NEW YORK – As the international community faces one of its most important crises in decades with a record number of some 65 million refugees and displaced people in the world today, Israeli artist Orna Ben-Ami felt a duty to shed light on what she calls a “human tragedy.”
In a new exhibit hosted at the United Nations headquarters under the title “Entire Life in a Package,” the sculptor brings attention to the plight of refugees, their identity and past, through the few belongings they take with them on their journey away from home.
“For me, objects are representing people,” she told The Jerusalem Post on the opening night of her exhibit a few weeks back.
A former reporter and news editor, Ben-Ami transitioned from working with words to working with materials when she started to learn gold and silversmith techniques at the Jerusalem Technological Center.
For the past 23 years, Ben-Ami has developed a true love story with iron, which she uses as the main raw material for her artistic expressions, cutting and welding it until it almost looks soft.
Ben-Ami has had solo exhibitions in museums across the United States and her work has appeared in galleries and museums in Italy, France, Taiwan, Mexico and Israel.
Forty of her outdoor sculptures are placed in public spaces in Israel and Germany.
“I’m a sculptor and I consider myself a welder because everything I do I create from iron: I cut the iron, I weld and polish it,” she explained.
“My studio is like a welding blacksmith.”
Dealing with iron, she said, is often considered a man’s endeavor.
In fact, in the catalogs Ben-Ami orders her tools from, all the pictures show men using the products.
“I think that I put my feminine language into the iron, I take it wherever I want, I try to put a lot of emotion, feelings, softness, and express myself,” she explained. “I always say that if I wouldn’t weld myself, I would have never gotten to the language I got to. We are really cooperating, the iron and I.”
The idea to focus on refugees and their objects came to Ben-Ami after her last exhibit in Israel, entitled “What’s left?” “People are leaving the world and ‘What’s left?’ tells their story,” she said. “I looked at my parents’ documents and photographs for that exhibit and everything was in one box. I said to myself ‘My goodness, an entire life in a box!’ This threw me very quickly to the subject of refugees.”
In “Entire life in a Package,” Ben- Ami uses a unique technique she developed of combining photographs with sculptures. For this, she turned to the international news agency Reuters, which gave her access to over 73,000 photos of refugees.
The artist chose pictures of people with their belongings from recent years, sculpted the objects and stuck them to their original place in each photo, while almost erasing the refugees themselves.
“In some cases I sculpted people too but I made them like a monument, one bulk of people, as if they don’t have their own personality,” Ben-Ami told the Post, explaining she wanted to portray the way the world ignores refugees. “Half the work was done by the photographers, but I gave it a new life.”
In one of the exhibit’s pieces, an elderly woman is seen hugging a bag full of what seem to be picture frames. In another, Ben-Ami sculpted a doll, held by a child whose picture was faded out.
The iron used aims to express the refugee’s desire to hold on to their identity. With her technique of cutting and welding the rigid material, Ben-Ami seeks to “soften” her work’s message.
“Every piece of iron that I welded for this exhibition made me feel closer to the people that have to leave their homes and look for an unknown future elsewhere,” she said. “As an artist you cannot do things if you’re not really feeling them inside. You have to be connected, you have to feel like a refugee to show sympathy to those people.”
Showing her pieces at the UN was very significant for Ben-Ami, who hopes to open the eyes of the ambassadors and diplomats who stop by.
“I want them to feel through the art and the artistic language,” she told the Post. “Maybe it will help so we don’t look at those people as a group or as terrorists, but as people.”
“I’m not a politician, I’m just a person and an artist,” she added.
“This is what I want to say: ‘look at them as people.’ The rest is for the politicians.”
The refugee crisis, which has reached new peaks since the war in Syria began, is expected to be at the top of the UN’s agenda in the coming years, especially since the new secretary-general of the world body, Antonio Guterres, took office. He had previously served as the UN’s high commissioner for refugees from 2005 to 2015.
“We are so proud to host this exhibition,” Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon said.
“As a people who spent 2,000 years living in exile, we are no strangers to the world of refugees.”
“We experienced firsthand the lack of security while in exile, while never losing hope for a better future,” he added. “As Jews, we cannot allow ourselves to be indifferent to the plight of refugees today.”
Danon told the Post that showing Israel cares about this humanitarian crisis is also very important diplomatically.
According to him many of the ambassadors who came to the opening night of the event were somewhat surprised that such an exhibit would come from the Israeli delegation.
Josh Block, president of The Israel Project which funded the exhibit, said Ben-Ami’s display was an opportunity to “showcase Israel’s sensitivity to the dreams represented in the upheaval of the journeys of refugees.”
“After all, Israel is a country whose people know too well what it means to search for a haven from fear and persecution,” he said.
The exhibit was on display in New York until March 10. Plans to bring it to the UN building in Geneva are currently being discussed, according to Ben-Ami. In addition, the artist told the Post, a museum in Germany has also expressed interest.