Bearing Witness is an artbook/graphic novel that tells the stories of refugees. In drawings, paintings and writing, it invites audiences to delve into fictional lives from all times and places, including people escaping wars and those currently driven from their homes because of climate change. It builds on years of development that led to my 2021 Sanctuary exhibit of 50 sculptures and paintings.
Sanctuary began in 2019 with life-size mixed-media drawings of figures walking to what they believed would be safety. Then I crafted symbolic three-dimensional rafts that escape from a dark mural across a gallery floor. As I worked to express the desperation felt by refugees, it was also important to me to express their hope. So in 2021 I drew and sculpted families settled in tents and I hinted at the possibility of life resuming.
My background informs this subject with historical perspective. My grandparents barely spoke English. All sides of my extended family, immigrants and those taken from Africa, persevered like the figures I depict.
The 448-page book has ten chapters divided into two parts: the journeys and the camp. Chapter One begins “The night before my birthday, mama woke us in the dark. She said to pack…” A ten-year old narrates their escape from a war zone. Chapter Two changes the voice to a boy whose family leaves their farm because of drought, surviving a trek through a desert. Chapters Three and Four are told by a fisherman in a flood who crosses the sea in a deadly storm to save his family.
Chapters Five through Nine are set in a refugee camp where women tell their tales, including escape from threats. The final chapter deals with resettlement and the meaning of home.
Each page is an individual work of art. Figures are drawn in charcoal, with acrylic and pastel. The completed book is a dense 9” x 7” when printed. The limited hand-written text is integrated into the design.
This is a work of dramatized art, but I do want to mirror reality. Now, because of climate change and wars throughout the world, nearly 100 million people are displaced from their homes, more than at any time in modern history. Around half of them are children. These characters are compiled from years of research across times and places. This is not any one person’s memoir; it is a universal human journey.
Now more than ever, we need a space for shared humanity, a possibility of beauty not by denying reality but within it.