While most of the world has had its eyes fixed on the snowy slopes and icy rinks of Sochi, reveling in Olympic victories and moaning in defeats, blood been soaking the streets and homes and villages of South Sudan. What we have not been watching has been the hundreds of men, women, and children slaughtered in the past two weeks, and the murdered since the country was born just over two years ago, all of them executed in a civil war based on tribal enmity and the inhuman horror that is ethnic cleansing.
Now artist-photographer Michael Mellia has joined supermodel Nykhor Paul and other figures to turn the world’s attention to the crisis. With the help of powerful, searing photographs, Mellia has produced a portrait of the anguish that haunts the lives of those South Sudanese who have managed to escape, and through them, of the lives of those they left behind.
Most of those Mellia has photographed for the series are top models; others are musicians (like Emmanuel Jal), actors (including Ger Duany, who stars in the upcoming Ron Howard film, “The Good Lie”), students, and activists, all now living in the West. Some were kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers, managing miraculously to escape; others are among the 200,000 displaced South Sudanese who have been forced to flee by the crisis – a crisis that they had rather hoped – and believed – would be the beginning of their freedom. A recent Al Jazeera story explained it:
In 1991, forces loyal to Machar massacred an estimated 2000 people from the country’s main Dinka tribe after a split in the then rebel movement, now government, over which direction their struggle to be free from a northern hardline government would take.
This time around, a scuffle between ethnic Nuer and Dinka soldiers in the presidential guard in South Sudan’s capital Juba spread into gun battles in the barracks, then fighting on the streets. Tanks were sent to bulldoze Machar’s home while uniformed men executed those who couldn’t flee in time.
But the killing along ethnic lines then spread to whole Nuer neighbourhoods that were flattened, ransacked and burnt down as men went house-to-house targeting anyone bearing the gaar-traditional scarification of four lines across the forehead – or the unmarked unable to answer questions in Dinka language.
In a country that raised a flag in 2011 but whose unity was always pulled together by a common enmity of the north, what was a politically motivated crisis has descended into bouts of ethnic cleansing and a litany of human rights abuses by both sides.
“Our Side of the Story” was born of a desire to tell the story of the South Sudan by moving beyond the limitations of the media through the raw and emotive power of art, Mellia explains. “We created this work as art rather than journalism because we would like to raise awareness of South Sudan as a cultural movement.” And that awareness is clearly needed; Mellia points out that even on the 20-year anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, “most people do not even know that South Sudan is a different country than Sudan.”
“As an artist,” he says, “my goal is to capture emotion and tell the story in an honest way, but more importantly, to show the individuality of each subject,” says Mellia of his portraits. “I am an artist. I claim no authority on the topic excpt to tell the story and show the emotions of those involved. But I am hoping that as many people as possible see the images, are moved emotionally, and so, share them with as many others as they can.”
Here, then, are the images, provided exclusively to Cultural Affairs at Artinfo.com by the artist. (Please note: Much as I wish they were, these photographs are not available for sale.)
All images copyright Michael Mellia.