For several months last year, there was a space in Piazza San Pietro surrounded by boards. When I returned to Rome, the boards had been removed to reveal a large bronze sculpture depicting people on a boat. The people are of various races wearing clothes of different historical time periods as you can see above. The name of the sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, is not obvious and I didn’t even see it the first time I saw the sculpture. When I did see it, I came home and Googled the name and to my surprise, I found out that he is a Canadian from St. Jacob’s in Ontario.
He has devoted his career to creating sacred sculptures, a famous one being ‘Homeless Jesus’ which shows a man sleeping on a park bench. The one above ‘Angels Unawares’ was inspired by a verse from the New Testament: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”. Angel wings are depicted above the huddled mass of 140 migrants and refugees. Some look apprehensive, some are crying and some are joyful.
Later during the week, I went to a modern art museum the MAXXI where there was a participation installation by Yoko Ono entitled ‘Add Colour, Refugee Boat’. There were three boats in a small room all painted over with different shades of blue. I believe the room and boats started out white with the blue paint representing the sea. People coming to view the exhibit were given paint and could paint over anything in the room including the floor and walls in whatever way they wanted. We were given dark blue the day I was there but the painting was done in dark blue, pale blue and white so people must have gotten different colours on different days. The write-up said that it was part of a series of works conceived in 1960 shortly after Yoko Ono arrived in the US. The initial effect was quite serene but of course, one immediately thought (or at least I did) of the number of people who have perished crossing the seas.
Seeing the two pieces in the same week reminded me that the refugee situation hasn’t gotten any better. Thousands of people flee their homelands to escape war, famine, drought and persecution. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, numbers forcibly displaced people worldwide at 70.8 million with 25.9 million refugees, half of whom are under the age of 18. There are few countries that willingly welcome them and increasingly more countries that don’t want them to enter regardless of the circumstances. Hopefully works of art like these will give more people pause for thought or better yet, some action however small.