Saturday 15 December 2018

What Lies Beneath: Monica, Rima and Ahmed by Laura Guoke

Monica, Rima and Ahmed by Laura Guoke, Acrylic on canvas, courtesy of the artist

Monica, Rima and Ahmed by Laura Guoke
Monica, Rima and Ahmed by Laura Guoke

Niall MacMonagle

When a young pregnant woman, 2,000 years ago, made the 160km journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and gave birth there, Christmas began - a different Christmas from the frenzied commercial version we know now. In this portrait Lithuanian artist Laura Guoke features a mother and child she met last year in a refugee camp in Ritsona, Greece. Guoke wanted "to reveal the trauma, exile, hopes, fortitude that have marked refugee lives". On the left is Swiss volunteer Monica; beside her, Rima (30), a Syrian mother of five sons, holds her four-month-old Ahmed, born in the camp. Her husband, Muhammed, a marble specialist and finisher, wants "a steady life, school for his boys". This Aleppo family are waiting since November 2016 to be resettled, they hope, in Ireland. "It's like a lottery," says Guoke, and Ireland, to date, has taken in only one third of the refugees it said it would.

Guoke, born in Kaunas, began studying art and music aged three, has a BA from Vilnius Art Academy, an MA from Siauliai University and now lives in rural Radviliskis in a house her grandfather built.

Since she was 16 Guoke has volunteered with the Children's Charity and Support Fund. "As a Lithuanian, we must never forget our history, we must preserve the memory of cruel, mind-boggling cruelty experienced by Lithuanians during their exile to Siberia, under Stalin." Guoke, on a BP Portrait Travel Award, spent two weeks with 900 Ritsona refugees distributing food. But she brought her work portfolio, showed them images on her phone and her subjects chose to be portrayed. Was it depressing? "What you notice is the anticipation, people waiting for citizenship in a new country, nice people. You see their pain, they show you photos of their beautiful houses and gardens, now destroyed." Will Ireland welcome them? Guoke believes "art should help to encourage us to know and to understand, to sympathise, to admire, to wonder what could be done by each of us".

Recently shortlisted from 4,000 entries for the Columbia Threadneedle Prize, Guoke has an upcoming show in Wuhan City, China. This portrait, from the BP Portrait Award, is on show in Scotland's National Gallery, Edinburgh, until March 11, 2018.

Sunday Independent

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