Gloria Orenstein Links
THE ARTIST AS VISIONARY: BETTY LADUKE’S AFRICAN SAFARIS OF PEACE
By Gloria F. Orenstein Prof. Comp. Lit. & Gender Studies University of Southern California Los Angeles, CA.
Betty LaDuke has played a unique role in the contemporary American women’s art movement. Not only has she created a stunning and inspiring body of visionary art that interprets the realities and dreams of women in a diveristy of cultures worldwide, but she has also visited international women artists in Thailand, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Borneo; Latin America-- Chile, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba, Haiti, Grenada, the San Blas Islands, Ecuador; Africa—Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Egypt, Morocco, Togo, Burkino Faso, and Benin---has interviewed them, and documented their lives and works in many photos, books, and videos as well as in her own sketches paintings. Her extensive exploration of the creativity of women artists around the world has enriched our knowledge and understanding of the differences and commonalities in our struggles and apsirations so that now a true international friendship has begun to develop above and beyond the many borders and barriers that have separated us from our sisters in the past. Through her important work as an artisit-activist, Betty LaDuke has launched a series of multi-cultural exchanges that are guided by the clairvoyance of an artist’s intuition in her interpretation of a culture’s political and spiritual expressions.
Recently I viewed Betty’s video ERITREAN ARTISTS IN WAR AND PEACE, which presents the artistic development and work of Eritrean artists, both women and men, whom she has visited and revisited on numerous occasions both in their resistance struggle and in liberation. In the video we learn of how a Culture Unit was formed in the base camp of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front during their thirty year war for emancipation from Ethiopia (1961—1991). Here twenty-eight fighters were selected and trained as artists in the midst of the war zone. These are the artist-fighters to whom we are introduced in her pioneering documentary film. In the Eritrean war for Liberation between 30 and 40% of the fighters were women, and in the film, the artist, Elsa Jacob tells us of the heroic women fighters she celebrates in her art , which depicts the many powerful women who carried grenades, fought on the frontlines, and risked their lives for freedom. The Eritrean artists we meet in the film made art as well as political posters, and created works that conveyed important messages as they documented the suffering, struggle, and survival of their families and friends. They also created images of the hope inspired by the literacy campaigns and the schools for children that they inaugurated in the war zone. They painted both tanks and camels, for camels, like fighters, are important in war. They carry food and supplies for the soldiers. Other works focused on the lives of children during wartime, as the children represent the hope for the continuation of their people and their culture. These powerful, poignant works of art depict the cries of anguish of those who have lost loved ones, as well as the joys of those who lived to see the liberation of Eritrea . LaDuke documents the wide range of subject matter touched on in the works of painters, sculptors, and muralists for whom art was one of the important munitions employed in the struggle for peace.
Betty LaDuke has returned to Eritrea on numerous occasions. She first went there to write a book based upon her interviews with the artist-fighters whose creativity had captivated her interest.1 While interacting on a personal level -- sharing her life and art with the lives and art of the families of Eritrea’s proud resistance warriors, LaDuke literally fell in love with the country, its people, its land, its culture, its spirituality and its politics of liberation. In 1995 she was invited by the Ministry of Education and Culture to do an art workshop with the artist-fighters and art teachers-in-training. She taught at the Asmara School of Art, and also made numerous sketches documenting her personal encounters and her many trips to the towns and villages, which are inhabited by people representing nine major ethnic groups. Betty brought back copies of art works done by the Eritrean students in her workshop to share with the students she taught at Southern Oregon State University. She was also inspired by her journeys to create a unique and diverse body of her own work based upon the themes that caught her artistic imagination, ranging from basket weaving and working the land to refugee camps, and from wedding celebrations to the mythic symbolism of the Tree of Life and the Dreams of Peace of the Grandmothers. As a form of international exchange, Betty LaDuke’s compassionate and tender x-ray vision, which we find in her own paintings, introduces us to the many ways we can begin to read the aspirations, dreams, hopes, strength, and determination of a people foreign to us, as we learn to see into their hearts, their minds, and their creative imaginations through the visual arts. For LaDuke, art can become an ambassador of cross-cultural communication and exchange beyond the language barrier. Her political and activist work demonstrates how the arts have the potential for becoming a multicultural journey that is at once a pilgrimage for peace and a plea for a politics of compassion--one that transmits an alternative vision depicting the reflowering of a culture through its creative art, despite the immense devastation wrought by continuous war. LaDuke is a storyteller in her art. She tells us visually the story of the interconnectedness of all things material and spiritual, visible and invisible. Her art is a visual force-field in defense of ecological balance and spiritual harmony. In this article of introduction to Betty LaDuke’s vast oeuvre, comprised of paintings, photographs, prints, sketches and works in a variety of media , I will concentrate on her most recent body of work, that based upon her numerous and recent journeys to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Beginning with works such as ERITREA/ETHIOPIA: WHERE HAVE ALL THE FATHERS GONE, and REFUGEES I and REFUGEES II, REFUGEE CAMP, (from 1999) I realized that by including both Eritrea and Ethiopia in her titles, LaDuke immediately raises our consciousness about how the problems arising from a long and difficult war, as well as the eternal dreams of peace, are experiences shared by the people in cultures on both sides of the conflict. WHERE HAVE ALL THE FATHERS GONE spoke to me on many levels. Here an ordinary woman is depicted in the image of the Madonna and Child. She is alone with her numerous children and surrounded by the other young people of her village, all of whom express deep sorrow in their eyes. Before them are the crosses marking the graves of the fathers whose lives were lost during the war, Above them are the angelic presences that their prayers for peace and protection have invoked. They have called upon Islamic, Jewish and Christian spiritual forces as depicted by the symbology of the star of David, the crosses ,and the crescent moon above their heads. Here an alternative Trinity is the one composed of the three faiths united by a common prayer for peace. I was moved by the evocation of the absentee fathers in the ways that the theme resonates for us in the west where fathers are also often absent but for a variety of different reasons. The image of the mother who is left alone to bear the burdens of continuing life at home is an empowered one in LaDuke’s artistic vision. It is the mother who is accompanied by what may be interpreted as archangels. La Duke teaches us to judge the power of a person not only by the material condition in which she may struggle and suffer, but almost more importantly, by understanding the spiritual dimensions of the person’s aura of protection, that is engendered by the steadfastness and integrity of one’s faith and the power of one’s prayers. This humble mother carries with her the vast energy of the Madonna emanating from the spiritual realms. She is a woman of great strength and spiritual power, a kind of power that is usually only perceived by clairvoyants, prophets and artists. However, through artworks like those of Betty LaDuke, we are expanding and enriching our visual understanding so that never again will we be able to look upon the image of a poor or abandoned mother and child without comprehending that she is an incarnation of the Madonna, that she is accompanied by vast dimensions of spiritual power, and that she is guided by divine presences, who manifest in answer to her prayers. About ERITREA, AFRICA: REFUGEES I and II (1999) LaDuke has written: “Refugees fleeing from the rage of war, leave everything behind except their memories.” These two works have opened up the interiors of the heads/minds of the person whose internal mental portrait is painted so that we see how in REFUGEES I the face has profiles facing both to the left and to the right-- back into the past and forward into the future. The memories of the people in their homeland form the central substance of the mind, which, although preoccupied by the suffering and prayers of people in the present, lives in an eternal space-time contiuum with both the spirits of those who have passed over and of those who are yet to be born. These vast minds are inhabited by memories both personal and communal. Their insights never neglect the past—their history and ancestry, and always take into account the fate of future generations. REFUGEES II presents the portrait facing only towards the future. Within this mind, birds of peace co-exist with the memories of bretheren. The birds of peace loom like crosses above the spirit entities residing in the memory of the mind whose mental portrait suggests that those who are remembered may be both the spirits of the living as well as the spirits of the dead. Indeed, these paintings reveal to us the capacity of the mind to encompass the traces of people and events from multiple dimensions. Facing the future, this majestic head is greeted by more colorful birds of peace flying joyfully in freedom, suggesting that the joys of liberation are close at hand. ERITREA, AFRICA: REFUGEE CAMP (1999) depicts family clusters surrounded by halos of golden light. The entire camp’s population is set within a light-filled dome above which birds of peace are dancing. In all of these refugee paintings, once again, the light-filled auras that surround the people are so intense as to make the image one suggesting that the answer to their prayers for salvation may indeed be imminent. Their soulful eyes fixed upon the heavens express the intensity of their spiritual beliefs. AFRICA: ERITREA, MANDALA FOR PEACE 1997 is an image for meditation, as are all mandalas. What we are given to meditate on is the image of a woman with three faces. Like a Triple Goddess, the three faces of this woman who, for LaDuke, symbolizes Eritrea, represent the cycles of life and time reaching from the past through the present into the future. Coursing through the body of this mythic Eritrean Mother Goddess figure are animals, plants, and humans. The bronchies of her lungs, which could have represented the asphyxiation caused by war, are instead depicted in the image of the bird-branches of a Tree of Life . Her strong thighs are filled with the spirits of people of the future, who are, themselves, the stems of branches of a life-force that radiates out from the heart-shaped sexual center of the Great Mother. New beings also flow through Mother/Eritrea’s hands, metamorphosing into a spirit-bird (prayer for peace), who bears the hope for Her progeny within its spirit-body. ERITREA: TREE OF LIFE (1996) is a mythic, symbolic depiction of the generations of Eritreans, whose lineages form the roots, trunk and branches of a people’s destiny—one that is embraced by a holistic, cosmic vision in which a bird (of paradise)/deity/peace-dreamer enfolds in its wide embrace the floating spirits of the ancestors, the newly conceived beings that are just thoughts in the mind of the Great Mother, the lineages in the present population, and all the seeds of future life to come . For me, Betty LaDuke’s African series is prayer for peace in the form of art. This is most poetically rendered in ERITREA-ETHIOPIA, PRAYERS FOR PEACE (1998). Here once more the prayers and the anguish are shared by parties on both sides of the war. The central tableau is THE ST. MARY ALTAR. Mary is an Ethiopian or Eritrean Great Mother, a divine radiance , who, with her child, brings hope for cultural continuity and future rebirth. The main tableau is flanked on each side by two smaller paintings with legions of angels streaming down from the spirit world to bring blessings to the prayerful people, some of whom are lamenting, some suffering in silence, and some so overcome by their pain that they seem to be oblivious of the multidimensionality of their protection from the angelic and cherubinic realms surrounding them. However,on the extreme right, which represents the future in all of LaDuke’s work, a woman whose body bears a Tree of Life with birds of peace is raising her hands upwards to both transmit and receive the blessings of the angeleic hosts who spiral forth into the universe. In 1996 LaDuke painted ERITREA: RERSHAPING THE LAND. This work and 1997’s SAHO BASKET WEAVERS express aspects of what we often refer to as an animistic vision. In each of these paintings, as in so many of her other works, the spirits of the earth are depicted metaphorically as beings, so that we may understand quite literally that the grass is a living entity with an intelligence of its own, and that the earth-work done by the woman is a form of communion between the spirit beings that flow through and above her body with the spirits of the earth. Similarly, in SAHO BASKET WEAVERS, the threads with which the baskets are woven are depicted as long strands that are living, animistic spirit beings. Thus, we come to understand that these baskets, when completed, are alive—living receptacles for sacred objects. They are spirit baskets, and they embody both the spirits of their creators as well as the spirits of the organic materials with which they were woven. In 2000 La Duke’s painting, ERITREA-ETHIOPIA, GRANDMOTHERS DREAMING PEACE (1999) was exhibited in the UNIFEM, (United Nations Women’s Development Fund), Women’s International Art Exhibit ,“Progress of The World’s Women” at the United Nations, and will remain permanently on exhibit at UNIFEM. The grandmothers in this painting seem extremely worried. Their eyes express deep concern, and appear to pose an interrogation not only about the fate of the future of their culture, but also about the fate of all life on the planet. Their expressions are vastly different from those on the faces of the women in ERITREA: WOMEN CELEBRATE. Here the women are making music, and clapping to the the beat of the drums and the rhythms of the life-force. It is through music and the arts that hope is restored to their souls, and that joy can return to their hearts. With music, dance, and art integrated into their cosmic communion with nature and deity, the women can actually dream of peace with an affirmative, uplifted spirit. The Grandmothers Dreaming Peace, on the other hand, have witnessed so much suffering that their dreams of peace feel very precarious. Conceived of as Women of Wisdom , one can see in WOMEN CELEBRATE how the members of the community look up to their female elders to set the emotional tone of the day—whether it be one of joy, as in this painting, or of concern, as in Grandmothers Dreaming Peace. Betty LaDuke’s studio is in Ashland, Oregon. When I visited her studio I was overwhelmed by the vibrancy of her colors. Although I have seen her works reproduced in various publications as well as in the book I wrote about them2, I have never seen a reproduction that can capture the luminosity of the energy emanating from the colors in these large paintings. Indeed, occasionally one has the impression that the entire studio is vibrating from the intensity of the colors of her palette. A visit to her studio or to an exhibition of her work immerses one in a unique stream of pulsating multi-colored light. Her works bring this light into the world, charging the environment with an artistic aura that surely possesses healing energies. La Duke’s earliest artistic influences came from her first art teachers, Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett, who inspired her interest in issues of cultural diversity. In the fifties (1953—56) she studied art in Mexico on a scholarship from the Instituto Allende in San Miguel, where she was soon recognized as one of the more talented artists in Mexico’s younger generation. While in Mexico she lived with the Otomi indians, and was deeply influenced by their concern for the preservation of their cultural heritage. La Duke has retired from her teaching position in the Art Department of Southern Oregon State University, and now spends full time painting, traveling and writing , as well as participating in activist projects on behalf of women and Third World peoples. She is the mother of Winona LaDuke, who, this year, ran for Vice President of the United States along with Presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, on the Green Party ticket.
Once we have encountered Betty LaDuke’s art and recognized that its two modes (let us call them the “surreal” and the “political”) are inextricably intertwined, we can never again think of art as being divorced from politics. Nor can we engage in political action without noticing that beauty and poetry, like food and shelter, are basic human needs. LaDuke’s artistic vision, her mythic journeys, her personal pilgrimages, and her activist projects enhance our understanding of the multidimensional complexity of the many worlds in which the human soul lives, dreams, strives, works and creates.