Local Artists Paint Refugees, Including One Man Who Fled Stoning, to Benefit Human Rights

Bill Holston, director of Human Rights Initiative, says artwork is a respectful way to express what their clients have been through, because it doesn't require them to vocalize their stories to numerous people.
Bill Holston, director of Human Rights Initiative, says artwork is a respectful way to express what their clients have been through, because it doesn't require them to vocalize their stories to numerous people.
Karen Gavis

From his backyard studio, Oak Cliff artist Chris Bingham has detailed the face of a survivor.

“Abdur” was granted asylum from his home country, Afghanistan, where he was accused of being a spy for the United States. In a mostly dark painting, a colorful bandana represents his loss of identity while the artwork’s murky background, Bingham said, reflects a shaded past.

“The snake represents death,” Bingham said, referring to a smaller painting. “The butterfly represents new life and a new beginning.”

Bingham and five other local artists paired with Human Rights Initiative (HRI) clients for the inaugural Rock Your Heart Out Concert and Art Auction. The fundraiser, taking place on Nov. 5 at Life in Deep Ellum, aims to help immigrants fleeing atrocities

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With the help of 300 pro bono North Texas lawyers, the 16-year-old nonprofit group provides legal services for survivors of violence across the globe. HRI Director Bill Holston said the most common human rights abuses the organization sees involve women who are victims of domestic violence, genital mutilation, sexual assault and forced marriage.

“We see these types of things very frequently,” he said. “The work is compelling.”

Holston said HRI tries to minimize the number of times a client has to retell the painful stories of their past. He also said the artwork provides a respectful way for clients to express the things they have gone through. "[Abdur’s] was a hard story to hear,” Bingham said. “It is more than anybody should have to go through.”

Bees that dot the canvas represent the danger in Abdur’s life, Bingham said. He mentioned how the Taliban had killed Abdur’s friend, who was being investigated along with him. The murder prompted Abdur to attend a university in Germany yet danger continued to stalk him. He secretly married his longtime girlfriend, who because of family tradition had been promised to another man.

Although the couple tried to keep their marriage secret, his wife’s brothers caught the two together and brutally beat Abdur. As the date neared for her arranged marriage to the other man, Abdur’s wife learned she was pregnant with his child. According to HRI, a tribal court ruled that Abdur could divorce his wife or else the two would be publicly stoned to death.

Abdur visited with Bingham for about an hour, Bingham said, during which time he shared the tragic details of his past. Abdur told him how, because of his work as a translator for NATO, the Taliban had spitefully killed his brother and his grandfather. The murders forced Abdur to flee his home country with his wife and child prior to seeking asylum in the United States.

The colorful flowers adorning the pale blue bandana in the painting, Bingham explained, are associated with death, yet they also represent a new beginning.

“With death comes new life,” he said.

Bingham, a University of Texas at Arlington graduate, teaches art at Mesquite High School. The 37-year-old describes his artistic style as nostalgic realism which he said allows him to blend past experience with emotion.

“It was never about getting rich,” he said. “It was, like, making art for art’s sake. It was in my blood, something I had to do. If I made zero dollars painting, I would still paint.”

Bingham, whose work generally sells in a price range of several hundred to several thousand dollars, said he finally feels like the piece representing Abdur’s life is complete. “I think [this project] is going to lead me into a new direction with my own artwork," he said.

Having the fundraiser in Deep Ellum, Holston said, will bring exposure to a whole new group of young people who can drink beer, “see good art and listen to good music,” all while supporting human rights.
“Dallas has a great artist community,” he said. “And the heart of that community is in Deep Ellum. From the time of the early bluesmen like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Dallas has been a hotbed of creativity.”

The Rock Your Heart Out Concert and Art Auction will run from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. VIP tickets cost $100 and get you valet parking, VIP seating, open bar, hors d’oeuvres and a concert T-shirt. General admission costs $35 and includes two drink tickets. Proceeds from the event will help pay the expenses of agencies involved with helping survivors. For more information, visit rockyourheartout.org.


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