Empty Without the Light
Eleven years ago, a former student and her sister gained custody of 80 children from an abusive and understaffed orphanage in Uganda. The sisters were both not long out of high school and realized that the children’s basic needs were not being met - they were determined to get the children not only clothed, housed and fed, but educated and empowered as well. With generous donations and volunteers from around the world, they built the Musana community, which now provides preschool through high school education to more than 2000 students, a small business training program for the women in the village and a community hospital, all built with a self-sustaining model of community and dignity.
I am humbled to have been given the opportunity to work with Musana High School’s art teacher and art students to paint a mural on the entire facade of their school. The students, some of whom had never painted before, were determined and creative, working hard for three straight days, choosing their own designs and making their mark on their school. I am told that the students still admire their work everyday by strolling up and down the corridor, talking about and pointing out their section to their friends.
In the gallery installation, my own high school art students re-created the outlines of the Musana mural declaring “It’s so cool to make the same thing that the Musana students made, only this one is empty!” Musana means “light” or “sunshine” in Ugandan language. Indeed, the world is empty without Musana.
Upon arrival at the Masai Mara Game Preserve , I was struck by the horizontality of the landscape. Everything, even the trees, were spread out in the vastness of the savannah. The first animal I saw in the wild was a zebra, far off the road about 200 yards away. I could barely see the black and white blip on the horizon, but I cried anyways, knowing that these creatures were living their best lives, not restricted by manmade enclosures.
At the time, I did not realize that, over the course of the next 4 days, I would see hundreds of thousands of zebras, so close to us that we could practically touch them, even witnessing a baby zebra getting taken down by a crocodile while crossing the river. We saw 60-some different species of animals on safari, both predator and prey, including 22 ½ lions. The half is a joke that only half of our group actually saw the 23rd lion.
The neutral tones of this installation in no way represents the colorful tones of the landscape, but rather, my fading memories of an incredible journey, where I am left with only the impressions and none of the detail. The layers on the wall represent clouds, distant mountains, vast hillsides, animal carcasses, acacia trees, grasslands, herds of animals, muddy puddles and the unfortunate plastic bottles that litter the land outside of the preserve.
The most difficult thing that I have physically tackled, was the hike through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to find the endangered mountain gorilla. Not only were we trying to navigate a slippery rain forest on the side of a 75 degree hillside, but the trail was up and down, across streams, over rocks, through the thicket, and then! The powerful and peaceful silver back, Mishaya, bursts out of the underbrush, up a tree and within seconds, is breaking off entire branches with one hand to feed his family below. Delicately and continually eating hundreds of pounds of leaves a day, we spent an hour with this sweet and mobile family, catching a glimpse of the brand new baby.
The tree branches in the forest created beautiful linework against the white fog and the bright greens of the rain forest. The texture of the bark juxtaposed by the soft black fur of the mountain gorilla enticed me to get close enough to touch. The sound of the machete hacking through the brush gave a rhythm to focus on while enduring the difficult trek. As tempted as I was to look up at the view, my focus was on the textures of the forest floor, watching my footing, following my guide step by step, tripping over roots and slipping on the mud. At one point, I was convinced that I would have slid down the entire mountain if it weren’t for my guide’s powerful sense of balance and quickness to grab onto my arm!