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Jim Lommasson at the United Nations

The Portland photographer's images and stories about survivors of genocidal wars open at U.N. headquarters in New York. Plus: Brenda Mallory at the Heard, Cynthia Lahti at the movies.

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Raissa Umutoni’s Dress, which she was wearing on June 12, 1994, when the genocide in Rwanda took her life. Print 30 x 40 inches. Photo: Jim Lommasson

Jim Lommasson, the Portland photographer and cultural chronicler whose story-gathering brings to light the lives and memories of survivors in a war-torn world, now has an exhibition in a place that seems ideal for the work he does: Stories of Survival and Remembrance: A Call for Genocide Prevention opened April 6 at United Nations Headquarters in New York City, and will stay there through June 15.

Lommasson is a deep cultural reporter with a camera. His work has ranged from Exit Wounds, which focuses on the memories of American soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan; to What We Carried, his work on Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the United States; to the stories of survivors of war, persecution, and genocide who rebuilt their lives in Oregon in To Bear Witness: Extraordinary Lives, his collaboration with Sankar Raman and The Immigrant story at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.

What he finds is the immensely personal stories, the recollections and hauntings and keepsakes of survivors — stories that dive below the headlines of war and famine and atrocity and tell the lasting human tales of cataclysmic events.

He then presents them in collages of images and personal reminiscences, as in the story of Raissa Umotoni in the photo at top, which is included in the exhibit at the United Nations. The words surrounding the image of the dress read:

“Raissa Umutoni was wearing this dress on June 12, 1994. When the 1994 genocide took her.

“This was a beautiful dress. Raissa wore it with a white sweater and sandals. She looked beautiful in that dress.

“Her father, Thaddee Ruzirabwoba, took every opportunity to take a picture of her especially after work as he enjoyed being with them.

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“You can see here that colors faded but the dress’s parts stick together. Raissa cried during the nights calling for our attention couple times. Her dad would not let me go and console her and convince her to go back to sleep. Her young brother kept me busy and her dad would not let me get up in the middle of the night. ‘You are tired, you were busy all day, let me help her, I have to help you.’ So, I did not have to worry about Raissa or Clarisse, dad would get up, change them, give them milk and then convince them to go back to sleep.

“Thank you honey! You were unique!

“Dress was bought from London by one of our friends, who travelled to Europe. Thank you Charles, you have been a blessing to Thaddee, my children and I. Our children were the center of our home, budget, celebration, holidays, family turned around the needs of our kids. I am so grateful that we provided to them all they wanted (they were very happy). I was very much blessed to look at them holding hands knowing they had a bright future. Clarisse and Raissa were very bright kids and we were proud parents. I will always remember you with gratitude.”

– Immaculee Mukantaganira, Muko, Rwanda

“The show at the U.N. speaks to the the issues of genocide,” Lommasson said in an email exchange. “The photo/writings in the show are a selection from Stories of Survival: Object. Image. Memory. from The Illinois Holocaust Museum. We are  featuring Immaculee Mukantaganira from Muko, Rwanda, with four images. Immaculee lost her two daughters and husband in the 1994 genocide. She will be speaking at the reception on Tuesday, April 11.”

Lommasson worked on Stories of Survival with Arielle Weininger, chief curator of collections and exhibitions at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, in Skokie, where the show originated in 2018-19; it’s been traveling since.

Lommasson’s method of gathering and presenting his stories can be harrowing, but it also feels necessary. “I do this work because I truly believe that the stories of immigrants, refugees, genocide and Holocaust survivors are extremely important at this moment in history,” he said. “We need to hear the stories and the participants need and want to tell their stories as a warning and a call to action. These projects are not about me. My role is of a facilitator. I have chosen to used carried objects as a starting point for participants to write their own stories with their own hand for us to read. My job is to get out of the way.

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“Because of the times that we live in now, I believe that we need to be vigilant and active to recognize the evil forces that are becoming more prevalent. Only by being aware of the subtle stages of genocide will we be able to fight early warnings. The Ten Stages of Genocide illustrates the subtle steps that clear the way for ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Each step alone has a subtle and treacherous effect that enable xenophobia, othering, hate speech, and the violation of civil rights. We know that white supremacy and authoritarianism is on the rise around the world, and we must fight every insidious step. My ‘job’ is to reach as many viewers as possible.”

The exhibition, according to a statement from the U.N., “features the reflections of survivors of four atrocity crimes — the Holocaust, the genocide and related atrocities in Cambodia, the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, and the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. An object that survived the atrocity crimes is displayed together with the survivors or their descendants’ explanation of what the object meant to them. … The exhibition reminds the viewer that no country is immune from the risks of genocide and related atrocity crimes.”

Another example from the exhibit at the United Nations:

“Scarf,” 30 x 40 inches. Photo: Jim Lommasson

Scarf
Reflections by Jack, Larry, and Lila Katz, children of Judy Katz, Satu Mare, Romania

It was always in Mom’s dresser drawer. She never took it out. We never saw it, but it meant something to Mom. It kept her memories alive from before the camps. There is something special about this scarf that was special to her. We will never know. Lila saw it only once many years ago. Mom gave it to the museum so that people will know how something as small as a piece of fabric, can have special meaning, when everything else has been taken away from you. We will never know the story behind the scarf. We can only imagine. – Jack

Mom was wearing it when the family ARRIVED at Bergen-Belsen. She was wearing it when her mom PUSHED HER into the other line, where Mom’s older sister Debbie was. That was the line that LED TO LIFE.– Larry

Somehow throughout Mom’s time in the camps, this scarf survived as she did. It was her only link to life before the Shoah; to life as she remembered it. Mom survived and the scarf survived along with her. – Lila

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Brenda Mallory at the Heard

Brenda Mallory, mixed media from “The North Star Changes.” Image courtesy Russo Lee Gallery.

Lommasson isn’t the only Portland artist with a show opening in a big-name venue elsewhere. Brenda Mallory, the longtime Portland artist who grew up in Oklahoma and is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, has a solo show at the Heard Museum, a major national center for Native American art, in Phoenix, Arizona. The North Star Changes: Works by Brenda Mallory opened April 7.

Mallory’s show at the Heard is built on the idea that, although humans assume the North Star is permanently fixed as Polaris, its current identity, in fact it changes over time, and other stars have filled its role. “Permanence becomes impermanence,” her Portland gallery, Russo Lee Gallery, says, “and Mallory notes, ‘The idea of things changing has always been in my work.’”

The pieces in the show are bricolage sculptures, made from reclaimed and found objects that Mallory reshapes, sometimes dipping flannel cloth into beeswax and giving it undulating, biomorphic forms; sometimes cutting apart and re-forming linen fire hoses or reclaimed drive belts. “The idea that an object has more than one use, more than one life in it, is what appeals to me,” she says.

Cynthia Lahti at the movies

TWA Twins,” one of Cynthia Lahti’s works in the movie “Showing Up.” Photo courtesy of the artist.

Portland artist Cynthia Lahti, meanwhile, finds herself — or several of her drawings and about 20 of her sculptures — on the big screen, featured in the new Michelle Williams movie Showing Up. It’s directed by Kelly Reichardt, who loves to film her movies in Oregon, and written by Reichardt and Portlander Jon Raymond, the same team behind 2020’s First Cow. The comedy’s about a sculptor, played by Williams, who’s preparing for a new show and trying to “balance her creative life with the daily dramas of family and friends.”

“This movie thing is kind of a trip,” Lahti tells The Oregonian’s Kristi Turnquist in a nice inside-the-process interview. “I mean, it’s so different from my other reality.”

Min Chen, in a lively interview with Lahti on Artnet, give a little background. “We glimpse Lahti’s handiwork throughout the film: in the opening montage that also includes Lahti’s watercolor drawings, in Lizzy’s studio where she works the clay at every spare moment, and finally, in the gallery where Lahti’s knotty sculptures of female forms anchor Lizzy’s solo exhibition.”

Chen notes that the filmmakers were drawn to Lahti’s work partly because of its quality of attractive strangeness: “Lahti would be first to admit, they’re hardly specimens of the Greek ideal. They’re imperfect ceramic figures, gnarled in form and glazed with surreal hues, their sensibility tending toward abstraction as much as outsider art. ‘I like accidents,’ Lahti explained. ‘I feel like my work is always a clash between something that’s really beautiful, but then there’s a huge crack. Where those two opposing things meet is very, very interesting.’”

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And as it turns out, very, very filmable.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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