A blog post by Cumberland Lodge Scholar, Kristin O'Donnell, on our Cumberland Conversation with Arabella Dorman

Published Date: 
Thursday, 24 October 2019

On 17 October 2019, the internationally-acclaimed war artist Arabella Dorman joined our Chief Executive, Edmund Newell, for a Cumberland Conversation about her life and work.

Arabella has worked as an officially-accredited war artist for over a decade, documenting the effects of war and conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently portraying the human impact of conflict on civilians and refugees in Syria, Palestine, Gaza, Lebanon and across Europe.

As a Cumberland Lodge Scholar, I get the opportunity to meet a wide range of people who work to promote more peaceful and inclusive societies. My doctoral research explores the politics of war memory, focusing on how it is depicted and commemorated through art, so I was particularly looking forward to this event, and to meeting Arabella.

The human story

Reflecting on her role of the war artist, Arabella spoke about how the still image can powerfully convey the human story. Although her paintings depict global conflicts, her training as a portrait artist imbues her work with an intimate quality, capturing moments of human vulnerability and strength in extraordinary circumstances.

Rethinking refugees

At the heart of Arabella’s work is an attempt to redefine our understandings of ‘the other’. I was deeply struck by a story she recounted during this Conversation, about a painting of a group of young girls who were dancing in Afghanistan and who asked her to ‘tell them, when you go home, that we are girls who love to dance, that this is not just a land of men with beards and guns.’  

Arabella’s work is enriched by her ability to tell individual stories and to represent the human face of conflict.

The Dance by Arabella Dorman

One of her works that I found the most striking was Suspended, an aerial sculpture made up of 1,400 items of clothing that had been discarded by refugees as they arrived in Europe, fleeing conflict. This installation is part of a series of works that seeks to highlight the humanitarian consequences of forced displacement.

Described by Arabella as ‘a series of intimate portraits through clothes’, Suspended literally asks the viewer to put themselves in the shoes of those fleeing conflict. It is lit by a central orb, which grows brighter as it ‘seeks to represent the light of hope by which a refugee travels’, and ‘the light within our own selves that will validate that hope’, but grows darker to near-complete darkness ‘to remind us of the darkness that we leave our fellow human beings in, should we turn our backs and ignore that plight.’

When asked about what she felt feel we can learn from her experiences of war, to help protect and promote more peaceful and inclusive societies, Arabella spoke about the power that art has to evoke empathy in the viewer.

Echoing Pope Francis’s warning about the ‘globalisation of indifference’, Arabella warned that ‘turning our backs on these children is not only a tragedy, but also incredibly dangerous.’

Further resources

Video footage of A Conversation with Arabella Dorman can be found here.

A podcast I recorded with Arabella during her visit to Cumberland Lodge is also available to listen to here.