Painting for a Brighter Future: Helen Wilson's work

News reports of the early to mid 1980s bequeathed us several new journalistic buzzwords that have entered the lexicon of everyday speech. Chief amongst them perhaps, is the term “ethnic cleansing”; coined in a journalistic attempt to neatly and succinctly describe the motivation behind, and the effect of, the massacres that were allowed to happen in countries such as Bosnia and Rwanda. The western news media, struggling to effectively explain these late 20th century outbreaks of orchestrated genocidal savagery, sought to present these massacres as latter-day holocausts, motivated by, and summed up in, the neat turn of phrase, “ethnic cleansing”: This euphemism became the standard means by which ”the mass expulsion or extermination of members of a particular ethnic or religious group in a certain area” was explained.

Looking at Helen Wilson’s paintings is a sobering and poignant experience, because her work reminds us that a term such as “ethnic cleansing” does nothing but reduce the horrors of genocide in the most facile, irreverent and disrespectful of ways. In Rwanda, people were not “ethnically cleansed”, they were massacred in their hundreds of thousands. (Within the space of a month, militia and death squads systematically massacred an estimated 500,000 people). Regions of the country were not “cleansed”; they were soiled and tainted by the gratuitously shed blood of innocents. Death, with grotesque abandon, was visited on what Helen describes as” a very beautiful country.”

Within the popular imagination, the continent of Africa is faithfully regarded as being - and constructed as - a wholly dysfunctional continent racked by interminable and incomprehensible tribal and ethnic tensions and conflicts that pathologically lead African people to kill each other. The common and popular view has it that Africans just can’t help killing each other, in a bewildering array of ‘conflicts’ that rumble on, year in, year out, in various parts of the continent. The effect of this mindset is to engender another, equally troubling and problematic one. That is; that African lives are of a lesser value than the lives of people in other parts of the world. That African humanity is a less tangible entity than European humanity, or American humanity. Disrespectful and insensitive media coverage of Africa’s problems exacerbates this sense that the African continent is fully deserving of its status as the world’s basket case, but not (to any meaningful degree) deserving of the world’s sympathy and support…

The above extracts are from “Painting for a Brighter Future: Helen Wilson's work”, an essay by Eddie Chambers in Making Sense: A Rwandan Story, (pages 4 - 5) catalogue produced to accompany an exhibition of paintings by Helen Wilson, held at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, September/November 2003. Catalogue Preface by Fergal Keane.