Arts & Humanities

Art Show Focuses on Refugee Crisis

Gulalhi, a solo exhibition by Stephanie Gervais ’09, opens at the Cooley Gallery.

By Randall S. Barton | November 15, 2018

Artist Stephanie Gervais ’09 has returned to campus for Gulalhi, a solo exhibition at the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery. Works in the exhibition evolved in response to friendships she formed with people living in a French refugee camp and includes photography, language-based works on blankets and on paper, and sound. Gulalhi, a Pashto name meaning flowers, appears as a tattoo in her photograph Aziz [2018].

“Gervais’ works are created in response to personal experiences and relationships over long periods of time,” says Stephanie Sakellaris Snyder ’91, the John and Anne Hauberg Curator & Director of the gallery. “They come into being through receptivity—the sharing of stories, food, and environment. The process requires openness, absorption, and respect for one’s collaborators. This is not work made at a distance; the people, places and situations represented in the exhibition were first experienced over time.”

Born in Hong Kong, Gervais moved with her family to Portland when she was two. When it came time to choose a college, she wanted a rigorous education in an intellectual environment and felt strongly attracted to Reed.

“I also really wanted a strong sense of community, or the ability to meet and work with people to create connections,” she says. “Reed felt like a place I could do that.”

At Reed, she explored wearable sculpture and wrote her thesis about the transformation that occurs in the hero’s journey with Prof. Nicole Russell [art 2008–09] advising. After earning her bachelor’s degree in art, she worked for a time in a studio in Kauai before moving to Brazil

“I wanted to be somewhere where the body and sensorial learning were just as important, prevalent, and valid as everything else,” she says.

She arrived at the hillside favelas above Rio de Janeiro without a plan, a friend, or a job. “Being lost is an intense experience that forces you out of habit and to see things in a new way,” she says. “You become disoriented; the environment becomes disoriented. You make new connections and think and see differently. There’s also the possibility for a really strong sense of empathy.”

In Rio, she taught English, learned Portuguese, and continued to make art. But after three years, she hungered for a more international experience that would enable her to experience the confluence of many cultures, so she decided to get an MFA at Goldsmiths University in London.

Europe was in the grip of crisis as millions of people fled war in Syria and other parts of the world and sought refuge. Between classes, she volunteered to help Syrian refugees living in London. In 2015, she made her first trip to “The Jungle,” a refugee camp on the outskirts of Calais. Roughly the size of Reed, it housed nearly 2,000 people from Afghanistan and Sudan, most of them hoping to stow away on lorries headed to the U.K. “There were tents and rudimentary wooden houses in a weird industrial area on the outskirts of town,” she explains.

After spending long stretches of time in the camp, she was struck by the people’s self-organization, endurance, and translation of social customs. Invited into their lives, she recorded their stories over tea and meals. After graduate school, she moved to Calais and began to make art based on these encounters, using patterns, clothing, and non-sequential photographs that belong together but do not ask to be understood as the material evidence of anything other than the needs and aspirations of people.

“The starting point was the relationships that started to form and the conversations I was having,” she recalls. “I began thinking about a way I could take portraits that were not photographs of people, places, and moments.”

Some of the exhibited works have evolved in response to her lasting friendships with people who left the camp—smuggled into England in trucks or trains. The exhibition also includes a small group of experimental sculptures that adorn the body.

One work in the exhibition began as a seven-page story, handwritten in Arabic, of a man telling how he came from Sudan to Europe. She digitized the pages and printed them on a moving blanket, displayed alongside recordings of his story.

“The process of translation—which happens in collaboration between Gervais and members of the refugee community—extends the works’ narratives through space and time,” Snyder explains. “Gervais’ works hold space for the stories and messages that have been entrusted to her. She works across different languages—creating textiles in Arabic as opposed to English—because it prioritizes the authors’ experiences. The textiles and photographs begin, always, not as works of art but as experiences between people.”

During the exhibition, Stephanie will introduce different forms of communication into the gallery, including web-based conversations with refugees living in the U.K., group work sessions with students and the public, and the first regional screening of the films of Afghan performance artist Lida Abdul at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, November 28, in Psychology 105.

“It is a huge privilege to be able to work with Stephanie Sakellaris Snyder ’91 in a space where education and research can be ever-present,” the artist says. “The Cooley Gallery has the willingness to create an experience that is constantly evolving and alive, rather than displaying objects that are finished and over. It also has a high level of integrity, a commitment to making a difference, and a social perspective.”

“There’s a quote by Danish artist Addi Koepke that’s always been a guide to me,” Snyder says. “‘Art is what makes life more interesting than art.’ All art ultimately reveals something deeply human, usually our failings and oversights. Gervais’ work offers us the challenge of absorbing experiences that are not our own. How do we respond? How did Gervais respond?”

Currently instructor-in-residence in the MFA in craft at the Oregon College of Art and Craft, Gervais has shown her work at galleries, cultural centers, and museums in France, the U.K., Brazil, and the U.S.

Gulalhi runs from November 15 to December 16, and by appointment through December 23.

Tags: Alumni, Campus Life, International