For the past few months, students, families, as well as church and synagogue groups around the D.C. area have been busy making human bones out of materials like plaster, glass, metal or wood. In fact, some 100,000 people from every state and 30 countries have made bones. Now, the hand-crafted bones–one million of them–will be placed on the National Mall in a symbolic act of artistic intervention, which they call a “visual petition” to act against the ongoing crimes of genocide around the world. Organized by the award-winning artist and activist Naomi Natale, the three-day event beginning this Saturday, June 8, will include a bone-laying ceremony, workshops and a visit to representatives on Capitol Hill.
Natale’s own experience in college reading the wrenching account of the Rwandan genocide in the book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch made her realize how little was understood about the violent 1994 slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis. Together with Susan McAllister, she co-founded the Art of Revolution, a group working to inspire social change, which led to the One Million Bones project.
One Million Bones, says Natale, seeks to educate participants about the mass atrocities occurring in places like Syria, Somalia, Burma, Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo with the belief that once someone makes something with her hands, she forms a new connection to it that will transform her thinking and action. It’s a process she says she has witnessed and experienced. We asked her to tell us about the project.
How did the project start?
As an artist and a photographer, reading these horrific, yet beautifully written, descriptions of what happened in Rwanda made me want to bring the image I had made of [Gourevitch’s] words here to the U.S. and think, could we create a symbolic mass grave here? And would people see that? And would it bring something that’s far away close to home?
I did work before on the Cradle Project and that was looking at the issue of orphaned children in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2002, I was in Kenya as a documentary photographer working with a nonprofit, photographing orphaned children. I worked on this project that was directly related to this personal experience I had in Kenya and it was a call to artists around the world to create a representation of an empty cradle and then they would all be displayed in one space. In the end we had 550 of them.
And from that evolved this idea of participatory art?
Right, exactly, that came out of the project. At that point, I really didn’t understand the kind of impact the project would have on the individual artists who participated. I was just looking overall at the impact of when people would view all those cradles or the impact–we were raising money as well because we asked the cradles to be sponsored and then auctioned off. After the project was done, [I was] able to understand that it actually did have some very significant impacts on these artists and it was a way to bring this issue far away really close to home. I knew I wanted to do this One Million project. I had this vision and I thought it will have an impact on people who make the bones.
And what has been the most impactful?
One that was pretty significant for me, specifically, was in Albuquerque, when we laid our first 50,000 bones down. We’ve had two preview installations–one in New Orleans and one in Albuquerque. A refugee from Congo and a survivor of the massacre in Burundi, about an hour into it, came up to me. And said he was going to go back to his room, his hotel. I offered to drive him and he said: “No, I’m going to walk.” So I offered to walk with him. And he said: “No, I just have to go back to my room and I have to cry for a little while, it’s just so hard.” It was a really important moment, because we had never laid the bones down; and we never knew how people were going to respond. Most importantly, [for] those who [the project] was meant to serve. So I apologized, and I said I would never want to make it harder. And I asked if there was anything that he thought was offensive about it, or wrong. And he said: “No, that’s not it, but you have to understand, we lost so many people and we never saw what happened to those people and in your mind you want to think something else happened.” And he said: “But I saw them today, and it’s so hard, but we have to face it.”
How do you think the process will go in the nation’s capital?
I know it’s going to be extraordinarily powerful. I consider the Mall to be sacred space and powerful. I think that people feel that when they’re there.
We have partnered with the Enough Project. They work on the policy level and on the ground around these issues particularly in South Sudan and Congo. It’s a three-day event, Saturday is the laying of the bones and Sunday we have educational workshops. and a candlelight vigil in the evening, and then Monday is an Act Against Atrocities day so you can bring a bone to Congress. The Enough Project is leading that, so we do hope to make this powerful statement visually and then go to our leaders and explain that these are issues that are really meaningful to us and ask for their leadership.
Is there anyone in Congress who is particularly responsive to the issue?
There’s a number of them. There’s Representative Jim McGovern form Massachusetts. He’s been fantastic. He even made a bone and made a video, as well as Frank Wolf [of Virginia]. There’s Karen Bass in California. There’s definitely a number, Senator Chris Coons in Delaware, who’s been a champion on these issues as well.
When we were speaking to McGovern, he was telling us a story that I thought was really interesting and opened my eyes to how just connecting with our representatives and explaining what’s important to us, can make a difference. He said that a group of students came, their teacher brought them down to D.C. to talk to him about what was going on in East Timor. And they asked him if he would help. From that one meeting, he ended up going to East Timor. And he said, “I pretty much had said I would do something to help, and asked what’s the one thing you want me to do? And they said that, so I said, I guess I have to go.” I think that’s a pretty incredible and extraordinary example of the power of persuasion. At the same time it opens your eyes to the fact that it’s certainly not going to happen if we don’t ask.