Pieta / Compassionem (2017)
Oil on Canvas
40 x 60″
My decision to paint the ‘Pietà’ came after reading a piece by George Saunders on the role of artists at times like these:
“…the people making a lot of these Trump initiatives don’t seem able to imagine the actual victims of their programs….So those of us who are in the arts or in journalism can do some work to put real people on the other end of this thing.” *
The war in Syria and the effect it is having on a whole generation of children was calling to my artistic mind. I too found it incredibly difficult to look at the images of suffering children. Hearing about them wandering unaccompanied around Europe, having escaped the horrors of war in Syria without their parents, was devastating. The feeling of helplessness at not being able to do anything apart from donate money with my daughter made me want to turn away from the pictures.
It was then that I started to understand what I needed to do. I needed to connect with one individual, instead of millions. Then, maybe I could start to move. As a parent, I can’t fly into war zones to physically be there to connect with the people I want to paint, so I have to use the internet instead. This window on the world has revolutionized the information we have access to now, but I feel it has also desensitized us. We are bombarded with terrifying and traumatic images so often, that we have to emotionally detach to an extent. Sadly, this has led to a cold attitude to refugees, compounded by fear.
I contacted the photojournalist, Manu Brabo, to see if I could use one of his photographs for a painting. He said yes, please do anything to help these people. As a direct witness to the atrocities of war, photographers like Manu are doing one of the most difficult jobs in the world. As heartbreaking as it was for me to paint the Pietà, the reality is that I was working in my lovely studio in California. No bombs were likely to rip apart my house. No militia was likely to beat down my door.
‘Pietà’ is Latin for ‘Pity’, and is the traditional name for a representation in art of the Virgin Mary mourning over the body of the dead Christ, usually shown held on her lap. Michelangelo famously carved a Pietà from marble in his early career. I am not a religious person, but I am a passionate art historian. The moment I saw Manu’s image, I knew this was my way to honor the suffering of this Syrian man who I had never met. Perhaps then, even one person who is hostile to refugees entering their community might see things differently.
By painting him, holding the body of his dead son, I felt connected to him in a way that was beyond witnessing. I felt like I was channeling his pain through my own body. I had to keep wiping tears away because I couldn’t see what I was doing.
30% of the profit from the sale of this painting will be donated to the International Rescue Committee.
Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the IRC delivers lifesaving care to people fleeing conflict and natural disaster. Year after year, the IRC is one of the highest-ranking nonprofits for accountability, transparency, and efficient use of contributions.
*Vox.com, interview with Alexander Bisley