“I decided if I do anything of value in my life, it’s going to be this.” Amy Fagin, New Salem
‘No. 8, Ethiopia’
In Ethiopia, a predominantly rural society, the life of peasants is rooted in the land, from which they eke out a meager existence. Through the ages, they have faced frequent natural disasters, armed conflict, and political repression, and in the process they have suffered hunger, societal disruption and death.
The military regime “Derg” assumed power in 1974. Mengistu Haile Mariam declared himself Derg chairman in February of 1977 and set about consolidating his power. Human rights violations characterized the government’s policy… and was ruthless in its treatment of both real and imagined opponents. The “Red Terror” campaign was unleashed by the Derg in February of 1977 in response to the urban guerrilla warfare uprising “White Terror”. Untold thousands of mostly young people were jailed, tortured and killed before the Red Terror had run its course by early 1978. Derg security forces frequently mutilated the bodies of political dissidents, dumping them along roads or stacking them on street corners. During the 1984-85 famine in northern Ethiopia, the Mengistu regime devised a scheme to resettle 1.5 million people onto so-called virgin lands in southern Ethiopia. The government forcibly moved people who resisted the plan, and many of those who were resettled fled to refugee camps in Sudan or tried to walk back to their northern homelands. Mengistu refused to allow food to be distributed in areas where inhabitants were sympathetic to anti governmental groups, a strategy that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands. When a new famine emerged in late 1989, threatening the lives of 2 to 5 million people, Mengistu again used food as a weapon by banning the movement of relief supplies along the main roads. There were also many reports that the Ethiopian air force had bombed relief convoys.
— Library of Congress: “A Country Study: Ethiopia,” Federal Research Division Library of Congress 4th edition 1993
Image and text courtesy of Amy Fagin
Amy Fagin with her illuminated manuscripts in her New Salem studio.
Beyond Genocide Series No. 4 Cambodia
Beyond Genocide Series No. 7 DR Congo
Ethnic cleansing. Genocide. The Holocaust.
There’s probably no way to fully describe or entirely comprehend the millions upon millions of human lives wiped out and cultures nearly obliterated by the waves of mass killings throughout history.
Taken together, the Holocaust, the “ethnic cleansing” that took place in the former Yugoslavia, the tortures in Central and South America, the Congo and Namibia and genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda are staggering in their scope of human destruction.
Yet Amy Fagin, a New Salem woman who approaches the seemingly incomprehensible subject from an artist’s perspective, has managed to get her senses and talents around the staggering brutalities. It’s been the focus of her work for more than a decade.
An exhibit of Fagin’s series of 20-by-24-inch “illuminated manuscripts” will open New Salem’s restored Old Academy Building and run Saturday through Aug. 17. An opening reception is planned for Saturday from 2 to 5 p.m. The museum is open Fridays from 2 to 5 p.m. and first and third Saturdays from 2 to 6 p.m.
The 15 completed illuminations incorporate Fagin’s highly ornamented texts that she has researched, designed and painstakingly created. Since 2003, she has completed more than half of the 25 pieces she plans, each describing one of history’s greatest atrocities. Any one of the horrific events would be staggering; taken together, they are as much an expression of Fagin’s appreciation of the richness of the cultures as they are her ability to convey her complex subjects.
Yet Fagin has no formal training in art ... or world history.
“I matured as a manuscript illuminator and as an adult, and there was just a realization that I could use my skills,” says Fagin, who works in a well-lit studio on Neilsen Road. “I was like the next guy: I really didn’t have an understanding of history of genocide in any depth. I just knew I could do this and, as soon as I started digging, oh my god!”
Fagin, who’s originally from the Boston suburbs, hadn’t even imagined herself an artist when she attended the University of Massachusetts and the University of California at Davis. Instead, she studied Spanish and social theory, eventually concentrating on international agriculture. It wasn’t until after she tried her hand at different careers, including her husband’s landscaping business, that it dawned on her: “My strongest skill was probably as a visual artist. I took the ball and ran with it.”
That was in 1985 that she began as a calligrapher, creating hundreds of custom-designed ketubot — which are traditional Jewish wedding contracts, except that some were less traditional than others. Originally printed on a drum lithograph, the illuminated manuscripts were reborn in the age of ink-jet printers. Now Fagin, who moved to New Salem in 1994, offers a collection of illuminations that also include custom wedding, anniversary, new baby and bar mitzvah certificates in English, Chinese, Arabic and other languages.
Although, when pressed, Fagin admits that “half of my (maternal grandfather’s) family was completely slaughtered” in Poland during the Holocaust, she says she did not grow up with a deep interest in the mass execution of 6 million Jews, along with Gypsies, homosexuals and other political prisoners by the Nazis.
What may have played a pivotal, though largely subconscious, role in her decision to launch her “Beyond Genocide” series in 2001 was an exhibit of 22 silk-screen images by African-American painter Jacob Lawrence portraying the life of abolitionist John Brown. The “gorgeous” work, commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Arts, captured Fagin’s imagination in the circular exhibit hall she still remembers, decades before she ever got the idea for her own series.
“I thought was a beautiful work of art and a beautiful story, and I was really impressed with how that artist wove the mission and the art together,” Fagin says. “It was very meaningful.”
As if to convey just how endemic genocide has been throughout human history, Fagin’s 25 illuminations have been done alphabetically, beginning with Afghanistan, Armenia and Bangladesh, and eventually ending — someday — with Tibet, Uganda and Yugoslavia.
Still being completed is “Native Populations of Central and South America,” with her most recent illuminations “Native Population of Australia,” “Namibia” and “Iraq.” And still to come are “Native Populations of North America,” “Nigeria,” “North America,” “Rwanda” and “Barundi.”
Just compiling the list and researching the extent of the atrocities took more than a year.
“What I found was that genocide and mass atrocities have pretty much happened on every corner of the planet and pretty much throughout human history,” she says. “So how do you narrow that down, and what’s important? I was avalanched right away. It was like, ‘What did I get myself into?’”
“I decided if I do anything of value in my life, it’s going to be this.”
Fagin — who believes she may be the first visual artist ever to look at the history of genocide from every part of the planet — isn’t sure that the series will end with the 25. “I need to do more research to be confident I can fit it all into defined series,” she says. She’s also applying to the doctoral program in genocide studies at Clark University in Worcester, hoping that will allow her to move through the remaining 10 atrocities on her list.
Each of the multilayered illuminations — completed with watercolor, gouche and India ink, and then computer scanned and printed — is entirely different in character and, in most cases, takes its unique form from the individual culture that was obliterated or nearly erased.
The composition for her Afghanistan work, for example — which she completed in 2003, during the early stages of the U.S. assault on the Taliban there — is based on traditional architectural forms that include the portal entry to sacred spaces.
The design describes the invasion of the country by Genghis Khan and his Mongol warriors in 1219, which Fagin writes in her notes “completely and permanently transformed the social fabric of ancient Afghanistan with mass slaughter.” The work also illustrates the Soviet invasion of 1979, which was followed by a decade of atrocities. And it also artistically represents the rise of the Taliban regime and its violent oppression of women and its destruction of historic cultural monuments, such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan, which had existed from the sixth century.
Fagin’s artwork incorporates her subtle humor, with each of the Buddhas depicted holding a poppy instead of a lotus — a nod to the traditional place of opium in the Afghan economy.
“I’m always searching for tidbits of expression and weaving them together,” Fagin says. “It’s a personal narrative and personal exploration.”
A poem by the 13th-century poet Rumi is woven into the design:
“The spinning of galaxies is a wave of love; were it were not for love, the world would perish.”
“I do the research and study, as much as I can, of each atrocity, and weave together the components of the experience that highlight the achievements and message of the victimized population,” says Fagin, who has been able to complete about four works a year.
Each of the manuscripts, accompanied by a pair of text panels describing the history of atrocities and translating the poetry or other literary text incorporated into the design, also incorporates Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer that sanctifies the name of God.
The prayer, in Aramaic, unites all illumination in the series and, says Fagin, “articulates perfectly the universality of expressions of grief. ... (It) expresses the depth of compassion for the victims of mass atrocity in a collective prayer of remembrance and blessing.”
Her devastatingly powerful illumination depicting the Holocaust is based on a photograph of a Nazi rally, shot from above, in which the storm troopers form a swastika, with the face of Hitler dead center in a field of red that matches four red Nazi banners. But the six death camps, represented by the horror of their fiery ovens, each flanked by skeletal remains and barbed wire entrapping multicolored prison patches, form triangles that create a large Jewish star that encompasses the entire expression of hate-filled horror.
Six species of butterflies hover just outside the barbed wire, representing the 6 million Jews who were murdered. But there are 12 butterflies in all, representing the 12 million Holocaust victims, in a reminder of the Terezin concentration camp children’s poetry and artwork collection, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.”
“It really is an indictment against human psychology, in which one pivotal figure commands the energies of a mass of people in a wave of absolute insanity,” Fagin says, reflecting on how challenging it was to portray the complexities of the Holocaust and other mass exterminations.
Other attempts to represent the barbarism of genocide may focus on a single episode, or a solitary regime. The scale of myriad atrocities tend to be conveyed by images of mass graves or carnage, or perhaps the faces of those brutally murdered, as in the thousands of photo portraits of Cambodian prisoners during the Pol Pot era in the late 1970s.
But “Beyond Genocide” presents layers of images and meaning that span the human experience.
Fagin’s illumination representing the Cambodian genocide, in which four million countrymen were exterminated by the Khmer Rouge includes a poem appealing to the Buddhist pantheon to bring peace and democracy to their country:
“King of the Sacred Cobra, dieties of the six directions, deities of the mountains and the seas, bless these benedictions … May Khmers have peace! May Khmers be emancipated! May Khmers be respected and free! Please banish all devils! Please blow away all supernatural devils beyond the horizon! Please scour Cambodia! May democracy prevail in Cambodia!
The poem, by Buddhist monk U Sam Oeur, written in elaborate Khmer script, just as Fagin’s illumination depicting Ethiopia’s “Red Terror” campaign — also in the late 1970s — includes a text hand-written in Amharic, Ethiopia’s Semitic national language, with its typical alternating red-and-black color scheme.
Fagin’s Ethiopia illumination makes use of traditional metalwork designs and the colors of the national flag, along with images of historical figures and famine victims.
Her comprehensive illuminations honor each of the cultures. One depicting three or four acts of genocide against Australia’s native population use a cutaway tree-ring composition to suggest the timelessness of the 6,000-year-old Aborigine populations. Each work appreciates the unique beauty of the culture destroyed or nearly destroyed, as well as describing visually the power of the atrocities.
“Beyond Genocide” has been exhibited in Canada, in Argentina and in Bosnia, as well as in Greenfield Community College and other area colleges.
A unique perspective
Fagin, who is now on the advisory board of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, readily admits, “I really don’t think like a historian. They have this innate ability to conceptualize world events chronologically, and I do not think that way.”
Instead, she says, “I love art history, so art expression and cultural expression is kind of the driving force behind the message. What I’d like people to recognize is that when you kill these groups, you’re killing a whole body of cultural expression that’s denied to us now. We don’t have these people to help celebrate and continue on this group identity.”
Fagin hopes that coming to this life’s work without a personal history deeply tied to the atrocities, gives it a freshness and clarity that lets the message through.
“These are challenging connections to make,” she says. “What relevance does a little Cambodian child whose mother and father were killed in the Pol Pot era have to do with you? It’s a huge divide ... When you hear a news report about an atrocity that happens today in the Nuba Mountains, in the border between north and south Sudan, these are people who are getting aerial bombarded, who are getting ethnically cleansed from their villages, who are landing in refugee camps, who are getting food aid denied from them.”
And many of the victims, once the immediate crisis passes from the headlines, are simply forgotten, Fagin laments.
“All I want to do is help people recognize they have their own place in this history. And these are our family members.”
A dozen years into this massive project, the New Salem artist adds, “My heart’s buried with each one of these victims.”
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Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder more than 30 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or
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Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.