A live online talk by Arabella Dorman on 10 February 2021.
Arabella Dorman is an award winning war artist and one of Britains leading portrait painters.
Winner of the Global Mosaic Award and shortlisted for the Art+Christianity Award, Arabellas installation Suspended (St Jamess Church Piccadilly, Canterbury Cathedral, Leicester Cathedral 2017/18), and her boat installation Flight (St James’s Church Piccadilly, 2015/16), have been internationally acclaimed in raising global awareness about the consequences of war, forced displacement of people and human trafficking.
Visit Arabella’s website here.
It’s great honour to be with you all tonight and thank you to the Balfour Project for hosting this talk. I’d like really to start with asking a question. What is art for? Why do we do it? We live in a world where we make and trade in images more and more every single day, for many of us they increasingly define us, especially with our growing dependence on social media. But I wonder whether art has the true power to move and whether it can effect meaningful change, whether we want it to. As we all reflect on the sad and very challenging times that we’re living for, I see the Arts as more important than ever, in the messages that they can convey, because they are a mirror to our times. Art is storytelling and it is storytelling that raises us above the animals.
Artists are responsible for telling stories that perhaps make the world just a little bit better.
The stories that need to be told and to remind people of the underlying truth of things. And at a time of profound disconnect there is a need for human connection, the need to reach out to loved ones which is what this painting is about.
I think this pandemic has forced us all to live in a higher key. We’re more aware of the fragility of our carefully constructed lives, more aware of the need for one another, perhaps also the suffering of one another, the incredible work being done by all our hospital workers and key workers, the fear that those who are dying on their own are facing, which is why, of course, I painted this, as a tribute to all those fighting this cruel disease and all those on the frontline, working so hard against it.
COVID has brought with it new challenges, along with immense suffering and personal loss. It’s also brought thought-provoking changes. For some, it has been a terrible and difficult time, but for others, I think it might’ve been a moment, an opportunity of reawakening, a relearning of ourselves in relation to one another and reassessing the common thread that binds our lives together.
As a portrait painter, I’ve always been fascinated in the ability of the arts to tell that story. What it means to be human today. Of course, the past year has offered us an acute distillation of the human condition. Like in war, this pandemic has exposed our raw human vulnerability.
Like in war, [COVID] has exposed our raw vulnerability.
We find ourselves living in a time of heart-rending crisis in which all the old certainties ore being shaken up. And we continue to find ourselves, like this child, in a permanent state of unknown. As in war, it is so often young people and children who are the hidden victims, especially as schools remain closed across large parts of the world. And it was to highlight the plight of those children that I painted this.
Sadly, however, a situation like this isn’t just restricted to the consequences of a global pandemic. Looked at another way, this painting points to the fact that COVID has actually brought some of the deprivations of war and refugee status, the fear, disease, curfews, restrictions economic crises, a little closer to home, giving us all a hint of what it might be to live in the shadow of war.
Because these deprivations are part of everyday life for those living across the Middle East today. For the Syrians, who’ve endured 11, 12, long years of unspeakable violence. The Iraqis and Afghans who’ve suffered decades of turmoil. And of course, for the Palestinians and Israelis who continue to live in a world fraught with physical and political instability.
I had the immense privilege of spending a few weeks working with the St John Eye Hospital Group across all their area of operations in 2017. And I was humbled day everyday by extraordinary scenes such as this and the dedication and care and commitment that I saw in all our staff, from the surgeons to the nurses, ceaselessly working in their fight to help people and to uphold human rights in very challenging conditions from Hebron to Gaza.
I saw this heart-rending scene when I was working in Gaza . This young girl was brought in for crucial eye surgery, without which she would have been blind in probably a few years, denying her any hope of education, of marriage, really of a future. And yet she walked out of that hospital a few hours later with complete vision. The far-reaching effect of St. John’s work cannot be overestimated. And I’m sure the same can be said for the Balfour Project. I look forward to seeing it firsthand.
The deprivations of Gaza are of course far too complex and terrible and monumental to go into right now. But I found myself thinking back to my time there again and again, when I traveled across Syria a couple of years ago. This was Aleppo in 2018. And on my last night in the country, I couldn’t sleep for the boom boom of a sustained bombing campaign in Damascus’ southern suburbs.
I lay in the dark, imagining those lying, trapped under the rubble, under collapsed buildings. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, babies, bereft, inconsolable, pinned down by bombs that were raining from the sky, bombs that have destroyed some of the oldest cities in the world.
This was the Great Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo. The minaret that you can see there was built in 1090. And this is it today. Something that took years to build brought down in a matter of moments, something that has stood the test of time, suddenly eradicated. This unique minaret cannot be rebuilt.
I felt the same, actually, when I watched Notre Dame burn a few years ago. When I stood amidst these ruins, I found that my very belief in anything permanent was shaken to the core. The past here is lost to the present. And in Syria, that present is profoundly marked by absence.
Within this though, what strikes me is that out of that negativity, out of that absence, can be born a positive. And that positive is something like this. A group of young acrobats who turned the war torn streets of Aleppo into their playground, scaling the ruins in pursuit to “forget their pain”, as they told me.
Now we can look at the state of things across the world today, from COVID to climate change, as very dark. Indeed, we are fed by the media with an inexhaustible supply of doom and gloom, and it’s sometimes very hard not to see it that way, but it doesn’t mean we can’t look to the good, like these young acrobats or the incredible staff of St. John, who tirelessly continue to provide hope and care in an otherwise bleak landscape. Their work to me is an expression of the best of the human condition and the desire to heal, to reach out to one another, to give a child the gift of sight and to change a life forever. I found it very moving to witness their work and scenes such as these, because it resonated so much with me as a war artist, since what I try to do is seek out the human spirit that rises up out of the ruins of despair, the spirit that gives people the courage to see with hope and to live again with purpose.
I think hope is often most readily encountered in some of them is desperate and afflicted parts of the world.
My interest is in the possibility of renewal and the light that burns brightest in the darkest corners. I think St John is one of those lights, as are the individual stories of courage and faith within the collective violence of war , that can be seen in scenes such as these.
This was Sangin in Helmand province in 2009, then, and now one of the most dangerous places in the world. And I think this reveals the very long tail of conflict, not just its immediate impacts, nor perhaps its longer-term consequences, but the human face, the human cost of war, which is where my particular interest lies. I try not to dwell on the political arguments, for and against, or opposing strategies or the modern machinery of war, but to allow the individual experience to reveal the human impact of those political and military decisions.
Of course, we all know that the drivers of today’s conflicts, the governments, the politicians, the leaders, the ones who sit in their palaces, are not the ones who suffer.
The real wars are found in scenes such as this, in the quiet bravery of the soldiers and civilians who endure far more than you or I have perhaps ever seen.
When I was in Homs in Syria, I spent an evening with the local women. They were desperate to tell their story. They’d all lost their homes, their livelihoods, their loved ones, their children, and they wanted to be seen. They couldn’t understand why the world had I forgotten them.
One lady said to me, “I lost my car. Okay. Then I lose my house. Okay. Then I lose my neighborhood. Okay. But it was when I lost my two children, this is when I thought I cannot go on, but I do.”
Another lady said, “we make from destruction, construction, from death, life. This is the will of the Syrian people. We love life. We love peace. We want to go from the worst to better. If you are not looking for the better than you are dead.”
The voices that I heard in Syria were not entirely broken. They were those of defiance, of anger, of longing, longing to heal what has been shattered, mend what is broken and gather what is scattered through a language of peace. It is profoundly humbling to listen to a people who have endured such horror and hate speak of the simple need for peace. And of course the urgent desire to repatriate their young, their talented, their skilled, the students, a whole generation. But the truth is they cannot go home. They have no home to return to and no security to protect them.
The Syrians whom I talked to in Lebanon were terrified that should they return to Syria, they would simply disappear, or the men would be conscripted back to the front line. So these people, these refugees, each with their dreams and their individual lives, what becomes of them when they cannot go home and yet they cannot go forward.
What becomes of the children, girls like this one who remains prey to trafficking and systemised sexual violence. Today, trafficking of women and children is the fastest growing enterprise in the world. When it comes to a battle between morality and money, sadly, it is the latter that so often prevails. I met one young Syrian woman, Ravda, who had been systematically raped since she was a child. And who wrote,
“I am sister, daughter, friend. Most importantly, I am a human being. I am here to say no to rape, to marriage, to keep my childhood, my dreams.
This is Dana who sleeps with her beautiful eyes open. Dana, raped at the age of six, again and again.”
Faced with this increasingly urgent situation, it is hard to know how to respond, how to act, how to find one’s place, morally and ethically, in today’s world. Indeed so overwhelmed are we all by a continuous news reel of sadness and atrocity that the temptation is to just turn away in despair. In doing so though, I believe that we deceive ourselves into thinking we can do nothing.
Compassion fatigue, or as Pope Francis calls it, the ‘globalisation of indifference,’ settles over us, obliterating the sharp edges and the urgent need for change.
Instead, I believe we could and should see the state of the world today, whether it’s that as forced displacement and refugee crisis or a global pandemic, as a call to reimagine who we are in relation to one another, both individually and collectively. And in doing so, to re-find the common thread that binds the fabric of life together. Life, after all is what each one of us has in common.
And this installation entitled Suspended, which is made up of clothes discarded by Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans arriving in Lesbos at the height of the refugee crisis, is a celebration of that life and a response to the terrible situation that I saw in Lesbos.
I traveled there in 2015, having spent the previous decade focusing on the human cost of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the very countries from which people were fleeing. I felt a personal connection and a national culpability to go out and document the situation, to listen to people who, when they arrived in Lesbos told me in their own words, “I come here for new life. I come here for hope, peace and education.”
Now I didn’t go thinking I could change anything or to find solutions. I’m not a politician. But I did go in the hope that I might be able to create something that would lay down some sort of moral matrix for having that urge to change things, for making that urge intelligible.
Sadly, there is no clear strategy of change when faced by this. The sheer number of people arriving then, a little like the sheer number of deaths to coronavirus, was overwhelming. The scale of human drama and tragedy completely unimaginable.
Within the chaos, however, in Lesbos, one of the things that struck me were these discarded clothes strewn everywhere over the fences and camps and beaches. I picked up a few of the items and was immediately struck by the very visceral and powerful presence of those who had worn them. Who were they? Where were they coming from? Where were they hoping to go to? Where had their dreams carried them?
Suspended, therefore is not just a mass of clothes tumbling from a cathedral roof. It is a collection of intimate portraits, undoubtedly full of pain and loss, but also full of stories. Stories like the unseen wearers of those clothes that can only be imagined.
There was an intimacy in handling these clothes, a visceral sense of the wearer that haunts me still. And what I found most effecting were really the small details, poignant expressions of human vulnerability, lovingly darned tights or an amulet sewn into a child’s little body grow, before a dangerous sea crossing.
These details, like these clothes, seek to ask us to consider, did this child ever have his first Christmas? Or was it buried like this below the rubble, a Christmas celebration that was never enjoyed, presents never opened, card games never finished. Each of those found items, holds an inner life, a story, as illustrated by this personalised t-shirt, which speaks of happier times for these two girls. These are people just like us, not a faceless category. Mothers, daughters, children, each, like the wearer of the shoe, unique, precious, carrying its own secrets.
As the poet Yevtushenko describes, “no people are uninteresting. Their fate is like the chronicle of planets. Nothing in them is not particular. And planet is dissimilar from planet. And if a man lived in obscurity, making his friends in that obscurity, obscurity is not uninteresting. To each, his world is private. And in that world one excellent minute. And in that one world, one tragic minute. These are private. In any man who dies there dies with him, his first snow and kiss and fight. It goes with him.”
When we are confronted by this, we are confronted by the mirror of our times.
But for the accident of birth, these children could be those privileged ones that come into my studio.
So excited to be painted as part of a family portrait. Or boys like my own son, full of ideas and mischief and wonder. Girls like my daughter here, who are allowed to grow up slowly with security, imagination, laughter and smiles. So alike, but so unlike the children I have seen in my journeys through Syria and Iraq and the Middle East.
These are orphans of war, children who have been robbed of their parents. Robbed of their childhood, their safety to dream, a whole generation lost to displacement.
Broken beyond repair.
by Deaths unrelenting stare.
But do you care?
Do you dare look into my eyes
and fall deep into the chasm of my sorrow?
Or hold my hand as i face another tomorrow?
Will you share my pain,
will you borrow it, just for a while?
And let me rediscover my smile.
Now I am a mother to my orphaned brother.
No more pink ribbons for my hair
or the company of even my teddy bear.
Sometimes… i see glimpses of her;
the beautiful girl who looks just like me.
Except she can’t be me;
she was whole, and I am the leftovers of war.
She was really happy;
happiness is a dialect I can’t speak anymore.
Have you recognized me?
I am the ashes
scattered between three syllables;
Left in the grasp
of a bittersweet memory.”
Click here to see poem.
As I stepped gingerly through the rubble of this bombed out school room in Aleppo, I imagined children like that, returning to search for the glimpses of their childhood. Their looted hopes lying in the ruins of their school. Outside though I could hear the odd child playing in the streets and the occasional laughter and kicking of a football. And it reminded me that life goes on. Within all of this, there are all glimmers of hope, because I really believe that if we do look for good, we will always find it, somewhere. It is out there, which is what I saw again and again, in Palestine with St John. Their work epitomises the motto, “It is easier to build strong children than mend broken men.”
Now these children and the families who are perhaps lucky enough to have come under the gaze of St John are fortunate indeed. But for the others, for the thousands of children who are now in camps across Europe, their future is not so assure. One woman Homs said to me, “when a child dreams of a glass of water that is humiliation.”
Imagine being the mother of that child. I sketched this scene shortly after these two have been rescued from the Aegean. It was a very traumatic situation. Everyone on the boat had come close to drowning. Men and women were crying and shouting and praying openly, while this lady sat so still, so dignified holding her only child. And I felt what I was drawing was biblical. I felt what I was witnessing there was the Holy family’s flight to Egypt played out every day. It was humanity laid bare.
You will, of course, all remember that during 2015, the terrible number of migrant deaths at sea became an urgent global focus. Especially after the terrible picture of little Alan Kurdi washed up on the beach. It was a very overwhelming situation, and Flight as Diana referred to in her introduction, was my response. This was a boat that I salvaged from Lesbos and hung above the nave of St. James Piccadilly during the Christmas of 2015. This boat was found in the Aegean with 62 refugees drifting, taking on water. Their engine had failed and had the coast guard not spotted them, they all would have drowned.
As you can see, I installed it with the bow plunging down towards the altar and three life jackets, tumbling down as if out of its bowels. The smallest one was the lowest, an infant life jacket. Of course they are intended to evoke the story of Mary and Joseph who became refugees after giving birth in dangerous circumstances to a child who grew up to change the course of world history.
Now the response to Flight was extraordinary and profoundly humbling. I was sent children’s drawings and letters and poems that were flooded in from all around the world, depicting dreams of home and safety, and the reality of flight, persecution and exploitation.
One Syrian called Ali wrote, “the smugglers are traitors. They said we would reach Greece in 15 minutes. They said the children would not need life jackets.” His wife and seven children died trapped under the deck of the boat when the engine failed.
It’s difficult to imagine humans more powerless than children locked under the deck of a sinking boat with no life jackets. Now, I know that art cannot change the world, but I hope that those who stood under that boat, or looked up at the clothes in Suspended, might have felt something of that cry of anguish that I felt standing on those beaches or in the ruins and Syria.
This is that cry. It is a plea that the suffering cannot go on and a call to resistance against the destructive horrors of war and greed, against the corruption of all those who seek to dehumanise their fellow human beings.
It is an act of empathy and solidarity as we all reach out to those in plight.
Kafka once wrote, “art should shatter the frozen seas within us.”
Well, some people cry under my installations, and I like to think that their tears are perhaps the meltwater of those frozen seas. In such a way, I see art as an opening, as a conversation, like the words left by these Syrians who’d lived for months on end under siege and Aleppo, but who held strengths in their heart and would not give in to despair. When in a time of bombs, these words speak more eloquently than shells. The desire for peace, more loudly than the destruction of war.
In a similar way, rather than trade on the aesthetics of despair, I try to focus on the courage, on this kind of resilience, on the light that can banish the darkness ,because much of my work is about light.
I lit Suspended, as you can see here, from the center to represent the light of hope by which a refugee travels, and to ask us to seek the light within ourselves that will validate that hope. The light that will not allow us to turn our backs in prejudice and fear on the plight of thousands.
As it dimmed, and I put it on a continuous circuit from bright to dark, it served to remind us of the darkness in which we leave our fellow human beings should we ignore their plight.
So this installation is my plea that instead of building walls, we build bridges. And in doing so, we recognise the human connection that this seeks to elicit. I try to open up a space in all of us, in which we can make ourselves vulnerable enough to see afresh.
The word vulnerable comes from vulnerare, which literally means to wound the vulnerability is being open to being wounded. And to quote Rumi, one of my favorite go-to’s, the 13th century mystic, “the wound is the place where the light enters you.”
I see that light as hope and God’s love. It is his gift to the world. Hope it’s not a prize nor a gift, but something we earn through resisting the ease of despair. Emily Dickinson called it, “a thing with feathers, that perches the soul and sings the tune without words, and never stops at all.”
Of the many we helped off the boats in Lesbos, I pulled this small child out of the water. He was five or six, about the same age as my son at the time. And he clung to me. He was soaked to the skin and shaking with pure terror and cold. Once I managed to wrap him in a dry blanket, and by dint of a miracle, reunite him with his father from whom had been separated, as you can see here, he dug into his tiny child’s rucksack and with a simple thank you, he presented me with a child’s toy. It was a red, fluffy heart with the words “I love you” inscribed on it.
When I turned to his father and asked him what this was for, he said he had carried it all the way from his bedroom in Aleppo, determined to give it to the first person as a thank you that he met in Europe. Well, the words, ‘thank you ‘and ‘welcome’ hung in the air, as I turned away in instant shame, for what was he thinking me? But Suspended is about trying to make ourselves worthy of that thanks.
So I guess I’m really asking all of us to not be bystanders on the sidelines of history. I ask that we engage with these issues, with empathy and a shared sense of humanity, that we fulfill the words that are inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty and graffitied all over the refugee camps.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
No one becomes a refugee by choice, to leave everything you’ve ever worked for, all that you know, and love, to make a journey into the unknown. This is something that you only do if you are desperate, without a home, everything is fragmentation.
And when we contemplate this, it changes our understanding of what it is to have, and to lose, our place in the world. I guess I’m asking for compassion, and compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with someone else where they are broken, alone, weak. This isn’t our spontaneous response to suffering. What we would prefer is to find a quick vaccination, a quick solution, or to do away with suffering altogether, by fleeing from it.
But the reality is that thousands of refugees, especially children, are in limbo across Europe. This is made far worse by current COVID fears and restrictions. And so many of these are children sleeping rough on the streets, having escaped the overcrowded and dire conditions in the camps. Imagining my own two children lost somewhere in Europe, I called this painting The Dreamers, where the safety of our home is but an imagined dream. Once you’ve heard a child cry out to heaven for help and go unanswered, nothing is ever the same again.
As I said at the beginning, children are so often the first victims of war. And as a parent, I can only imagine the pain of watching my child grow up with more knowledge of bombs and violence than books and games, of hunger and fear rather than warmth and love.
This child was brought into the medical outpost in Sangin, in Helmand Province, that you saw in the painting earlier. And she couldn’t walk. As I sketched her crumpled body though, I didn’t ask what had happened to her, but I sought instead to try and depict the gentle grace within her father’s fierce embrace. Now, these are not perhaps the scenes that we identify with Afghanistan or with Syria. But they all are the quieter, hidden realities, found in the silence that falls when the clatter of guns dies away. And it is in the stillness of these moments that we see the human face of war as a real mirror of our times and the immeasurable cost it exacts.
My main remembrance painting commemorates the 456 British forces personnel killed in Afghanistan. As anyone who has worked with the British forces will attest, it is an extraordinary privilege to work with these men and women whose dedication and professionalism, honour and courage can be no better summed up in my mind than in the words of a soldier’s predeployment letter to his parents. These are the words from Sean Reeve, who wrote to his parents, “Please trust me. No matter what the circumstances of my death, no matter how fast, how slow, I am strong. My only suffering will be the realisation that I will not see my family again. I will not suffer for fear or pain. Such feelings will not touch me.”
Sean was killed on his last day of his tour. You can imagine for his parents, their grief is never ending.
And for civilians too, the pity of war, the suffering and trauma etched deep inside their soul and onto their faces, is never ending.
This is an Afghan father of an Afghan son, weaned on a diet of violence and poverty in a country where one wonders if the cycle of violence will ever end. Perhaps now there is some hope with Biden at the heml, and in light of recent peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghanistan government. Who knows? Perhaps it might allow this beautiful country and these beautiful people to heal, to allow this boy a chance to refind his childhood, where he can fly his kite high and free above his war-torn city, where he can dream of music, of dancing, of laughter.
Like these school girls who I met under the cliffs of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, girls who said “tell them when you go home that we are not just a land of men and guns and beards. We are a land of people who love to dance and girls who dream of wearing red lipstick.”
I was reminded of this scene when I was in Syria, where amidst the ruins of Aleppo, I came across boys dancing, boys who told me, “you can choose to hold onto your sadness and loss, or you can dance.”
Rumi again wrote, “dance when you’re broken open, dance if you’ve torn the bandage off, dance in the middle of the fighting, dance in your blood, dance when you’re perfectly free.”
There is an old Eastern saying, if God exists, then he’s a bit like the sun, not only giving immense light and heat and life, but also casting shadows. War lies low in those shadows, but a single sunbeam is strong enough to drive them away.”
And sunbeams can come in all forms. The staff at St John or perhaps this old school master in Afghanistan, who in 40 years of fighting never missed a day’s teaching. Or Syrians who pray to never give into the hate, despite enduring the endless suffering of their country.
One of those was an apprentice monk whom I met. He had been kidnapped and brutally tortured and held for 118 days. When I asked him whether he could ever forgive his captors, he simply looked at me and said, “when I was in captivity, I prayed for the forgiveness of my kidnappers every day, just as I had prayed for them before.”
This is when the shadows start to recede and the possibility of hope and renewal come forward. I was poignantly reminded of that sense of the light coming forward, when I was in Homs I met a man adorning what were the ruins of his house with these Easter decorations, where instead of crying and despairing, he was creating, and he had a huge basket of Easter chocolates to give to the children.
Do you know that after the bombing of Dresden, the first shops to open were not food shops or basic suppliers, there were flower shops? I think that speaks volumes of the human need for beauty and hope.
Like the man decorating his house, much of my work is about learning to embrace our broken world and to find beauty within its brokenness. I’m interested in what holds people together, as well as what pulls them apart, and in the connective threads of a hope and endurance.
On my last trip to Afghanistan, I went down to Lashkagar police station to meet the first police women in Helmand Province. These are women who have hope where no hope should be. Stop and think about that for a second. The first police women of Helmand Province. Imagine the courage required to do that sort of job, when often your whole family stands violently against you. When your own brother threatens to shoot you, because you step out of your house into a man’s world and try to make your world a little better. When all you’re trying to do is move your country forwards.
These women reached out to me like a sister. They could have resented my intrusion, my coming in for the day and then leaving them to their fate, but they didn’t. And as I sketched their portraits, we shared tea and we laughed like girls. Then suddenly they become serious and steely, as they talked about the daily risks to their lives that their work imposed. In talking though, I felt I’d known them far longer than that one day. We spoke a universal language of hope.
One of the ladies with me that morning was called Islam Bibi. She was actually head of the police women’s team and mother of four young children. She was shot dead on her way to work a few months later. Now, Islam Bibi knew the risks. She told me of them. And she paid the ultimate price for her belief. But she also knew that for every one of them brutally murdered, there will be others who will follow in her footsteps and rise up against tyranny and violence.
And this is what my work is about. It is as much about that spark of divinity within the human spirit, as it is about the tragedy of war. Yes, it is about exile and despair, but it is also about the courage and hope that can be born out of darkness. It is about fixing what is broken with gold.
In our fast, dangerous and scary world, it is about the urgent need to act with compassion, with courage and understanding and respect for our fellow human beings. Thank you so much for all listening.
That was absolutely amazing. I have heard you give that talk a couple of times in different formats and it gets me every time regardless.
I have a lovely comment from Ronald Mendel who comes to a lot of our events. “Arabella, you’re doing a service to artistically represent the impact of war on human beings, for too often their lives and deaths are reduced to statistics, which I’m afraid disappear from our collective memory.”
So I think he’s put it beautifully. And that sentiment about your talk was reiterated a few different times by different people.
I’m going to start with a question from our chairman, Sir Vincent Fean. He would like to say “refugees in the UK I have met are enterprising, adventurous, and glad to be in a safe place. They have hope. Do you find hope in charities like Save the Children, The UN Relief Works Agency in Palestine, Medical Aid for Palestinians, St John?”
He hasn’t been mentioned the Balfour Project, but I’m going to add that to the list.
I find immense hope in all these institutions, of course, and actually some of these smaller institutions are often the unsung heroes because we all hear about UNHCR or Save the Children, but they’re very, very big. And I think often the feeling is that quite a lot of money can be directed towards the enormous administrative costs that they’ve faced by virtue of being so big. But it doesn’t mean that they’re not doing incredible work as well.
But there are other wonderful enterprises, like Safe Passage, for example, and a lot of charities that support refugees in the UK who are doing huge work in small corners. And anyone can get actively involved in any of these charities, whether it was in Palestine or in this country. I’m very closely involved with Afghan Aid, which is a grassroots charity in Afghanistan. I also work with Beyond Conflict, which is supporting mental health, mainly in children and women, who are victims of war. We’re rolling a project out Cox Bazar in Bangladesh at the moment. So, there can’t be enough good work done. And I don’t think we should be too cynical about these charities.
Thanks for that. I’ve got one from Dr. Colin Cooper, who’s another one of our regulars. “ How do you navigate away from the pornography of war? I witnessed US politicians cross the line in the Cambodian war when I served with the Red Cross.”
That’s a really interesting question. And I’m so acutely aware of the dangers of being what people call a war tourist. There is an element of war that can be quite addictive in a way because it’s very high octane. It’s a distillation of the huge highs and lows of life. So I am aware of that. I really try to avoid it by focusing on this hidden quieter aspect of war, on the spaces in between.
I don’t like focusing on the violence or the overt tragedy. The tragedy is within the human cost, which is within the human psychology, which is why I’m actually very involved in Beyond Conflict, and interested in work around mental health.
And it’s the children. There is a risk that my work could be perhaps seen as mawkish. I really hope it doesn’t because it comes from a desire to look for the good and not to just trade, as I said, on the aesthetics of horror, which is where I think that the pornography aspect can come in.
The other thing I would say is that I think my overriding response to war, apart from profound sadness and I’m haunted by often some of the things I’ve seen, is one of humility. It is so humbling to witness people with nothing, give their all. Refugees and Afghans and Iraqis and Palestinians and Syrians. They teach me so much and I come away feeling so small. I feel it’s my duty to try and do anything I can to give the voiceless a voice, in some small way.
Well, it definitely gives a perspective. We’ve got a question from Annie Delahunty, who’s also one of our regulars. And I’m going to follow on with a question from Georgie Brooks, who’s the chair of the Guild of St John who you know. They’re very similar, so they follow on nicely from each other.
From Annie – “I would like to ask Arabella how she manages to look after herself in light of the vulnerabilities that is essential to the art that she has created and shared.”
From Georgie – “How was it working as a woman in areas like Syria and Palestine as an artist?”
First of all, the levels of vulnerability vary a little bit depending where I am. When I’m working with the British Forces in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, I put my life completely in the trust of the soldiers and in God. My prime concern there really is to not be a hindrance to the soldiers or endanger them by doing something stupid. I have also traveled independently across Afghanistan, and you’ve just got to keep your head down and be aware at all times.
In places like Syria and Palestine I’m often hosted by incredible organisations like St John Eye Hospital. And I think when you try and listen to people, you’re focusing on the job in hand and you’re hopefully not just worrying about the dangers that are eminent and all around you.
You have to just get on with it. When I go into these worlds, I’m encountering and working with people who live in them. I’m just going in for a brief moment. And that’s very humbling to keep in the back of my mind.
It’s not to belittle the danger by the way, and it’s not to say I’m brave. I’m not. I get very scared sometimes when I go to these places and a lot of prayers are sent up to get me back to my family in one piece.
With regards to being a woman, I think that’s a real privilege because I can look at things perhaps from a different angle. I’m not as interested in the machinery of war and the tanks or the helicopters, or perhaps having to keep my image up in front of the guys, which I’m sure must be quite a pressure if I was a man. I can come in at a gentler level, perhaps at a more emotional level because I’m a mother.
And of course in large parts of the areas that I’m working in, in the Middle-East, it means that talking to women is not off limits for me, being invited into the women’s quarters.
I spent hours having tea with Afghan women while my husband would wait outside when he wasn’t allowed in. So as I said it is actually a real privilege, and sometimes people refer to women in the field, especially war journalists, as a third sex, not restricted by local social expectations, and allowed into both worlds. And so it gives us really privileged access.
That’s really interesting. You mentioned your children, you’ve mentioned being a mother. We’ve got a question about that from Abigail Abysalh-Metzger, “How do you help your own children process your work?”
Children are tougher than we think they are. They really understand it and they have a great deal of empathy, and they’re always coming out with different projects and ideas to help people, arts and crafts projects that might help all the victims of COVID, for example. And it really melts my heart because I think maybe some of my work has rubbed off on them.
There are other very comic moments, when I had someone giving a talk at my Afghan exhibition and my daughter who was then I think, four years old listened in. When the speaker said, I” traveled around Afghanistan, where often people get beheaded and it’s terribly violent”, my daughter sat up in the front row, age four and went, “that’s not very nice.”
Children are amazing in that they sometimes can bring in a human vulnerability and humour, and don’t let you sit in your hauntings too much. And I’m very grateful that they pull me out of it rather than perhaps me pulling them down into it. I hope I keep that balance.
That’s absolutely adorable. We’ve got a couple of questions about your process as an artist. So from Samira Benzlarab and Paul Hugh-Smith, both are interested on how you pick your specific scenes. And then do you work very quickly or do you work from memory or from photos?
I travel everywhere with a sketchbook. So even a ten second sketch or 30 second sketch, if I’m jumping in and out of a helicopter or out of the back of a moving vehicle, is enough to jog my mind as to what made that scene interesting. Often it’s the juxtaposition, a dualism, so a child’s against some horror, or the mother’s vulnerability or such like. Or it could be stories that go round and round and round. What is it – that there are only seven original stories? So I’m always looking and trying to unlearn myself and to go with no preconceptions. I think that is so important. And to just keep your eyes and heart completely open as a blank canvas.
With regards to my working practice, I do as much sketches as I can on the ground. I do a lot of portraits on the ground, so that’s a wonderful way to break the ice, especially if there’s any hostility towards me, which often there is. What are you doing here, crazy Western woman? We don’t want you here.
It’s a wonderful way to say, “well, can I draw you?” And in 20 minutes, get a likeness and I take a little Polaroid cameras, so I can take a picture and give it to them. And it goes straight into the front of their wallet. And that’s a really wonderful way to speak a universal language.
Then I take all my material back to the studio and quite a lot is built up from memory like the girl in the red dress, the painting displays, that was pretty much from memory, because that girl just haunted me. We were driving through the outskirts of Kabul, through a terrible rubbish dump, huge, enormous, the air was black with flies. And this child in this red dress just looked through me, through the flies. I’ll never forget that image. So I put it down in my sketchbook the minute we stopped the vehicle, and that turned into that painting.
Of course on the more technical paintings I do rely on photography to a certain extent, you have to. But I try always to start with the sketch and the subject of interpretation, and I write notes, copious notes, and comments.
I would love to have a look at your notebooks. I bet they’re fascinating. You read out some poetry and we had a lot of comments about that, Rumi obviously, but could you just list the other poets?
One is by a Russian poet called Yevtushenko, who is extraordinary. Nada, that was actually a Syrian woman who I listened to at a conference I went to about sexual violence as a systemised weapon of war, and she read it out. And as she read it, I wrote it down. All I know is that she was called Nada. And it moved me so much because she was speaking, she had the courage to speak about her own experiences and that of her friends.
And I think the I am motherless is also a Syrian woman who wrote it.
I’ve got a final question from Fatima Johnson, “Do you agree with Arthur Schopenhauer’s view that art is a form of temporary relief from the nightmare that is reality? Do you feel that this type of art is more benefit to those not suffering, like Palestinians for example?”
I think there’s definitely an element of truth in that. I’m very interested in Schopenhauer, as you might’ve seen one of my paintings around COVID that I shared at the beginning, Into the Abyss, was a direct tribute to Munch. Munch was very influenced by Nietzsche. Nietzsche was very influenced by Schopenhauer.
So there’s quite a line of continual thought in there. And it’s not as far as to say it all art is useless because I think art can effect meaningful change actually. But probably my audience is not so much those who are the most afflicted, because they’re the ones living through it in the first place.
Although with regards to the COVID paintings I’ve done, I know certain people who’ve written to me saying they’ve suffered just that, and it has been a great comfort to them. It’s a little like reading CS Lewis’s book on grief for those who are grieving themselves. I think sometimes to know that others have walked this path can be of comfort. It’s interesting that the Palestinian modern art museum, is unable to be seen by the Israelis living in Western Jerusalem, for example.
I think art should be available for everyone and it should be a conversation and opening. And in that way, I try and think a bit more optimistically than perhaps Schopenhauer does, but I think that’s some really interesting points. I’m going to think about it more.
I want to sum up with a comment from Roy Little, because I think that it is very much the feeling of most of the people that have commented. So he says, “Arabella, you’re a blessing and a life changer.” And I definitely agree with that. And I just want to thank you so much for joining us and for giving your very moving talk. And I want to thank everyone else who came along and attended. There was over 200 of you at one point. So thank you so much for that.”