One of the pieces of artwork on display. Alicia Phaneuf/The Mirror

One of the pieces of artwork on display. Alicia Phaneuf/The Mirror

Artist Rick Shaefer and South African playwright Brett Bailey create larger than life representations of refugee crises for interested observers. These artists take creativity to new heights with large-scale charcoal drawings and interactive installations that depict common hardships that accompany forced migration.

Both men were eager to partake in a public interview regarding their work in the Thomas J. Walsh Art Gallery. Peter Van Heerden, the executive director for the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts, moderated the interview as the artists described how their inspiration arose.

Shaefer said, “I don’t know if this project found me or if I found it. It was the overwhelming tsunami of press and imagery coming out of the Middle East at the end of last summer that spoke to me. I had to make some kind of statement about it.”

Not wanting to create a small statement for a large issue, Shaefer created 38-by-13-and-3/4-foot charcoal drawings. His work entitled, “The Refugee Trilogy” encompasses three different pieces: “Land Crossing,” “Water Crossing” and “Border Crossing. The trilogy aims to demonstrate the escape from one country over land, followed by the journey overseas and concluding with a clash between two cultures, according to Shaefer.

However, when someone sees these large-scale drawings, they will not see 21st century images of refugees. Instead they will see scenes mimicking that of Peter Paul Ruben’s “Last Judgement” and “Massacre of Innocence,” Theodore Gericault’s “Raft of Medusa,” Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” and many other works. Choosing to focus largely on the works Rubens and of the Baroque imagery, Shaefer described how his work was largely inspired by this 17th century vernacular style.

Shaefer explained, “I was trying to reference the fact that this history of forced migration has been going on forever. Since the beginning of time, when man first started migrating out of Africa, we were bumping into each other from time to time in very violent ways. You have this same kind of journey that I tried to reference here through these three motifs.”

Just as Shaefer created a message through large drawings, Bailey also decided to create a substantial piece for his viewers. His new work “SANCTUARY” will be a type of interactive installation piece that takes the form of a labyrinth. Though still in progress, Bailey expects his piece to be as large as 75 feet by 75 feet.

Throughout the labyrinth, there will be music playing that will last approximately 45 minutes. Bailey explained that the music is also played in hospitals for the “mentally handicapped” due to its calming effects. Spectators for Bailey’s piece will be given a headset that enables a track to play through their journey in the labyrinth. As they approach any installations, sound effects will be able to feed in without any background noise.

Viewers begin by observing a beautiful place, one that is calm. However, there are also 10 feet high, dark narrow fences that people will proceed through one by one where they will come to a series of installations. They will find performers playing refugees stuck in the various states that they commonly find themselves.

Bailey explained, “One example of an installation could be a man floating in a rubber tube in the Mediterranean while fireworks in Nice are going off behind him. There is hope for him getting to Europe, but at the same time you know what’s connected to the firework display, which is the truck that drove through and infiltrated his people. It’s a strange paradoxical situation that he’s facing.”

Artists are often found using the media and news reports to influence their creative choices. However, it’s important to learn how an interaction with new information affects their worldly views. What exactly does it mean for Shaefer and Bailey to take action with these refugee crises?

Shaefer said, “In all honesty, I feel like I was hiding from it for a long time. But it really opened up a whole set of reality. I’m not a political activist artist, but I feel what is happening is becoming more apparent, official and more appalling to me. We are all refugees and immigrants, and it doesn’t matter where we came from. That realization came to rouse when I really started doing this.”

Shaefer explained that these migrations aren’t affecting just the human population, but all of nature. Even though the situations are being created by men, animals do not get a pass from destruction that accompanies the violence. His charcoal drawings show animals and their interaction with humans during the destruction; he described these animals as sideline spectators. Despite these hardships, Shaefer is excited to see what this pathos will bring to him as an artist.

Comparatively, Bailey’s inspiration came to him during his experiences with different refugees in locations such as Athens, Sicily and Hamburg. He described a man who was concerned for the condition of his mother’s heart rather than having concern for himself. In Sicily, he said that there were people only used to eating rice and being forced to eat pasta, a food they’ve never eaten. Bailey explained that it is the micro problems rather than the macro problems with these refugees that make them more humane.

“I tend to look at things like the movement of ant, and when I started to hear about this mass movement of people from North Africa into Europe, there was a very big response from the other ant kingdom,” said Bailey. “Europeans try to grapple with the situation and are afraid of their culture being diluted; they are afraid of crime. Refugees are just human beings and when I’m going through my artistic process, that’s what I think about.”

About The Author

-- Editor-In-Chief Emeritus-- Digital Journalism

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.