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Sun., May 6, 2012

Jamie Tobias Neely: Women’s pain of war awaits bronze

It was the photographs of an Afghan mother and grandmother, huddled in a mud-floor home in Kabul, surrounded by six children and yet drugged on heroin, that caught Ildikó Kalapács’ imagination.

The photos were shot by Holly Pickett, a former Spokesman-Review photographer, and they appeared on NPR’s website in 2009. In Pickett’s photographs, a 3-year-old girl named Rika plays with a pack of cigarettes while her mother smokes heroin and opium beside her.

A masculine face usually conveys the sacrifice of war, but in the faces of those women and their frail children, Kalapács saw a misery she recognized. The child of a Hungarian family profoundly impacted by war in that country, the artist remembers the brutal survival instincts of the women that surrounded her.

Months later, she created a model for a bronze sculpture called “Bearing.” It displays the nude figure of a woman who carries a food basket on her head. Inside the basket perches a man with a rifle on his lap. Women’s bodies often reflect our culture’s affluence and hedonism; in this artwork they reflect survival and endurance.

Last week, a fundraiser for Kalapács’ sculpture project took place in Spokane just after President Barack Obama announced a new agreement to end the war in Afghanistan and change the U.S. relationship with that country.

Kalapács knows that Afghan people will struggle with the lasting effects of war’s trauma and violence for years, and even generations, to come.

The war in Afghanistan began with American concern not only about the terrorism threats of al-Qaida, but also for the human rights of Afghan women persecuted by the Taliban.

Earlier this spring former first lady Laura Bush attended a luncheon in Washington, D.C., with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It celebrated the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, which Bush helped form. Both women noted the changes in the lives of Afghan women since 2001, when the Taliban prevented girls from attending school. Now nearly 80 percent of girls are enrolled in primary school, according to the World Bank.

But those gains appear precarious. A 2011 TrustLaw poll of 213 gender experts from five continents ranked countries for their risks to women. TrustLaw is a legal news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation. It named Afghanistan, based on levels of violence, poor health care, brutal poverty and overall risk, as the most dangerous country in the world for women.

Clinton and Bush agree that the needs of Afghan women must not be neglected. Clinton told The Economist magazine, “We’re sending a strong message, that we certainly – and we think a lot of Americans – cannot be part of blessing any deal that turns the clock back on women in Afghanistan.”

When Kalapács contemplates the time ahead for the Afghan people, she winces. “I think there will be lots of pain,” she says. “I’m very sad, very sad, about that.”

She recalls the family stories of World War II when Hungary was occupied by Germans and then Russians. Her paternal great-grandfather was shot and killed, she says, because he hid sausages from the Russian soldiers who took over his farm. Her grandmother during the 1956 revolution saw a civilian spy hung upside down in a store window. He had been skinned alive.

These experiences, and others, toughened the women in her family and contributed to the child abuse Kalapács experienced as a girl. “My mother could be very brutal,” Kalapács said. “I think she didn’t know better.”

Kalapács has an ambitious plan for her bronze model, which was financed by the Puffin Foundation. She and a group of supporters plan to raise the $230,000 it would cost to have a life-size version of the sculpture cast in bronze and to donate it to a local public institution. She pictures the piece installed in a meadow where people can come to reflect on their own experiences with the burdens of war.

The costs of war are felt not only by women who live in places like Hungary and Afghanistan. They are borne in the Inland Northwest, too, by the women who fight these wars, by women who head households during a soldier’s absence, and by those who care for sons and husbands who return damaged.

Kalapács sees the anguish in the eyes of Spokane women, as they gaze at the resolute female figure in her model of “Bearing.”

“I’ve had young wives come up to me and say, ‘Ildikó, this is me.’ ”

Jamie Tobias Neely isan assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. She may be reached at jamietobiasneely@comcast.net.


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