Forging the Universal Human
Artists as Activists By: Saad Ghosn
Martin Zeinway rebels against war and divisive identities
“My artwork is a commentary on my war-torn origins and on the search for my identity”, says Martin Zeinway. “As a child I had to leave Liberia, my country of origin, devastated by an ongoing civil war, and resettle as a refugee in the USA.
Before moving here I never considered myself to be ‘Black’. I was Liberian, then African. To Americans, however, I am first Black, then African, then Liberian; and to Black Americans, an African, who is Black, from Liberia. Who am I in reality?”
Zeinway, a Cincinnati visual artist, arrived to the United States, with his uncle’s family, at age 14. He lived originally in Cleveland, OH, received a Bachelor’s degree in Studio Art from Central State University, Wilberforce, OH, a Master’s degree in Art Education form Miami University, Oxford, OH, and a Master in Fine Art degree from the University of Cincinnati (UC). He currently teaches art at Central State University and at Alliance Academy, a Cincinnati charter school.
In undergrad, Zeinway mostly developed technique, acquired skills and learned the academic side of art. Preparing for his Master in Art Education, he started questioning himself, remembering his past experiences, allowing them to emerge. Painful memories, silenced until then, resurfaced. The war he lived as a child and the damages it caused and that he experienced when visiting back his country, had never left him. Images of violence, desolation, destruction, human loss and suffering, dormant for many years, started reappearing in his drawings.
“I found myself sketching bodies without limbs, exploded bleeding heads, crying individuals, displaced families…” he says. “I knew where they were coming from.”
Encouraged by his professors to explore his feelings and concerns, he decided to create works about himself and his past and inform the viewer. War, violence and their negative effects, the destruction of his country and of its culture, the loss of life, disintegration of communities, became all part of his painted works. They spoke of the ugliness of armed conflicts and of the need to abolish them.
A Mother’s Cry, represents an African woman crying, her sons gone, recruited to be soldiers, her daughter forced to become a sex slave. Nothing is left to her, not even food depicted as fruit in the painting, alluding to both starvation and loss of her children, essential ingredients of her life. Zeinway was also indirectly referring to his own mother, sad, separated form her son she sent away not to be killed.
In Decisions, a young pregnant lady stands next to writing that says: “All I wanted is some food, and now I carry the baby of the rebels,” illustrating the unjust and inhuman pressures war places on individuals, especially women, for survival.
The Peace Keeper, points to the irony of war; it shows a soccer ball next to 2 groups of fighters laying down their arms. During the war, fighters would often reunite and stop fighting just the time of a football game, the ball, thus, an elusive symbol of peace.
The Role Reversal addresses the changes arm power inflicts on the traditional functioning of a community. It shows elders and elderly, in time of peace wise decision-makers of the tribe, silenced and replaced by powerful young gun-carrying fighters.
In The Future Is Dead, an image of a man holding a gun and shooting overlaps silhouettes of kids. It refers to all the kids who lost their future becoming children fighters or who were, as well as their culture, killed due to war.
Zeinway did many more paintings in his series, all focused on war, its detrimental effects on his country and life in general. In addition to his visual art, he also started writing down the outline of his life and experiences from the moment he was born. This led him to introspective analysis, to questioning about his identity, his role in a country different from his birth one, his future. It also coincided with the beginning of his graduate school at UC.
“Being at UC was challenging and frustrating at the same time,” he says. “I wanted to do something different but did not know what. I felt unable to define myself, asking constantly: Who am I? Am I an artist, an educator, a student, a Liberian, a Black, an African, an American…? I felt lost with so many layers of identity.”
This is when Zeinway resorted again to his artwork for help, visualizing his dilemmas and, in the process, working towards their resolution. To emphasize his African identity he included in his new drawings and paintings Adinkra symbols from West Africa, representing popular proverbs and maxims. He also delved into the world of fashion, applying African fabrics and designs to western cloth and garments he would wear, thus pointing to the intricate stitched-up duality of his being.
Who Am I?, a lithographic print with watercolor, displays the ongoing conflict between the 2 sides of his personality, the African Liberian and the American. It consists of 2 of his portraits shown back to back, one dressed in a western suit, the other in a suit layered with African fabric. In the background is the image of a child holding an AK47 gun, sitting in a classroom. Red, white and blue refer to the American flag and in the center is the Adinkra symbol of knowledge. Zeinway thus incorporated references to his African origin, his past as a child in a warring country, his experience in the West, his educated status wearing a suit, his search for knowledge… all sharing the surface of the same page, overlapping, yet coexisting in harmony.
“Liberia created me and showed me how to love and care for humanity; America taught me how to live and work,” he says. “I am a man of the world, rich of many experiences; I do not want to choose. The more categories we draw, the more divisiveness we generate.”
Zeinway will continue to use his art to oppose war and fight racial and social classifications. He wants his work to educate on the issues of identity, race, discrimination, and motivate for equality, peace and justice. He hopes one day to build an art school in his native Liberia to give children the opportunity to develop their creative talents at the service of a better world.