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Cummings exhibit depicts traumas of Eritrean youths

Thursday, September 21, 2017

At the Mai Aini refugee camp in northern Ethiopia, Eritrean youths create striking artworks that reveal the traumas they’ve suffered -- memories of persecution, stories of family and friends who have taken dangerous trips across deserts and seas in search of freedom, longing for loved ones lost.

About 20 of those paintings will be on display at Mercyhurst University’s Cummings Gallery Sept. 25-Oct. 22 in an exhibit titled “Artists in Motion: Illustrations of Perilous Journeys.” The show is subtitled “Art for Change by Eritrean Refugees” in hopes that increasing awareness of the atrocities experienced by Eritreans – both in their homeland and during their flight to escape it – will inspire action to address the worldwide refugee crisis.

Erie’s Ed Grode first saw the paintings during a visit to Mai Aini two years ago and knew they deserved a wider audience. He helped create the American exhibit, which will visit the University of Notre Dame, Fordham University and Babson College in addition to Mercyhurst.

Along with the paintings, the exhibit will feature Grode’s photos of refugees at Mai Aini, as well as a video titled “Exodus: The Eritrean Crisis,” produced by Tailor Made Media.

The public is invited to learn more about the experiences of Eritrean refugees during a public reception on Thursday, Oct. 5, from 5 to 7 p.m. The event will feature a presentation by Eskinder Negash, executive vice president of the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, of which the International Institute of Erie is a part.

In addition, an Eritrean coffee ceremony will be held, and bags and other goods handmade in Africa will be for sale to benefit the Jesuit Refugee Service, which runs the arts program where the paintings were created.

Eritrea is located in the Horn of Africa, bordering the Red Sea, with Sudan to its north and Ethiopia to its south. Since becoming independent from Ethiopia in 1991, Eritrea has become one of the world’s harshest dictatorships. In 2015, the United Nations cited “torture, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, forced labour and sexual violence” in Eritrea “on a scope and scale seldom witnessed anywhere in the world.”

According to JRS, Eritrean refugees fleeing torture, forced military conscription and other human rights abuses often take the most precarious migration route in the world, traversing African deserts to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands have fallen victim to extortion, as well as to organ and human trafficking. Many have died on the way.

Filmon, a 17-year-old painter whose work is included in “Artists in Motion,” said, “I want to persuade people that these dangerous routes are not worth the risk. I really want to show the international community that this is happening to real people.”

Cummings Gallery, located in the lobby of the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center, is open weekdays 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 2-5 p.m. It will be closed during mid-semester break Oct. 12-16.

For information, call 814-824-2092.

PHOTO: “Crossing Borders” by Mebrahtu, an art teacher at Mai Anai refugee camp. His painting depicts a mother left behind in Eritrea with three sons after one of them drowned in the river at the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Her other sons made it safely cross.