digitally digitally drawn elements which I found to frequently feature in the photo submissions to Color Up Peace. This way, I wanted to create more universal links between the Nordic and MENA perspectives. My hope is that this inter-regional and inter-subjective security experience makes a creative contribution to dialogue about and understanding of global peace and security.


This article is written by Yelyzaveta Glybchenko from Ukraine, participant on Nordic Security Conference 2021. Her article was one of the winning entries in this year’s writing competition after Norsec 2021. The views expressed in this article are entirely the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of YATA Norway.

[1] Chenoweth, E., & Cunningham, K. G. (2013). Understanding nonviolent resistance: An introduction. Journal of Peace Research, 50(3), 271–276. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022343313480381 (p.271, referring to Sharp, 2005).

[2] Schock, K. (2003). «Nonviolent Action and Its Misconceptions: Insights for Social Scientists.» PS: Political Science and Politics 36(4): 705-712. (p.706)

[3] Blaise, L. (2020). Lina Ben Mhenni, 36, ‘a Tunisian Girl’ Who Confronted Regime, Dies. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/29/world/middleeast/lina-ben-mhenni-dead.html (para.6)

[4] Wallensteen, P. (2015) Quality peace: Peacebuilding, victory, and world order. Oxford University Press.

[5] Carolin Kaltofen. (2013). Engaging Adorno: Critical security studies after emancipation. Security Dialogue, 44(1), 37–51. https://doi.org/10.1177/0967010612470392

[6] Dewey, J. (2005). Art as experience / by John Dewey. The Berkley Publishing Group. (p.56)

[7] Rockhill, G. (2004) Jacques Rancière: The Politics of Aesthetics. Bloomsbury Academic. (p.7)

[8]  Carolin Kaltofen. (2013). Engaging Adorno: Critical security studies after emancipation. Security Dialogue, 44(1), 37–51. https://doi.org/10.1177/0967010612470392 (p.46, quoting Jay, 1984: 14–15)