When Tragedy Hits, Where Does Art Fit?

“Indigenous people believe that without artists, the tribal psyche would wither to death. Artistic ability, the capacity to heal, and the vision to see into the Other World are connected. There is only a thin line between the artist and the healer. In fact, there is no word for art in the Dagara language. The closest term to it would be the same word as sacred.”

– Malidoma Some, The Healing Wisdom of Africa.

~~Belfast, Northern Ireland:

Playwrite Ewan Jeffrey reads in the paper about countrymen who have gone missing. What happens, he wonders, to those left behind?

~~Kharkov, Ukraine:

After being diagnosed with cancer at age thirteen, Valentyn Odnoviun is hospitalized and undergoes seven chemotherapy treatments and two aggressive rounds of radiation over the course of four years. When he is finally released, his body is so atrophied, he must relearn how to walk. Not all the children on his ward, however, make it out. Odnoviun picks up his camera.

~Norfolk Virginia, United States:

While researching for a new series of paintings honoring women, Ramel Jasir comes across news articles detailing the practice of “honor killings.” He sits stunned.

Three artists, each from a very different part of the world, deeply affected by tragedy around them. But they are not social workers, nor journalists, human rights advocates nor politicians. What power can one individual possibly have? The only tools at their disposal: what lies within their imaginations; their ability to see and feel deeply the pain of others, to find beauty inside the human condition, and then to translate this to a form that touches others. The power of art.

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Irish Playwright Ewan Jeffrey: “ I think art is a massive entity that can emerge in the most surprising places.”

After reading about the sudden rash of disappearances in his country, an idea for a new kind of play began to form: “The People Left Behind,” based on interviews Jeffrey himself conducted: “The stories have been very harrowing – I’ve found a bead of sweat falling down my face sometimes!”

So what is it like to have someone close to you just one day vanish? The playwright witnessed a range of emotions: anger, bemusement, sadness, even black humor. One recurrent factor, though, has been others‘ lack of sensitivity (for example, a bereaved mother tentatively visiting a pub two years after her son’s disappearance, only to run into a ‘friend’ who cheerily explains: ‘Oh, you’re here! I take it you’ve got over everything then?’).

But equally as fascinating is the unconventional way Jeffrey has chosen to tell his story. “There are actually two performances happening simultaneously: a staged play which features a community support group for those who have missing relatives; and then meanwhile, at staggered intervals, a ‘missing’ person (from a different set of actors to the staged play) will invite an audience member to go with them out to the city, where that actor will deliver an interactive semi-improvised monologue about his/her disappearance.” In total, eight actors take eight individual audience members out over the course of the play. They are all reunited at the end.

Jeffrey: “I like to think about performance in new ways. The audience members will all have different, personal experiences. They will be unique, and even when asked afterward by partners or friends, ‘What happened to you?’ they won’t remember every detail. For me it’s a bit like exploring the problematic nature of memory as well as pushing the boundaries of what ‘audience participation’ is. Of course there are certain frustrations and challenges with this kind of narrative but I love the idea of all these stories happening in different places.”

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Twenty-four-year-old Ukranian photographer, Valentyn Odnoviun:

“People don’t have problems they cannot solve. But to solve them, you must start by doing something.”

When Odnoviun surprised everyone, himself included, by defeating his cancer, he was heady with gratitude. The young Soviet began documenting with a camera the natural beauty he was now seeing with new eyes around him. Not just flowers, but single blades of grass withstanding the pelting rain, water trickling down muddy banks…everywhere, signs of courage, hope, tenacity.

Odnoviun’s photography gained an enthusiastic following. His solo exhibits garnered prestigious recognition from far-reaching quarters. But always there was this accompanying sadness: memories of the children, his friends, who had not been so lucky. After all, he knew what it was like to be where they were now: body too weak to walk to his hospital room window, beautiful hair released in clumps, boyish face swollen to grotesque proportions. But the worst insult of all: the reactions by others who couldn’t bear to see children suffering: The looking away, always the looking away.

And so it was time to do a different kind of exhibit. Until that point, Valentyn Odnoviun had guarded well his cancer secret. He’d wanted to be respected solely for his talent—not followed out of pity. But the time had come to use his illness for the benefit of others. The next series would be of the children. A show that would generate much needed funding for care of the hospitalized children, proceeds that would go straight into the hands of the children’s  mothers themselves.

These are the some of the photos:

“You can’t dismiss them, saying, ‘Oh, so many children have cancer! There’s nothing we can do to help them.’ No. They need our support.” ßut, cautions Odnoviun, it’s important not to take away the children’s dignity in the process. “People want to treat them like a puppy. ‘Oh, how sad! How sweet!’ they say.

No, they are strong! I myself went in as a kid, and I came out a man.” 

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Ramel Jasir:
“When it comes to ‘Honor Killings.’ mothers, fathers, siblings, friends are either the perpetrators or turn a blind eye when comes to the destruction of one woman’s life to restore a family’s so-called honor.  Even today, women of many different cultures (not just Islamic) can be murdered if it has been determined that dishonor has been brought to the family via her actions.  This can be the result of wearing clothing deemed unacceptable to the family, wanting to terminate an arranged marriage, engaging in sexual acts with someone of the same or opposite sex, etc…. In one case here in the U.S, a a man killed his daughter because she took a job at Walmart. He felt she was becoming too westernized.”

This painting came from a picture of a young woman by the name of Sabia Rani (19 yrs old) who was beaten by her husband over a period of three weeks until she was finally murdered by her husband while her in-laws turned a blind eye. In the painting I used her face as a reference. I added the broken nose, jaw, burned and scared face as a culmination of all the stories I had read that day in regards to some of the brutal and horrific attacks inflicted on these helpless women.  Many of were not murdered, but left scared and disfigured for life from attacks such as being doused in gasoline and burned or immersed in acid.  A lot of the attacks were over things we here in the west would deem trivial.  Please do not think that this only goes on in eastern countries because there are thousands of attacks in Europe, the U.S. and Canada every year.”

Can one artist make a ripple?

Jasir: “Well, I just got invited to exhibit and speak about my work at Hamilton College in NY. Last night I was contacted by a gallery owner in India to do a show there. Last week I was invited to do a presentation and speak about honor killings before the next class of Chaplains at Sentara Norfolk General in November–and they commissioned seven paintings! I guess all of my work was not in vain!”

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Further notes:

“The People Left Behind” will be part of  Belfast Festival 2011, running October 14th – 30th October 2011 – Event Details | The People Left Behind www.belfastfestival.com

“May God Help Kids” which premiered February 2011, was Valentyn’s fourth solo exhibit. He is presently gearing up for his next show: “Face It,” with the backs of heads as metaphor for how people typically respond to the reality of children with cancer.

Cancer is the #1 cause of disease-related death for children.