Painful-to-view art inspires compassion and empathy

With over 50 million refugees across the world, the global migrant and refugee crisis is ongoing and filled with myriad experiences of human suffering. 

“So, what can the arts do?” asks Think!Fest convener, Anthea Garman. Three artists, Lereko Mfono, James Oatway and Brett Bailey come together to discuss whether, through their own work, they can inspire compassion which goes beyond just seeing and understanding the issue.

Lereko Mfono

Mfono’s play The Kids from Amandla Street is a story about a young Nigerian-South African boy whose parents, along with many others, migrated as a result of the Biafran war in Nigeria. The play deals with xenophobia in the eyes of the youth. It was written, he says, “to celebrate the childhood spirit of coming together”.

The play helps in understanding dual citizenship of children who feel both South Africa and foreign. He explained that he wanted to show that many people are here to escape a crisis and improve their standard of living rather than to steal jobs as is often suggested.

His story is aimed at a young audience. “I had realised many young people are influenced by the beliefs of their parents and they never get to understand and do their own research because they really have no tools to do that… So I went about a journey to try and build that bridge for them,” Mfono explains. He believes that by being able to present a reality, artists have a gifted weapon that can “carve a story that otherwise does not exist but finds its birth within imagination”.

James Oatway

Oatway’s exhibition, Enemies and Friends, includes photographs in the DRC in 2013, in the Central African Republic in 2013-14 following ousting of president Francois Bozizé, and in 2008 and 2015 during South Africa’s outbreak of xenophobic violence.

Oatway’s photos of Emmanuel Sithole, a Mozambican man brutally attacked in Alexandra, were graphic, brutal and offensive to some. One photo shows Sithole laying on the ground while men with knives stood over him, and another shows him laying in a gutter, bleeding. Sithole died hours after the photos were taken.

Oatway received heavy criticism for the photos. Such photography brings to question the ethics of photography and whether the dignity of human bodies, especially black bodies, and the family of the victims are always respected in the process.

Despite criticism, the pictures showed the truth which may have otherwise been hidden. The photos also helped bring justice to Sithole and his family, as the attackers have been found guilty of murder.

“I’m happy that there was such a big reaction,” says Oatway. “It would have been almost senseless to have shot those pictures for people not to see them and for people not to talk about them,” he adds.

The photos, both of violence in Alexandra and in other parts of Africa, show that there is a “fine line between us and our neighbours, or, us and ‘them’,”says Oatway.

Brett Bailey

Bailey’s piece, Sanctuary, is a response to the refugee situation in North Africa, the Middle East and the European Union. The process of creation involved travelling to refugee camps,  interviewing refugees, taking photographs and speaking to refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants individually.

“The piece is about the state of limbo that refugees find themselves in – asylum-seekers, refugees, migrants – looking for security,” he says.

Bailey says his piece depicts the desperation of refugees and their dreams of making it to the UK and other parts of Europe to look for security or to reunite with family members. It shows people living in terrible housing conditions, stuck in places for several years going backwards and forwards trying to sort out their papers. These people often have to work as forced labour, earning very little while trying to save to make it to the next place. They are captured by militia groups, held hostage in prisons and holding centres, abused and tortured. Following that, he says, is the limbo of finally arriving in these dream places and dealing with the inability to find themselves jobs, educate their children, bring their families over, get mobility and deal with hostile environments in those countries.

Although compassion is the responsibility of the viewer, the art begins to create compassion by presenting these realities in a detailed, truthful way. This offers an alternative to existing stereotypes of migrants and the refugee crisis and gives a voice to those truly suffering.

James Oatway, Lereko Mfono and Brett Bailey after their panel discussion.
James Oatway, Lereko Mfono and Brett Bailey after their panel discussion.

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