PROVO — Brigham Young University Museum of Art curator Kenneth Hartvigsen began thinking two years ago about the three exhibitions, "DIGNITY: Tribes in Transition," "Refugee Trilogy" and "Albanian Stories," currently on view through Sept. 29 at the museum. He and the other museum staff, like the rest of the world, had been seeing devastating photographs of violence in Syria almost every day, coupled with photos and news of people fleeing their homeland.
Then, Hartvigsen saw the bloodied, dusty face of Omran Daqneesh, a little boy in Aleppo. Photographer Mahmoud Raslan's image went viral and Omran, then only 5 years old, became the face of the Syrian conflict.
“That photograph just destroyed me,” Hartvigsen recalled. “I felt hopeless. I just remember talking to my brother and saying, ‘Why do any of us bother to do anything? … I’m working in this museum and I’m teaching these art history classes and there are children on the other side of the world whose lives are falling apart through no fault of their own.’”
Hartvigsen and the museum staff turned their conversations toward the idea of bringing a show or exhibition to the museum that would contribute to a conversation about the refugee crisis. Pieces began to fall into place.
“I just sort of came across these three different artists,” Hartvigsen said. “I was thinking about these things personally, we as a staff were thinking about these things, and these three artists sort of emerged, or presented themselves.”
'We must take care of each other to survive'
The exhibition became three different shows, each representing the three artists Hartvigsen found. First was photographer Dana Gluckstein, whose exhibit “DIGNITY: Tribes in Transition” features photos of indigenous peoples around the world. Gluckstein has shot these groups for over 30 years and was part of a campaign to convince former President Barack Obama to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which he did in December 2010.
For Hartvigsen, Gluckstein’s work reminds him that “we are all part of a universal human family.” To emphasize that point, rather than organizing Gluckstein’s photos according to the countries people were from — putting all the Kenyan photographs or Bhutanese photographs together, for example — Hartvigsen and designer Jeff Barney grouped the photos together by women, children, dancers, etc.
The reason, Hartvigsen said, is “to say we are in some ways different but in more fundamental ways, we’re all the same.” To him, Gluckstein’s photos say “we need to learn from each other.”
Gluckstein, who lives in Los Angeles, called the three-part exhibition “brilliant” and said she’s honored to have her photos on display at BYU. A teacher she studied with often said artists are the seeds of change for society, a teaching Gluckstein has taken to heart.
“I believe that artists have a responsibility, especially in this day and age, to make their work count, to make it inspire people, to make a difference,” Gluckstein said.
Currently, Gluckstein is working with Amnesty International to raise awareness and bring about change for the rights of Native American and Alaskan women. Her exhibition includes a petition museumgoers can sign, which addresses to the current White House administration to ensure Native women receive proper health care after sexual assault.
Although Gluckstein has dedicated her career to photographing and fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world, she believes their rights overlap with those of refugees, particularly in the way that indigenous peoples are often forced off ancestral lands, which Gluckstein relates to refugees being forced to flee their home countries.
Like Hartvigsen, she believes in the idea of a “global family,” stating that, “We must take care of each other to survive.”
Refugee stories in three drawings
“Refugee Trilogy," the second exhibition, more clearly presents itself as commentary on the current refugee crisis. Using charcoal, Connecticut-based artist Rick Shaefer created three enormous drawings, each measuring over 8 feet high and over 13 feet wide. The three drawings depict three parts of the refugee experience Shaefer felt were common — crossing land, crossing water and then crossing the border of another country. Fittingly, the pieces are titled in turn, “Land Crossing,” “Water Crossing” and “Border Crossing.”
Hartvigsen sees in Shaefer’s work the responsibilities people have as members of the global family, stating, “If we’re all part of a human family, if members of our human family are suffering, we’re all suffering.”
Like Hartvigsen and the MOA staff, Shaefer, too, was horrified by the news and images depicting the plight of refugees, and his “Refugee Trilogy” is his personal reaction to this crisis.
Drawing on inspiration from 17th-century artists like Rembrandt and Rubens — specifically Rubans' “The Great Last Judgment” and Rembrandt's “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” — Shaefer's work echoes their Baroque style.
Shaefer said he's heard from some critics who didn’t understand how his pieces reacted to the Syrian crisis specifically. But for Shaefer, the use of the classical Baroque style creates an ambiguity that talks about more than the Syrian refugee crisis. Rather, the drawings address these types of crises as timeless and universal — not unique to one group, nation or time period.
“This wasn’t just about the Syrian debacle,” Shaefer said. “Mankind from the beginning has been migrating from one place to another and often with violent consequences.”
He added he hoped to “encapsulate” the idea that human migration has been a struggle throughout history.
“It’s not the first catastrophe for human migration or refugee status and it probably won’t be the last,” Shaefer said. Drawing people in a centuries-old style, Shaefer explained, “gave it that historical context I wanted.”
Refugees stories from a refugee
The third and final exhibition, “Albanian Stories,” is unique because it’s art about refugees created by a refugee. Adrian Paci is originally from Albania but fled with his family to Italy in the 1990s.
Consisting of two short films — one seven minutes long and the other 35 minutes long, both shot shortly after the family arrived in Italy — Paci's exhibition tells a personal story. The first film shows his then 3-year-old daughter playing, making up a story about a rooster and a pig and their friends. Then, according to Hartvigsen, she begins to say things like, “and then the International Forces arrived. And then the soldiers came.”
Hartvigsen, who has two daughters of his own — a 5-year-old and a newborn — swallowed tears as he described the film.
“Her life experience turned her play time into a reflection on the reality of her young life, which was that (her family was) displaced by political and military forces that they had no control over,” Hartvigsen said after a pause. “And I’m sure she was too young to even know how devastating that was — she was just playing.”
Paci’s exhibition, in Hartvigsen’s eyes, serves as a reminder that tragedies like the refugee crisis are experienced on an individual level. Paci still resides in Italy and was unavailable to comment.
Although crises of immigration and the plight of refugees is ongoing, Hartvigsen said he never imagined how truly relevant the exhibition would be. In particular, Hartvigsen referenced Shaefer’s “Border Crossing,” which, among other things, depicts children ripped away from their parents.
The curator hopes people who view the exhibition will feel moved and inspired to act. For those who are, the MOA researched local organizations dedicated to helping refugees, providing their contact information at the exhibitions. Hartvigsen said he hopes people are inspired to try and make a difference in their own communities, even if it’s something small.
“The fundamental question is, do we believe that people everywhere have a right to live in a safe environment and have a right to define themselves, who they are, where they belong and what they want to believe and how they want to live,” Hartvigsen said, “both with the rights of indigenous peoples and with the rights of refugees? … Those are the questions that underpin all three of these exhibitions.”
If you go …
What: Brigham Young University Museum of Art's exhibitions "DIGNITY: Tribes in Transition," "Refugee Trilogy" and "Albanian Stories"
Where: BYU Museum of Art, North Campus Drive, Provo
When: Open Monday and Thursday-Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Tuesday-Wednesday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., through September 29
How much: free