Portraits can be powerful tools. Think of the endlessly reproduced giant faces of Chairman Mao, Stalin or Hitler that were designed to make them seem all seeing and all powerful. Omnipresence through image. Or the portraits of kings and nobles, painted to project majesty and power – or, perhaps, the gentle faces of all those Madonnas or metaphysically detached Christs, designed to be venerated and adored.
Portraits can be part of revolutions too, remember those glorious proletarian banner carriers of Soviet art, or Liberty leading the people in Delacroix’s famous painting? These images are meant to provoke, or encourage, to reinforce some kind of belief, they were never merely beautiful, although some of them undoubtedly are. Sometimes a face can focus us on a cause, can give a recognizable personality to something that seemed impersonal and remote. Putting a human face to an issue can make all the difference in how we engage with it.
Most of the time my own work does not aspire to such lofty ideals, the everyday life of a portrait painter is about celebrating the love or admiration we have for one another, either on a personal level or in recognition of more public achievements, but every now and again I am given the opportunity to paint something that seeks to make a difference. I can look back gratefully at the group portrait I made of Haitian orphans that was part of a fund-raising campaign that rebuilt their orphanage, or the portrait of a Hausa King that has helped open doors to aid and relief work where none was possible before and be glad I could help in some small way.
This past week I was at my studio away from home, in rural Connecticut, when I was asked if I would consider painting Leah Shabiru.
Leah is a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who was kidnapped in a raid by Boko Haram, Nigeria’s terrifying Islamic militant group, back in February of this year. Many other girls were taken with her, but they have all been released. Leah alone remains captive because she refuses to renounce her Christian faith. Unlike every other instance where Boko Haram have seized the headlines by kidnapping girls, this time we have a name. All those other girls, numbering in the hundreds, taken over the past few years and subjected to every imaginable indignity and trauma, remain largely anonymous – especially to the outside world. The suffering of all those girls has been terrible and many of those released have been left physically and mentally scarred for life. Only their families and those who work to bring help to them know who they are. Leah could be the face for all of them – a face to build a campaign around perhaps. But there is only one photograph of her and it does not tell the story that needs to be told. I felt I had to try to make a picture that did.
Looking at that one picture of Leah, taken in happier times, dressed in a white and yellow turban, glasses pushed high on her forehead, and a vivid silk shirt – I saw a snapshot of a pretty girl enjoying life – innocent and lovely. Thankfully it does not hint at her present condition. I did not want to simply copy someone else’s picture of a girl I have never met, but to find a way of portraying a brave girl in an unimaginable situation, a girl whose faith is all she has to cling to.
For two days I worked on a small painting in which I changed the colours of her clothes and reimagined a setting, trying to make something new, that would be my own, out of the limited reference available. At the end of the second day I felt that, whilst a picture was taking shape, something was missing, it wasn’t telling the story I needed to tell. I went to bed anxious and uncertain, knowing that Peter Fretheim, the missionary who had hoped I could make this painting, would be here the following evening, eager to see what I had done. It didn’t help that Lee Cantelon, my good friend who had introduced us, had told Peter a picture was taking shape and had emailed pictures of work in progress enthusiastically. It was a night of uneasy dreams.
I awoke early with a clear vision of a very different painting in my head. I hurried over to the studio and looked at the picture I’d spent the last two days on. Could it be altered to fit this new vison? I made a few tentative strokes and realised that last night’s paint was still too wet to take the massive alterations I had planned. I hesitated, there was so little time. I went back into the house and made some tea. What to do? I had a painting that could be completed, but I was now certain it was not the painting I wanted.
I had missed what I was aiming for. I had to trust the vision I had woken with, to try and get what I had seen out and onto a fresh canvas in just a few short hours if I wasn’t going to disappoint everyone, including myself.
Luckily, Leah’s face was now familiar to me. The struggles I’d had with painting her colouring had begun to resolve in the first portrait and I began again with all I had learned in mind, knowing both what to avoid and with a clear idea of where I was going. I painted hard and fast, closing my eyes occasionally to see the painting inside my head more clearly. Three hours later I had the sense to stop. As I sat back I heard the sound of a car pulling up outside. Lee came in moments later. “Did you finish it?” he asked. I pointed to the new painting on the easel. “Wow, you’re kidding me” he said, ‘that wasn’t here this morning. Where did that come from?” I could only point upwards and smile.
Yes, it is a sketch, it isn’t beautifully finished, and yes, some of the modelling in the face could be further refined, but the painting, loose as it is, tells the story. Leah Shabiru, Captive for Christ.
Peter and his wife Miriam, who know the Shabiru’s, were thrilled. They felt this was an image that they could use widely to raise awareness of Leah’s story and give a face to what is happening in that troubled region. I can only hope it helps make part of the difference they are trying to achieve. I’m just glad to have had a chance to do this, glad that sometimes paintings can make a difference and thankful for the vision that came with the morning.