Artists were once the primary commentators of human evolution, existence and history. Nowadays we very rarely consult them for their opinions on the changing world or politics, but they still remain a formidable vehicle of social observation, documenting and preserving the calamities, follies and peculiarities of life.
Rice N Peas caught up with UK artist Helen Wilson in a bid to discover her conceptions of art, her inspirations, and her motivations for translating the pain and suffering of survivors of the 1994 Rwanda genocide to canvas.
What is art and how would you define what you do?
Everyone has his or her own definition of art, but for me, art is a communication tool that enables me to paint a story that manages to engage a response or emotion from the viewer. I am a painter, using oils as my medium; I love the smell and the feel of the paint. My works tends to be large scale (the painting that I am currently working on is 40 feet) as I feel this gives me greater freedom and energy. An example of this was when I painted a woman from Rwanda; she had survived the 1994 genocide, although she’d been raped and most of her family murdered. She asked me to paint her picture large, so that we could never forget what happened to her and the people of Rwanda; this made me think that there is power in size, not only for the viewer, but also for the sitter. My motivation to paint comes from anger, frustration and pain, but I am always driven by a deep passion to communicate the people or person’s story in a way that the audience can engage with.
What are your inspirations?
Personally and creatively, people who have survived against great odds and managed to live their lives without bitterness and anger inspire me. I also believe that people who show strength in spirit and mind and who are not afraid to challenge, confront, or question the powers that be should be an inspiration to us all. Finding beauty from tragedy and despair is a prominent theme in my work. This has become most prominent in my work from Rwanda, Africa. Since my return, Africa has always stayed close to me, influencing the way I paint. The memories of the smells, sounds, colours and, of course, the people, continually remind me of why I want to paint about this beautiful country. I believe that in the Western world, we have so much we could learn from the culture and complexities of the African people. My children will always inspire me as I feel they are looking for answers that the education system in this country has failed to give them and they look to other sources for knowledge; it is my responsibility to guide them in the right direction.
Do you believe your femininity and ethnicity bear any influence on your aesthetic vision?
Without a doubt, my femininity influenced the aesthetic vision for the Making Sense a Rwandan Story exhibition (12 oil on canvas paintings). The majority of people I painted were women and I would say approximately 80% of the women had been raped and, in some cases, had been deliberately infected with AIDS. I know that most of the women would not have been able to open up to me in the same way, perhaps, and trust me with their stories, if I had been a man. As far as my other work is concerned, my femininity has no context to my work, but my ethnicity obviously has and always will always influence my aesthetic vision as I am a Black woman and my work is issue-based.
As a black artist, where do you see the current status of black British art, artists and cultural expression?
It’s good to see more black artists winning the Turner Prize, but if you ask the black general public to name three black British artists, you will be hard pushed to get at least one name. It saddens me to see that there just aren’t enough black British artists being allowed (or given the opportunity) to exhibit in the main big galleries throughout the country. As a black artist, I have experienced the deep snobbery and racism that can exist in the art world. Unless you are incredibly focused and lucky enough to have good people there to encourage you, it can be very difficult for you to succeed. Of course there are some black artists who are getting the funds. They seem to be able to tick the right boxes and manage to understand the complex art language that manages to disable many talented and truly gifted black artists. Being a black working class mother of two children and living in Easton, Bristol (an inner-city area) hasn’t stopped me from painting. My passion and ability to produce paintings will never go as I have no hidden agenda and refuse to jump through hoops, kiss ass, or attend the right dinner parties in order to exhibit my work.
What attracted you to Rwanda and what do you believe you have achieved with your portrayals?
A desire to learn more about what happened in Rwanda led me to travel there by myself in 2002 to meet survivors and to visit genocide sites. My visit inspired a series of 13 new paintings which now belong to the Embassy of Rwanda, London, and will be on permanent display once the Embassy has completed the renovation work on the building.
My story began with an image I saw on television in 1994. It was a children’s news programme and only lasted a few seconds. The image was of thousands of people fleeing a country called Rwanda, a place I had never heard of before. I thought the newsreader said something about 18,000 people disappearing; I didn’t quite catch the number. I found it hard to believe that so many people could suddenly disappear without someone questioning what was going on in that country.
At the time I was a single mum living in Bristol with my two young boys living on income support. I didn’t have any money and I was feeling desperate, but that image stayed with me. I couldn’t get it out of my head. The next day, I went to the library to find out more about Rwanda. I discovered that, in fact, it was 800,000 people who had fled for their lives and they had disappeared (I later found out that they never made it out of Rwanda and were brutally murdered). The magnitude of the tragedy hit me then. I was appalled and ashamed that such a thing could be allowed to happen. I couldn’t understand why more people hadn’t noticed what was going on and why someone hadn’t intervened to stop the genocide.
From that moment on, making sense of what happened in Rwanda became a driving passion in my life and the focus of my artwork. Although I was still developing my skills as an artist, I now had a clear mission guiding my work. It led to me creating my first ever painting using oils; the painting is called Rwanda Road Rage.
Trying to make sense of what happened in Rwanda has been at the heart of my work for over a decade. I’ve wanted to express through the paintings as much as possible about Rwanda as it is today: the beauty and the tragedy, and the dignity and grace of its people in the aftermath of the genocide. I am not a politician or a journalist, but I can and will paint; this is my communication tool. I want to represent what I saw clearly and accurately, to offer understanding and hope.
Your Rwandan works have been purchased by the Rwandan government and now hang in their consular office. Has this inspired you to perhaps document and eternalise other social conflicts?
I gave the Embassy of Rwanda all the Making Sense paintings as a gift and although I was offered £10,000 for one of the paintings from an organisation, I didn’t like or trust the man who would have dealt with the sale of the paintings and I felt that it would be spiritually wrong to obtain money for the paintings. I wanted to give something back to Rwanda as I have witnessed plenty of people taking from this country, but giving nothing in return. The Making Sense exhibition was first exhibited at the Bristol Museum of Art and then went on to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It was more recently (January 2006) exhibited at the Barge House Gallery in London, where I was approached by many people who wanted to tell me their stories of surviving conflict, war, genocide, and other social conflicts. Making Sense seemed to allow people to approach me with very personal, truly horrific, life-changing experiences that needed to be in the open. Unfortunately I can not paint for everyone, but I am very aware of the social conflicts in Africa and am doing my own research for future work. I believe that we as artists need to also look more closely at our own country; the ethnic profiling that is currently sweeping the Western World is frightening. Alarm bells are ringing for the way our ever-prying “Nanny State” is heading.
What are you working on now and what are you trying to convey with the works?
I am currently working on a 40-foot painting based on Bristol’s involvement with its slave history. My painting will be telling the story of Bristol’s slave trade history through the eyes of the non-academics (see www.electricpavilion.org/bristolslavetrade). I am very blessed to be working with Kate Broom (film producer and director) and Mike Fox (award-winning cameraman) who will be making a film about the process. I will also be working with Lawrence Hoo, poet and artist. The painting will consist of many layers showing the complexity of Bristol’s slave trade past and recognising that Africa (before the slave trade) was a successful, prosperous, and beautiful continent. Bristol has a large BME community. The painting will show the social and political change and the effects that racism has had on the BME people of Bristol. The work will be completed in 2008.