Art & Social Justice

Presentation by Lee Lee
Art & Social Justice Conference
Women’s Caucus for Art, Saint Louis MO

I would like to start with presenting art by Colorado artists with whom I worked both at the Mizel Museum in Denver, and at the conference hosted by the International Association of Genocide Scholars in Sarajevo. All of the work I chose to include in both exhibitions is beautiful, despite the severity of the subject. Many of these works address aspects of genocide that are often overlooked. They are the quieter aspects that deal with the long term effects of genocide. The strengths that are necessary to survive the initial violence, mourn losses while displaced, and even come to points of reconciliation are all to be applauded – our community could learn a great deal from the stories portrayed through the art displayed here.

I took this approach because I believe it is important to engage the viewer. There is so much information available to us today, that it is all too easy to turn away from difficult subjects. Genocide is not something people typically want to engage with. Looking at piles of dead bodies is not only disturbing, but as one survivor from the Congo stated; “it extends the dehumanization he felt as a genocidal target.” Consideration of audience is important if you want to engage people beyond a group who possess a slightly morbid fascination with looking at grotesque images of mass death.

I let myself be guided by people who had firsthand experience of genocide because I have been fortunate enough not to be subjected to it. This does not mean that I’m not connected to it. As Americans, we are unfortunately more connected to contemporary genocides than we like to believe. That connection is often on the side of perpetrator than victim, both in the direct actions of our government as well as various leaders our government has chosen to support. I feel it is our duty as citizens to question these actions.

I also felt it was important to engage children. I wanted to let them learn about what is happening in our world without giving them intense nightmares. For children and adults alike, I think that cultivating compassion by building connections to the individuals who have been subjected to genocide is a good way to engage people in a way that lets them understand and ultimately care about the people who are affected.

Artists working in regards to Genocide

Thomas Carr is a photographer and archeologist with the Colorado Historical Society. His digital collages consist of his photographs of Native American battlegrounds into which he layers ghost images from the Historical Society archives which depict Native Americans living in the area before and while genocide was occurring.

Genocide is a subject that often seems distant…something which is always happening in another place. By presenting images from our homeland, we can realize that our land has been stained as well.

Izabela Lundberg is from Croatia and is a survivor of the war in Bosnia. She has worked with survivors from around the world since her experience of war in the Balkans. I met her while she was working at the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center, which offered assistance to survivors of torture and war trauma who were seeking asylum in our community. Her photographic portraits offer a direct connection to Genocide in our community by presenting Survivors who live with us. These people add such richness to the fabric of our community, and I’m inspired when I see them embraced as Izabela embraced them. She emphasizes the strength, determination and resilience which is necessary to survive. Her experience has lent an understanding and sensitivity to the individuals affected.

Also from our land was a sound installation developed by Sasha Gorelik and Evan Brown. We went into the bowels of earth to record a foundation of sound in the blast tunnels of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Silo which lay abandoned in our backyard. The acoustics of that place lent a terribly haunting quality to the music as much by the ghosts infecting the musicians as the actual echoing of the structure. They layered these sounds with various samples taken from around the world. African drums or ancient Cambodian flutes interspersed with institutionalized accounts of various genocides make the work relevant on a global scale. A phenomenal work that heightens the effects of the three themes explored in the installations which were severity, mourning/loss and strength/resilience. Learn more about the Undertones project

Dennis Chamberlain is a glass artist who also presents Genocide on a global scale. Who Still Talks Nowadays About the Armenians? is an installation of figurines cast in glass with inlaid bullet casings protruding. In the process of casting the forms, the casings became severely corroded, and the copper stained the clear glass in ephemeral greens. They were presented in opened ammo boxes mounted to the wall, with Dr Gregory Stanton’s 8 Stages of Genocide etched into glass plates that were mounted into the dropped lids. Genocides from around the world are named on mirrors behind the glass figures so that the viewer becomes a part of the piece, reflecting how we are often tied to genocides which seem distant.

Dr George Rivera has spent time in Columbia, where he developed a series of photographs of displaced people of Medellin. The work quietly speaks about genocide, death and absence through their focus on material remains: fragments of shoes.

Jonathan Moller worked as the staff photographer for the Forensic Anthropology team of the Office of Peace and Reconciliation in Guatemala. His photographs reflect the process of mourning and remembrance through exhumation and reburial. He not only photographs the evidence of genocide, but he makes it very personal by offering reflections on the human rituals and emotions which surround the loss. Even when his subject is solely a skeleton being unearthed, the brightly colored Mayan textiles sing out as a manifestation of the creative human spirit as they melt organically into the surrounding grave.

Dr Moyo Okediji is from Nigeria & teaches African art and history. His insights offer context into which we can place current African genocides. He created ceramic reliefs that convey displacement through fragmented figures made literally from earth. He shared an interesting fact that the only art form surviving the genocide in Darfur is ceramic based, so the material is unexpectedly appropriate. He also taught me that the trans-Saharan slave trade was older than our own trans-Atlantic slave trade. In fact, the wave of Genocide has been washing through northern African communities for centuries. His terra cotta pieces were carved in relief, then broken in the firing process. He fired them in an open pit in his backyard, a technique learned from his grandmothers. The process manifests the fragmentation which occurs in the displacement experienced by people forced from their homes. The ousted migrants are shown leaving with only the things they could carry. Despite the displacement experienced across the continent at one time or another, Moyo’s solid figures embody the strength and energy demonstrated there.

Michelle Torrez is a very sensitive portrait artist. She helped free over 300 slaves in Sudan a few years ago, and painted people in a refugee camp in Darfur. Again, she focuses on the emotive qualities of the individuals over disturbing images of violence. Enchanted Eyes is one of the most striking of these portraits. This is a portrait of a young Sudanese boy who had both his hands hacked off with a machete. Michelle does not dwell on the gore aspect of hacked hands; instead she paints just his face. She has captured the frustration and hurt so vividly through his gaze. She said to me once, “the eyes tell the whole story”, indeed these do. That look – that energy – it’s unspeakable, yet manifested so powerfully through her brush.

Her work is beautiful and vibrant. She was inspired by the physical beauty of the Southern Sudanese refugees, and also by their demonstrations of fortitude in the most dire of circumstance. Her biggest surprise was how quickly a supportive community was developed in the camp. People took care of each other, orphans were looked after, and most of all, children resorted quickly to play as a healing activity.

My own work on war and genocide spans 12 years, and began in Vietnam where my father was a captain in Intelligence and later taught English for 18 years. Both in Vietnam and Cambodia, I was struck by the long term impacts of war. When I visited the landmine clearance work being done near the former Vietnamese DMZ by Clear Path International, I met a farmer who had just lost both his hands to an explosion of a tiny cluster bomb he mistook for a dirt clod in his field. He was in shock as his hands are his survival. There are worse things than death for some people. The depth of sorrow in his wife’s eyes was enough to drown in.

There are few programs to assist victims of UXO explosions. In fact, the Vietnamese military purchases the explosives from people who find them around the former DMZ. The only trick is that the people finding them have to remove the explosive from the bomb without them exploding. It is a tricky procedure which has to be learned immediately because there are few second chances. But what other options do the people there have? Every monsoon season churns up a fresh crop of UXO out of the earth which makes it very dangerous to farm their fields…even ones which have been cleared.

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. The ancient friezes which adorn the walls of the temples of Angkor Wat depict extensive battles between the Khmers and Chams some 800 years ago. The walls are also riddled with bullet holes from when the Khmer Rouge used the complex to hide out during their rampage. I used the buildings as a subject to echo the timelessness of war.

While I was disturbed by the physical evidence of destruction in Southeast Asia, I was also amazed at the resilience of people there who steadily work to rebuild their lives. In my Ta Prohm paintings, I highlighted the tree roots that cascade down the temple faces to reflect growth despite a history stained with blood.

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

I tend to visit developing countries where people have struggles that we in this country can’t 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.

Another intense place in Asia is Myanmar. People there live under one of the most severe governments in the world today. I created this set of portraits from Burma for the genocide conference in Bosnia, where fragments of shotgunned mahogany plywood were pieced together in a wall installation. Mahogany plywood splinters in very delicate ways, which I though appropriate to portraying children. While in Burma, we visited a classroom of children who were all wearing a light tan clay on their faces to protect them from the sun. It gave a very ghostly appearance to the children which lent itself to haunting portraits as I considered of the situation into which they were born.

I convey violence through fire and guns which I use to build texture. By using process as a means to manifest aggressive acts, I can focus on presenting the people who are directly affected without relying on disturbing images of gore which ultimately distracts from presenting the impacts of war on a human level. In the case of the school children portraits, the direct shot of the shotgun literally fragmented the wood. In the case of the shrine paintings, I angled the paintings so that the shot tore the surface to produce a relief. Then I followed the vertical energy of the grooves to emphasize an ascending motion in the ephemeral shrines.

In the mixed media Confined Shrine series, I incorporated photo transfers of cages I had photographed in Myanmar. I found most of the public shrines locked in steel cages, which I thought was a perfect reflection of the political situation as there is a Buddhist inspired peaceful acceptance for many who dwell there.

My most recent work from Myanmar consists of vignettes from an Intha market. I obscured the background with official text found in newspapers, where photos of the junta often appear. The words surround the figure, filing the picture plane, but not actually becoming a part of the figure. This is a portrait of a woman from the Shan tribe. A couple years ago, when typhoons devastated the south of Myanmar and the world was focused on that region, the junta quietly went north and exterminated huge swaths of tribespeople like the Shan.

After curating and producing work for the two Genocide exhibits I spent time in Guatemala and painted a series informed by their recent past. They will be shown at the Dairy Center for the Arts in 2012. Starting with stone lithographs of lush forest, these mixed media works on paper were truck-tracked with fresh tar, then torn into small squares. They serve as a foundation that speaks to the situation imposed on the Maya: pushed off their land and treated like slaves on plantation style agricultural production facilities owned by multinational corporations. They fill US demands for cheap commodities which come at a severe cost to both people and the environment. The texture of tar is an echo of the continuing destructive influence of these corporations. Tar is made from oil which also makes up the petrochemicals used in the style of agriculture that is decimating the environment. The tire tracks denote the distance the commodities travel to get to us.

Somehow, Mayan culture is not decimated. They maintain an incredible dedication to tradition, working in harmony with the environment. Ancient customs are manifested through the colorful and intricate weavings which are worn with pride. These portraits are of Mayan women from the highlands market in Chichicastenango. Exploring a wide range of human emotion from being weary and hurt to looking forward with hope, the vignettes are intended to explore the breadth and range of emotional textures in this community.

I’ve also been creating works in regards to the impacts of oil, of which war is a big one. It is the foundation of our recent wars; and I see that this limited resource will be the driving force of more conflict until we develop more alternatives.

During the Iraq war, I was moved to portray Vrnda. Her son was a combat medic and so saw some of the worst physical impacts on the ground. Before he deployed, she made him promise to write in detail of his experiences. He did. It was cathartic for him, helping him to purge emotions which later he had forgotten in his conscious mind. It gave her a strong sense of what was happening in Iraq which inspired her to team up with mothers on both sides to speak out against the war.

I reflected a full range of emotions expressed by Vrnda while she was speaking of her son’s experience and trying to urge people to take action against the war. The drawings are burnt with coal and collaged with shotgunned paintings. These were poignant to create for a show entitled React at C Emerson Fine Arts in St Petersburg, FL as I was in the first few months of my own motherhood.