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PERSISTENT MEMORIES: Barbara Michael and Evin Leek share war-torn experiences of other cultures though photography and painting

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It can be difficult for any of us to truly identify with people in distant countries who deal with catastrophe. In the face of news coverage that reduces death tolls to unfathomable numbers as a means to accompany highly politicized op-ed jargon, how can we really know what it’s like to persist as a people who undergo decades of misfortune? How can we even begin to know what was lost after such struggles began? Barbara Michael and Evin Leek have each spent years thoroughly ingraining themselves in two very different cultures wracked by crisis. They both evoke their experiences—and those of their friends abroad—through artistic expression.


IN THE WAKE OF CATASTROPHE: Evin Leek paints the defiant stance of a Guatemalan woman in “Luisa.” Courtesy photo.

Michael has been fascinated by different cultures since childhood, and she launched into a long career as a cultural anthropologist. She pays special attention to art and expression, evidenced by blending the two seemingly disparate studies in her documentary filmmaking. In Michael’s hands the camera is for creative expression but also a valuable tool for anthropology.

“I’ve had a camera ever since I was in grade school,” she reminisces. “I saved up Wheaties box tops, spent another 50 cents, and I got a little black-and-white plastic camera when I was about 8 or 9. I often took the camera with me for whatever I did. For anthropologists a camera is a tool to record things you want to remember that you can’t take back with you—like how houses are built and how ceremonies actually look. It’s a really important field tool.”

Michael landed in Yemen after winning a Fulbright Scholarship to examine a slice of Middle Eastern culture. She remained in the capital city Sana’a for three years while working as a consultant to Rädda Barnen, a Swedish section of the International Save the Children Alliance. In between her tasks as scholar and advisor, she explored the city, armed only with a camera. Of the area’s myriad exotic sights, Michael found particular interest in local artisans who hand-wrought the kind of everyday items Americans normally buy in giant hardware stores.

“I tried to take as many photographs as I could of craftsmen and things that were being made because I had a sense it might not last,” Michael explains. “Cultures change so fast, especially with globalization. Going to the trouble of making a hand-carved door is something typically superseded by something else.”

Michael’s photos capture facets of everyday Yemeni culture, from the colorful architecture of Sana’a to its bustling streets, filled with merchants of all stripes. Among them, clusters of children smile in attempts to sell anything they can get their hands on, often in an effort to buy school supplies.

“The little boys sold things on the streets,” Michael recalls fondly. “I always got a big kick out of them because they were really persistent salesmen, but they were also really cute and fun. I would often see the same boys, so we got to be friends. A couple of them in particular—and I suppose it fits many of them—were selling things in order to pay school fees or buy clothing for school. One of the little boys told me that; a couple of weeks later I ran into him, and he was all dressed up in his new school outfit, with matching shirt and pants and a little cap. He was so proud of himself because he sold enough chewing gum and other things to buy that outfit.”

After three eventful years in Yemen, Michael returned to the States for a steady teaching job. Shortly thereafter, the country was rocked by tumult, ranging from the Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011, to the onset of a civil war which seemingly persists in modern day. As much as she loved her time in Yemen, she feels grateful to have left while it was still possible to buy a plane ticket.

Leek’s paintings provide a stark contrast to the subtle optimism that creeps up through the cracks of Michael’s Yemeni memories. She first volunteered in Guatemala after graduating from high school, and she makes a point to return every few years to keep up relief efforts. One of her tasks is assisting elderly women who have been separated from their families.

Guatemala emerged from a 40-year-long civil war in 1997, which only further displaced a population already battered by devastating weather. Between seemingly endless warfare and mudslides, entire families have been broken apart. Some don’t know where their loved ones went—or even what happened to them.

Specifically, Leek’s oil paintings capture the emotional Guatemalan landscape as etched upon the faces of the widowers she befriended. With meticulous detail, Leek renders survivors’ faces with heavy interwoven lines beneath their harrowed eyes. Scant light rests upon their pronounced cheekbones and glimmers in their distant eyes. The women often stand in front of vast garments, emblazoned with colorful geometric patterns. Sometimes they sit in dilapidated homes of planks and sheet metal. Sometimes only darkness accompanies them.

“These women are older and have trouble taking care of themselves,” Leek describes. “So, the purpose of the center is to provide housing for some of them, but for most of them, they come in three days a week to [get] food or medicine. Sometimes we’ll visit their homes and bring them whatever they need. A lot live in little houses made of bamboo and sheet metal, with dirt floors. It’s definitely eye-opening to see how they live down there, but they all have a pretty optimistic mindset, considering.”

Both Leek and Michael were unaware of each other’s work until WHQR organized this show. Both artists submitted proposals to the radio station, with the end-result being a display of pre- and post-war imagery, sharing a few salient commonalities.

“They thought our work would pair well together, and I think it really does,” Leek exclaims. “We both focus on how traditions shape culture, how they’ve been fading in recent years, and how that’s affected them. We found a common ground there, because they’re very different cultures from different parts of the world, but they do have a lot of similarities. We both feature articles of clothing, and you can see traditional clothes they wear. Weaving is a big part of both cultures, as are merchants. They both have their share of hardships.”

Similarly, Michael views Leek as a peer—not only artistically but academically. Michael claims her an anthropologist, even.

“Arts are part of what cultural anthropologists study,” Michael tells, “and sometimes they’re a part of what archaeologists study, looking at cave art and things like that. Particularly, for a cultural anthropologist, art can be either representational or symbolic, and understanding it in terms of how it’s used, as well as how it’s produced and who are the people that do it, is something really of interest. [Leek] has that ability to really be empathetic and integrate with people, and that shows up in her paintings.”

A proceed of all sales from the displayed work go to various organizations that provide relief efforts in these struggling countries.

Holding Onto Tradition: A View of Changing Culture
Photographs and Paintings by Barbara Michael and Evin Leek
MC Erny Gallery at WHQR • 254 N. Front St.
On display until April 13
Reception: Fri., Mar. 23, 6-9 p.m.

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