The new display at ArtRage Gallery views a nation that gained its independence just four years ago. Impressions: South Sudan blends interpretive and documentary-style photos by Michelle Gabel and Bruce Strong, commentary by Liberia-based independent journalist Maureen Sieh, and information about South Sudanese who moved to Syracuse years ago but still return to their homeland to enhance health care and education.
The images, taken on separate trips to South Sudan, reflect each photographer’s individual style. Yet they complement each other and develop a larger narrative. For example, the show discusses religious practices in a country whose populace includes Christians, animists and Moslems. A photo created by Gabel shows a woman holding a cross, while one of Strong’s images depicts a scene in a church.
Other photos document life in a rural region where most people are extremely poor, roughly half of them have access to potable drinking water, and health care is scarce. Gabel’s image shows a woman’s hand pouring water into a plastic bottle, thus emphasizing the precious nature of water.
One of Strong’s best photographs presents a bull and a couple of people in silhouette, with the bull’s horns dominating the image. In an agrarian community, ownership of cattle clearly boosts a family’s economic status.
Elsewhere, the exhibit displays portraits of various South Sudanese citizens. Gabel’s ultra-tight shot of a young boy managing his family’s stall at a market focuses almost entirely on him; we see little of the overall market. Strong, meanwhile, has created a portrait of a family, including a father, mother and child. They, along with a cow and chicken, stand close to their home, a hut-like structure.
A relatively straightforward photograph portrays a woman dipping a bucket into a pond to gather water for tobacco plants. In a more interpretive vein, Gabel’s shot of a woman walking down a trail toward a medical clinic also integrates vegetation, a nearby forest, and huts partially obscured by morning mist.
A stark photo, taken by Strong, highlights a skull lying on the ground. That it looks too large to be a human skull isn’t the point. Here the photographer is addressing violent conflicts that have plagued South Sudan for decades. First, its people struggled to free themselves from the domination of Sudan’s central government whose troops and allies killed thousands. Ultimately, the South Sudanese voted for a new country consisting of the 10 southernmost states of Sudan. Most recently, interethnic and political rivalries have led to widespread violence within South Sudan itself.
Other images discuss South Sudanese who left their nation as refugees, ultimately settled in Syracuse and continue working to improve life in the homeland. “Dance” depicts women dancing to celebrate the return of Gabriel Bol Deng to his village. He raised money to build a school and wells. A second image portrays Deng Leek, father of John Dau, a Syracusan who worked tirelessly to establish the Duk Lost Boys Clinic. Its primary building was ransacked more than a year ago, but a campaign is under way to rebuild the center.
The exhibit also presents print material including Sieh’s essays, a summary of South Sudan, and a narrative regarding Dau and Bol Deng, two of the so-called Lost Boys.
Gabel is a former staff photographer with the Syracuse Media Group and recipient of awards from the Associated Press and National Press Photographers Association. Strong is chair of the multimedia and graphic design department at Syracuse University’s Newhouse of Public Communications School. His images have appeared in Time, Newsweek and many other publications.
ArtRage has scheduled several programs in conjunction with the show. On Thursday, June 18, 6:30 p.m., a free screening of Rebuilding Hope, a documentary about Gabriel’s Bol Deng’s work in his home village of Ariang, will be followed by a discussion of ongoing projects there. On June 30, 7 p.m., there will be a showing of Duk County: Peace is in Sight in the New South Sudan, a documentary featuring John Dau, David Reed of Cazenovia and staff from the Duk Lost Boys Clinic. Dau will talk about the clinic’s current status.