Notes on an Exodus : an essay is a small book by Man Booker prize winning author Richard Flanagan, illustrated by Ben Quilty.
Flanagan and Quilty travelled to the Middle East and Europe with World Vision, visiting refugees in camps and on the road, who were escaping from the violence of their homes in Syria.
While described as “an essay” in its subtitle, the book is more a collection of brief written portraits of the people Flanagan and Quilty met on their journey.
People who had fled villages, towns and cities to escape either the day and night bombing by Assad supporting Russian planes, from the violence and oppression of Daesh (ISIS), or both.
People who had fled prosperous lives to live in makeshift tents constructed from recycled garbage.
People who once owned productive farms and orchards but now have to survive on meagre rations of bread and tea or scraps collected from the floors of vegetable shops. Where a family survives (barely) with the help of their nine year old son, working as a welder for $3 a day. who has half his weekly pay retained by his employer to ensure his return the following week.
These are the kind of stories that we in the west prefer not to know so we don’t have to see the refugees as REAL people with REAL lives who probably weren’t so different from other people we know. Individuals we can’t disguise and dehumanise as a “flood”.
Flanagan’s vignettes of people he met bring focus to the plight of millions who have been driven from their homes and homelands. They should stir similar feelings to those stirred by the photos of the small body of Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach that briefly moved the conscience of the world. But sadly they won’t. All too quickly our collective hearts have rehardened.
Suspicion and hostility against the flood have been restored.
What can I say about the imminent deaths of two former drug smugglers who have cleary turned their lives around since they were sentenced years ago?
Pastor Andrew Chan is one of two Australians whose execution in Indonesia is imminent. About 10 years ago Chan was found guilty of helping organise the export of heroin from Indonesia to Australia. He was found to be the leader of a group afterwards known as the Bali 9, who were picked up at the airport as they were about to board a plane to Australia, They all had significant amounts of heroin bound to their bodies.
Chan and a co-organiser Myuran Sukamaran were given the death penalty while the others had lengthy prison sentences.
Since that time Chan became a follower of Jesus and trained to be a Pastor to fellow inmates within the jail. Sukamaran turned to art and has been studying for a fine arts degree through an Australian university. Within the jail he has run art classes for current and former inmates.
There is absolutely no doubt that both men have turned their lives around and have become valuable assets to the jail that has been their home for a decade, helping to change the lives of other inmates just as they turned their own lives around.
But recently Indonesia changed its President and he’s been trying to show his authority by coming down hard on those found guilty of drug crimes – irrespective of any demonstrated rehabilitation.
Now after ten years, the new President has demanded that the 10 year old death sentences be carried out. It seems that will happen some time this week.
For more details of the current situation see the following:
Most of my time was taken up painting the one below, to which I’ve given the title “Prophet”. But I’m not happy with it. I quite like the colour and texture of the face, but not the features. Around the face I’ve included stencilled phrases from scripture, but I’m not happy with those I chose to include. They give the impression that the face represents Jesus Himself – but that was never the intention.
(this was photographed at an angle to catch the light on the stencilled words – the shape of the face therefore appears a little distorted.)
Until I decide what to do next, I’ll put this one aside and start to try something different.
I think the attempt at a portrait came about because I’ve recently seen a couple of documentaries about Ben Quilty, a young Australian artist who recently had a short stint as a war artist in Afghanistan. I’d seen him previously in some tributes to the late Margaret Olley whose portrait he had painted, winning him the Archibald Prize.
Quilty isn’t known for delicate and detailed work. He makes a lot of use of pallet knives to apply thick layers of paint squeezed not from tubes but from large cartridges more like a building product than an artist’s material. Even though he applies paint like a bricklayer applies mortar, the results have a detail capturing much more than the physical appearance of his subject. He somehow manages to capture their heart, their thoughts and their emotions.