"Lost" Art | Artist Profile | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published April 26, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

Vermont, arguably one of the best places in the world to live, will get a glimpse of one of the worst through a month-long exhibit of paintings by Sudanese clustered in the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya.

The opposites meet at Sanctuary Artsite at Jager Di Paolo Kemp in Burlington, where they will be bridged by images and oral histories of some of the Sudanese who have settled in Chittenden County during the past five years. The show offers an unusual opportunity to see works of beauty that have been created amidst squalor, hunger and constant threat of rape and killing. "Painting Faces of War: Brave Hearts of the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan" will also enable Vermonters to learn about an endangered culture that, for all its "otherness," appears fully recognizable in its values and aspirations.

The exhibit is as much an act of cultural documentation as it is an encounter with an unfamiliar aesthetic. "It's a call to look," says Sarah Kariko, the show's organizer. "These paintings give a visual voice to those who have no other representations of their families and villages." Because there is so little photographic documentation of where they came from -- a part of Africa that's routinely ignored by the Western media -- "there's a whole generation of kids in the refugee camps who have not even an indirect experience of traditional life," Kariko notes.

Surprisingly, only a few of the 30 paintings produced by the refugee artists in Kakuma camp depict scenes of violence and bereavement. Such subject matter reflects the current and past circumstances of 70,000 Sudanese who fled to Kakuma, almost always on foot, from a civil war that pitted Arab-dominated government forces against Christian and animist black-African guerrillas fighting for greater autonomy in their southern Sudanese homeland. An estimated two million Sudanese lost their lives in the course of a 22-year conflict that officially ended 17 months ago.

The Kakuma camp, administered by the United Nations, has offered relative respite from the gruesome conditions inside Sudan. But Kakuma and another large Sudanese refugee camp in Kenya are notorious for their searing heat, lack of vegetation and scorpion infestations. Also common are raids by local bandits and sexual assaults on women who leave the camps to herd goats and collect water or firewood. In addition, the UN recently cut food rations for the refugees by 20 percent due to drought and inadequate donations from well-fed countries.

In one print to be included in the show, an image of a woman with skulls and bones scattered around her is super-imposed on a yellow-colored map of Sudan. Human bones are also present in a framed reproduction in which a man facing the viewer holds human remains, while another figure seen from the back raises his arms in despair or supplication.

Several tableaux of tranquility, and even merriment, will also be on display. Among them is an acrylic work on paper by Jima Anak showing four women of the Dinka tribe, one of whom is braiding the hair of another, in relaxed yet attentive poses. In a similarly striking work by Jacob Lueth Achol, a trio of Kashipo tribeswomen with distended lips and feathered headdresses weave brightly colored baskets.

"When I unzipped a suitcase full of folded canvases from Kakuma, I wasn't sure what to expect," recalls Kariko, who has been working without compensation since August to assemble the show. "I was very moved and impressed by the overall level of artistry."

The refugee artists use whatever material is at hand in a place of acute scarcity. Three of the works in the show were painted last summer on mosquito netting that has begun to disintegrate. Kariko, who is delicately framing these pieces, says they can be stabilized through conservation efforts the Shelburne Museum is helping to arrange.

A number of the artists included in "Painting Faces of War" are students of Atem Thuc Aleu, who lived in Kakuma for nine years and is now studying art at Brigham Young University in Utah. Aleu will be conducting workshops and giving talks in conjunction with the show during a local residency that runs from April 28 to May 6.

He began teaching himself drawing in 1994 at age 14 by studying art books UN aid workers made available. Aleu showed so much talent that he was eventually made an instructor of about 75 other young Sudanese in Kakuma. Designated for settlement in Utah in 2001, Aleu is among the few thousand fortunate Sudanese refugees admitted to the United States in the past 25 years.

"The year I started painting in Kakuma, I was having dreams of Sudan and of my people every night," Aleu said in a telephone interview last week. "Every morning I tried to draw my dream. I would often see people running and being shot."

Both of Aleu's parents were killed by Sudanese troops in the 1980s. Four of his six siblings also died in attacks carried out by the army or allied militias.

Three or four of Aleu's paintings will be included in the show, along with monoprints, lithographs and watercolors he has made in recent years. A couple of these are geometric abstractions, with pastel-colored horizontal and vertical bars etched with thin circular swirls.

Aleu is scheduled to lead an art-composition workshop for local Sudanese on April 29. Those attending will be among the 100 or so "Lost Boys" who have settled in the Burlington area in the past few years. Like Aleu, they came to the United States from refugee camps in Kenya, where most lived as orphans. They have had to acclimate to an unfamiliar climate and culture -- a challenge exacerbated by prejudice on the part of some locals, according to Kariko.

She befriended some of the Lost Boys soon after they began arriving in Vermont in 2001. Kariko, a 37-year-old sculptor, says she became committed to helping the refugees after seeing a segment on CBS' "60 Minutes" about their harrowing escapes from Sudan and subsequent consignment to the Kenya camps.

One of Kariko's initial steps was to enroll a few of the Sudanese refugees in driver-education courses and to help them find apartments. She invites several of them to her South Burlington home for what has become an annual corn roast, and has also accompanied them on apple-picking and kayaking outings.

"What amazes me is that they still have so much joie de vivre despite everything they've gone through," Kariko says.

A dozen capsule autobiographies of locally resettled Lost Boys will be displayed in transcript form as part of the Burlington exhibit. This "Story Wall," assembled by students in an anthropology class at St. Michael's College, will also include photographic portraits of 10 Lost Boys -- and a Lost Girl -- by Mary Lake, a St. Mike's senior.

Lake says she hopes to compile a book of photos, oral histories and paintings from the show for distribution to Burlington and Winooski shops that are frequented by Sudanese. "Maybe that will help people better understand the background and make them more receptive to the Africans who have come here," Lake says.

Visitors to the show will be asked to donate money and/or art supplies for the refugees still in Kakuma. Proceeds from the sale of the paintings and prints, which range in price from $25 to about $2500, will be shared among the artists, a foundation established by Aleu, and needy members of the local Sudanese community, Kariko says.

Showgoers will also be asked to take political action in the United States on behalf of the still-displaced southern Sudanese as well as the victims of what the Bush administration describes as a genocide currently occurring in the Darfur region in western Sudan.

"One thing Vermonters can do is support education to empower the Sudanese to take their own country back," Kariko says. She notes that the discovery of major oil deposits in southern Sudan has drawn considerable interest from outside investors. "We should do what we can to help the Sudanese control their own resources rather than having the Chinese come in and buy up the southern half of the country," Kariko says.