Original Artwork: I am James
Oil on Canvas | 2019
Size: 151 x 121cm
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Finalist: Doug Moran National Portraiture Prize
Winner: Collie Art Prize | People's Choice Award
Finalist: Black Swan Prize | Portraiture Salon des Refuses
I first met James in 2019; a South Sudanese refugee who made his home in Western Australia. Tall, athletic and with a smile from ear to ear, he’s a striking and proud Nuer tribesman from the upper reaches of the Nile River.
A photo of James came to me through a friend, and within 3 days I had packed my things and began the 1,627km drive to visit him working in Port Hedland.
His body is marked with delicate swirls of raised flesh and intricate dot patterns; but these are not scars, they’re an elaborate part of local culture signifying everything from beauty to adulthood or even, in some cases, a mark of belonging.
James bares the traditional Nuer facial markings (called “Gaar”) which represent and form part of the Nuer men’s initiation into manhood. The most common of form of scarification are the six parallel horizontal lines which are cut deep into the forehead using a razor, often with a slight dip in the lines above the nose.
"I was covered in blood, and it hurt a lot"
Facial scarification as extensive as James' is now quite rare in Africa.
James’ home of South Sudan has been ravaged by civil war lasting several decades. The conflict has left hundreds of thousands dead, and millions displaced, all with little international aid or media attention.
The war has been marked by corruption, brutality and a strategy of divide and conquer in which local tribes are organised, armed, and incentivised to fight each other while local oil reserves are slowly drained and sold to the highest bidder.
With his tribal markings James was an identifiable target for tribal militia. After time on the run he eventually found safety in a humanitarian refugee camp, and in 2004 was accepted into Australia.
The window to the soul
Every sentence of his past would be followed with a statement of gratitude for his acceptance into Australia and the opportunities it continues to provide him. However, he deeply misses the family he was forced to leave behind, and constantly worries for their safety.
As James and I talked and laughed, I couldn’t help but notice how the sadness never leaves the back of his eyes.
This painting is a symbol seeking justice for James and his fellow tribespeople of South Sudan.
This painting asks that you make them, and the thousands of others escaping war, conflict, and persecution, welcome here.
This painting stands with James.