This week marks five months since nearly 300 girls were kidnapped from a Nigerian boarding school, the majority of them are still missing
By MARY MIHELIC
US media response to the mass kidnapping was initially slow. Once journalists caught on, however, US news organizations reported non-stop on the Nigerian crisis. Social media campaigns were born with the creation of the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls as a way to get, and keep, the world’s attention on them until the girls could be brought home. And, some girls were able to return home. None of the girls have been rescued, but some have escaped the clutches of Boko Haram. The group claims the girls were kidnapped because they were receiving a “Western style” education, which Boko Haram opposes.
In the months following the kidnapping, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan hijacked the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, while media attention has tapered off significantly. We’ve returned to virtual radio silence about the majority of missing girls who remain captive.
As an artist I wanted to find a way to keep the spotlight on these girls until they can be rescued.
My current artworks were initially inspired by the courage of the 53 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in Nigeria who ran for their lives and hid in the landscape when their school was attacked by Boko Haram. They got away while all their classmates who did not run were kidnapped. The art is about that split-second decision when a person decides to run. It is as much about the experience of being human and feeling compassion for these girls as it is about feminism.
The artworks came about when I moved into a new studio space in Brooklyn. I started warming up the space by just putting large paper on the wall and making marks related to landscapes. Since Boko Haram had just kidnapped all those girls, I was thinking about my own experiences growing up and attending an all-girls high school. So I just started drawing girls in my high school uniform hiding in the landscape. When I was done, I stepped back and looked at what I had done. I was surprised to see that the landscape formed a large image of a girl running. My subconscious, or what some people may describe as some force greater than myself, created imagery on that paper telling me to make this series of Running Girls.
With this art I am juxtaposing a schoolgirl running for her life against the freedoms we enjoy in our culture as independent women being able to go for a run – and work – and have a family – and vote – and do anything we really want to. Some of the “running girl” artworks critique feminists themselves for not thinking globally enough about women’s issues. My “running girls” are asking us to do more. It is easy to call yourself a feminist and write a book like “Lean In” or “How to be a Woman.” It is much harder to ‘lean out’ into the world – and think about new ways to help women around the world.
In just one artwork, I can bring together so many of the issues that go along with trying to do something internationally for women. For example, in one of my drawings I show a running girl with a baseball for a breast and a skirt in the shape of home plate. She was made the week Mo’ne Davis was pitching in the Little League World Series (since Mo’ne is the same age as many of these girls and is not afraid to show boys what girls can do). The home plate is symbolic of homemakers and all those who have been displaced from their homes for religious reasons. The same drawing references Joan of Arc and has a sword hidden in it. This is a metaphor for having to hide one’s religious beliefs to survive; it also addresses the contemporary art world’s attitude towards religion. Mixed into the artwork are images of terrorists, girls hiding in the landscape, churches burning, running shoe treadmarks and more. It’s packed with everything that goes along with being a woman everywhere on the planet— from playing with boys to being killed by them.
Thinking about the international issues around feminism led me to the artwork I finished this past week. The problems are so overwhelming because there is so much evil involved. Since President Goodluck Jonathan has been in office, $13 billion dollars has disappeared from the government. He has waited months to take any action against the Boko Haram. The signs point to corruption inside the Nigerian government at every turn. This artwork plays with his name. Where the letter J stands for both Jesus and Jonathon (good and evil) and the text art Goodluck runs down a girls leg. It brings the political environment into the art.
Even with that J, I don’t think of my art as religious. I think of it as relevant, timely and contemporary. I am always surprised when I hear an art dealer comment that the art is too religious for them. My immediate reply is, “Have you read the newspapers lately? How can you get around it?” The last time a dealer told me that, I made the “I am explosive” artwork. This artwork referenced reports that Boko Haram was using some of the young girls as suicide bombers. But the text “I am” also alludes to the Biblical phrase “I am” as it relates to God and thus, religion being explosive. (It subtly hints to the art being too explosive for these dealers.) It references when women get angry and are labelled. And it’s about the explosive moment when the girls who escaped started running. In short, it’s about the entire world exploding over war disguised as religion.
It has been five months since the Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped. I have completed 20 of the 53 artworks so far; 53 being the number of girls who managed to escape in Chibok. No matter how much art I make though, I am humbled by the heroism of the real feminists who are all the young girls around the world risking their lives to get educated.
Mary Mihelic received her Masters of Fine Arts degree from Parsons the New School for Design in 2006. Since then, her artworks have been shown in New York City, Chicago, L.A., Key West, Vermont and D.C. Prior to getting her M.F.A., Mary studied art extensively at the Museum School in Boston and at the SMFA’s programs in Venice, Italy. Her studio is in Brooklyn. An excerpt from her artist statement reads, “In a time when people are leaving churches in record numbers and the historic relationship between religion and the art world has washed away, I make art about those things that bring us to our knees and humble us in 2014: the power of the ocean, the meltdown of a nuclear power plant, the courage of 53 school girls running for their lives…” She is fascinated by the way the imagination makes God a reality in the form of faith. This piece was originally published by The Broad Side.