I have just returned from a lengthy trip to Italy – my first time overseas. The best, and most concise way for me to describe my time is that is was overwhelming in the best possible sense. For the first time in my life, I experienced being a foreigner, although, with the privilege of a pretty ambiguous skin-tone, and while remaining in the western world. Baby steps. My level of comfort, nonetheless, was challenged to a degree to which I am quite unfamiliar with.
I had several different experiences in Italy, and it is going to take some time to digest them each individually and as a whole. I am just now getting settled back into things, having answered the necessary emails and returned the necessary phone calls (first things first). I am still a bit jet-lagged, having returned just a few days ago, with a layover in Paris of all places (on Tuesday afternoon). I am looking forward to slowly unpacking these experiences, which are already undoubtedly shaping me in ways not yet known to me.
The first leg of our trip was spent in Venice, with a group of some of the most brilliant and talented (Christian) artists and thinkers I have ever had the privilege of sitting in a room with (more on that later). As part of our time together, we visited over a hundred art installations at La Biennale. If you don’t know what La Biennale is – and I didn’t until about a month ago – it is pretty much the world’s largest art exhibition, which takes place every other year in Venice. I can’t imagine having exposure to such diverse artistic expressions and talents in any other arena…ever. It is quite extraordinary.
This week, upon our return, is feels as though the world is falling apart. The brutal and atrocious attacks in Beirut, Kenya, and Paris, leave one feeling helpless and hopeless, if they didn’t harbor those sentiments already. And, as if the attacks were not horrible enough, the response of the media, politicians, false-prophets, etc, is absolutely horrendous. I won’t share too many of my own thoughts on how horrible and scary it all is right now. It isn’t helpful, and further, I don’t actually have the words.
One of my largest takeaways from my time in Venice specifically, is the need to look to artists and poets in times of suffering and conflict – especially for people of faith and for worshiping communities. Attacks on humanity tear through to the core of us, and no liturgy, no sermon, no carefully crafted prayer – can fully express our grief, our viewpoints, our beliefs, our fears, our anger, our lament. That is, perhaps, why the illustration with the eiffel tower as a peace sign, by French illustrator Jean Jullien, has become such an icon, within hours really.
One of the installations at La Biennale that has stuck with me is titled “Urban Requiem,” which, according to the artist, “stands for the great cry of those who are suffering” (see image at top of page). The artist, Barthélémy Toguo, was born in Cameroon and now works out of Bandjoun as well as Paris. He used whole tree trunk rounds (which were displayed in front of the prints) to create wood block prints which spoke to injustices occurring around the globe. I found the installation quite powerful, and even prophetic.
One of the prints reads “Citizen of the World.” This feels very true to me today, especially upon returning from my first trip abroad, and especially after so much suffering has been inflicted on brothers and sisters across the globe. I am, of course, confused and angered that our hearts are not as broken for our 147 Kenyan brothers and sisters, mostly students of Garissa University, and our 43 Arab brothers and sisters in Beirut, as they are for our white, western brothers and sisters in France. I am disheartened that the media, who we rely on for news and information, exhibits prejudicial bias against those who do not look like or worship the same god as mainstream America. I wonder how often attacks of terror and genocide go unnoticed in the world. I am scared to know the truth on that matter.
I am thankful to the example of artists and poets, who respond deeply to the crises of our days, and to all of those who have enough wisdom to understand that rhetoric only reaches those who are willing to listen, that answers only come after we have asked all of the pertinent questions, and that the most beautiful creations come out of complete darkness.
Learn more about Barthélémy Toguo and his “Urban Requiem” :