Social Justice

Human Dignity in the Face of Conflict

Photography, video and drawings tell stories of Indigenous Peoples and refugees.

When the images of the Syrian refugee crisis splashed across news and social media outlets two years ago, Kenneth Hartvigsen, curator of American Arts at BYU’s Museum of Art, recalls how, as a new father, the horror of those images hit home. Hartvigsen knew that he had to do something. Mark Magleby, director of the BYU Museum of Art, agreed.

“We felt strongly that we had to be part of a conversation. We couldn’t just sit here and not be,” said Magleby on a recent tour of the museum’s three new special exhibits, which focus on Indigenous Peoples and refugee stories.

“We knew that this show would be an opportunity to be a part of an important worldwide discussion,” adds Hartvigsen, “but I don’t think we could have imagined that these three shows would ever have the resonance that they have today.”

These special exhibits at BYU’s Museum of Art find diverse ways to approach the subject of people and conflict—through photography, video and drawings.

Albanian Stories, two short films by video and performance artist Adrian Paci (himself a refugee who fled Albania during the country’s civil war in 1997) focus on the themes of separation and nostalgia. In one heart-wrenching video, Paci films his own daughter as she tells a traditional folktale about farm animals, inserting her own twist into the tale, the entrance of international troops.

The triptych Refugee Trilogy, by artist Rick Shaefer, brings the stories of refugees and immigrants to life through three enormous charcoal drawings. The works, created in the style of Baroque paintings, remind us of the long history of human tragedy.

And a selection of photographs from Dana Gluckstein, DIGNITY: Tribes in Transition, speaks in support of Indigenous Peoples and their ways of life.

The images in the Gluckstein exhibit come from a much larger body of work that the artist created over 25 years. In 2010 the DIGNITY book was published to celebrate Amnesty International’s 50th anniversary. Well before she began compiling these black and white images, Gluckstein was a celebrity and advertising photographer. But her art took on new purpose when one day, decades ago, while traveling through Kenya, she was approached by a beautiful young man in a marketplace. “He asked if I would take his picture,” recalls Gluckstein of the close-up, black-and-white portrait which is part of the BYU exhibit. “He still had his tribal marking on his forehead. He was not living with his tribe anymore, nor was he in the city, but just in this limbo land. On some level he knew this image would speak to many people.”

That event sparked something for Gluckstein and every couple of years since, on her own dime, she has taken a pilgrimage to special places to meet special people. On these travels with her camera she falls in love with not only the people, the individuals, but with what is behind them —their traditions, their dignity. The DIGNITY coffee table book with a forward written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (whom she photographed the year prior) and an introduction by Faithkeeper Oren Lyons was a call to action for the U.S. to adopt the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—and, some say, it created the tipping point for that to happen.

While the news can overwhelm us and even dull our instincts towards empathy and compassion, art and the stories we tell through art can reconnect us. At least that’s the hope for curator Kenneth Hartvigsen, that we can rediscover our shared humanity.

“We’re in big danger,” says Hartvigsen, “when we lose sight of the personal experiences that really make up these international tragedies.”

See these special exhibits DIGNITY: Tribes in Transition, Albanian Stories and Refugee Trilogy at BYU’s Museum Of Art now through September 29. Located on the BYU’s Campus Dr. Open Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday. Admission is free. moa.byu.edu