Immigrant Survivors of Torture Share Their Stories Through Art

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IMG_8383LIRS and the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC) recently organized a collaborative activity for survivors of torture in the Washington, D.C. area. The April 17-19 event, “Our Journey: Survivor Empowerment Project,” brought together a dozen survivors of torture to engage in art as a way to share their narratives. By sharing, they began the healing process, gaining the opportunity to remember and control the often painful memories associated with their journeys to the United States, an important step in finding empowerment and closure.

The goal of the workshop was to create a chronological narrative of each participant’s journey from their country of origin to the present day. Participants used drawing to focus on and help remember details of the events surrounding their experiences with torture and/or detainment.  Each person began by drawing a single timeline to record their journey, from one end of the page to the other. The quality and shape of this line reflected their emotions during their journey. Color and collage elements were then added to further clarify the emotional content and details of events. Finally, these “emotion maps” were bound into accordion books, and afterwards each participant described what was going on in their artwork, verbalizing as much of their journey as they were ready to share with the group.

When sharing her artwork, one young woman pointed to a black dot and said that “Here is a great sadness. I don’t want to talk about it…” While there were some things that they were not yet able to talk about, they all agreed that the expression through drawings and color helped them to express the pain that has no words.

One survivor said: “I painted [my country] red. I wish I hadn’t it. But that is how I feel.” He then explained the imagery of a monster laid over his homeland, “My back is to the monster. There is a chain, but it is broken. Sometimes I feel like it’s pulling me back, but I am trying to put it behind me.”

Another man said that his ideas are free and “spiraling out of my head,” but that he is always looking back home. In fact, all of the survivors talked about family members who were left behind. Most of the survivors had no family or friends when they came to the Unites States and have come together as family to provide support and friendship. One of the enduring messages from the art is a call for comprehensive immigration reform to promote family unity and stop the cruel separation of family that creates isolation rather than healing.

The artwork developed by the survivors and others in attendance will be publicly displayed at two venues over the next two months.  On May 10, “Our Journey” will open at the Pinebox Art Center in Southeast Baltimore, with a reception from 7-9:30 p.m. The Walters Art Museum will also be displaying the exhibit on World Refugee Day. With an expected audience of nearly 1,500 at the Walters, we hope the experiences of the survivors reach out well beyond the walls of the museum and into the community, educating the public on the atrocities still occurring in our world.

LIRS and TASSC would like to send a special thank you to Baltimore artist and illustrator Peggy Fussell for her leadership, creativity, and dedication to seeing this project through to fruition.

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