Painter Judith Bemis' art speaks for war refugees in Ghana
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com
After visiting the Krisan Sanzule Refugee Camp near Takarati, Ghana, in 2002, painter and retired social worker Judith Bemis returned home feeling deeply moved and deeply disturbed at the same time. The experience inspired her to tell the refugees’ stories through her paintings and join other members of Dexter’s Webster United Church of Christ in a nearly decade-long commitment to aiding them.
The church's former pastor, Rev. LaVerne Gill, was inspired to assist the displaced individuals who had fled brutal wars and violence in a number of African countries, after traveling there with other African American pastors on a trip sponsored by the Africa Office of Global Ministries in 2001.
Webster Church members have been visiting the refugee camp and supporting the people living there in a number of ways since 2002. Pastor Gill’s fundraising savvy and “ability to inspire people to help,” raised $100,000 to build 11 borehole drinking wells at the Krisan Sanzule Refugee Camp and other sites, Bemis reports.
Bemis recently returned from her eighth trip to Ghana, where they celebrated the graduations of four students who were able to attend a polytechnic school in Takarati on scholarships set up by Webster Church members — they have supported or continue to support a total of 16 high school and vocational school students and contribute some monetary assistance and supplies to the camp.
However, not all of the news from the refugee camp is good. Bemis is very concerned by news that the NGO that manages the camp, under contract with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, is going to close the camp. She reports that they stopped food rations in January.
The approximately 1,350 individuals inhabiting the refugee camp fled from war and violence in a number of African countries — predominantly Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“These are a traumatized people. They’ve seen atrocities committed against themselves, their families, friends, houses, and livelihoods. Most of them are not in good shape psychologically, and then when you have no food to eat that doesn’t do your mind or your body much good,” Bemis explains.
“They are political refugees. They have nothing to go home to. They’ve lost most of their family members, they witnessed their houses being burned and their parents and families being murdered. There’s nothing to go back for, and it would be dangerous for a number of them to go back.”
One option that the refugees have is to integrate into Ghanaian culture. However, Bemis says that “they really aren’t welcome in Ghana because unemployment is high. Even though it has been a stable democracy for over 50 years, it’s still an impoverished country with a dramatic gap between the rich few and the many poor.
“The agonizing part is that there has been no official word about when the camp will close. If they only knew a date, they could be prepared and make appropriate plans. Right now, they are hanging out there in limbo knowing that ultimately they are going to have to move.”
Bemis decided to spend her retirement becoming a painter. She thought about getting an art degree when she was in college but ended up having a long career in social work. She has taken art classes at Birmingham - Bloomfield Art Center and Washtenaw Community College, exhibited a number of her works — which she creates in her studio space, Heartsease Studio — and she recently joined the Ann Arbor Women Artists.
After visiting the refugee camp for the first time, in 2002; “I was overwhelmed by the kind of poverty I saw in Africa and the stories of the refugees, which were all stories of trauma and pain. The injustice of it really hit me when I came back and saw all the affluence we take for granted as everyday American living. I was angry for about six months,” Bemis says.
She felt rather traumatized and found that painting was therapeutic. “I wasn’t painting because I wanted to be a great artist. I was painting because I wanted to tell their story,” Bemis says.
The painter's artworks are predominantly oil-painted portraits which depict people she knows or has read about in the news. Most of her paintings celebrate the humanity and individuality of refugees. Some reference events and people responsible for the refugees’ plight.
She is currently working on a large oil painting of scholarship student Emmanuel, who is now in his mid-twenties and “lost his parents when he was 6 when he got separated from them during the Liberian War.” After being abandoned by a few caretakers, he was completely on his own at the age of 15. Somehow, “he managed to get himself refugee status and come to camp as an unaccompanied minor. I think, if we can see him through advanced education — and I will make sure that happens — he is a potential leader for his country,” Bemis says.
Bemis’ paintings convey a lot of emotion, whether they depict gleeful children excited about their new drinking well— as in “Celebrating Clean Water” — or they capture “that empty, far away look, which is what trauma looks like,” — which is depicted on the face of a nursing mother in the center of her triptych “Faces of War.”
The central woman in “Faces of War” is paired with an image of Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, and an image of a child soldier the warlord drugged and forced into war.
Another painting depicts British artist Damien Hirst and the human skull that he embedded in millions of dollars worth of diamonds, which comments on the diamond wars.
For the most part, Bemis’ paintings champion the humanity of these refugees. For example, she has painted a series of portraits of “Isata,” a young girl who has “a heart-wrenching story,” she says. In a couple of the artworks, the girl’s portrait is surrounded by pen pal letters that tell her story. In another, she is shown with a golden halo encircling her head like a saint or an angel.
“I think these people have earned their sainthood,” Bemis says.
The future of Krisan Sanzule’s refugee population is uncertain, but Bemis and others remain committed to seeing the rest of their scholarship students through. Anyone inspired to learn more, help out, or give is welcome to contact her for more information at 734-994-8496
Judy Bemis’ art is currently included in the “Ann Arbor Women Artists Summer Juried Exhibit,” continuing at the Riverside Art Center in Ypsilanti through July 31.
Jennifer Eberbach is a free-lance writer who covers art for AnnArbor.com.