Two years ago, in a rainy afternoon in Perquin, Dina, Verenice, Rosa del Carmen and I were imagining how it would be like to work in a collaborative art project in Switzerland. It seemed a wonderful, unreachable, distant possibility.
Florencia Roulet is a historian who lives in Monthey, south of Geneva. She is a member of Amnesty International. She is also my cousin. Although we did not grow in the same city, we become friends as adults. Florencia has been supportive of the School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin, El Salvador and of our vision of working with communities and participants under political duress. She faithfully read all reports and essays of completed international collaborative projects.
“You have to bring this idea to Switzerland”.
The invitation came to us in 2012 to create a Mur de l’ Espoir / Walls of Hope addressing the theme of migrations and the integration of migrant communities in Switzerland during the 4th Celebration of the Day of Diversity organized by the Integration Committee of the City of Monthey. This particular project was co-sponsored by Amnesty International.
How is Switzerland? What language do they speak there? Do we need visas? Is the Swiss public going to understand what we do???
These were initial questions the three artists/ teachers from Perquin and I shared. Dina, Verenice, Rosa del Carmen and I felt very comfortable traveling from El Salvador to Guatemala to Colombia, always replicating the “Perquin Model” in countries and among communities that face realities similar to the ones in El Salvador. Switzerland seemed a distant country with different history and economy. How could a thread of connection be established between these two countries through our art?
When our visit was secured, Florencia looked into adjacent commitments to make the School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin visible. Florencia had an ally, Claudia Senn, another Argentine living in the German part of Switzerland and also a member of Amnesty International. Claudia Senn and Florencia amassed a robust calendar for May and June 2012. When the School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin arrived to Geneva on May 18, the expected schedule of activities was as follows:
- May 23 –June 15: Exhibition of the Artists/ Teachers and young students from the School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin at the Buanderie du Laurier Gallery in the Psychiatric Hospital of Malévoz, Monthey (Valais). This exhibition will be part of the events organized by the 4th Celebration of the Day of Diversity organized by the city of Monthey.
- May 24-25 : Workshop « Murs de l’Espoir/ Un projet d’Art pour un monde en conflit / Walls of Hope/ Art project for a world in conflict », taking place during the International Week of the field of Social Work at HES-SO, Haute Ecole Specialisée de Suisse Occidentale, Sierre (Valais).
May 24 : Lecture by Claudia Bernardi : « Community Art and Social Work », HES.SO.
- May 26-June 1 : Design and completion of Mur de l’Espoir/ Walls of Hope mural inspired on the subject of integration of the migrant community in the region of Monthey, Swizerland, as part of the events organized to commemorate the 4th Celebration of the Day of Diversity organized by the Integration Committee of the city of Monthey.
- June 2 : Opening and presentation of Mur de l’Espoir/ Walls of Hope/ Monthey
- June 5 : Lecture by Claudia Bernardi organized by l’AVEP (Association Valaisanne d’Entraide Psychiatrique) Valasian Association of Psychiatric Assistance.
- June 7, Lecture by Claudia Bernardi « Art and Human Rights » organized by the Romand Coordination committee of Amnesty International and the Association of Assistance Appartenance from Lausanne.
- June 8 : Lecture by Claudia Bernardi , « Art, Human Rights and Mental Health, at the Psychiatric Hospital of Malévoz, Monthey.
- June 12 : Lecture by Claudia Bernardi at the headquarter offiice of Amnesty International in Berne.
- June 13 : Lecture by America Argentina Vaquerano Romero, Claudia Verenice Flores Escolero, Rosa del Carmen Argueta and Claudia Bernardi at the Center Monseñor Romero in collaboration with Amnesty International’s coordinations for Colombia and Central America, in Lucerne.
- June 14: Lecture by Claudia Bernardi and workshop conducted by the School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin, organized by Amnesty International’s Coordination for Central America in Lugano, Ticino, Switzerland.
I. The Exhibition: May 23-June 15,
“L’Art Comme Outil de Memoire, De Verité et d’Espoir/ Art as Tool of Memory, Truth and Hope”, Buanderie du Laurier Gallery, Psychiatric Hospital of Malévoz, Monthey.
For more than nine months, Dina, Verenice and Rosa del Carmen worked with a group of 15 young artists from the School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin, ages 12 to 20, in the creation of paintings to be exhibited in Switzerland. The young artists had been part of the school for several years. Some of them entered the art classes when they were 6 and 7 years old. Having received art classes for 5 years the young artists had mastered perspective, portraits, color composition, etc.
The selected paintings had two main themes: “The Urban Landscape of Perquin” and “Inner Fears”.
The urban landscapes of Perquin narrate vividly the location of colorful houses of Perquin, its narrow streets, the local landmarks, the park and few of the oldest buildings that, incredibly, survived the bombings during the war. There are people walking up and down the streets who, if seen closely, could be identified for the way they look or the way they are dressed. Such is the veracity of those images.
The inner fears of the young artists are colorful yet, hugely disturbing. The small canvases are tiny universes that identify youth affected by war and their struggle in the postwar period.
A lot has been said about the effects of war in the next generation. These small paintings are poignant evidences of the anxiety that the youth suffer, their concerns for an environment damaged by war and now being damaged by negligence. A young girl looks at herself in a mirror looking at her own image depart behind the sharp angles of broken glass. A boy is obliged to see the dead; he is pulled violently by a grown up man to see the corpse of a family member. The fear in the child’s face is paralyzing.
The paintings of the three teachers are intimate and tragic. The themes are simple, heart felt, eloquent.
A young woman washes cloths by the river bent over by the pain of too much work. Her body has the roundness of pregnancy. The woman seems to ask the agitated waters of the river, what will she do with another child, with no support, to no one else to ask for help?
A little girl holds tight to the back of her grandfather while they are escaping from the army on December 1981. They lived in a small caserio called Las Pilas. Across a narrow path, the Salvadoran army was killing everyone in the hamlet of El Mozote. The little girl is Rosa del Carmen herself. Her grandfather carried her on his shoulders for days and nights not knowing if they would survive or they would be killed while they tried to escape towards the refugee camp of Colomoncagua in Honduras. They stayed there for almost ten years. At the end of the war, Rosa del Carmen reunited with her mother whom she had not seen for a decade. Those are the stories that everyone can tell in Morazán. These are stories of departures and distances, of occasional reunions and frequent losses, of people who had been abandoned and many others who had been killed.
The colorful fields of merging colors are barely masking the theme of women being silenced. The orange warmth and the open mouth seem to be expanding in a scream only audible if one gets very close. Hands are trapped behind the main images. One does not know if they are trying to hold on to something or to be escaping from a force not quite seen or identified.
The exhibition included photographs of completed projects in Guatemala, El Salvador and Colombia focusing on the communal aspect of creativity, men, women, youth and children engaged in collaborative murals.
The exhibition opened on May 23 to a large and welcoming audience. The artwork born in the distant mountains of Morazán was now appreciated and admired in Switzerland.
The following day Dina, Verenice, Rosa del Carmen and I, walked along the elegant paths of a downtown mall in Monthey. Unexpectedly, we encountered a large Celebration: Day of Diversity advertising banner. And there we were! Our school’s name, our children, the murals from Colombia and Guatemala, Naun’s photograph holding his painting bringing the Perquin Model to Switzerland.
Naun’s parents have been in the USA since he was a small child. He has grown up with distant relatives, feeling insecure about where he is going to be sent next month or next year. Naun has been in an art student for 5 years now. The rainy season does not stop him from coming to classes. He has developed into a skillful wood sculptor and a wonderful painter. He is shy and committed. We looked at his picture from this side of the world in tears, not knowing if we were crying of joy for his art or sadness for his reality back home.
The Perquin Model has expanded into Permeable Borders recognizing art as a flexible membrane adapting to societies, personal and communal histories, bridging people of varied backgrounds, languages and ideologies. Permeable Borders creates a structure of opportunities, of connections, of potential understanding among people affected by violence, forced exiles and political conflict. Even if understanding and closeness may not occur, Permeable Borders remains a valid proposal of diplomacy.
Art penetrates the hard edges of culture.
L’ART COMME OUTIL
DE MÉMOIRE, DE VÉRITÉ ET D’ESPOIR
L’expérience de l’Ecole d’Art et Atelier Ouvert de Perquín en République du Salvado
II. International Week of the field of Social Work at HES-SO, Haute Ecole Specialisée de Suisse Occidentale, « Murs de l’Espoir/ Un projet d’Art pour un monde en conflit / Walls of Hope/ Art project for a world in conflict »
The International Week of Social Work at HES.SO brought faculty, social workers, activists and academicians to Sierre to share, discuss and investigate the field of Social Work and its application.
The School of Art and Open Studio of Perquin was invited to participate in this international week facilitating the creation of a mural. The participants, about twenty students of the field of Social Work, had no training in art prior to this project. HES.SO faculty and social workers regarded “The Perquin Model” as a successful social work project.
They place the question:
“Why do we call our work “art” rather than a social work initiative?”
Within our work, the boundaries of art seem positioned closely to the concerns of social work. Each collaborative and community based project is deeply impacted by local and national politics, by economy and imposed poverty. The art projects are built from a constellation of interconnected structures of power, social dependency and the residue of trauma of wars. The participants are the narrators and beholders of truth that had not been told previously.
The distinction between social work practitioners and artists/ facilitators may reside in the expectations of the outcome. Social workers identify, research, compare, collect data and evaluate possible favorable changes that may occur in a given social group.
We do not have expectations. Our work departs from the trust that the process of change, if any, will have to be formulated and obtained exclusively by the participants. Our role as facilitators remains both present and adjacent, never interfering.
On May 24, we took the train from Monthey to Sierre. The students were waiting for us, the canvas was prepared and the materials were ready.
The initial questions are:
- What is this mural going to be about?
- What will the mural say ?
- Who is the audience ?
The students gathered around tables drawing and sharing ideas. They seemed to have many. Conversations accompanied the drawings.
We looked at this process with new fascination. Through the large windows of the class, one could see the marvelous landscape of the Swiss mountains. Yet, reference to the landscape did not appear. The drawings were about ideas and concepts eluding the private field of memories. The participants were more able to talk about the ideas than finding a visual rendering for them.
This mural project was to be completed in two sessions, one from 9 am to 3:00 and the following day from 9 am to 12. At 11:00 am I asked them to stop conversations and run towards the already stretched, patiently expectant white canvas. They were petrified! To their own surprise, they took final decisions at the mural itself. Twenty Swiss young social workers not accustomed to body proximity were sharing a field not larger than 3 m X 1,50 m, finding ways to paint all at once, some higher up, some way bellow, while colors and ideas interconnected the subject matter of this new adventure of art in communities.
The mural depicted a central figure, “Buddha-like” that emanated warmth and light. An infant, connected to the Buddha represents the possibility of becoming, of being a fulfilled human being, complete and empathetic. Five circles of abstract colors represent the five senses with which people interconnect and through which one learns from one another. Behind the circles, there is a tight rope upon which people transit with precarious equilibrium, a metaphor of the student’s ideal of a more balanced North-South relations.
Two boats merge from deep waters swimming fast into an ocean of action. Two people, unrecognizable by sex, race, age or nationality hold a tree of life as a trophy of this new encounter where everything good one dares to believe in or dream about can happen.
The mural was finished, punctually, at 12:00 noon of the second day of work. The participating artists, the faculty and staff received the mural with celebration. It has been since displayed at the entrance of the Auditorium Hall for everyone to see it and enjoy it.
Despite the rushed schedule, there was a period of “debriefing”
- What was important during the project?
- What did we learn during this proposal of art?
- How art and social work merge?
- Was this an art project or a social work investigation?
The students, mostly devoted to reading theory, acknowledged that working together, sharing a limited space, not being sure of the possible outcome and, actually, enjoying that kind of insecurity were new points of departure to understand social structures and dynamics. They suggested that this “hands-on” activity enforced social interaction, exchange, conflict resolution and the recognition of an achievable common goal.
Precisely, those are the strategies we use when creating a collaborative and community based project. We have to trust that a group of people that hardly know one another, who may not speak the same language, who may belong to confronting political ideologies could, in fact, become a group of willing individuals who would postpone their differences and find a thread of commonality.
III. Mur de l’Espoir/ Walls of Hope, Mural for the migrant and refugee community living in Monthey during the 4th Celebration of the Day of Diversity organized by the Integration Committee of the city of Monthey.
Florencia Roulet, the motor and soul behind this project, knew of our work in El Salvador through emails, films, hundreds of photographs and phone conversations. Through the years, Florencia thought that the School of Art from Perquin needed to visit Switzerland.
The opportunity finally originated adjacent to the Fourth Celebration of the Day of Diversity organized by the Integration Committee of the city of Monthey. This project was co-sponsored by Amnesty International.
Finding a wall on which to envision a mural appeared a relatively simple task. It was not. In fact, for almost a year, decisions changed many times about a possible location for a mural about “diversity”. A mural could exist and deal with this theme as long as it was not too central, not too obvious, not too “demanding”, visually speaking.
The Swiss policies regarding migrant people are not welcoming. A distinction should be made between refugees who are asylum seekers, refugees who have obtained legal status and those who have not given that legal right. Deportation infrequently occurs. However, the migrant population can be “sustained” waiting in a timeless period for many months, many years in which the asylum seeker would not be able to predict whether he/ she will remain in Switzerland or will be expelled without an explanation. Children born in Switzerland from migrant and refugee parents will not be granted citizenship automatically after birth, but they would be able to apply for Swiss citizenship after 9 years of residency and 5 years of having been educated in Swiss School. They will remain “nationless” living in the beautiful and peaceful Swiss landscape.
This project would bring the migrant and refugee community concerns forward, visible. They would describe their memories and their anxieties, their appreciation for being safe in Switzerland as well as the pain of not knowing if they would be accepted or if they would have to continue searching for a place that they could call “home”?
The first meeting with the participants of le Mur de l’Espoir took place at la Maison du Monde, a communal house which hosts different migrant and multicultural agencies in Monthey. The meeting was early but, being this Switzerland and not Latin America, everyone was there on time. Men, women and children congregated talking about the mural project: what was it going to be about? Where was it going to be located? How many people would participate?
Aude Jouries, President of the organizing committee of the Day of Diversity secured a peculiar wall on which to paint our mural. It was centrally located in the city of Monthey at the back of the main theatre in town, the Théâtre du Crochetan. It was long and short, almost too close to the surface of the earth where the wall had been erected. Knowing that the main aggressor of any mural is humidity this vicinity to the earth was not particularly encouraging. Behind that wall, there was another one which went down and deep in the form of a ramp that conducted to the entrance of a catacomb used by Public Safety where they exercise survival and strategies in case of nuclear bombing.
Switzerland is frequently regarded as a peaceful country, neutral and unwilling to take sides during the major wars of the XX th century in Europe. Until four years ago it existed a law that made it mandatory that all buildings, public or private, would have anti-nuclear shelters. In all public buildings, government buildings, apartments, private homes, schools, hospitals and public spaces there are anti-nuclear shelters.
Our small wall was facing the entrance of a space designed to survive a nuclear attack.
There was something unsettling and challenging about Walls of Hope taking place in a space built to endure a total cataclysm.
All the participants knew the small wall at the back of the Crochetan.
- What is this mural about?
- Who would see it?
- What would you like to tell the viewers about yourself and your personal history?
Everyone had an answer.
It was not until that moment that I realized that we were all speaking different languages. My French is precarious, few people spoke Spanish, few others spoke some English, several spoke German, and none spoke all the languages that we shared. The group recognized easily who spoke what and to whom? The dynamics of communication proved remarkable effective.
The drawings were the thread of our conversations. At the end of the day, placing the drawings on the wall, they rendered histories, geographies, traumas and hopes. One story led to the next with great elegance, with lines that brought one piece into the other as if they all had belonged to a large map unseen until that very moment. The ideas structured the images seamlessly.
It was beautiful.
It was painful.
It was moving.
The composition was completed.
The next day we would meet at the wall.
On Sunday, May 26, at 9:00 am, colors started blasting the whiteness of the small wall. Free, large brush strokes made with sponges and pure color changed rapidly the face of that timid wall into a symphony of colors.
“What if we expand?” someone asked.
Could we take over the whole space and paint the walls beyond the ones already prepared: the one above the ramp the one going down the ramp and back and all the outside walls?
Could we do this without permission?
With strategies based on the gift of improvisation that Latin Americans frequently have to resource to, the surrounded walls were requested and they were provided as to make the mural much larger than the initial expected proportions. The adjacent walls were rapidly prepared with white gesso and before anyone could say anything we expanded with the blast of paint all over, above and behind the entrance to the ramp. That silent mouth expected only to open in case of nuclear bombing was suddenly laughing with colors and shapes.
Timid lines appeared, mimicking the drawings created the day before. These brief visual notations belonged to a vast complexity of sentiments. The mural starts with an angel of justice painted by an Ethiopian man who talked bitterly about being mistreated by Swiss authorities. He did not speak about the reason for his departure from Ethiopia but his eyes were sad and filled with tears remembering his wife and four children whom he had not seen for over a decade. He was sent to prison in Geneva. He was released and placed in prison again. When he was finally let free, his blood pressure was so high that he succumbed on a street. He was taken to a hospital. That small tragedy saved him placing him in the category of disabled. “There are many good things in Switzerland”, Tekahu said. “Everybody has a roof, everybody is entitled to health services and you can live in security. But we asylum seekers are often victims of mistreatments. And there is nothing more damaging for a man than to made him feel useless”, he added. The angel of justice travels right to a tree of life half green, half blue, merging on robust roots that explode in yellow, orange and red.
Ana, Florencia and Gustavo’s daughter, 17 years old, conceived the tree and its significance. Born in Switzerland from Argentine parents who themselves have Ukranian, Polish, Spanish, Swiss, Greek and German roots. She grew up talking Spanish at home and French in public. Ana and her family travel every year to Argentina to visit family and to make the effort of never departing too long from where they really are from. Gustavo, Ana’s father who claimed never handling a brush before, painted lovingly a vignette of Argentine folk life: a kettle, a mate and biscochitos de grasa! Untranslatable salty and mean greasy cookies that Argentines in exile dream of when they are far from the Southern lands.
Fernando, a luthier, violin- maker from Argentina is a tender soul in pain. The love of his life, Aude, a luthier he met in Cremona, Italy, died last year of an aggressive cancer leaving Fernando in agony and in charge of two small sons, Sebastian, age 6 and Lucien, 4 years old. Fernando painted the Southern part of the Latin American continent. A colorful condor, mythical bird from the Andean highlands, crosses the ocean to meet the woman of his dreams. The children, the violins and the mountains tell a story of love and mourning.
Fernando and his children may not stay in Switzerland for long time. They will probably return to Argentina before the end of this year.
Between the tree of life and the South American condor there is a group of sunflowers, turnasol in French. Javorka’ speaks French with difficulties, her gaze is timid and profound. That first day at la Maison du Monde, realizing that we could not converse in a traditional way, sat opposite to one another, a paper between us. We drew together, a hand, a line, a bridge. Progressively, the drawing included few large flowers that Javorka identified as sunflowers.
Facing one-way and the other, she described her situation in Switzerland. Javorka, her husband Serdjan and three sons are Serbian from Kosovo. They arrived to Switzerland four years ago. Life has not been easy since they arrived. Every day Javorka faces Kosovo remembering where she came from knowing that she cannot return. She is not rooted. She faces this way and the other, as the turnasol. She cannot predict when she will stop moving. Javorka painted a large sunflower with a village inside. It is her hometown in Kosovo. She painted two other sunflowers with other villages knowing that this reality belongs not only to her. On Wednesday, Javorka brought her husband to paint with her. They painted in silence, their bodies getting accustomed to the field of colors. Love flew between them as the current of memories and dreams connected the sunflowers. Everyone stopped to witness the birth of this story.
There was a question produced regarding whether this mural was acquiring the aesthetics of Näif Art. Although there are some aspects of the rendering of this mural that could be associated to Näif Art such as large areas of color without modulation, the directness of the image, the disregard of perspective, the boldness of lines, the essential concept of the mural could not be further from art known also as “primitive” or “ingenuous”.
Each and all the images of the mural are based on profound and multi-layered personal and collective experiences that not only are not primitive they are universal. They are not ingenuous or fantastic. They do not exist in the expansion of someone’s imagination. Rather, each image becomes rooted in a personal experience that frequently is tinted by trauma. The poetic quality of the images mitigate the sadness contained in the subject matter. It is true that, like the Näif painters, the artists creating the mural of Monthey are untrained in the traditional education of art making.
What distinguishes the artists of Monthey from Näif artists is the universality that they are able to convey from one image into the other, from one subject matter transiting the other. Näif painting is glorious because it provides uncomplicated beauty.
The images of the mural of Monthey, if looked at closely and with patience, will declare a kaleidoscope of melancholies, loss, transits, expectations, and hope that will transform the viewer into a witness of lives recorded within colors and lines.
Art that is very personal becomes universal.
Monique and Francine from Switzerland painted a typical Swiss landscape: Les Dents du Midi, the mountain range that can be seen from any part one stands in Monthey and a watch.
Adriana, from Colombia, met her Swiss husband, Bernie, in Bolivia. They are now expecting their first baby, Miguelito. They painted Bolivia, a Colombian colorful woman and a Swiss cow. Adriana chose to leave her family and friends from Colombia to embrace this new life in Monthey. Her departure was festive and filled with hope. Yet, Adriana confided that despite her perfect French, she had not felt entirely at home until meeting the participants of the mural, who like herself, are newcomers to a land of promises.
The walls going down the ramp confirmed that now we had about 60 meters long by 6 meters high to fill with colors and history. This was the largest mural we have ever painted.
By the third day, lunch time become a new way of learning from one another. We brought food and stories of distant countries, unknown flavors, spices and places. The yellow banner of Amnesty International identified that the group sharing the meals had a history of violence in common.
Going down the ramp, the mural finds a large house from Alsace, France, recognizable by the stork that nest above the roof. Valerie remembered her hometown and the trauma lingering from the Second World War. Alsace being border town with Germany had suffered the Nazi wrath. Veronique’s family was half German, half French. She spoke about the bitterness of her young years, her mother’s sorrow, her own insecurity. When she was old enough, she explored the world. She lived in Bolivia for several years working with a collective of indigenous women creating local economy in Cochabamba. The many conflicts back in Alsace had prepared Veronique to this kind of challenges.
Helene was born in Paris. Angelika came from Germany over twenty years ago. Mini-skirted and longhaired, she became a teacher, taught many years, retired and never returned to Germany. Both Helene and Angelika took over a large portion of the mural where a beautiful deep night embraces la Tour Eiffel, bellow which the Paris METRO, transits above the Seine River.
Angelika was an elementary school teacher for many years. She focused her attention to children, the world, and the connection that can be developed through common childhood memories. Next to Angelika and expanding the painting of the mural up high, Khadim from Senegal, painted a map of Africa, his own journey out of Senegal, his music, his passion for dance. Khadim, tall, beautiful and reserved, spoke several languages, including Spanish after living illegally in Spain for four years. His Senegalese friend Dialy, a kora musician player, painted a baobab and an African village.
It is hard to imagine how people who never painted before, were now painting large extensions on the mural. The mural kept on expanding, taking over huge areas, growing from left to right and from bottom to top with great agility. The participants seemed to be “in tune” with one another, despite the fact that many could not use language to communicate.
In fact, the participants were communicating with the most powerful language that exists: the wish to communicate. They translated from Arabic to German, to French, to English, to Spanish, smiling, using body language and hand movements.
There was laughter and delicious food. No one wanted to leave the mural alone. The participants visited the mural during the hours that they did not paint. The tapestry of personal and communal histories was embroidered with colors, shapes and images.
The people from Monthey welcomed the mural. It took a while to get accustomed to the initial shock of unprecedented color. Being located at such central location, the mural attracted everyone’s attention. People stopped by, conversed with the artists, learned about the project, and heard their history. Everyone wanted to know when another mural was going to be painted and whether he or she could be part of it? When we imagined a bright Switzerland emerging from a pastel colored one, it made us smile in anticipation.
Tania and her daughter Ana Beatriz are from Cuba. As most migrants, they were in owe of all the possibilities extended to them when they arrived to Switzerland after living under limited conditions in Cuba. Until the long white winter arrived and settled for 7 months, when the sun became an abstract concept and the sounds of Caribbean Spanish dissipated.
When asked what they were going to paint on the mural they had no doubt: the island of Cuba, its map, its surrounding sea of turquoise waters, lush vegetation, crafts and dance, music, flavors, earth, mountains and stone, life in its many forms.
Above Cuba, Verenice and Rosa del Carmen painted a scene from El Salvador: a man, a woman and a girl, dressed simply and holding agricultural tools from Morazán.
They are next to the national Salvadoran plant, the plant of Izote which people cultivate and cherish, not for the ornamental beauty of its pulpous white flowers but because they collect them and eat them mixed with cornflower in delicious pupusas. A torogoz, indigenous Salvadoran bird is high above the Salvadoran family in the broad sky of the mural journeying the viewer out of Central America and into Eritrea.
Rahel and her two daughters, Bitelhem and Hailu, from Eritrea placed a large white house amidst a vast desert where a young woman dressed in traditional garments from Eritrea greed the viewer with large outlined eyes. A massive flower stands by her.
Looking at this image I remembered crossing the desert from Addis Ababa to Tigray in 1994 with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. One of the exhumations that the AFAT conducted was in Hausein, close to the bigger town of Mekele in Tigray. Transiting that landscape, made me think of biblical times when the desert encapsulated small hamlets far from one another. It was impossible to imagine how people would go from one place to another, walking as they did, with no water and wrapped in heavy white garments to protect themselves from the blasting sun. Rahel and her daughters were bringing to the mural that landscape from Africa seldom visited by Swiss people.
Diana, from Peru, met Alessandro from Italy while they were both working as part of a janitor’s crew on a tourist cruise. They fell in love without speaking each other’s languages. Diana had three children from a previous marriage. Mariella, Anissia and Pepito ages 12, 10 and 8 were still in Peru when Diana and Alessandro decided to get married. They could not live in Italy. Their present situation in Switzerland mirrored the turnasol, it was fragile, changeable and scary.
Diana, Alessandro, the three Peruvian children and a lovely new baby, Antonella, worked in collaboration, concentrated. The tourist cruise enters the Peruvian desert from Nazca, with its pre Hispanic lines carved as messages to the skies. Still today the lines and their origin remain a wonder to anthropologist and historians. The arid mountains of Peru meet a glacial mountain range from Switzerland. Diana’s children traveling from Peru to Switzerland by plane were not allowed to land. The children were sent to Poland in the deepest of winters. The children were alone and frightened, stranded in Warsaw until Alessandro could pick them up.
In the center of this syncretic landscape, Diana painted her family. She collected them in a circle, a round embrace of protection. Alessandro, Mariella, Anissia, Pepito, and Diana holding Antonella. All of them have dark eyes. But in this painting Diana gave green eyes to everyone.
“Why are you changing the color of the eyes, Diana?”
“Because green is the color of hope. I hope we can stay here in Switzerland together. I am constantly fearful of deportation”.
Standing down the ramp two women approached me from two different corners of the park. Malu from Mexico and Claire-Lise from Switzerland. Claire-Lise is a member of l’AVEP (Association Valaisanne d’Entraide Psychiatrique) Valasian Association of Psychiatric Assistance. She has her six children tattooed on her arm. Both Claire-Lise and Malu were holding their drawings. They had not met before and had not seen the drawings they were delivering. Remarkably, the drawings could have been interpreted as two artists working in collaboration. One drawing merged into the other. The theme, the resonance of one drawing into the other, made me suggest that they would create a new version of their ideas while learning about the other person’s intention.
A Mexican campesino plays the flute in front of the Popocatepetl volcano with its imposing top touching the clouds. The man looks at his feet while walking, seeing foot-prints pressed on the leaves of tropical plants as if the passage of the ancestors, had left a mark, a memory of all the people going by, some remembered today, many forgotten. The transit persists.
A woman emerges from darkness, her hair becoming a torrent of color, a rainbow of speed and action. The woman had been dormant for a long time. Listening to the flute and assisted by the footprints of many travelers, she is ready now, to start again her own journey, her becoming light.
Patricia and her two small children continued the landscape around and beside the rainbow woman with lizards, fish and aquatic plants. The mural turns around the corner to meet a scene painted by Carolina: a woman by the Caribbean Sea exuberant with fruits, birds, smells, colors from Venezuela. The Caribbean Sea populated with fish renders the many thoughts and memories that Carolina brought with her to this distant land. The expansive blue of the Caribbean ocean turns into the Mediterranean Sea and from there it becomes the vast desert of Iraq.
Hadeer, her husband Ifhan, her two children Toubaz and Adriss are from the South part of Iraq. Sherim and her two daughters Liva and Nuzalin are from Iraqi-Kurdistan. The two families were painting next to each other. The vast desert of Iraq crowned the Iraqi flag. Despite discouraging the use of the flags, this one remained.
I was aware of the potential conflict that could be generated by the proximity of hostile politics since Sherim’s painting focused on the top of a mountain where a Kurdish community had been resisting the Iraqi occupation for hundred of years. As Sherim explained, that top of that mountain is the only portion of land that the Kurdish people possess since they had been expelled, forced into exiles and murdered in tragic massacres by the violent politics of Iraq during the XX th century.
Sherim painted with precision, identifying among the houses and buildings, the place where she was born, her grandmother’s house, the mosque, the Christian church, the school, the football ground. Nothing was gratuitous. Rather, each and all brush strokes seemed an act of defiance.
If crisis could be stopped, given the history of antagonism in that part of the world, still it could be possible that Sherim and Hadeer would still we would have to deal with certain level of discomfort. They spoke Arabic and Kurdish among themselves. They were trying to connect one part of the painting with the other. Before long, Sherim and Hadeer were painting the same mountain range, which culminated in the Kurdish village.
What art is able to convey in a collaborative and community based project is rarely achieved by politics. I could not help but imagining what would have happened if Hadeer and Sherim had met in Iraq, among parties of different ideologies, different and opposed interests?
Art constitutes a new field of diplomacy. It is impossible for me to discern whether Hadeer and Sherim spoke about politics while painting. I did not ask. They did not say. But they are from the same region of the world, from a country that does not recognize the other.
Hadeer and Sherim spoke about perspective, how to design the path around the mountain, how can the color of sky changes from day to sunset to night?
Politics were not discussed.
The Iraqi children, the Kurdish children and the two Swiss-Argentine children (sons of Fernando) took ownership of the last corner of the outside wall. They painted an ocean, land, birds and animals in a sequence ending in a still life á la Matisse.
The last and smaller wall of the mural crowned always by the yellow flag of Amnesty International collected Robert, Robert’s neighbor family, Clea and Nassifa, from Afghanistan. They painted a luminous background on which balloons depicting people of many ages, races and customs transited, elegantly, the sky.
In September of 2011, I designed and directed a project for Catholic and Protestant children in West Belfast. It was a challenging project located in the Ardoyne district. In July of 2011, violence had escalated dangerously to the beginning of a civil war.
Permeable Borders is a concept born within that agitated time in which making a collaborative mural seemed impossible. In fact, it was impossible, because the parents did not give permission for the children to work together. I had to envision a different kind of project. We painted “a mural” that had two homes. The mural started at the Catholic School Holy Cross Elementary School, it crossed the street and found a second home on which to continue and finished, at the Protestant school, Wheatfield Elementary School. The borders extended. The walls were no longer the beginning and end of the mural.
The mural traveled.
It traveled to Virginia, US, where I designed and directed a project that included 16 students from Mary Baldwin College who working collaboratively with thirty tenants from a housing project in Waynesboro. Forth and Fifth graders, 50 children in total, from Wynona Elementary School and 25 children ages 5 to 15 from Casa la Amistad, an after school program, joined in the creation of a 80 feet long mural and a garden.
Permeable Borders now found a new location in Monthey, Switzerland. Permeable Borders brings images from one mural to the other, creating a liaison, a connection, a possible link between people and places that had never met before. In Monthey, the visual link is a river. People depart, fight, separate, voluntarily or, most of the times involuntarily under duress and violence.
A confronting force occurs when people, like rivers, meet, join, merge, coincide, become.
The river enters the mural, it travels fast and far, it almost disappears behind mountains to reappear again next to people, houses, trains, oceans. The river, a silky blue, undulates, slender at times, agitated and in motion, never stopping, moving in its dynamic journey.
Each and all images are connected, belonging to one another. There is no part of the mural that feels isolated, insular or out of place .
Ninety-two participants from twenty-three countries painted together for a week, in harmony, finding no conflict, discomfort or disagreement.
This is nothing short from a miracle.
How? One wonders, a project like this ends well, celebratory?
What, actually, happens when people share art, the possibility to tell a personal story that becomes everyone’s stories?
Art is a tender caress of remembrance, loss, pain and hope, finding in the proposition of beauty its vindication. Art may not mean, necessarily, an improvement of a catastrophe but art will assist in the recovery of the suffering endured, which will be birthed as a communal proposition.
Florencia, Dina, Verenice, Rosa del Carmen and I had few moments of reflection through the week. There were nights when we could not sleep out of happiness. We painted together, created together, spoke and learned different ways to call red or blue, to say “please” or “thank you”, we ate together sharing personal and communal stories. We listened to sorrows and we also laughed, often and a lot. We hugged one another; we discovered that no matter where we came from and what we had done before, we could trust that we could concur, as this new community, in the vastness of the mural.
The opening day was glorious. Hundreds of people came to celebrate la Journée de la Diversité. Within the many events planned for this celebration, the mural became a central piece. Florencia walked the public through all the stories, the names and origins of the participants. The public listened in astonishment wondering when another mural was going to be painted in Monthey?
At the end of the project in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, working with 75 Q’ekchi’ men, women, youth and children survivors of the massacre of Panzos, I asked one of the elders if he thought it was strange that we, Rosa del Carmen, Verenice and I, coming from so far away (El Salvador and Argentina) were now in Panzos painting with them.
Don Sebastian thought for a while and replied:
No, I do not believe that is strange. We believe in Xaliha’.
Xaliha’ means: rivers that meet. We are now in front of the Polochic River but we do not know where it is born. We have to trust that it comes from somewhere.
We do not know where will it end. We are facing it in its fast transit.
It will end somewhere far from us.
You and I are rivers meeting at this time.
Le Mur de l’Espoir is the continuation of Xaliha’ in Switzerland.
The week after the mural was completed, we initiated a lecture tour around Switzerland, l’AVEP (Association Valaisanne d’Entraide Psychiatrique) Valaisian Association of Psychiatric Assistance; the Swiss Secretariat of Amnesty International, in Berne; the Association of Assistance Appartenance from Lausanne, Casa Monseñor Romero, RomeroHaus, in Luzern; The Donne de Amnistia Internationalle de la Switzera Italiana in Lugano, Ticino and the Psychiatric Hospital of Malévoz, Monthey, where the lecture was «Art, Human Rights and Mental Health”.
The Musée d’ Art Brut in Lausanne, created in 1945 by the French artist Jean Debuffet, collects artworks created by people located in the marginal areas of society. Known also as “outside art” many of the artists lived confined to psychiatric hospitals, prisons, isolated by choice or because they did not have a choice.
The artworks we saw there are phenomenal, peculiar, unique, intricate, filled with details of uncommon, unseen worlds. Each artwork is poised by obsession, by a determinate desire to exist at all costs, in loneliness. Loneliness is what defines the artwork injecting in each line, color and shape the tragedy of a life of sorrow.
At the Psychiatric Hospital of Malévoz, I chose to speak about the difference between a deep sorrow lived and remembered in isolation or a profound trauma becoming a collective recognition of history.
In the artworks found at le Museé de’Art Brut, the loneliness is palpable.
In Huehuetenango, Guatemala, the indigenous women survivors of sexual violence during the armed conflict conjured while they painted the mural evidence of the brutality inflicted upon them.
Yet, the mural itself and the process of painting did not cause further trauma to the participants. The women spoke and share their darkest memories. During the ten days of shared project, there was laughter, time to reflect and ways in which the images rendered a profound sense of hope.
The artwork exhibited at Le Museé d’Art departs from the recognition of a pathology that affects and defines the artist and his/ her work.
The community based and collaborative art projects emerging from the “Perquin Model” departs from the opposite paradigm: despite trauma, violence and forced exiles, it still exists an undamaged area in the life of the victims. It is from that undamaged place, perhaps unknown or hidden, where all community art projects start. This trust identifies the kernel of a possible recovery that does not necessarily lead to “healing”.
Healing is impossible facing genocide.
At the Swiss Secretariat of Amnesty International, in Berne, the lecture was not open to the public. The group of 30 people that gathered to listen about our work was formed by human right activists who take major decisions in countries under great duress where violence and torture occur daily.
At the end of the lecture, a deep silence preceded a moment of reflection. The High Secretariat of Amnesty International is accustomed to focus on the harm. Infrequently, they have the possibility to envision what may happen with the victims after the violence is acknowledged, after a legal process against the perpetrators is initiated (which seldom occurs) and when the victims may find a relatively safer location to continue living.
They observed the “Perquin Model” and the work created in the aftermath of violence as transforming, most necessary step that Amnesty International had not contemplated as thus far.
We have been invited to return to Berne in 2013 to further dialogue with Amnesty International about implanting the “Perquin Model” in places that suffered state terror, violations of human rights and where the victims impacted by the legacy of horror, fragile judicial process and imposed poverty, need to redefine their communities.
Permeable Borders will continue its journey. In early September, I will be visiting Mary Baldwin College where I will present the outcome of the le mur de l’espoir and we will plan another project for May Term 2013.
Late in September, I will return to Switzerland to create and direct a new workshop with students and faculty from the Social Work program of HES.SO.
Projects for the coming year includes Argentina, Mexico, Serbia, Bosnia, and El Salvador.
Speaking of transformations: In El Salvador, the village of Perquin no longer is called the “cradle of war”. Now, everyone calls it “The City of Murals”.
Berkeley, August 2013