UK artist highlights refugee plight by using drowned Syrians’ clothes to raise charity

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Arabella Dorman created artwork with the clothes of drowned Syrian refugees instead of brushes and oil. (Photos supplied)
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Arabella Dorman created artwork with the clothes of drowned Syrian refugees instead of brushes and oil. (Photos supplied)
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Arabella Dorman created artwork with the clothes of drowned Syrian refugees instead of brushes and oil. (Photos supplied)
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Updated 31 January 2018
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UK artist highlights refugee plight by using drowned Syrians’ clothes to raise charity

LONDON: We have heard many stories about boats loaded with Syrians fleeing the violence in their country in search of an unknown future in European countries. The trusted people smugglers did not tell them that, for many, they would not live to see their destinations and would instead drown at sea, scattered off the shores of Europe.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), since 2014, more than 8,000 people died crossing the Mediterranean on their way to Europe. According to the data, more than 1,252 of them were unidentified men, women and children who were buried without tombstones.
Now, British artist Arabella Dorman, who is known as the “war artist,” is refusing to let their memories fade. Instead, she chose to immortalize their memory through her incredible artwork, which shakes onlookers to their very core.
Dorman’s artwork, entitled “Suspended,” hangs from the ceiling of St. James’ Church in London. She expressed her feelings using pieces of clothing that belonged to Syrian refugees which had washed ashore.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, the artist said that she had visited many war-torn countries — such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine — and had met with people forgotten by humanity in a world clouded by mistrust and hatred.
“I have long been distressed by the tragedies I saw in those countries, in which I stayed for long periods of time to observe the suffering of innocent people, but my visit to Lesbos, Greece, during September and October 2014 has left me with a feeling I’ve never experienced before despite the tragedies I had seen in the past,” she said.
She added: “As I stood on the beach, which was covered with empty clothes, I felt an urge to rise up against this injustice. As a mother of two children, it pained me to see the empty clothes of little ones. No words can describe the pain that overwhelmed me.
“As an artist, I channel my emotions into paintings, but after I saw the wet clothes on the beach, which are the only remnants of these people, I decided to undertake a stronger project and turn these pieces of clothing into an artwork that reflects humanity in the world.”
The artwork is installed in the shape of a circle on the ceiling of St. James’ Church with a light source shining in the center. The light shines brightly then gradually dims until it goes out.
“The circular shape represents Earth and the changing light in the center represents hope and how it changes inside us humans,” Dorman explained. “When the light completely goes out, the darkness of the artwork reflects the dark, unfair human tragedy.”
When the artist first embarked on turning her idea into an actual work of art, she sought the help of the Starfish Foundation, a charity that helps refugees, as well as a remarkable number of volunteers. Dorman received around 1,400 pieces of clothing, from which she had chosen 800 and sent them to large laundries before she hired a company in the British Midlands to treat them so as to ensure they do not go up in flames in order to safely display them in public areas.
“Suspended” was hung in the churchyard in London on Dec. 11, and will remain there until Feb. 8. Dorman hopes that it can later be installed at Canterbury Cathedral in England, which will require the help and efforts of volunteers.
Twenty volunteers have helped Dorman install her work in St. James’ Church. She pointed out that the empty clothes are moving for many people, especially a baby’s shirt that says “my first birthday.”
“This shirt makes me shudder, especially as the baby was not aware that this was his first and last birthday,” she said.
St. James’ Church was chosen for displaying the artwork in December 2017 for three reasons. Rev. Lucy Winkett of St. James’ said: “Christmas can very easily be bankrupt of meaning, so as a church, we’re saying there’s no better time to talk about this big issue.”
The second reason is the need to shed light on the Syrian refugee crisis, while the third is the artwork’s contribution to raising donations for the Starfish Foundation to help refugees.
Dorman has been labelled a “war artist” because she worked with the British forces in southern Iraq in 2006, in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2014, in the islands of Greece in 2005 and in refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk in 2015 and 2016.
She was listed as one of the BBC’s Top 100 Women in 2014 and as one of Salt Magazine’s 100 Most Inspiring Women in 2015.
* This article has been translated from Arabic and originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat on Jan. 24, 2018.


Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

Updated 16 August 2018
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Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

LONDON: What is it about the work of the famed Lebanese poet, writer and artist Kahlil Gibran that touches the hearts of so many people across the world today, decades on from his death in 1931? An exhibition of art inspired by his writings held this month at Sotheby’s in London provided an opportunity to consider that question
“Kahlil Gibran: A Guide for our Times” was organized by the peace building movement, Caravan, and co-curated by Janet Rady and Marion Fromlet Baecker. It featured work by 38 artists from across the Middle East. The vision for the exhibition grew out of a recent book on Gibran titled “In Search of a Prophet: A Spiritual Journey with Kahlil Gibran” by the Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, Caravan’s founding president.
Chandler is committed to breaking down cultural, racial and religious barriers. Through the Caravan initiative he has hosted numerous exhibitions using art to build bridges between the Middle East and the West. He sees the message contained in Gibran’s 1923 book “The Prophet” as profoundly relevant today.
Speaking to Arab News at the packed-out event, he said: “All the artists in this exhibition are trying to express how they have been inspired, challenged and encouraged by Gibran’s themes of peace, love and harmony for all of humanity. The thread running through all the work is the unique role that Gibran plays in reminding us that we are one family.
“The idea of the Caravan movement is that we are all journeying together, regardless of background, tradition or religion,” he continued. “The arts have a unique role in peace-building between the Middle East and the West.”
Lebanese-Syrian artist Rana Chalabi, who was raised in Lebanon, said she first read “The Prophet” at school, but made a point of re-reading it several times before starting work on her contribution to the piece, “On Giving.”
Her painting shows a throng of people gazing upwards at a transcendent figure — the Prophet — who seems to shimmer above the multitude in hues of gold.
“To me, Gibran’s Prophet represents an enlightened mystic,” she explained. “He was so ahead of his time and such a spiritual person.”
For Chalabi, Gibran’s work continues to resonate. “The wisdom of Gibran is very much needed today,” she said. “He could explain his ideas in a simple way to people. In his day he was misunderstood and branded a heretic by those who missed the essence of what he was saying and took his teachings at a very superficial level.”
Chalabi was clearly pleased to have been invited to submit work to Caravan’s exhibition.
“I believe in what Rev. Chandler is trying to do,” she said. “We have to bridge the differences in the world and try to understand each other’s religions, cultures and perspectives.”
Bahraini artist Lulwa Al-Khalifa showed a striking painting of a woman, titled
“Blind Faith.” The starkly expressive figure looks perplexed and stares out from the painting with an abstract and tense expression.
Al-Khalifa said: “There are a lot of emotions I wanted to convey through this work. I was exploring the concept of faith and how sometimes people have to abandon some of the ideas that give them their own sense of identity and take a leap of faith. I consider the question ‘How much of you are you prepared to surrender for your faith?’ Faith is surrender with cause but without proof. Sometimes people have to face ambivalence, fear and anxiety on this journey.”
Al-Khalifa also stressed how relevant Gibran outlook remains today.
“I love how Gibran explored many aspects of many themes. His thought process is very fresh and modern — even today,” she said. “It is not rigid, but very hopeful and expresses love and acceptance.
“I really believe that all people are united as human beings. But we try so hard to separate from each other, even though in reality we all have the same concerns and loves and hates. We should come together,” she continued.
Lebanese artist Christine Saleh Jamil echoed Al-Khalifa’s sentiments. “Gibran means so much to me. Reading his book ‘The Prophet’ taught me a lot about life, how to live peacefully and accept things in a harmonious way,” she said. “His message is very important today.”
Jamil created “The Wanderer,” a captivating image of Gibran as a child, for the exhibition. Her work, she said, was based on a photograph and inspired by Chandler’s book, which, she said, “took me back to my childhood in Beirut.”
“That’s why I chose to represent Gibran as a child and in this image you see his face set among birch trees, as he loved nature,” she explained.
Lebanon’s ambassador to the UK, Rami Mortada — a special guest at the event — spoke to Arab News about Gibran’s legacy.
“The interest shown here tonight and the big turnout is an indication of how the message he stands for is relevant, badly needed and timely in our world today,” Mortada said. “It is a message of harmony and peace, of removing barriers between nations and cultures, and of interfaith dialogue. This is what Gibran encapsulated. If I had to sum up his work up in one word, I would say (it is) inspirational.”
Another ambassador, Dr. Alisher Shaykhov from Uzbekistan, stressed that Gibran’s work is of truly global significance.
“Gibran’s fame extends far beyond the Middle East. He is a person who has succeeded in transferring the spirit of the Islamic people in a harmonious way,” he observed. “One of his most important messages is that of the unifying elements, rather than the differences, between religions. He has a gift of being able to express the feelings of the people. The artists here, imbued with his spirit, have transferred his message through their artworks in their own personal way.”
Art enthusiast Mira Takla said she had attended a number of ‘Caravan’ art events and always found their message very persuasive.
“As far as I am concerned these events do more for interracial understanding and comprehension and tolerance of different cultures than many other such initiatives,” she said.
Another guest. Anthony Wynn, gave a good example of Gibran’s cross-cultural appeal, pointing out that he had often heard Gibran quoted at weddings in the UK — particularly a verse from “On Marriage” from “The Prophet”:
“Love one another, but make not a bond of love/Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls/Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup/Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf/Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone/Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.”