Cultivating Compassion: First Steps Towards Prevention

Presentation given for the International Association of Genocide Scholars

Sarajevo, Bosnia

This presentation was given by Lee Lee alongside a site specific installation featuring works by Dr. Moyo Okediji, Izabela Lundberg & Dennis Chamberlain

May we have a moment of silence for all those who have been silenced?

Resilience is the strong common thread I have witnessed in the over 40 countries I’ve been in around the world.

I tend to visit developing countries where people have struggles that we in the developed world cannot fathom, genocide among the hardest to consider. Unless we have been through it directly, we can not understand it. But that does not mean that we can’t have compassion.

When the opportunity arose to speak about genocide last spring through the Mizel Museum in Denver, I asked myself how such a severe topic can be presented in a way that encourages consideration which would lead to compassion. I’ve been studying how war is conveyed through media and creative works for 15 years. It’s aggressive, shocking, ugly and all too easy to turn away from the typical horrendous photos. Who wants to look at a pile of dead bodies? Genocide is of course all these things – but in a culture inundated with sensationalized media & information, I thought it best to present it on a human scale, building personal connections to those directly affected.

My purpose is to engage.

I’m most moved to address aspects of genocide that are often overlooked. They are the quieter elements that deal with the strengths necessary to survive the initial violence, mourn losses while displaced, and even come to points of reconciliation. Our communities could learn a great deal from genocide survivors.

My work also addresses the aspect of time. When I visited the landmine clearance work being done by Clear Path International near the former DMZ in Vietnam, I met a farmer who had just lost both his hands to an explosion of a tiny bomb he mistook for a dirt clod while hoeing in his field. The depth of sorrow in his wife’s eyes was enough to drown in.

It’s amazing how long the effects of genocide continue. Cambodia experienced one of the greatest acts of genocide in the 20th century, and today remains saturated with unexploded ordinance. In my mind, anyone who lays down bombs needs to consider the implications for their grand children’s children – for they will continue to feel the repercussions for that long.

While I was disturbed by the physical evidence of destruction in Southeast Asia, I am also amazed at the resilience of people there who steadily work to rebuild their lives. It inspired me to speak of the resilience demonstrated by affected communities.

For the Mizel Museum, I brought together ten artists who manifested firsthand experiences of genocide as thoughtful and sensitive reflections. We explored issues of disregard for human lives as well as the environment, memory, resilience, survival and reconciliation. Instead of listing statistics, which are impersonal and cold, we explored genocide from an individual perspective without either sensationalizing or trivializing it. Our installation constructed a humanistic representation of genocide, in defiance of the horror of the real life experience.

The exhibition at the Mizel Museum successfully brought the topic of genocide into the public sphere by engaging our community on several levels. Extensive press coverage brought messages conveyed in the exhibit to a wider audience who wouldn’t necessarily make the effort to go see such a severe topic. When speaking with the writers, they made it very clear that they were drawn to the sensitive human elements demonstrated in the reflections of survivors, and wouldn’t have covered the exhibit had it maintained the grotesque and horrifying images that are normally associated with genocide.

More important, the museum bent over backwards to engage students ranging from grade school through university levels. Many were shocked at how widespread the effects are today because they do not receive such information either through mainstream media or their school curriculum. Some classes were inspired to raise money to help free slaves in Darfur. The exhibit effectively planted seeds of awareness and action by bringing in thousands of members of the next generation.

The most satisfying response, however, came from a survivor from the DR Congo. He said that when genocide is conveyed in the US, it extends the dehumanization he felt as a genocidal target. He felt that our exhibit was uplifting. All of these responses reinforced my approach of building connections between people in order to cultivate compassion as a vital first step in prevention.

For our installation at this conference in the Wallenberg Room 4, Izabela Lundberg and I tackled the subject on a human scale by exploring past, present and future genocides.

Making the installation relevant to this place, Moyo Okediji presents his acrylic paintings; Untitled: Biafra/Bosnia. Biafra was a genocide against the Igbo population that Dr. Okediji witnessed while growing up in Nigeria. The process of “executing” his figural reflections of victims is “subtractive”. In other words; he scratched out the figures with a nail, removing black paint from the canvas. The resulting icons are generic, but no two icons are exactly identical, a metaphor for the individuality of the victims. The group of white icons in the black background echoes the bones from an excavated mass grave. He is currently installing a large series of these paintings in Lagos to compliment our conference here. Although the genocide happened over 35 years ago, it remains so sensitive that it is dangerous to talk about it. He is curious at what will be stirred up when they are presented to the public there.

More positive are Izabela Lundberg’s photographic portraits of survivors who pass through the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center, an organization in Denver which offers assistance to survivors of torture and war trauma. Her work offers a very direct reflection of the people who are experiencing genocide now. She has very sensitively touched on their pasts while emphasizing the strengths that were necessary to get to where they are today. It takes much time and compassion to build the necessary trust so that her subjects can express themselves while knowing they will not be exploited. While they struggle with displacement, Izabela focuses on their resilience, demonstrating an admirable strength from which we all could learn. After working with many through art therapy, I’ve seen that it is vital for them to retain a sense of delight and appreciation in small things. They have had a profound influence which has driven me to continue to speak out about such matters in a way that emphasizes their humanity.

Burma is on the cusp of being considered genocidal so it is an appropriate subject for the future section of our installation. Recently I finished a series of painted portraits of Burmese school children on shotgunned mahogany plywood. An effectively destructive tool, the process of using a shotgun speaks to the destruction and violence inherent in genocide. Contrasting the violent grounds, I’ve painted sensitive portrayals of a class of Bamar students in the northeastern region of Bagan, emphasizing the ghostly appearance of their painted faces. They are defined as much by erasure and aggressive scratching as by building paint through delicate brushwork. The process as a whole reflects the traumatic existence of this community.

Art is a manifestation of emotion. The responsibility of the artist is to bear witness in order to create sincere work in regards. Instead of manipulating images of children to induce sympathetic feelings in the viewer, I aspired to create an honest reflection of the full range of emotion that defines these kids as individuals. I also thought it important not to convey these children as victims as it denies respect of their strengths. In reality, some will die, some will be tortured, some will profit, some will survive, and some will do horrible things to others in order to survive.

These children will be the generation who will struggle with genocide. Unfortunately, they are already suffering devastating effects.

This is taken from the Genocide Watch website: “Burma has more child soldiers than any other country in the world,” states Human Rights Watch, “accounting for approximately one-fourth of the 300,000 children…participating in armed conflicts across the globe.” Further abuses outside of the military persist: Burmese law allows capital punishment of minors and encourages sentenced juveniles to serve their punishment in work camps, where many are literally worked to death.

I find this so sad to consider. When I was in Burma, I found the people to be incredibly gentle and compassionate. Strong influence from their Theravada Buddhist tradition results in passive acceptance; perfect breeding grounds for mass exploitation and extermination.

Also included in our installation are several artists who have given me much inspiration over the years. The forms in Dennis Chamberlain’s glass works are ephemeral. He cast the reduced forms with bullet casings which became severely corroded in the firing process. The oxidized brass and copper transcend their violent manufactured purpose to become beautiful organic forms. Setting them in ammunition boxes that have Dr. Gregory Stanton’s Eight Stages of Genocide mounted in the front add a direct relevance and educational element. Listing numerous genocides on mirrors in the back lets the viewer see themselves and consider how we are tied to the events.

Haunting sounds arise from the installation by Sasha Gorelik and Evan Brown which are based on recordings taken from the bowels of an intercontinental ballistic missile silo buried in our homeland of the western United States. Their goal was not only to capture the unique tonal qualities of the blast tunnels, but to generate living energy in abandoned and often poisoned institutions. Realizing the depth and complexity of the subject matter and learning more about genocides around the world made it apparent that although there were similarities, each situation has its own unique story. They tell the stories of specific atrocities in the cultural voices from which the horrors arose. Tying in current events unfolding in war zones involving the American government touches on the long term impact of armaments using depleted uranium, and considers environmental crimes that risk the health of the entire planet’s population. The overriding theme reflects the ability of one people to suffer while the rest of the population goes on with mundane experience, only occasionally becoming conscious of the death and inhumanity their apathy enables.

Understanding people as individuals is vital in cultivating compassion. The assistance provided by the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center allows us insight to the range of direct psychological impacts of genocide. I now introduce Izabela Lundberg who will explore the process of forgiveness and reconciliation.