Throughout Brian Maguire’s four-decade art career, he has centered his work around war, casting a stark light on the death and depravity of manmade conflicts, whether in Syria, South Sudan or Mexico.
The broken bodies, severed limbs and bloodied faces in Maguire’s paintings only give us a hazy picture of the dead and suffering, yet they still manage to put a face to the anonymous victims of war — those who are not only often buried in mass graves, but also behind statistics, headlines and complacency.
The Irish artist has traveled the world, visiting prisoners of war, refugees and survivors in an effort to tell their stories. By witnessing what they experience, Maguire said he can pull back the curtain on the ugly reality of war.
“It shows basically what happens when simple society collapses and civil war commences,” he said in a catalogue of his work. “[It’s a] story that’s not being told.”
Maguire was originally scheduled to showcase his paintings in the exhibition “Without Borders” at the American University Museum in D.C. this summer. However, a global crisis — not war, but a pandemic — forced the exhibition to go online as a virtual catalogue.
Lilly Wei, curator of the exhibit, said the title “Without Borders” reflects Maguire’s belief that war has no boundaries. Conflict, Wei said, is not confined to one culture or one country.
“Sadly, we can all claim it,” Wei told The Washington Diplomat in an email. “And it’s a plague in itself, and has existed for perhaps as long as humans have.”
Wei said all human beings are connected by both their worst and best impulses. They divide themselves along perceived differences, often fighting in the name of identity, ideology or territory, yet they also share a universal desire to cross borders and feel one with their fellow man.
“What this pandemic shows us with even greater force and clarity is that we can’t construct artificial barriers, and no matter the rhetoric, those borders are completely permeable,” Wei said. “We need to work together. We need to move forward, to a better, more equitable, sustaining, humane future.”
All of the works in the exhibit were created and selected before the coronavirus shutdowns. But Wei said they are incredibly relevant to the current turmoil, both in relation to the pandemic and to the recent uprisings against racial injustice.
She pointed out that Maguire’s paintings focus on the plight of refugees displaced by war and political upheaval — the most vulnerable who are “sent on what is a kind of death march, a genocide.”
“And if you ask about the pandemic, what, for instance, does a camp in South Sudan that houses over 100,000 people under unspeakably inadequate conditions before this happened do if COVID-19 rips through it?”
In fact, Maguire’s most recent piece, “Bentiu Protection of Civilian Camps,” documents his visit to the heart of South Sudan in 2018 to a camp where more than 100,000 locals fled for safety amid ethnic fighting between the rival Dinka and Nuer tribes.
Because the South Sudanese government banned cameras inside the camp, Maguire held painting workshops for the children while surreptitiously photographing the harsh conditions in the camp — resulting in two large acrylic paintings and 12 chalk-on-paper portraits.
Maguire created another powerful portrait series to put a face to people who have been erased by conflict, but this series took place in a very different environment — not in Africa, but in a Mexican city ravaged by drug violence.
“Presence of Absence 2008/2020” is the culmination of a 10-year project in which Maguire created portraits based on family photographs of young women and children who were abducted and murdered in Ciudad Juarez from 2003 to 2019. In addition to collaborating with the families for the series, Maguire also produced a commemorative portrait for each family home.
Meanwhile, the artist’s “Aleppo” series vividly documents his 2017 visit to Syria to capture the wreckage of what was once a bustling, beautiful ancient city.
“What does it mean for the oldest city in the world to be destroyed by the most modern weapons in the world?” Maguire asks.
In this series, the artist focuses not on people but on Aleppo’s destroyed infrastructure. But the effect is no less human or devastating, with the dreary colors of the buildings dripping down to the bottom of the canvas, as if the rubble and ruins were crying or bleeding.
Since the beginning of his career, Maguire has paired his love for art with his passion for social justice, confronting onlookers with discomfort and honesty.
The direction Maguire’s career has taken is not all that surprising considering he grew up during the sectarian violence that plagued Northern Ireland for three decades. In the exhibition catalogue, Maguire says he was “political before he became an artist,” joining a leftist Irish movement to push for social reform.
Since then, he has combined his activism and art — in part by immersing himself in the experiences of the dispossessed and forgotten.
He always travels to the subjects he depicts, saying he finds it “completely necessary” to accurately portray their lives — and, at times, their deaths.
One particularly haunting piece, “Over Our Heads the Hollow Seas Closed Up,” depicts the floating body of a young man who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea on his journey to seek refuge in Europe. It’s a fate that befell tens of thousands of asylum-seekers from war-torn, poverty-stricken nations — men, women and children — as they tried to reach Europe’s shores during the 2015 refugee crisis.
The painting was based on photographs of the retrieval of the body by the Irish Navy. Maguire also depicted the journeys of other migrants, such as those who became vagrants in Paris or wound up detained in Ireland. Maguire traveled from Athens to Paris to Dublin to get a sense of the journey these asylum-seekers took, although he admits there is “no comparison.”
“It’s not the same thing. I’m not a refugee,” Maguire said. “But it seemed important to me to at least look at what was evident in the journey.”
Maguire said it’s crucial to put himself into the scene to render an accurate representation of what life is like through the eyes of refugees, civilians caught up in war and other marginalized people. Painting these works is an emotional process, he said, but standing in the place where a crisis has unfolded and documenting history is an entirely different experience.
The experience of viewing “Without Borders” is also an entirely different one than originally envisioned because the large-scale paintings — measuring between 10 feet to 13 feet across — are meant to be an immersive experience, so seeing them online is not the same thing as seeing them in person.
Still, the virtual exhibition and catalogue offer an important window into a world that’s often overlooked. It’s a brutal, searing picture that Maguire paints, but one that gives a voice to those who can best tell us about the ugly truths of war and conflict.
“Without Borders: The Paintings of Brian Maguire” can be viewed at https://www.american.edu/cas/museum/2020/without-borders.cfm.
Cami Mondeaux is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.