Video: African artists in New England create art in response to the violence in their homelands

Jody Feinberg

From a distance, the white bed is inviting, with its turned-down covers sprinkled with flower petals. Look closer, though, and you see that South African artist Ilona Anderson has embroidered the pillow case with a gun and floral holster and even pierced one with a bullet hole.

The intrusion of violence into daily life is a theme that connects the works in the exhibit"Reflections in Exile: Five Contemporary African Artists Respond to Social Injustice,'' which runs  through May 11 at South Shore Art Center in Cohasset.

"This very common domestic object juxtaposes life and death and recalls the high level of violence in South African society,'' said co-curator Edmund Barry Gaither of Anderson’s ``Forced Removal.'' ``In every society that has been repressed, there is violence.''

The show also features painting, installation art, graphic design and video by Khalid Kodi of Sudan, Chaz Maviyane-Davies of Zimbabwe and  Salem Mekuria and Ezra Wube, both of Ethiopia. In each work of art, the artists are responding to the poverty, displacement, political repression, fighting and, in the worst cases, rape and genocide of people in their homelands.

"The artists humanize these places,'' said Abington artist Candice Smith Corby, who is co-curator of the exhibit.

"We hear horrible stories, but they seem abstract. When you see the art, you have an experience that links you to the actual place.''

By using universal objects like the bed and clothing, the artists seem to emphasize the connection between the viewer and the victims.

In "Violence Inscribed,'' Khalid Kodi, an internationally known artist from Sudan, turns an ordinary clothesline strung with crusty, dirty clothes into an image of the torture and murder of his countrymen and women. Behind a torn colorful woman’s dress and a child’s T-shirt hangs an undamaged patterned shawl, an image of the vibrancy that has been lost.

On the wall commentary, Kodi wrote, "Violence and sadness are etched onto these garments forever. Will life ever be the same again?  ...  For violence has been inscribed into our collective consciousness and memory.''

The installment is dedicated to a woman from Darfur whose six children were killed by the Janjawid militias.

Chaz Maviyane-Davies, a professor of design at Massachusetts College of Art who left Zimbabwe eight years ago, has created a series of ink jet print bold posters  that are overtly political. The abuse of power is expressed by a military jacket festooned with medals of tiny skulls in  "Medals of Dishonor.''  In "Our Fear,'' intense eyes look out beneath a red beret emblazoned with two guns. The black text reads: "Use your vote and be counted. Our fear is their best weapon.''

"They’re alarming images and you can’t deny what he’s trying to say,'' said Corby, who also directs the Cushing-Martin Gallery at Stonehill College.

"Any time you use a human face it’s like looking into a mirror. He’s urging you to take a stand. The artists can’t sit quietly and let these things happen without people finding out about them.''

In his oil painting ``Exodus,'' Ezra Wube depicts masses of people moving back and forth, facing in different directions, as though they are searching for safety. Wube, who came from Ethiopia to study at Mass College of Art, paints with warm reds, oranges and golds and conveys a vitality and beauty despite the suffering.

Filmmaker Salem Mekuria of Ethiopia presents ``Ruptures: A Many Sided Story'' as a triptych, a reference to the Ethiopian Orthodox religion. Through old footage and recent images that run simultaneously on three screens, you sense the complexity of history and society in Ethiopia.  After escaping colonialism, Ethiopia experienced the overthrow of an emperor, famine, imposition of a Marxist-Leninist state, and war with a separatist movement.

"There’s an endless variety of themes.  ...  It’s a comment on urbanization in every big capital in the developing world,'' said Gaither, who also is director of  The Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston, where the exhibit will run June 1 to July 27.

In Mekuria’s most recent images, women dig through clothing in a mass grave, looking for their disappeared loved ones, and women dig again through a massive dump, looking for anything to sell or eat. A single woman, with her face turned away from the camera, talks about the devastation and shame of AIDS; another woman speaks of looking for her murdered son. ``Ruptures’ is a portrait that is both intimate and disturbing.

An associate professor of art at Wellesley College who has received  many fellowships and awards, Mekuria returns to Ethiopia twice a year to continue documenting the lives of fellow Ethiopians.

"I don’t want to tell people what to think,'' she said. ``I present images so that they will respond and want to find out more.''

Reflections in Exile: Five Contemporary African Artists Respond to Social Injustice  at the South Shore Art Center, 119 Ripley Road, Cohasset, through May 11. Admission is free. Artists will participate in a free panel discussion at 2 p.m. April 13. For information, call 781-383-2787 or go to