Nint' Wardica, Bunny Matthews, New Orleans 2010. Oil on Tyvek
- Guernica, Pablo Picasso, Paris 1937. Oil on Canvas
On April 26, 1937 one hundred thousand pounds of high explosive and incendiary bombs rained down on the village of Guernica, killing one-third of the population, sixteen hundred civilians. 73 years later, on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded killing 11 workers and releasing 205.8 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
These disastrous events began a devastating ripple effect that began with those directly affected and soon spread to reach the world. These ripples traveled through many mediums, in the case of the oil spill they even traveled quite literally in ripples on the ocean’s surface, and in the case of Guernica they traveled in a wave of war that swept Europe, terrorizing civilian populations.
But one of the most important ways the reverberations of these occurrences reached the corners of the Earth was through the hearts of the millions who heard about them and sympathized with the suffering. This sympathy can be awakened in many ways, perhaps a story on the news, or a photograph of the scene, but even before such things existed humans relied on art to commemorate misery.
So in these troubled times, it is not surprising that the insight of an artist gave face to the horror, in a way no newspaper could. Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica not only became a memorial to the blood spilled on that April day, but an enduring challenge to all those who see it to truly consider the cost of war. 73 years later, Bunny Matthews took this challenge and twisted it into Nint’ Wardica, a modern glimpse of a new face of war, one that is raging right here in Louisiana.
One of the most prominent figures in Picasso’s Guernica is a bull that peers out at us from the left hand corner of the mural. Few things are thought to be more Spanish than the tradition of bullfighting. These regal creatures are placed in opposition to some of the country’s most highly honored and respected celebrities in fights that test both strength and cunning. This bull can be seen to stand for this tradition and the power of Spain’s culture. But the realities of bullfighting are much more revealing about what might be behind this particular bull’s hauntingly human eyes.
The bulls are bred for the express purpose of fighting; the ones that show the most ferocity are chosen to be sent to the bullfights. Once there they are observed, aggravated, and stabbed in crucial muscles causing weakening and blood loss until the matador enters to make his celebrated kill. By the time the slaughter actually happens, the bull has lost significant amounts of blood and strength and the matador’s kill is just the final straw. The bull is not exactly an innocent victim in this charade, several matadors have died in the ring, and for a while more horses (used to carry the riders that make the initial stabs) than bulls died in the ring. But the fact remains that the bulls’ motives for attack lie in provocation and fear while the people’s lie in their thirst for blood and entertainment. The attack on Guernica was a similar match up.
The Nazis dropped bomb after bomb on a civilian population whose village had no strategic military value. When they made their final slaughter, after over three hours of bombardment, those who weren’t dead were hopelessly demoralized, called “the greatest success” in a secret report from Berlin. The Nazis were not threatened by the men, women, and children living in the cultural capital of the Basque people. They took an opportunity to practice their new blanket-bombing tactics on a group of people whose historical culture favors independence and democratic ideals, making them a threat to Francisco Franco’s overthrow of the democratic government. Much like the once strong bull depicted in Picasso’s painting, Guernica was run through without warning and left to its blood and suffering.
In Nint’ Wardica, the solemn bull’s counterpart is a crab, dripping with oil, next to the smoking rig that brought that plague upon it. Much like bullfighting is for spain, seafood is a cultural pillar of the Gulf Coast, particularly when it comes to crustaceans like the crab. Crabs and crawfish not only offer delicious nutrition but a wonderful activity around which to center socialization. Crab and crawfish boils are occasions used to celebrate, commemorate, and intoxicate, they have strengthened the fabric of Southern food culture and formed a mouth watering institution. Behind this institution is an industry, one that we recently found out rests on very trepid waters.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion not only killed eleven rig workers but also put a death threat on Southern Louisiana’s 2.4 billion dollar seafood industry. Now it is estimated that from 2011 to 2013 the industry will suffer a $115 million to $172 million loss in gross revenue. This will come on top of the losses already incurred from the closing of the fisheries, the countrywide hike in seafood prices, and the impact on restaurants that rely on customers who were too scared to consume gulf coast products even after they were deemed safe. That crab has not only been poisoned, it too has been irreparably demoralized.
Perhaps there is no better way to express deep soul wrenching anguish than with the image of a mother losing a child. For centuries viewers’ hearts have been wrenched by the incredible sorrow so exquisitely expressed in Michelangelo’s Pieta. True to its name the sculpture exhume pity from all those who see it. Picasso drew on this for his statement on the forfeitures of war. The woman on the left side of the painting clutches the body of her lifeless child, appearing to howl up to the sky, from whence her nightmare came.
In Bunny Matthews’s version, the woman holds the form of a dead fish. She howls out for the people who saw their livelihoods coated in thick brown slime, and slowly suffocate like the creatures they depend on. The financial blow that the oil spill dealt to the area’s seafood industry workers put a glitch in a way of life that had been cultivated for generations. Many people lost family businesses reliant on the Gulf Coast ecosystem, others left the area in ruin, and still others are clinging for dear life to whatever slippery remnants are left, much like this woman clings to that dead fish. She may be mourning the loss of the fish in her hands and what it will mean for her life, or she may be mourning the loss of certainty in the future her children.
Although children are often said to be the epitome of innocence, sometimes animals are revered even more so. After Hurricane Katrina some studies showed that showing pictures of stranded or injured pets brought in more donations for relief than did those of humans in need. In bullfights, as was mentioned earlier, more horses used to die than bulls. The audience couldn’t bear to see their suffering so now they are equipped with protective padding. Perhaps for this reason, the central figure in Guernica is an innocent horse, run through with a javelin, screaming in pain. The wrenched position of the horse’s head suggests that the attack was unforeseen, and undeserved. So too were the people of Guernica shocked by the attack on their village, and stories of their pain, along with this painting, convinced the world that it was undeserved.
Who better to represent the undeserved pain of the Pelican State than the pelican herself? In Nint’ Wardica, she hovers center stage, oil coating her face and body. On the Louisiana flag is an image of a mother pelican sheltering the nest containing her offspring, she nurtures them by tearing out her own flesh to feed them. This symbol has been used by the Catholic Church as a symbol of Jesus’s self sacrifice and was adopted for the Louisiana flag for the same reason. Louisiana’s love affair with the pelican has been a long and tortured one.
Since the colonial days the Brown Pelican has stood as a representative of the state, but in the 1960s they disappeared from Louisiana, and very nearly from the world, due to use of the pesticide DDT. With the birth of the environmental movement DDT-use was banned from the United States and the pelican was reintroduced to the Pelican State from colonies in Florida. In 2009 they were removed from the endangered species list and considered resurrected. But the 2010 oil spill once again put their lives in peril. Hundreds of birds were found dead or dying, coated thick with oil. These creatures still hold a special place in the hearts of Louisiana natives and wildlife enthusiasts who are still working hard to ensure that these birds do rise again, as is called for by Nint’ Wardica.