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Gjion Biamishtea by Carlo Gianferro
Arch, from the series 'Good Fences Make Good Neighbors', by Ai Weiwei
Bela Lugosi by Monica Lundy

Carlo Gianferro

Gjion Biamishtea, 2014, Photograph, © Carlo Gianferro

Ai Weiwei

Arch, from the series 'Good Fences Make Good Neighbors', 2017, Galvanized mild steel and mirror polished stainless steel, Washington Square Arch, Washington Square Park, Manhattan, © Ai Weiwei. Photo: Ed Rooney / Alamy Stock Photo

Monica Lundy

Bela Lugosi, 2017, Mixed media on panel overlaid with silver leaf, 5.25 x 5.25 cm, Collection of the artist, © Monica Lundy; Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Nancy Toomey Fine

Face-to-Face

Comparative Commentary by

Numbers 35, Joshua 20, and Deuteronomy 4:41–43 record the appointment of six Levitical cities as ‘cities of refuge’ to ensure that if there was an accidental killing, the accused killer could flee to one of these cities and be protected from the menace of the ‘avenger of blood’, living there until the death of the high priest, after which he was free to return to a normal lifestyle.

These provisions were a significant improvement on the prior tradition of blood vengeance, or the duty of the closest relative of a murdered victim to avenge the murder. Where this tradition maintained that the relative had the right to slay the accused with impunity, regardless of whether the accused was actually culpable of murder, the cities of refuge brought to light the extenuating circumstances of the accused so that he might be considered innocent of murder.

In a setting where the accused was essentially rendered ‘faceless’, his identity defined entirely by one tragic occurrence, the cities were opportunities for justice. They were places of hospitality and rehabilitation, looking beyond the stigma. They were places for face-to-face encounter.

All three artworks under consideration here play with the notion of face-to-face encounter. While each uses the encounter to highlight different aspects of the refugee experience in today’s socio-political climate, they also serve as a fitting analogy for considering the provisions of the biblical cities of refuge from the perspective of sanctuary-seekers.

Carlo Gianferro’s photograph, for example, conveys the self-imposed anonymity of a sanctuary-seeker living outside the protection of the cities of refuge. It captures a moment in the life of Gjion Biamishtea, an accidental killer who now lives in isolation for fear of retribution from the victim’s family, not unlike blood vengeance in ancient Israel. However, this portrait frustrates our attempts to empathize with Biamishtea and his circumstances. Most of the identifying features of his face are quite literally obscured by wisps of smoke. Whatever shame, anxiety, guilt, or fear he may be feeling can only be hinted at through his eyes which, ironically, look down and away. We are confronted with a nearly faceless ‘killer’.

By contrast, Monica Lundy’s painting Béla Lugosi places its subject’s face in full view. Here we see a representation of the possible heights a sanctuary-seeker may achieve with the supports available to him in one of the cities of refuge. The portrait commemorates the life and accomplishments of Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, an American immigrant who became a Hollywood icon. Its monumentality, conveyed both through its silver backdrop and its extreme close-up of Béla’s confident expression, belies its smudgy quality and small scale. We could interpret this portrait as signifying the difficulties and seeming insignificance Béla endured as an immigrant in the United States, but it is also an evocative expression of his accomplished stardom as a result of the efforts he and others expended to enable him to prosper in his new setting.

Ai Weiwei’s immersive sculpture Arch differs from Gianferro’s and Lundy’s portraits in that it did not have a face as part of its structural composition. Instead, visitors encountered their own faces reflected in the embrace of two human silhouettes as they passed through the sculpture’s opening.

Through this face-to-face encounter, Arch placed its visitors under a scrutiny which resembles the requisite process sanctuary-seekers went through to be admitted into the cities of refuge. The sculpture may not have conducted a trial to determine whether visitors were innocent of murder, but it did provoke a reflective examination which might have awakened those passing through its middle to consider the question of belonging—who belongs here and to whom does this city belong? The same question lay behind the deliberations at the gates of the cities of refuge.

In both the trial at the city gates and the reflective examination at the sculpture, however, the willingness to accept the other was emphasized. Residents in the cities of refuge, most of whom were not accused killers, were charged to welcome the ‘stranger and the sojourner’ into their communities (Numbers 35:15). Much in the same way, Arch held welcoming the stranger at its centre. The faces visitors encountered in the mirror of the sculpture’s embracing figures prompted them to see sanctuary-seekers not as faceless ‘illegals’ amassed at fences and gates, but as persons like themselves, with loved ones, fears, hopes, dreams, and aspirations, entitled to all the amenities that would allow them to flourish as members of their own communities.

 

References

Bagelman, Jennifer J. 2016. Sanctuary City: A Suspended State (New York: Palgrave Macmillan)