In “Refuge(e): Moments with the Darfuri of Iridimi,” an exhibit of photographs at Sherry Frumkin Gallery, Barbara Grover brings us images of people who have been through a traumatic existence. The troubles of the Darfuri of Sudan have been well-publicized, and previous exhibits have documented the actual fighting and devastation in that part of the world. Grover’s photographs, taken in a refugee camp that she visited in 2007, focus on the daily lives of the refugees and portray both their situation and a surprising sense of the relative quietude provided by the rituals of survival. Grover excels at capturing facial expressions, in close-up, that offer non-verbal communication in the best tradition of art portraits.
A child, “Miada,” flashes a big toothy grin. She is holding a black cloth behind her like a cape, her dress is yellow, adorned with a green flower print, and her outstretched arms express her sense of play and freedom. Children have their moments of sunshine, no matter what the circumstances.
Two more children are shown in “My Sister, My Self.” One child is hiding behind her older sister and also hiding her face behind her hand. The older girl faces the camera with confidence, a look of wonder and experience in her large eyes.
Another wonderful portrait, reproduced on souvenir post cards, is “Mother and Child.” It is the Darfuri version of the classic Madonna image, the mother in her vivid orange robe, holding a baby wrapped in pale blue, the mother’s expression is one of affection, the baby’s expression somehow preternaturally wise. The photo is uniquely off-center, with the subject on the left side, nothing but stone wall on the right.
“Waiting” is a portrait of an old man, seated, his hands folded on his lap, his face expressing the tiredness of many years of hard work, hoping, loss, and now, waiting for a chance to live without war and fear.
Grover uses the clothing and objects of the Darfuri in arranging the color palette of her photographs. There are many yellows, blues, reds, and greens that stand out. In shots taken in the desert, beige, tan, and brown dominate, as human figures take second place to the abstract tones of the landscape. “Journey Through the Liminal” sets a few traveling human figures in a golden swath of sand carried by the wind.
At the other end of the spectrum are photographs of Darfuri engaged in activities of improvement. A group of women and girls sitting and talking together is entitled “Empowerment.” Two men having a meal on the floor inside a tent is called “Restaurant Iridimi.” “On the Spot” and “School Days” show children at their studies.
One photograph, seemingly innocuous, has a serious social issue behind it. In “Collecting Firewood,” a young girl wears sunny yellow, with a blue head cloth, her expression a faint half-smile as she balances a bundle of wood on her head. Such chores are typical for the women and girls of Darfur.
The task of collecting wood is in fact, risky, as it necessitates women and girls having to leave the refugee camps, where they risk being attacked. A video presentation on “The Solar Cooker Project,” included in the exhibit, explains the Jewish World Watch’s project of providing solar cookers to camps such as Iridimi, to eliminate the need for firewood collection that puts women at risk. Proceeds from sales of Grover’s photographs will go to Jewish World Watch’s refugee projects, including “The Solar Cooker Project.”
The exhibit runs through January 11, 2009, at the Sherry Frumkin Gallery, Studio 21, 3026 Airport Avenue, 310.397.7493. More information about the Solar Cooker Project is available at jewishworldwatch.org.