Art and the shift from Victim to Survivor

Beyond “Do No Harm”

Human Rights Council. Twenty-eighth session. 27 March 2015

Agenda items 2

 

Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner

for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the

High Commissioner and the Secretary-General

 

Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Iraq in the light of abuses committed by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and associated groups*

 

Subject to a determination by an independent and competent court, this report concludes that:

 

Members of ISIL may have perpetrated genocide against the Yezidi community by killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm and forcibly transferring members of the group, including children, in the context of a manifest pattern of conduct aimed at the destruction of the group.

Members of ISIL may have committed crimes against humanity by perpetrating: murder, enslavement, deportation or forcible transfer of population, severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, rape, sexual slavery, sexual violence and persecution, committed as part of widespread or systematic attacks directed against civilian populations pursuant to or in furtherance of an organisational policy to commit such attacks.

Members of ISIL may have committed war crimes by perpetrating: murder, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture, outrages upon personal dignity, taking of hostages, the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgement pronounced by a regularly constituted court, directing attacks against the civilian population, directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, historic monuments, pillaging a town or place, committing rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual violence, conscripting or enlisting children under the age  of 15 years or using them to participate actively in hostilities, ordering the displacement of the civilian population, destroying or seizing the property of an adversary.

ISIL is perpetrating serious human rights violations in areas which are under its de facto control; including torture, cruel and inhuman treatment, and extrajudicial killings.

Title: “Art with former ISIS slaves”

Medium: Black and White photo and assorted paint mediums

Artists: Hannah Rose Thomas and Sarah Whittaker Howe

In August 2014 ISIS took control of Sinjar in Northern Iraq. They abducted and enslaved over 6,000 Yezidi women and children. Four years later, more than 3,000 Yezidis remain in captivity or are unaccounted for. In August 2017 British artist Hannah Rose Thomas and clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Whittaker-Howe travelled to Northern Iraq, for an art project with a group of Yezidi women who had escaped ISIS captivity. Hannah taught the women how to paint their self-portraits and Sarah recorded their testimonies.

The project took place in the Jinda Rehabilitation Centre in Dohuk. The aim of the project was to use their self-portrait paintings as a tool for advocacy; bringing their stories into places of influence in the West.

After learning to draw and paint for the first time, these Yezidi women requested that Hannah paint their portraits. They saw this as a way to share their stories with the rest of the world. They chose to be painted in the white robes of Yezidi traditional dress. The use of gold-leaf is to highlight the sacred value of these women, in spite of all that they have suffered in the hands of ISIS. It is symbolic of the restoration of dignity.

This exhibition has been shown in the UK Parliament to advocate on behalf of the Yezidi community and was highlighted by Theresa May. It has also been shown in the Department for International Development (DfID) at the request of the Secretary of State Penny Mordaunt.

About the artist bio:

Hannah Rose Thomas, a traditional painter, wanted to use art therapy with the women and girls who had survived, as one of a number of representational portrait projects with different excluded or survivor groups around the world. So, in the summer of 1997 she went to Dohuk to meet them.

Hannah is a Durham University graduate in Arabic and History, and has recently completed her MA at the Prince’s School of Traditional Art in London. While living in Jordan as an Arabic student in 2014, Hannah organised art projects with Syrian refugees for UNHCR. This opportunity inspired her to seek ways to combine her art and humanitarian work. Hannah subsequently began painting portraits of refugees she had met, to show the people behind the global crisis, whose personal stories are often shrouded by statistics. Hannah’s portrait paintings of Yezidi women were shown in the UK Houses of Parliament March 2018 and the Department for International Development (DfID) in May to advocate on behalf of the Yezidi community. HRH the Prince of Wales chose three of the paintings to be included in his exhibition Prince & Patron in Buckingham Palace June – September 2018.

hannahrosethomas.com

Sarah Whittaker Howe is an expert in the psychological consequences and recovery from traumatic events with substantial experience providing psychological treatment to victims of human rights abuses and organised violence. Sarah’s strong commitment to non-profit organizations working in conflict areas has seen her partnered with several initiatives in the Middle East and Africa, including Northern Iraq and South Sudan, where she provided psychological treatment and consulting on the development of psychosocial programmes. Sara also provides expert witness for war crimes investigations and asylum tribunals.   Sarah  who was working in Dohuk with the same group of women. She describes taking the portraits as a passion project that “captures the human face of suffering and hope.”

Title: A Mile in their Shoes.

Medium: Video of multimedia installation

Artist: Siemon Scamell-Katz

The original installation by Scamell-Katz was an interior. In its various iterations in Edinburgh and Berlin, it occupied different spaces – a room, a shed, a tent. At Traquair House it was a tent. The interior comprised a floor of shoes. Shoes were also scattered in the approach to the main space. In this space chests of drawers rested on and amidst the shoes. Each chest had a film playing on an ipad, and a pair of shoes with a card beside them with an extended caption. Playing as a backdrop was film of a Yazidi wedding dance, black and white, chains of women and men linking arms. The shoes in the drawers were the shoes worn by Yazidi women and girls who escaped from sexual slavery. These had been exchanged for new shoes when the women reached shelter in Dohuk. The film featured a young western girl dancing and a narrated story of the women’s experience. The dancer was the artist’s former stepdaughter. Her presence added another dimension to the piece as a meditation on the breakup of families, the destructive violence of divorce, walking out, over lives as perhaps the most violent of things that many western families encounter. But also showing another kind of survival. The dance was intertwined with the narrated story of the women who had been trafficked. This produced a remarkable amount of movement in the piece. The Yazidi women’s faces were not shown and they were given assumed names. The effect of the piece on the viewer/visitor was visually and physically unsettlingly, the whole piece was back dropped in heavy black theatrical drapes, the only light coming from inside the chests of drawers.

Art and the shift from Victim to Survivor

There was a pause in the non-Hebrew and Yiddish speaking world between the end of the holocaust and the beginning of its cultural mainstreaming as a defining event of the 20th century. That pause lasted from 1946/7, after the shock of the discovery of the camps subsided, until the televising of the Eichman trial in 1961. From that moment on the holocaust has come to occupy its rightful place in the human imagination and memory. It did not, of course, mean never again.

There was a pause of a decade from the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 until the 10th anniversary produced an outpouring of cultural representation and memorialising.

The two projects presented here were part of a conscience attempt to reduce the pause between Genocide and cultural representation.

The three artists involved took different routes. This reflected in part their practices.

Hannah Rose Thomas, a traditional painter, wanted to use art therapy with the women and girls who had survived, as one of a number of representational portrait projects with different excluded or survivor groups around the world. So, in the summer of 1997 she went to Dohuk to meet them.

Sarah Whittaker Howe is a Clinical Psychologist, an expert in the psychological consequences and recovery from human rights abuses who was working in Dohuk with the same group of women. She describes taking the portraits as a passion project that “captures the human face of suffering and hope.”

Siemon Scammel Katz is a painter who also works in film and other mediums. He was shown images and then artefacts that became central to his piece. These were the shoes in which Yazidi women and girls escaped from their Daesh (ISIL) captives – walking, running or crawling to freedom. A freedom curtailed in many cases by trauma, family rejection and then migration to new and strange environments. A migration which felt like an exile for many.

Their choice of differing medium highlights the deeper problem of the representation of the victim-survivor. The problem of looking at these images. The problem of having these experiences. Doing these things in a beautiful, even sublime, given its connections to blood episodes of our own history, place as Trequair House.

Saul Friedlander established that there should be limits to what can be represented from the holocaust. Note the “should”, not the “can”. As Nicholas Mirzoeff has powerfully argued the paradox is that this has left other genocides outside representation entirely.[1] Putting the broader issue of representation to one side for a moment, these pieces ask also what is the purpose of this representation? I suggest the purpose of this kind of representation is to contribute to a category shift. That category shift is one that is central to projects that Beyond Borders supports around the world under the heading, Beyond Do No Harm. It is the shift in the way we look at those who live, to see them not as victims but as survivors.

As De Capra and Primo Levi have said in different ways, the lacuna, the space between, the absence, at the heart of genocide is the voice of those who have been killed. The question of if and if so, how, the vanished can be represented and if this representation is a “proper” subject for art, is not side stepped here because the object of these works are those who remained alive. Both these pieces also  represent the vanished. In Scammel Katz’s piece the shoes became for some visitors the shoes of the vanished. They evoke one of the most terrible and moving aspects of the Museum at Auschwitz:

Block, 5, Material Evidence of Crime, Auschwitz Museum, Summer 2018, Photo: Brian Brivati

 

In Hannah Rose Thomas’s portraits the gold of the background evokes an icon. “Colours in iconography have meaning; they are not a question of little importance. We cannot choose any colour to paint anything. There exists, it is true, a certain latitude in the domain of colours, but it is not true to say that all shades, all gradations of a colour, have the same significance. In general, then, colours have a theological meaning, and we do not have the liberty of neglecting this point or of concocting just any palette that pleases us or pleases current tastes.”[2] The use of Gold in the painting of icons is reserved for divinity and for Christ: The gold symbolizes the eternal uncreated light of God and his heavenly kingdom.

Sara Whittaker Howes simple and direct photographs evoke two different aspects of the famous work of Walter Benjamin on photography. In Understanding Brecht, Benjamin talks of the need to break through the barriers that make one person an artist, and another a worker. “The barriers of competence must be broken down by each of the productive forces they were created to separate, acting in concert.” We might take for granted today, in the age of Instagram, that we all photographers  but in the history of photography this move to the universal access to the form was indeed revolutionary. So, a clinical psychologist taking photos like these breaks down boundaries. But the presence of the vanished is concretely present in the captions. As Benjamin writes in the same piece and with the same purpose of making the photograph a political act as much as a work of art, “What we must demand from the photographer is the ability to put such a caption beneath his picture as will rescue it from the ravages of modishness and confer upon it a revolutionary use value. And we shall lend greater emphasis to this demand if we, as writers, start taking photographs ourselves.”[3] The captions extend across all three parts of the triptychs here and in them we have the real presence of the vanished.

The real presence here is of the survivor. We need to take a few steps to reach them. In the age of post-truth and compassion fatigue, that we choose to look and that these artists choose to make art about genocide rather than about something else, or indeed about only themselves, is the first step. Then we look. Would we keep looking if then all we saw were the vanished. Perhaps that is exactly what we should represent and that is exactly what we should all be made to look at. Primo Levi, in his evocation of the Shema, Yisroel: “Listen, Israel: God is our Lord, God is One” wrote:

You who live secure

In your warm houses

Who return at evening to find

Hot food and friendly faces:

 

Consider whether this is a man,

Who labours in the mud

Who knows no peace

Who fights for a crust of bread

Who dies at a yes or a no.

Consider whether this is a woman,

Without hair or name

With no more strength to remember

Eyes empty and womb cold

As a frog in winter.

 

Consider that this has been:

I commend these words to you.

Engrave them on your hearts

When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,

When you go to bed, when you rise.

Repeat them to your children.

Or may your house crumble,

Disease render you powerless,

Your offspring avert their faces from you.

 

Levi is unanswerable but in these times he is disturbingly unrealistic. Unrealistic on two levels. First, that is may not be possible to look at the vanished and if we could look the horror will force us to look away. The Kurdish Ministry of Anfal and Martyrs has toured many exhibitions that comprise almost entirely photographs of the vanished and their graves. The Kurdish genocide remains one of the least popularly understood genocides of the post-holocaust age.  There is also a danger here that in commanding the degree of cultural space it already does, the holocaust, as Mirzoeff argues, shuts down representation of other terrible events. I am not here arguing that it should have less, but that others should have more. How do we draw people towards an understanding of these other terrible events? It is not by looking directly into the eyes of vanished and the victims who did not return. At least not as a first step. It is rather to rescue through representation and recovery the victims who lived and to refocus on them as survivors. If we take people to this step, through representation and through their stories, then we open the road to the final and most important step, grasping the magnitude of the loss, of the spaces around them left by their destruction of their families, communities and nations. As corollary of that, to make them survivors we need not only to look but to listen. To listen the survivor must have a voice.

After the genocide against the Yazidi many whole families or parts of families have migrated. Or, if we echo the wording of the United Nations convention on Genocide, many Yazidi families in whole or in part have been destroyed by exile. For a people without a state and a metaphysics which is based on key sacred locations, exile is another stage of genocide. It is not necessarily what we would understand as rescue. Their homeland has been decimated by the assault of Daesh and then by the scattering of those who remained. In their heartland, Mount Sinjar, only 4-5,000 people out of 50,000 have returned and over 70% of their buildings have been destroyed. 3,000 or so women and girls remain missing.

These pieces question the premise that there needs to be a pause before the visual arts can begin to represent genocide, but they also raise questions about how this can and should be done. For the purpose of raising awareness, drawing the eye of the world to these events, in their tiny way these two small exhibits at Traquair, achieve that. People who see and experience these things do not, I suspect, forget them very quickly, even though the world has largely moved on from the fate of the Yazidi themselves.

Perhaps, that is enough. Genocides are pauses imposed by overwhelming violence in the cultures of specifically chosen people. Once chosen you cannot opt out of being the target of a genocidal project. Some cultures seem to never begin again. Others are so scattered that the many different parts start moving away from their home. Viewing works like these, in a setting like this, invites us to pause. To compare their suffering with the suffering we endure or inflict in our family life and to place that in proportion. To hold in reverence for a moment those who have lived before seeing also their humanity in the pictures they paint of themselves. The key is that these works rescue their subjects again. To be alive they gained freedom, that was their first rescue. Once the victim is free she is placed into a new cage. Works like these might be a second rescue from the category of victim to the place of a survivor in our midst but the work of therapists like Sarah Whittaker Howe, helping survivors recover. There is a kitsch slogan at the moment which captures the final step that should be the real focus of our support for these women -from surviving to thriving.

 

 

 

[1] Invisible Again: Rwanda and Representation after Genocide, Author(s): Nicholas Mirzoeff, Source: African Arts, Vol. 38, No. 3, Trauma and Representation in Africa (Autumn, 2005), pp. 36-39+86-91+96

[2] Fr Steven Bigham, “The Background Colour of an Icon2, The Orthodox Art Journal, September 2012

[3] Walter Bejamin, “The Author as Producer” in Understanding Brecht, trans. Anna Bostock (London,

1973), pp. 85-101

[i] The Expressive Writing Handbook by Dr Meg Jensen and Dr Siobhan Campbell, seehere https://www.amazon.co.uk/Expressive-Life-Writing-Handbook-ebook/dp/B0754GGCZV

[ii] In addition to legal and policy making workshops, we also delivered the theatre of stigma – see here https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=ia-2zJ7s68U

[iii] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Last-Optimist-Baghdad-Brian-Brivati-ebook/dp/B01LXW3DGG.

[iv] A Day in their Life – installation – http://tsrnetwork.org/news-network/publications/