That is not what happening in response to the second, later, pair of photographs. These are recent images from the crises in Syria. One shows the body of Alan Kurdi, a small refugee boy on a beach. He drowned as his family sought to escape Syria for Europe (Nilufer Demir, Dogan News Agency, Via Agence France-Presse, Getty Images); and the other, Omran Daqneesh, another small boy, a victim of the horrible incessant bombings of Aleppo (still from video taken by Mahmoud Raslan, one of the men who rescued Omran, Aleppo Media Center).
We have done nothing to help. The very least we should do is look back.
Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, December 14, 2016
click here for full piece
On the morning I read this article, I was deep in my search for a subject for a Christmas/Epiphany painting. Kimmelman ended my search with his headline: How the World Closed Its Eyes to Syria's Horrors. It was clear: I needed to do a painting that would encourage people to look back at one of the Syrian children. I chose the image of the five-year-old boy, Omran Daqneesh, who sits all bloodied and covered with dust in the back of an ambulance, after rescuers had pulled him from the rubble of his home -- a home destroyed by the bombings of a regime or Russian military airstrike (see The Guardian, December 28, 2016, click here for that article).
On its own, this image is very startling, very sad, and very telling. The boy is obviously injured and he seems completely stunned by what has happened. It is not hard to imagine that he feels very frightened and probably very troubled about being alone; he must be so scared about what has happened to the rest of his family, his mother and father and three siblings. His photograph pulls at the viewer's heart. When I first saw it, I couldn't imagine drawing it. It was just too sad. But Kimmelman's message that Omran's photograph had faded from attention made me rethink my reluctance to work with it, to transform it as I had other photographs from the newspaper. But what could I do to recapture others' interest in Omran and his plight?
I let the image tell me what it needed. Seemed clear pretty fast that this little boy needed a companion, a caring and comforting companion. I wanted to paint him alongside someone with a special beauty, tenderness, and ability to protect. Given my personal storehouse of visual references and the season, Sandro Botticelli's Madonna of the Book seemed like the perfect partner for the child. Botticelli painted this Madonna and Child in 1480-1481, now in Milan. I adapted Botticelli's depiction of Mary (filling her out a little bit), his wonderful window, and some of his room decor. I added light to Botticelli's very dark Renaissance background (thank you, Sam Adoquei, for that advice), and some room touches of my own; and then, of course, the boy and his ambulance seat. I ask you to look at the painting, look at it more than once.
O Mary, indeed God has favored you and made you immaculate,
and chosen you from all the women of the world.
Remensnyder describes how for centuries, across the Middle East and Europe, Muslims and Christians have gathered together in religious shrines dedicated to Mary, to show their devotion to her. One of these, Mary's Chapel on Lampedusa, seems especially relevant to my painting and to crises in our current world. The Shrine on Lampedusa, a small Italian island off the coast of Tunisia, provided safety in the 17th and 18th centuries to both Muslim and Christian refugees, as each religious group fled the hostility and prisons of the other; and now, is the entry point to Europe for so many migrants, many of them Muslims, fleeing war and oppression. Pope Francis visited the shrine at Lampedusa in 2013 to criticize the 'globalization of indifference' to the migrants' cause, pray for the many who are risking their lives in the hope of a more just life, and praise the Italians for their rescue efforts (Remensnyder, p. 49).
My research also included internet searches for information on Omran Daqneesh. I learned that on the day of the bombing, he was taken to an underground hospital (it had been previously hit by airstrikes). The open wound on his forehead was treated and bandaged, and he was discharged. His parents and siblings were also rescued from the rubble and treated, but his eleven-year-old brother died in hospital. At least eight other people are said to have died in this particular bombing. Having lost their home, Omran's family found a smaller place in which to live. Every week, I check the internet to see if I can learn something of what happened to this little boy since the video was made of him. There was only one story about another bombing in Aleppo. It was first reported that he had been killed in that later attack, but that was quickly followed by a report that he was fine. Since then, there has been nothing on the internet.
But maybe there are other ways that Omran can return. Muslims and Christians understand that the special child in Mary's lap is an important prophet who brings us needed news and knowledge. What might this child prophet, shown here, say to us? What might he help us understand, what might he help us do? My wish for my painting is for it to be a witness. I want it to be a call to us to recognize and do something for Omran, and all the other children who suffer because of war and refugee status.
1 A wonderful article on Mary's rich and complex role in the religious, artistic, cultural, political, and military relationships between Muslims and Christians appears in Verdon, T., Katz, M.R., Remensnyder, A. G., and Rubin, M. (2014) Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea. New York: Scala Arts Publishers.