Reflections: Women, War, and Suffering
by Holly Wong
Art has always been my voice of resistance, my way of making a contribution as a world citizen. In its best moment, art allows us to be more humane and fully aware, and it is the ability to imagine another’s experience of pain that is the first step towards forging real change. My artistic intention is to bear witness to suffering, to transform society by serving as a mirror. As an artist I invoke a visual language to inspire people to feel more deeply for those in their community, and the world abroad.
In the past decade I have worked on projects of social engagement, focusing mainly on those populations I feel are the most oppressed. Women and children are the greatest victims of war. In many instances, they have no part in war, didn’t cause it, but invariably suffer the worst consequences of it. Yet, despite the impact of war and poverty on the women and children of the world, their stories remain largely ignored by traditional media outlets that too often isolate rather than inform, and where censorship of experience makes an authentic response to the environment difficult.
In my mother’s time, Vietnam was the immoral war and people marched and gave up their lives because they believed the war was illegal. The war in Iraq is my generation’s moral question and I must do no less that what others have done before me. The U.S. led “War on Terror” profoundly changed my work because I understood that my own country was assaulting civilian populations, and if I made no statement of protest I would be complicit in it. Therefore, I set out to speak about the conditions of women in the 3rd world with an emphasis on the Middle East, feeling strongly that promoting awareness about this group’s struggle to survive could curb U.S. foreign policy excesses.
My motivation—both then and now—is to encourage U.S. women to understand the interconnectedness we share with other women around the world, and to open all eyes to our personal responsibility when the U.S. inflicts pain on the civilians of the 3rd world. As a result my work endeavors to stress the incredible dignity and strength of the women in the 3rd world in protecting their families and homes, allowing the viewer to feel the profound grace and courage of these women rather than pity. Ultimately, pity does not motivate change; identification and empathy is what promotes change. Unless we can feel deeply for another person’s pain, we are not moved to take risks or ask more of ourselves.
As an artist, I consider copying images verbatim extremely uninspiring. It is the interpretation of the image that is revealing. Therefore, while newspaper and media images are a starting point for my work, I tend to change the images quite a bit, adding or taking away figures, altering color schemes, compositions, etc. I start with images that I have a strong emotional response to and then use that for the basis for drawings and paintings. When I look at the photographs, if I can feel the woman’s suffering in my heart, then I know I must try to tell her story. Sometimes, I will depict the woman’s figure in the photograph in my drawings or paintings because I want to reflect a historical occurrence. In drawing the person in the photograph, I don’t want to just show how she looked or what happened; I want to show what it felt like. News photographs often miss this dimension and art can often take the viewer to that very painful place.
For example, my work titled “To Comfort” is based on news footage of a Muslim woman cradling an injured, inconsolable child. I could see that the mother was suffering, and her hopelessness spurned my own desires to intervene and to spiritually comfort both mother and child. To help convey this feeling to the viewer, I focused intently on her psychological pain. Sharp strokes outline the details of her face to convey a sense of grief, and she holds the child closely to her body, as if to protect it from any further harm. In my interpretation of the event, I included swirls of light around the woman and her child to suggest a blanket of protection, comfort, and healing.
In “ 4 Faces of War” I attempt to show how women form a community of comfort for each other during times of war and suffering. Though the original photograph only showed two Muslim women—one woman collapsed in grief at the death of a relative, and the other cradling her head in her arms—I chose to depict the young, injured woman surrounded in support by several generations of the female community. The young woman’s facial lacerations are indicative of the wounds sustained by women in war zones, and are of particular significance to women in the Middle East where damage to the face has severe implications for not only her identity, but also her ability to marry and secure the welfare of her family. However, women of all ages and station are portrayed in this drawing because war does not discriminate. It is a sad truth that traditional news media outlets often render older women invisible by refusing to portray them.
In “Two Women” I portray two Muslim women standing in front of what remains of their home. I was drawn to the photographed image by both the sense of anger and of hopelessness I saw in the faces of these women as they stood in front of a closed airport runway strip. In my interpretation, I imagine that they are standing in front of their home, now demolished by air bombing campaigns. The sky in my drawing is intensely active with cloud patterns as a reflection of their anguished psychological state. It is as if they have nowhere to go, no choices left. I have made the patterns on their hijab stylish and contemporary to reflect that these are young women deserving of an active, stimulating young adulthood, but yet are left in a wasteland in which no direction is feasible. I tried to emphasize their level of frustration in the drawing with deeply carved expression lines, and dark reflective eyes staring out directly at the viewer.
“Search in Iraq” was also based on news footage. As the Iraqi women were being searched by U.S. forces, I found myself moved by the feeling of indignity an older woman’s face as a soldier’s hands moved just above her breasts. The original footage shows both the soldier and the woman in the frame, but I wanted to focus the viewer’s attention on the mixture of fear, shame, anger and resignation I saw in the woman’s face. The hands figure largely in the drawing and we don’t know who is searching her any more than she can really know. The emphasis is on the terror she feels and the anonymity of the hands that touch her without her consent. I used bright colors for her clothing and an ornate pattern for her hijab to bring more individuality to this woman being anonymously searched at a checkpoint.
Unemployment is at an alarming rate in post-invasion Iraq and it is often too insecure for women to even be out on public streets working. As a result, many are left to salvage through trash for food along with their children. “Trashpickers” is a portrayal of these women and children. In the original news footage, the boy looks out at the viewer in a more passive fashion, but I wanted to examine more fully what his experience might feel like. Here, the adolescent male figure in the foreground looks out at us in disgust, his hard face imploring “Why do they hate us?” His eyes ask us for help, but also demand that the reality of his experience be understood. Also, the women in the footage are further off in the distance and the setting looks like a bright sunny day, but in my work they, too, demand more from the viewer with their expressions. I showed the landscape as a tumultuous pollution filled sky because I think that it better reflects the living conditions of constant car bombs, open sewage, and frequent lack of drinking water and electricity.
“War on Terror?” features Iraqi civilians being crushed by U.S. aerial bombing campaigns and focuses on the general civilian populations. It is a little known fact that aerial bombing has been a primary cause of death to civilians in Iraq thoughout the U.S. led strikes. The U.S. media suppresses this fact and focuses entirely on deaths due to insurgent violence. It makes me angry that many Americans continue to believe in the fallacy that Iraqis are causing their own destruction with American troops acting as benevolent referees. Since there are seldom any news photographers around when bombing campaigns are carried out, resulting in a media blackout on this topic, the figures in my painting are modeled purely from my imagination of these scenes. This painting emphasizes the extreme heat and shower of rocks and debris that rain over civilians almost daily. The men try to protect their families, the women falter under the debris that falls upon them, and there is very little that they can do. The young girl at the bottom of the picture is afraid of the certain death that faces her and it is as if hope itself is dying.
In “Muslim Refugee” I depicted a woman from Srebrenica who hung herself in despair in fear that she would be raped by Serbian forces. When I originally saw this image in a news photo, I identified with her extreme terror and her feeling of hopelessness; I knew that she had died alone in the forest and I wanted to make sure that I documented that she had been here, that her life had mattered. The image of her hanging from the tree alone felt so remote and anonymous. In my drawing, I wanted to focus more on her as an individual, so I showed her face and drew her clothes and figure in detail. In the original footage her body was hidden by foliage, but I chose to instead present her in the forefront recognizing the importance that her suffering be seen for what it was. Art can be a form of honoring and that was the spirit in which I made the drawing.
War does not create peace. My work explores and expresses the pain created by war from a woman’s point of view, the point of view I understand best. It is my hope that the viewer will feel deeply, empathize, and be moved to action.
About the Artist
Holly Wong was born in 1971 in North Miami Beach, Florida and earned both her BFA and MFA degrees at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1993 and 1995 respectively. She currently lives in San Francisco, California where she has spent the past decade working as an artist with a focus on human rights issues. Her primary focus has been on the Iraq War, Palestinian issues, immigrant labor, the Rape of Nanking, and Comfort Women issues. She has been awarded visual arts grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial fund, the George Sugarman Foundation, the Puffin Foundation, and a Gerbode Foundation purchase award. Holly has also received a “Making a Difference for Women” award from Soroptimist International and a certificate of appreciation from the American Legion for her work regarding POW’s/MIA’s. She is a Presidential Scholar in the Arts and has had over 40 group exhibitions, 6 solo exhibitions, and her future exhibits include a two person show at the Community College of Southern Nevada in 2008. She has shown at the Smithsonian Institute of American Art, the Berkeley Art Museum, the University of San Francisco, the San Francisco Veterans War Memorial Building, City College of San Francisco, Roosevelt University, Boise State University, the University of Ohio at Mansfield, Jerusalem Fund Gallery, and Women Made Gallery Chicago. She has also contributed her artwork to non-profit organizations and political action groups such as the United Farm Workers Union, the Rape of Nanking Redress Coalition, and the Middle East Children’s Alliance. You may vist her online at www.artincontext.org/artist/w/holly_wong.