In May 1989, I exhibited my work at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. I had the privilege to witness the student-led democracy movement unfolding at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The heart of this momentous event was the hunger strikers. They were university students who decided to put their lives on the line to have their voices heard. They wanted democracy for China. Many had written their last wills.
I was struck by the power of the hunger strikers. Their simple actions of sitting and refusing food set the whole nation on fire. . .
I realized that the power of these students came from their utter dedication in what they believe in through action. I realized that if I want my life count, being an artist is not just about making art. It is a way of life. It is about delivering the vision one is given and about doing the right thing without sparing oneself.
I was transformed by my experience at the Village of Arts and Humanities. I went through another transformative experience in a hell-hole place called Korogocho. I visited it for the first time in 1994. I returned ten times in the following years.
Korogocho is a huge garbage dump situated on the outskirts of Nairobi. 150,000 people live there. Thousands try to eke out a living from the garbage dump in the center of the settlement. People experience violence on so many levels –filth, the lack of clean water, air, opportunities, and the ravaging hunger. It is the violence of poverty and deprivation. With deep sadness, we are seeing that massive population live in similar dangerous situations in our turbulent world today.
“What was one to do in face of such devastation? For an artist, bring colors.
Following the steps of Christ, Father Alex Zanotelli not only helps the poor; he lives with the poor. His church, St. John’s Catholic Church, is located on the edge of the huge garbage dump. It is a place where hundreds of children and adults find comfort and refuge. That became our project site.
No one could have imagined that beauty could exist in such a place, including me. But as our brightly colored images emerged, the mood in the community began to change. When we dared to place the freshly carved angels on top of an abandoned quarry structure, to guard and bless this endangered community, the spirit of the people soared.
Creating art in forlorn and forsaken places is like making fire in the frozen darkness of a winter’s night. It brings light, warmth, hope and it beckons people to join in.
Word spread. People heard that an artist from America was working with residents in the dumpsite community in Korogocho. At the dedication, over a thousand people attended. Our honored guests included members from various embassies, the Kenyan government, representatives from private foundations, and universities. Most of them had never set foot in this pain-inflicted community. To our surprise, American Ambassador Aurelia Brazeal appeared in person to honor the occasion.
On that day, I felt the immense power of art. Through our collaborative action in creating beauty, we empowered ourselves to push open the weighty hell gate of the vast slum so that fresh air and sunlight poured in. Father Alex commented, “It is important that we bear witness in places like Korogocho. It helps people to feel that they are not forgotten and they do not suffer in isolation.”
I visited Rwanda in 2004 and saw the mass grave in Rugerero in the Rubavu district. The grave was made of rough concrete under a rusty corrugated metal roof, undecorated and unmarked.
“I asked myself, “How could people heal when their loved ones were buried in such a place?” A survivor told me,” Every time I passed there my heart broke. It was like killing us twice.”
I wanted to bring the concept of beauty into the design of the memorial.
Survivors asked me to construct a bone chamber so that their loved ones could be buried properly. The idea frightened me. The bones are intimately connected to the national psyche of terror and profound sorrow. But together, we managed. When the chamber became too moist for the bones, we tiled the whole surface of the monument to keep it dry. Low tech, but highly effective.
How appropriate that it was the making of the mosaics that helped us to solve the problem! In this grief-stricken community, through working together with the broken tiles, piece-by-piece, people began to transform their suffering and despair into hope and joy.
On April 7, 2009, the day of the national mourning, thousands of people walked for miles in a somber procession to the genocide memorial. Folks lined up to enter the bone chamber. I was startled to see that they not only paid tribute to the victims, but some had to open the caskets to look at the bleached bones. Fifteen years later, it was still too much to bear. But somehow through the piercing pains and howls, healing began.
Survivors said to us, “When we see beauty we see hope. Our loved ones can come home now in honor and dignity.”
“Art and beauty heal.”