It’s been five months since over 270 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped by the militant group Boko Haram, which is opposed to any non-Islamic type of education. Despite various international efforts to rescue those children, not one has been found. Boko Haram claims to have kidnapped the girls because they were receiving a “Western style” education which they oppose.
In addition to the efforts launched to find the girls, a social media campaign was born with the creation of the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls as a way to highlight the fate of these schoolgirls and keep the world’s attention on them until they could be brought home. As an artist, I also wanted to find a way to keep the spotlight on these girls until they can be rescued.
While none of the girls has been rescued yet, some of the girls were able to escape Boko Haram as others were being taken. My current artworks are inspired by the courage of the 53 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in Nigeria who ran for their lives and hid in the landscape when their school was attacked by the Boko Haram. They got away while all their classmates who did not run were kidnapped. The art is about that split-second decision when a person decides to run. It is as much about the experience of being human and feeling compassion for these girls as it is about feminism.
The artworks came about when I moved into a new studio space in Brooklyn. I started warming up the space by just putting large paper on the wall and making marks related to landscapes. Since the Boko Haram had just kidnapped all those girls, I was thinking about my own experiences growing up and attending an all-girls high school. So I just started drawing girls in my high school uniform hiding in the landscape. When I was done, I stepped back and looked at what I had done. I was surprised to see that the landscape formed a large image of a girl running. My subconscious, or what some people may describe as some force greater than myself, created imagery on that paper telling me to make this series of Running Girls.
With this art, I am juxtaposing a schoolgirl running for her life against the freedoms we enjoy in our culture as independent women being able to go for a run – and work – and have a family – and vote – and do anything we really want to. Some of the running girl artworks critique feminists themselves for not thinking globally enough about women’s issues. My “running girls” are asking us to do more. It is easy to call yourself a feminist and write a book like “Lean In” or “How to be a Woman.” It is much harder to ‘lean out’ into the world – and think about new ways to help women around the globe.
In just one artwork, I can bring together so many of the issues that go along with trying to do something internationally for woman. For example, in one of my drawings I show a running girl with a baseball for a breast and a skirt in the shape of home plate. She was made the week Mo’ne Davis was pitching in the Little League World Series (since Mo’ne is the same age as many of these girls and is not afraid to show boys what girls can do). The home plate is symbolic of homemakers and all those who have been displaced from their homes for religious reasons. The same drawing references Joan of Arc and has a sword hidden in it. This is a metaphor for having to hide one’s religious beliefs to survive and also addresses the contemporary art world’s attitude towards religion. Mixed into the artwork are images of terrorists, girls hiding in the landscape, churches burning, running shoe treadmarks and more. It’s packed with everything that goes along with being a woman everywhere on the planet — from playing with boys to being killed by them.
Thinking about the international issues around feminism led me to the artwork I finished today. The problems are so overwhelming because there is so much evil involved. Since the Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has been in office, 13 billion dollars has disappeared from the government. He has waited months to take any action against the Boko Haram. The signs point to corruption in that government at every turn. This artwork plays with his name. Where the letter J stands for both Jesus and Jonathon (good and evil) and the text art Goodluck runs down a girls leg. It brings the political environment into the art.
Even with that J, I don’t think of my art as religious. I think of it as relevant, timely and contemporary. I am always surprised when I hear an art dealer comment that the art is too religious for them. My immediate reply is, “Have you read the newspapers lately? How can you get around it?” The last time a dealer told me that, I made the “I am explosive” artwork. This artwork referenced reports that the Boko Haram was using some of the young girls as suicide bombers. But the text “I am” also alludes to the Biblical phrase “I am” as it relates to God and thus, religion being explosive. (It subtly hints to the art being too explosive for these dealers.) It references when women get angry and are labelled. And it’s about the explosive moment when the girls who escaped started running. In short, it’s about the entire world exploding over war disguised as religion.
Sadly, the only Chibook schoolgirls to have escaped from the Boko Haram after being kidnapped are the four who got away during the botched goodwill exchange in late August. These girls reported back that they were raped every day. The latest official count of missing girls is 219 (the unofficial count is higher due to the fact that some parents are afraid to come forward and say their children are missing) and the girls have been missing 142 days as of early September. If you do the math – which they don’t want us females doing because it requires education – the total number of rapes to date is 31,098. That’s what Running Girl number 19 is about.
I have completed 20 of the 53 artworks so far. I keep hoping that I will not have to finish all 53 because the girls will be freed before I do. No matter how much art I make, I am humbled by the heroism of the real feminists who are all the young girls around the world risking their lives to get educated.
Mary Mihelic received her Masters of Fine Arts degree from Parsons the New School for Design in 2006. Since then, her artworks have been shown in New York City, Chicago, L.A., Key West, Vermont and D.C. Prior to getting her M.F.A., Mary studied art extensively at the Museum School in Boston and at the SMFA’s programs in Venice, Italy. Her studio is in Brooklyn. An excerpt from her artist statement reads, “In a time when people are leaving churches in record numbers and the historic relationship between religion and the art world has washed away, I make art about those things that bring us to our knees and humble us in 2014: the power of the ocean, the meltdown of a nuclear power plant, the courage of 53 school girls running for their lives…” She is fascinated by the way the imagination makes God a reality in the form of faith.
Image via Mary Mihelic/with permission/All rights reserved