A few years ago, my mother-in-law told me about a book by a woman named Immaculee Ilibagiza.
Immaculee is a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. For 91 days Immaculee and seven other women were hidden away inside a tiny bathroom of a local pastor’s house. When Immaculee entered into hiding, she was a beautiful, healthy young college student, weighing 115 pounds. When she and the other women came out from their hiding place in the bathroom, they entered into a world torn apart by violence. Immaculee emerged from her tiny cocoon in the bathroom weighing only 65 pounds, and she found that most of her own family had been brutally murdered.
Immaculee’s book, “Left to Tell”, is her story of survival. But it is more than that–it is also a story of tremendous faith and hope and the power of forgiveness. Immaculee’s faith and courage inspired and moved me so much, that I knew I had to try and capture it in a portrait.
For the last few years I have been working on a series of figurative works that have to do with finding freedom from the fear and shame that are often a part of our human condition. I have tried to present many facets of this spectrum by presenting figures that are wounded as well as figures that are healed and transcendent.
Immaculee’s inner and outer beauty seemed such a fitting subject for this body of work and so I decided to draw her in charcoal and try to describe visually her inner strength and joy. In the drawing, I turned her hair into a wing, because even though she was immersed in a world full of struggle and evil, her mind and her spirit were continually lifted into a realm of divine hope and triumphant love.
This is still one of my favorite drawings I’ve ever done. And it is probably one of the best portraits I’ve ever done. Artists are often our own worst critics, and we are sometimes too hard on ourselves. I have personally struggled with this quite a bit, but am now gradually learning to appreciate and feel more confident about my work and talents. When I look back on all of the portraits I’ve painted and drawn over the years, the one of Immaculee stands out as a work that I am proud of not only technically, but also in terms of its emotive power. There is a radiance in it that I am so grateful to have captured. For this reason, the idea of ever letting go of this drawing has been a difficult notion for me to grapple with. However, it is also for this reason that I feel strongly about releasing the portrait. It is my desire that one day I would meet Immaculee and be able to give it to her in person. So that is why I am writing this blog. And at my husband’s prompting, I have decided to contact the producers of the Oprah Winfrey Show in the hopes that Oprah might be able to arrange a meeting with Immaculee where I could give it to her in person. To be able to do this would bring this whole story full circle in a way, for it was on Oprah’s show that my mother-in-law first heard about Immaculee and her courageous journey.