Nearly every student says they painted or sculpted for El-Fadel.
El-Fadel Arbab, the 27-year old man from Darfur, had sat on a tall stool with them around their art table at Falmouth High School in Falmouth Maine, and told stories. He looked up as he told, above their heads. He didn’t make eye contact. He seemed to be back in his village and to relive the scenes he was telling. He told them that mothers sometimes had to leave their children to burn in a hut that the Janjaweed militia set on fire. El Fadel said he was left to burn, but he escaped, hiding behind a screen of smoke. He ran. He hid in a tree in the day time and ran in the night.
These students created works of art in response to El-Fadel’s stories. Their work is combined in an exhibit called “The Beauty and Tragedy of Darfur.”
On a fiercely windy day near the Maine coast when no fishermen would venture onto the sea, I visit Falmouth High to meet the artists and ask them about the creation of their work. I sit on a high stool around the art table like El-Fadel had, and they tell the parts of his story I need to hear to understand their own stories. “I have never been so frustrated with a piece of artwork in my life,”
one student, Maddy Tierney, says. “I felt the weight of what it meant to someone else. You want so badly to make it right,” she says about her painting based on El-Fadel’s real story. Alex Clark says, “I never expected it would mean so much. I’m really proud of all of us. It’s was all about El-Fadel.” Their teacher, Nancy Durst, had given her junior and senior students an assignment. Listen to a new American from Darfur tell the story of his childhood in a village in this western region of Sudan. They knew about Darfur. They knew the International Criminal Court in The Hague had issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the region. But now they were going to hear one’s man’s personal story. And after listening to El-Fadel’s stories, the students were to create two art pieces, one to show the beauty and one to show the tragedy of the stories they heard. They met El Fadel for the first time in September and worked on their artistic responses to his stories for several months.
As we talk this December day, what I hear again and again from each artist is his or her struggle to be true to El Fadel’s real story in the execution of their art. They tell me about small details of the story that offered them a way to enter it.
Alex Clark says, “He had to grow up at an early age. We could identify with that. He didn’t have the safety that a lot of people have.” Jade Russell-Johnson said, “When he was speaking he was always looking up. I wanted to focus on the eyes.” “I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of losing everyone [in your family] in one night,” Catherine Hebson says. She broke down the real story in her mind and created a piece that looks like stills from a movie reel. They explain to me that it was hard to connect with individuals they created in a piece, but they worked to connect with the emotion.
Nancy says to Katie Ventura who created portraits of a child, “I always think I can hear a painting. Could you hear the boy?” Katie says she can. “I have a link to the little boy.” She says she could imagine, what if every day could be your last day? But El-Fadel said the children were still happy.
Allison Carver imagines cutting up a picture – a story – that is too intense. And then you zone in on one detail.
“They needed to communicate technically,” Nancy says. “I kept pushing their technical skills.”
Jonah Zuckerman describes his technique in painting a Janjaweed attack: “I tried to control the strokes. The Janjaweed set fire to each house. They were controlled and systematic.” When he created the scene of beauty, he used water colors and let the color spread out. The beauty piece was “more spontaneous,” the way nature is.
“I take something and make it refined,” Jade says about her paintings of two women. “In that way it makes more of an impact. If it’s dark and alien to [viewers], it’s very hard to find yourself.” “If it’s something beautiful it stays with you longer,” Monica agrees. “If you know the happiness someone had, understanding what they lost has a bigger impact.”
“Even El-Fadel’s being in the room was very motivating,” Catherine says. “We connected to his emotion.” He came back and offered responses to students, saying what emotion he got from a piece. “I did my first one,” Abby Dionick says about her painting, but she wasn’t done. She needed to do more, but wasn’t sure what. El-Fadel came. “He told me a story about my piece,” Katie said, and Nancy added, “El-Fadel started to cry. Then Abby and I started to cry.”
“One of the best things,” says Geneva Waite, “is collectively we brought his story together.”
Sitting around the art table, I feel like we have been on similar journeys, the art students and me. We are drawn into stories by someone who awes us with courage and, to use Maddy’s phrase, “persistent beauty.” Being in a safe harbor isn’t as compelling as this absolute drive to get the story right.
“They wanted El-Fadel to be proud,” Nancy says. “They did it for him.”
Thank you to Nancy Durst for allowing me to use these photos.