As the world marks the one year anniversary of the kidnap of the Chibok schoolgirls, one artist reminds us of the actual faces of the tragedy, which is often remembered by numbers and hashtags.
Nearly 300 teenage girls were kidnapped on the 14th of April, 2014, from their school in Chibok, a town in the Northeast Nigerian state of Borno. The schoolgirls, who were preparing for their certificate exams, were taken away by the Islamist terrorist sect Boko Haram. Although a few dozen children managed to escape the militants, more than 200 girls are still being held against their will, leaving their families to fear the worst and hope against hope for their return.
While the global campaign for the release of the kidnapped Chibok girls has lost much of its steam, several people around the world have persisted in keeping the memories of the young girls alive. Among these global citizens is Brian Meyer, an American artist who has painted images of the kidnapped girls. Meyer, a native of San Diego, California, has neither been to Nigeria nor any part of Africa, but that has not short-sighted his empathy for the victims of the deplorable tragedy.
In this interview with Onyedimmakachukwu Obiukwu, Meyer shares what draws him to the Chibok girls and why he is creating everlasting memories of a tragedy from which many, even in Nigeria, have moved on.
Hello Brian, Can you briefly tell us what you do?
I am a watercolorist, inspired by working in plein air, studying the light and shadow of the world directly using pigment and water. I am an explorer, often chasing the golden hour as the sun sets, or even into the night with a flashlight. I am a pilgrim, art is a spiritual journey, I find peace and joy in painting, it’s a prayer to convey what I see and feel and wish upon the world, pointing out what others are too busy to notice.
— Brian Meyer (@ArtByBrianMeyer) March 28, 2015
All work unless otherwise indicated is done mainly in watercolors, with either graphite or watercolor pencils used. I also like going in after the painting is done, and redrawing over it in watercolor pencil. I started seriously painting in October of 2013, and often paint local scenes plein air (from life ) as well as from life drawing groups painting people. You can often see me painting with the San Diego Watercolor Society (sdws.org ), or with the San Diego Figurative Art Society ( https://www.facebook.com/groups/sandiegofigurativeartsociety/ )
What drew you into the advocacy for the return of the Chibok school girls?
I attend the First Church of the Brethren in San Diego, California. Many of the girls in Chibok belong to this denomination, to the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN – from the Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria), and we receive direct information about what is going on from Rebecca Dali. The entire denomination is praying for the girls. The government school where they were abducted was founded by Brethren missionaries. Each week we pray in our church for Ladai Wadai – and across America two to three churches are praying for each individual child so that none are forgotten.
When the children were kidnapped at first I asked if I could receive photos of the girls, and since that was not possible I created a painting of the Chibok school where I wrote the 180 names on the can list. This artwork ended up being used for “The Messenger”, the denominational magazine. Only when I saw actual photos online did I start to revisit the original idea of drawing the actual girls.
Why do you draw the girls?
To me, when I am painting, it is much like meditation or prayer. Art, just like prayer, is a language beyond words, in which I can speak in a way that reaches beyond the limitations of language, expressing my hopes and dreams for the world. And much like prayers, art can change the world.
When I see these girls abducted, I see my daughter who is away at college now, doing exactly the same thing, and going to school to better both herself and the world. I see Malala Yousafzai was shot in the face by the Taliban for the same issue, for being a girl going to school, so has ISIS, these groups incite our warfare against them but fear these girls who are following the older Islamic traditions which encourage learning, they prefer the power and tyranny provided by an ignorant populace. I think Ben Franklin said this best, “This will be the best security for maintaining our liberties. A nation of well-informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins.”
Boko Haram wants this to be about us vs. them, about our religion vs. their religion, about the west vs. their culture, but they celebrate their infamy, encouraging us to go to war with them, thriving on such strife. Yet they fear most of all an educated populace who can see thru their brutal ideology. Each of these girls is my daughter, my sister, my family, and I see each bravely saying “I am Malala”, “I will go to school”. We need to do what they fear most of all, help every Nigerian, every human being get a decent education.
Do you draw the girls from their actual pictures? Are your drawings just depictions or actual images of them?
I have pictures of some of the actual girls, if I don’t have a picture I paint a similar head to a real girl but leave the faces unpainted so hopefully I can add those features later. One of the issues I am working thru is that there isn’t an official list put out by the government.
I have found information from multiple sources, from the CAN (Christian Action Network 180 names), from the newspaper ThisDay which included 142 actual pictures, and from the EYN church in Nigeria itself–Rebecca Dali provided me the listing of 187 names she is using to coordinate providing aide to the parents of these girls which is probably the most accurate. I went and merged all these lists and have 345 names with about 250 listed by multiple sources, and I have to guess which ones are part of the 219 (or 232) which are said to be abducted. I am hoping by the time I finish that the information is clearer, and focusing first on the names which every source agrees upon.
Has the drawing of the girls had any impact on you as a person?
It has really shown me we cannot take education for granted, it’s something we need to fight for as a basic human right.
— Brian Meyer (@ArtByBrianMeyer) March 27, 2015
The problems in the world are all things which would be much easier to handle if everyone was educated – and not educated to recite propaganda, but a well-rounded knowledge that lets you think critically about ideas and challenge the status quo.
What has been the public’s reception of your art?
Very positive and supportive, with my first painting being used as a magazine cover. My church is letting me put the pictures on its walls, and I’ve received support from local art venues that they’d like to display the completed set of paintings.
One year on, do you worry that the world has moved on from that tragic event?
I don’t see this just as a single event, rather it’s a bigger story about extremism trying to use fear and violence to stop education. The girls who escaped are still trying to go to school despite threats. Hundreds of others have been abducted and brutally murdered by Boko Haram. Until Boko Haram, ISIS and the Taliban are defeated, and EVERY child is given a proper education we can’t move on.
Do you still believe that they will be found alive?
I am really not sure, I don’t think it will be a story which is the same for all of them, it’s going to be complicated and messy as each of these girls is living thru their own tragic story.
I keep hoping they are released and there just isn’t a need for my project. I am actually afraid what I am doing is just a memorial for these heroic girls. We all have to have faith that they are alive, that they can be freed, without that faith.
The #BringBackOurGirls campaign has persisted despite the reduced world attention to the Chibok tragedy and significant local attacks on the movement, what does it say about advocacy in Africa?
I think it shows that persistence is needed to change things, things just don’t change right away because it’s so hard to change people. Often it takes an entire generation growing up for those changes to happen, which goes back to the issue of education. Change really comes from our children.
Even in our country [the United States of America] we still have major issues with civil rights, with treating people differently because of what they believe, of what the colour of their skin is, of paying women less than men, of what their sexual orientation is. Our country is the result of hundreds of years of struggle. We are ALL human beings, all brothers and sisters, fathers and sons yet we so often find excuses to forget that.
What do you think about the state of the Nigerian society especially in the face of the insurgency that has devastated a significant part of the country?
Often change requires that the problems become obvious. Often you have injustice that is hidden, where because things are not too bad, people support the status quo. There is a lot of upheaval because the institutions such as government, police and the military weren’t strong enough, were corruptly just taking salary and weren’t rooted in justice, which allowed Boko Haram to take root as a lesser injustice. The threat posed by this brutal group requires changes on a fundamental level, even simple ones such as actual fair elections, or a military that does not flee when attacked, and police enforcing laws instead of collecting bribes.
The focus should be on the children of Nigeria, make them wise, make them educated, make them so they have big hearts that focus more on what we have in common then our differences. It is these children that will someday be Nigeria. I really have hope for Nigeria.