Deep calls to deep
All your waves and billows have gone over me. Psalm 42
The first thing I noticed were the shining eyes.
My wife Jill and I had just entered a shipping container which had been converted into a sewing school for Syrian refugees camped in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. It was our first visit. We were awkwardly aware of appearing like compassion tourists, but our misgivings are soon allayed by a warm welcome.
The woman with the shining eyes had fled with her family from her now-destroyed home town in Syria, joining one and a half million refugees who try to eke out a living in shanties and tents scattered across the farmlands. She was 26, with 5 children. Behind her eyes there was great pain from past atrocities and menacing fears for the future. For she, and the younger girls in the sewing school, are non-citizens in their country of refuge, excluded from education and from the economy. And yet there is hope.
Our friend Izdihar, who had invited us to visit the sewing school, started up a volunteer organization called Together for the Family (TFF) at two refugee camps in her home city of Zahle. Izdihar was moved by the seemingly hopeless predicament of the Syrian refugees and established vocational training classes, early childhood education for children with disabilities, and teenage trauma counselling in response.
Having no skills in Arabic or in needlecraft, I could only watch on as the young women gather to show us their handiwork. I was amazed by their warmth, their surprising sense of hope, and their resilience in the face of great turmoil. Finding an old envelope and pen, I suggested to our shining eyes friend that I draw her portrait. This is met with enthusiastic approval, and soon I found myself drawing and giving away rough sketches of these lovely students. They were also happy for Jill to take their photos for further portrait studies back in Australia.
To draw on the spot just seemed the obvious and intuitive thing to do; a silent affirmation that here before me are people of great dignity and courage.
In following days, I met more of the young refugee boys and girls, and led a few drawing workshops with them. We had a ball.
Meanwhile, outside the camps, Lebanon was in free fall. Already racked by a long civil war (which ended in 1990), now the economy and the banks were failing, and government corruption had become so entrenched that a people’s street protest movement (the October 17 revolution) had begun. The next devastating blows, Covid 19 and the Beirut port explosion, were yet to come.
Upon returning to Australia, I could not stop thinking about these extraordinary young people. So I embarked upon a series of portraits (using the reference photographs) of those whom I had met. The term that kept repeating in my head was a compulsion to honour them, and their incredible resilience.
From the outset, I was determined to not portray these young refugees just as victims. Or to sentimentalize their predicament, or to place them on a pedestal. I had learnt much from them, not least being their strong spirit amidst great danger and uncertainty.
The challenge therefore was to capture something of their inner life with honesty and sensitivity.
The first group of portraits made focussed on each student’s character and their engagement with needlework or with drawing. However, when the Beirut port erupted (in the third largest man-made explosion in history), I realized the pressing need to give voice to the danger and menace that these young people face on a daily basis. Hence fractures appear in the portraits, referencing in some ways ancient wall frescoes. I realized that painting these portraits could only tell a small part of these amazing young people’s stories, but it was a project that I was compelled in my heart to make.
What, then, did I learn through the process?
The big takeaway is that I have so much to learn from the strength of spirit and the fragile beauty of these young refugees. While on the one hand they are like kids everywhere, very few have had to face the trauma and the present danger that these young ones live with.
Meeting and painting them cast a new and challenging light on my comfortable lifestyle in a rich country. The kindness shown by Izdihar’s team and many other Lebanese folk stands in stark contrast to Australia’s scandalous abuse, neglect and demonization of refugees.
I am reminded that art can play a vital role in drawing together and learning what is precious in humanity. The art critic Robert Hughes once observed:
“The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and occasional nastiness, … and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning.” (The Shock of the New).
Art provides a space where some of the unsaid yearnings of being human can get air. To quote Ben Quilty:
“For me, that’s the core role of art in our society — of music and film and theatre and the visual arts – to remind each other about humanity.”
Portrait painting is largely about paying close attention to the eyes.
Even in the short time with the young refugees of Zahle, I saw in their eyes something compelling: a fragile beauty amid chaos, a beauty that makes a call upon us. It seems to me that the call is to a higher view of what it means to be human, and a higher way of being humane to each other. Above demeaning the ‘other’, above politics, above platitudes and above cynicism.
Izdihar and her volunteers, following one from Nazareth who was once a refugee himself, see every day the shining eyes and the heavy hearts.
And yet there is hope. For in each refugee’s eyes they can still see the image of God.
Ian McGilvray Autumn 2021
Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards.
(Song of Songs 2:15)
I hate a man covering his wife with violence
as with a garment, says the Lord, the God of Israel. (Malachi 2:16)
White linen at midnight
my mother wrapped in it
as the light
thrown down from stars.
(Coral Hull, White Linen at Midnight)
Poetry moves consciousness towards empathy.
(Jane Hirsh eld)
I am currently engaged in a painting series in response to the tragic prevalence of domestic violence against women in our community. I do not hold myself out in any way to have expertise or special insights into domestic violence. And, as a male, I cannot pretend to grasp the pain and su ering that this brings to many women. However, it is something that matters deeply to me. It is, as a singer-songwriter friend said recently, ‘a deep scar in all of us’. Do I just read the statistics and the harrowing personal accounts in newspapers and online articles and simply shrug it all o as too hard? You cannot live to middle age without knowing personally many women friends or acquaintances who have su ered domestic violence. I follow the way of Jesus, but how does this shape my response?
Having recently started my journey of painting a series in response, I have been helped enormously by many others – my wife Jill, and friends who are visual artists, poets, songwriters and counsellors. I am indebted and humbled by the courageous women who have shared with Jill and with me something of what it is like to live in the maelstrom. My focus has been on violence against women (without seeking to diminish other instances where men and children are the victims). This article re ects my thinking and work in progress.
Why paint a series on domestic violence against women? For me there are three main drivers:
Firstly, violence against a woman is deeply wrong and needs to be condemned. It is an abominable affront to God and a betrayal of His profound purposes for goodness and justice.
Secondly, in its place I want to a rm what I consider the best way there is to be truly human – the way of Jesus. In His kingdom, male-female relationships are renewed in goodness, truth and beauty. Our God is the bringer of shalom, of wholeness and ourishing. Every woman (as every man) has the high calling and ultimate dignity of bearing the image of God himself. And how that works out in practice in contemporary Australia is of enormous signi cance to us all.
Thirdly, I want to be part of a wider Christian community that brings hope: hope that transformation of how women are perceived, valued and honoured by men is possible even in the darkest places. And I want to enact that hope, as salt and light, in the midst of a cynical and world-weary contemporary Australia (and one that is extremely wary of Christians as a result of the Australian Government’s recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, amongst other things).
What does the prevalence of violence against women in Australia in 2018 say about us? About our humanity? It seems to me that something very fundamental in our collective human condition is broken when domestic violence prevails. There is a betrayal of not just the rights of the person involved, but also of our collective humanity. A fault-line opens up between one of the deepest truths about us (as image-bearers of God) and how we behave towards one another.
An article by columnist Bettina Arndt (The Weekend Australian, 20/8/16) made my blood boil. Arndt lambasted domestic violence support groups for building ‘an industry on skewed gures’ that allegedly exaggerate the prevalence of domestic violence. She argued that attempts to address domestic violence by eradicating sexism will always fail ‘because violence is not and never has been a gender issue’, and that ‘the worldwide domestic violence industry’ oversimplied a complex issue by refusing to acknowledge women- initiated violence against men. However, this argument is countered by columnists such as Anne Summers who point out the dangers of covering over real human tragedies with terminology such as ‘the grievance industry’. ‘How despicable’, she writes, ‘and un-Australian – for politicians and journalists to so cruelly mock those who su er racism or violence with the ugly inference that they are just fodder for an “industry”’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 3/9/16).
Senator Cory Bernardi made a similar snipe to Arndt’s on The 7.30 Report on ABC TV: ‘we need to nip what I call the grievance industry in the bud because they are doing a disservice to so many Australians’. And throughout 2017 there have been erce ongoing debates in the traditional and social media regarding domestic violence, gender ‘roles’ and sexual abuse in the workplace.
Some of what I want to give voice to on this topic through my art is both the disarming realism and the soaring, high view of personhood (and our total interdependence as men and women) that I nd in the Bible and in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible all too often has been misconstrued on male-female relationships, though it consistently proclaims the dignity
“In many famous works of art, when a woman was portrayed in a scenario of danger or abuse, she was rarely seen with agency of her own, let alone regarded with compassion, dignity and respect.”
and equality of both men and women. As a neighbour in our street reminded me recently when discussing men’s attitudes to women, ‘well of course Christians have a lot to answer for’. The context for her remark was recent media focus on the reported experience of women who had come to priests with claims of abuse within their marriage, only to be dismissively told to abide by their husband’s authority and not to rock the boat.
What aspects of domestic violence against women should be explored?
Early in the painting process, I tossed around some key questions, including:
I did not see much point in painting acts of violence. I wanted to get beyond polemics, generalisations and the danger of voyeurism. Violence and dysfunction are subjects that have occupied the attention of visual artists in the West for centuries. With some notable exceptions, they have not been handled well.
Up until the end of the 20th century, Western art exposed an ugly underbelly of our culture: the male gaze. This term refers to the depiction of the world and women from an exclusively masculine point of view, presenting women as no more than objects of male pleasure. In many famous works of art, when a woman was portrayed in a scenario of danger or abuse, she was rarely seen with agency of her own, let alone regarded with compassion, dignity and respect.
This was particularly evident in the genres of history painting and mythological scenes. For instance, in Rubens’ Rape of the Sabine Women, the viewer seems invited into an amoral zone, to share the rapist’s callous disregard for the victim. In the various renditions of Leda and the Swan, Europa and the Bull, Bacchus and Ariadne and St George and the Dragon, we and the same story of cold indifference to a woman’s dignity.
A notable exception is the painting Susanna and the Elders by the female artist, Artemisia Gentileschi, from the early 17th century. This highly accomplished work was Gentileschi’s rst (at age seventeen) and portrays sexual harassment from a female point of view, with all of the fear, menace and repulsion that is appropriate (relating a story from an apocryphal chapter of Daniel).
Other works, such as Delacroix’ The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), have portrayed the dehumanisation of the rapist through his narcissistic acts of violence.
Many contemporary artists have also expressed eloquent outrage at various forms of violence directed against women in our society. These include Louise Bourgeois, William Kentridge, Marina Abramovic, Kara Walker and, within Australia, Arthur Boyd, Tracey Mo att, Sam Harrison and Ben Quilty, to name but a few.
Upon reflection, I chose to align my paintings on two main axes: solidarity in lament for women who are abused; and nding metaphors or motifs that explore what healing, change and transformation might look like in the context of an intimate but broken relationship.
Then comes the crunch: how to paint a Christian response to domestic violence along these axes?
In my research, I was impressed by the motto of Our Watch, an organisation established ‘to drive nation-
wide change in the culture, behaviour and attitudes that underpin and create violence against women’. The motto is: ‘Change the story’. I wanted to and a visual language that would start to subvert the male narrative of control and violence. In cases of domestic violence, the humanity (the divine image) of both the woman and the man is diminished and betrayed.
While mulling this over one evening, Jill and I returned home to find a copy of a poem placed under our door. It had come from a dear friend who had heard about my quest. The poem was White Linen at Midnight by Coral Hull. That changed everything.
In the poem, Hull recalls a striking image of a mother at midnight, hanging out linen sheets on the clothesline. While longing for her mother’s caress, she ponders the next outburst from her drunken and abusive father within the house.
At last I had a motif: that of white linen, upon which to frame a series of paintings. A potent motif, grounded in the everyday grunge of life. The linen being washed or folded can serve as a canvas for the woman’s thoughts, her hopes and fears, her fragility as well as her resolute tenacity, her torment in the maelstrom. It can speak of the menace and danger of an intimate partner, but perhaps also hint at a change in the story: transformation from a failed narrative.
Within the initial and incomplete paintings executed to date, I explore a variety of themes. And it can only be an exploration, not a clever one-liner. Questions are posed rather than answers given. Hope is intuited. In most paintings the image of the woman is more objective, more present, than the man (who is held in the liminal world of either memory or contemplation). Some paintings explore the ‘wearing’ of violence, standing in the maelstrom. Others deal with dreams and hopes of a better place, a life well-loved. My attempt is to avoid a lock-down stalemate of unchanging victim and unchanging perpetrator.
From my work in progress, what have I learned so far?
For me as an artist, and indeed for any of us, the place to start is outrage and lament. Violence against women can never be reduced to a ‘current a air’ or a dispassionate subject for a series of newspaper articles. It involves real people. My place is to sit in the messiness and to listen, to vent outrage at the wrong and to try to feel something of the pain.
Bruised reeds and smouldering wicks
After lament comes action. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah paints a beautiful picture of the Servant of the Lord in his tender dealing with the downtrodden (Isaiah 42). In this poem, he uses two images to describe aspects of a person’s life when crushed by calamity: the bruised reed and the smouldering wick.
Like a bruised reed, the downtrodden person has been deeply injured by forces outside her control. She is broken.
Acting in line with the heart of God, the Servant doesn’t falter (‘I will not break o the bruised reed’) in acting to protect her. I take this to mean that I must actively be involved in improving the support, protection and care of women who are the subject of domestic violence. As a minimum this will involve lobbying for and contributing toward improved funding for State, Federal and church/community women’s refuges.
Closer to home, I must notice and give practical support to the women that I know who are exposed to domestic violence.
The Servant also responds to the internal impacts of abuse (he ‘will not snu out a smouldering wick’). In the context of domestic violence, I take this to mean the e ects of low self-image, despair and a sense of deep betrayal and abandonment brought on by violence. How can we show solidarity and give real hope for resilience and transformation?
This is where art comes in.
Art can speak subversively against the cultural narratives that deny the existence of sexism, that ‘tolerate’ male violence and promote the power games. The journalist Elizabeth Farrelly goes as far as to say that ‘art in infiltrates. It takes time, but art changes minds, and minds change worlds’ (‘Blame Andy Warhol’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3/3/17). It can also shine a light where words are inadequate. The art critic John McDonald noted that ‘art is one of the most important ways of dealing with experiences that are too traumatic, too frightening, too terrible for words’ (‘Sappers and Shrapnel’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18/1/17).
I find the highest view of personhood and intimate relationships within the pages of the Bible. I read of equal and high dignity for men and women reshaped into the new humanity ushered in by Jesus. Therefore, as an artist, I must speak up about violence against women.
But it will be like holding a candle to the wind.
Audaciously, the Song of Songs also, within the canon of the Bible, holds a candle to the wind for our times. Into our tangled, cynical and conflicted times in contemporary Australia, God proclaims that His ideal for male-female flourishing is achievable by His transforming handiwork among us. We may ask how an art form like Song of Songs could shine and reshape life, coming from all those years ago in the patriarchal Near East. It seems so unrealistic. But if we really believe in
a God who is intimately and powerfully renewing the very stu of our humanity, we will join in the Song, and confidently sing it in the darkest of all places, and sing it with our arms open wide to a needy and watching world.
This article appeared Extract from Zadok Perspectives Magazine 138, Autumn 2018.