Photo by Alex Gunn showing graffiti art by refugees in the Zaatari Refugee Camp. By Michael Murphy Staff Writer
In 2011, the Syrian Civil War placed refugees on the global stage. Amid al-Assad’s barrel bombs, The Syrian Refugee Crisis was born. Videos depicting thousands of people fleeing their homes filled the airwaves. It wasn’t the first case of forced displacement, but European countries reeled from the sudden surge of humanitarian need all the same, with each country giving a kneejerk reaction on how to handle the hundreds of thousands of newcomers fleeing violence. Meanwhile, millions fled to neighboring countries–Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan—each already struggling with the refugees of the wars in the previous century. Before long, attention turned to North Africa. Images of rubber boats filled to the brim with desperate souls being tossed on the waves of the Mediterranean became unavoidable. Finally, in 2015, the image of Alan Kurdi, a young boy whose body lay on the beach after having drowned on the journey from Turkey to Europe, drew virulent international outrage.
This April, Rwandans mourned the 25th anniversary of the country’s genocide. As part of the larger Rwandan civil war, the genocide itself lasted 100 days and resulted in the murders of almost 1,000,000 Rwandans, constituting 70% of the country’s Tutsi population. The genocide proved to be a highly organized and systematic process of ethnic extermination. For 100 days, the world stood by silently and the international community failed to establish peace.
25 years later, Rwanda is on a better path. After the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) seized the capital and effectively ended the genocide and civil war in 1994, a national government was installed under the leadership of the RPF. For 20 of the past 25 years, rebel leader-turned-president Paul Kagame has been leading Rwanda’s political reform. Despite being under the leadership of a multi-term president who has been known to be one of the most merciless in Africa, Rwanda seems to be prospering. The country is also healing from its past, as it is successfully achieving economic and social development.
As a result of the country’s trauma, art has emerged as a unique factor in the healing process. Rwanda’s Ubumuntu Arts Festival was established in 2015 with the mission of promoting civic dialogue through the arts. Essentially, the festival seeks to promote the nation’s healing by fostering participation from global artists and local citizens. A participant of Rwanda’s Ubumuntu Arts Festival affirmed, “‘When language fails us, art expresses what we feel.’” When there are few words to describe the horrors of genocide, the community turns to art as a means of conveying their deepest, unfiltered emotions.
Art is crucial to keeping the memory of the past alive. Through artistic expression, stories and experiences are told and retold so that the world does not forget the gravity of the events that occurred 25 years ago. In this way, art sheds a light on the darkness of tragedy and perpetuates those memories while also allowing healing. It is both a remembrance of the victims as well as a haunting reminder of the reality and persisting threat of horrendous war crimes.
In the years since the Rwandan genocide, the United Nations (U.N.) has created the Office on the Prevention of Genocide to protect citizens of a nation when their government fails to do so. This U.N. office attempts to raise awareness by providing the definitions of war crimes as well as prevention and response methods. In 2012, the United States created its own interagency board that emphasizes war crimes as its highest concern.
This April also marks the 27th anniversary of the Siege of Sarajevo, which signaled the beginning of the Bosnian War. Like Rwanda, the war itself is considered an international peace-keeping failure, as the conflict was marred by numerous war crimes and human rights abuses. Most notably, however, was the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. The massacre was one of the worst atrocities witnessed on European soil since World War Two, with more than 8,000 ethnic Bosniak Muslims killed in what was supposed to be a U.N. safe zone. But it all began in Sarajevo.
At the start of the Siege, Sarajevo was bombarded by mortar shells and other artillery fire. As a result, the mortars left behind countless craters. Today, 200 mortar scars on city roads have been maintained, filled with resin, and preserved. The Sarajevo Roses are Bosnia’s unique memorials in remembrance to the Siege and the subsequent war that engulfed the country. Scattered throughout the city streets and sidewalks, the Roses seem to mimic intrusive weeds that sprout out of the cracks in the pavement. They serve as a constant reminder—to pedestrians and on-lookers—that merely 27 years ago, the city was besieged by mortar fire and reduced to rubble.
One does not have to walk through a museum or a national monument to pay respect to the war—the Roses are ever-present beneath pedestrians’ feet. Because of the numerous craters throughout the city, it becomes difficult to forget what caused them. To international observers, the Roses should not only signify the start of the Bosnian War, but also the inhumanities that continued well after the shelling of the capital. Though Sarajevo has since transformed itself into the economic hub of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Roses highlight that the wounds of past transgressions are still visible. We can attempt to heal them, but for the sake of the future, we can never forget.
Interestingly enough, the Cambodian Genocide and Armenian Genocide also commemorate their 44th and 104th anniversaries, respectively, in April. Similarly to Rwanda and Sarajevo, both the Cambodian and Armenian communities have used art to remember their victims and preserve the memory of past atrocities. Art is a powerful means of engaging with wounds from the past. It allows us to process our emotions in a creative manner, as not all feelings can be easily verbalized. The art of healing is two-fold; it reconciles the souls of survivors and begs remembrance from witnesses. Despite the horrors witnessed during war, countries have healed from their dark pasts through artistic expression and have also taken the global initiative to ensure that such atrocities are not committed again.
On a wall in Israel’s Haifa Museum of Art hangs a life-sized sculpture depicting Ronald McDonald crucified on a cross. While this kind of art is not shockingly unusual in Western society (consider the urine-soaked Piss Christ or the gigantic sex toy Tree), Christians in Israel have not responded well. In fact, the installation is so controversial that violent protests have erupted between hundreds of Arab Christians and police, accompanied by calls from both Christian leaders and Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sports to remove the sculpture. However, even amidst all of the negative press, the provocative McJesus bears testament to the dangerous entanglement between religion and art.
The artwork, created by Finnish artist Jani Leinonen, was originally meant to be a criticism of society’s obsession with consumerism. NPR clarifies that the exhibition that displays McJesus:
employ[s] religious symbols to criticize the encroachment of the consumer culture on our lives in general, and on the religious sphere in particular. . . The artists also criticize the way religions use consumer values and practices in order to prosper in the contemporary reality.
For all intents and purposes, McJesus takes a stab at capitalism and materialism. Specifically, McDonalds represents a larger-than-life corporation that has permeated popular culture. McDonalds has become synonymous with Americanization and has expanded to over 100 countries. In this context, it can be said that McDonalds has conquered most of the world the same way Christianity has. But Leinonen’s work merely uses a crucified Ronald McDonald as a medium; he could have easily used Mickey Mouse or Captain America instead. The debate of McJesus extends deeper than just the union of art and religion—the work forces a discussion of deeply held values and the influence of consumerism in our lives.
McJesus was installed in Haifa in August 2018, with the Washington Post claiming that more than 30,000 have viewed the artwork since then. Museum director Nissim Tal has said that the installation has been displayed in other countries without any incidents. So why are the protests unique to Israel?
Christians in Israel make up just 2% of the country’s population. The fact that the artwork has been displayed for five months before protests broke out suggest that complaints have gone unanswered and official responses have been slow from predominantly Jewish politicians. And while some believe that Israel is not a Christians-friendly country, it is worthwhile to consider the cultural context of Israel’s dilemma with provocative art. As stated above, Christians are the clear minority in a Jewish country, which itself exists in a primarily Muslim region. As an adviser to the Assembly of Catholic Bishops in the Holy Land explains: “We are Christians, and we are also part of a traditional Arab society where freedom of expression is relative. . . Every society needs to develop at its own pace. It is quite possible that in another 50 years, no one would care.”
So the backlash that McJesus faces is not without reason; it would be ludicrous to depict the Jewish or Muslim faiths in a similar satirical fashion. Yet because Leinonen himself is from Finland, it is more likely that he genuinely wanted to draw a comparison between the cult-like obsession of capitalism and religion, rather than offend Christians worldwide. With that said, the creation of the piece was possible through the Western principle of freedom of expression. Perhaps other Western societies are not as offended by Leinonen’s work because of the seeming self-evidence of this principle.
There are a few lessons to take away from the McJesus debacle. First of all, Leinonen’s artwork is not an object of reverence to the Christian faith—it is a satire of life itself. Both symbols depicted in Leinonen’s work cater to the masses: people indulge in cheap fast food the same way they indulge in pious soul-saving practices. Are people more faithful to consumer trends than their own religion? Secondly, it raises an important question on censorship and artistic expression. Are artists capable of creating provocative work that critiques our society? More importantly, are we—as consumers of both art and fast food—capable of accepting those works for what they are? These are necessary questions to consider when contemplating the clown on the cross.