The Bones They Left Behind
I was introduced to Jill Scipione’s artwork in 2009 when I came back from Rwanda and was shown her drawings of skulls. It was particularly meaningful to me at the time because, in Rwanda, the bones of Tutsis killed in the genocide in 1994 are put on display in churches and memorial sites. There, skulls and bones serve as a testament to the horrors of the genocide. Rwanda is not the first country to use remains both as a proof that genocide occurred and as a call for action to prevent future mass killings. For example, there are quite a number of pictures of the Holocaust that show the piles of bones to show the extent the killing and horror of the camps. In Guatemala, forensic researchers are digging up bodies from mass graves to identity the victims of violent killings that occurred during the 36-year conflict that ended in 1996. The aim is to help their families bring some closure and, perhaps, some justice.
In many societies, however, people bury the corpses and feel uncomfortable at the sight or display of bones. In art, they are a symbol of our mortality. I therefore wanted to discover the message and meaning behind Jill’s work, especially since I was so drawn to it. What follows is a discussion with the artist.
Marie Lamensch: While the skulls that you draw are not always from countries and cultures that have experienced genocide, as an artist with a social consciousness, what do skulls represent for you, especially in the context of mass atrocities?
Jill Scipione: Perhaps, the simplest answer is to say that the skulls represent, for me, individuals. They represent the essential singularity of each life. Each one is as unique as a finger print. They represent a specific person who lived at a specific time and in a specific place. Like everyone, external experiences and factors shaped them, their lives. Especially in the context of mass atrocities where victims are jumbled together to make them anonymous, the skulls to me are a repudiation of dehumanization. The drawings are meant to be a kind of retrieval of a normal human life that, in the context of mass killings, is lost (purposely so). They are evidence of a particular life and a shared humanity.
ML: Are your drawings of skulls meant to transform our visions of bones and therefore of the dead? Are you trying to bring some form of identity to the bones?
JS: In art, at least in Western art, and in popular cultural images, the skull is obviously a symbol of death, understandably so, almost exclusively so. When I was able to draw from actual skulls, though, I was struck by how personal and individual they are. How “recognizable” in a sense. I truly had a different notion when I set out to draw bones, thinking I would get some general, repeatable images and move on from there. However, confronted with the skulls of human beings, the bones themselves seemed to demand a much different response. Hopefully, the length of time spent on each drawing compels the viewer to slow down long enough to consider the individual, even if the individual is nameless, lived centuries ago, in a completely different part of the world and in a drastically different culture.
ML: When we started discussing the meaning of your drawing, you cited quotes from the book of Ezekiel and you said that the story is the impetus for the skull drawing. Ezekiel finds himself in a valley full of bones. The bones are dry, nameless and forgotten. But the Lord asks Ezekiel “Son of man, can these bones live?” Why were you particularly inspired by this question? What is the message behind this question?
JS: The question has a lot of weight, and in the text is a little shocking in the amount of pressure put to answer the unanswerable. It is almost nonsensical. When I first read it and even returning to the text later, I wondered how Ezekiel would answer, given that the human answer of “no” was implied to be incorrect and the answer “yes” would be hubris on man’s part. It brings us to the exact point we all seem to come to when faced with death or complete despair, hopelessness. It struck me as the point that the whole story balances on. And what indeed would be the answer? Ezekiel has to answer something. What could he possibly say? Where was this leading? Is there a “right” answer?
The context of the story is the exile in Babylon and is a period of complete and profound loss. Looking at the bones (in the vision) is like looking at a mass grave exposed. The message of the question seemed to me to be about hope in the midst of final, absolute, hopelessness. Is there any? Can there be any in any meaningful way? (Of course, I don’t mean “optimism” here, but hope)
My intent in the drawings is to express, embody, almost ritualistically enact, that sense of existential hope, by slowly drawing individuals one by one.
ML: You keep a picture of a pile of skulls in your art studio. Can you explain why and how it influences your thought process as you draw?
JS: The picture I keep in my studio is a picture of a cement platform covered with, primarily, skulls. They are heaped high and in the foreground a child frowns at the camera. It was a still from a documentary about the Khmer Rouge. When I first saw it, like anyone would be, I was taken aback. One never gets used to these pictures because one has no frame of reference. But the picture is so stunning (partly in the mundane way it is taken), that the record of atrocity and suffering seemed to put anything I would do to shame. I wondered why, if my concern, even in small part, is justice, did I not make these masses of bones my subject? Frankly, with the Ezekiel story, that was my original intent. After living with the photograph and working next to it I found I was influenced by such images to do the opposite; to retrieve the individual from just such oblivion. I don’t think the photographed can be excelled in its purpose of exposing atrocity. The piles of bones and mass graves, I feel, are meant to signal (on the part of the perpetrators), anonymity, dehumanization and the worthlessness of the individual. The thing that is striking about such photographs is that every skull looks the same. Individuals become part of an abstraction, forgettable. In reality skulls are astonishingly individual. Although, the skulls I draw are not from such situations, the painstaking portrayal of each individual, to me, echoes, imitates, copies the efforts to identify individuals from mass graves, identify the remains of the lost and disappeared. The drawings are an attempt to unbind the skull of the person from the symbol of death.
ML: How would you describe the relationship that we, as living human beings living in North America, have with bones? In our North American and European culture, we seem to be scared of bones because they are a symbol of death, of our own mortality. In other cultures, people have very different relationships with bones – as is the case in Mexican culture for example. Do you think we should redefine our relationship to the dead?
JS: This question is really beyond my ability to answer adequately. When I thought about this I realized that I have no very clear idea how people in North America think about bones and death and mortality because almost no one talks about it. One could probably infer much just from the silence. (Even in North America I think we would have to make a distinction between Western and other immigrant cultures, and Indigenous peoples, who have very strong feelings about bones.) I would say that everyone seems to have a fairly strong response to the drawings and engages with this work in ways that my other work, perhaps didn’t elicit. In one instance, I had to remove the work from a public lobby where they were displayed because people were quite offended and demanded they be taken down. But for the most part people are curious and responsive and tend to offer input. Almost as if they would like to add to the drawings, make adjustments, make corrections, and maybe clarify, participate in some way. I think the reactions sometimes give a clue as to how people think about mortality. It is not at all consistent.
One thing I have found, both from physical alterations on the skulls themselves and having read about some of the practices of the different cultures represented by the skulls, is that there is such vast variety in how people relate to bones that it is hard if not impossible to reconcile them in any way. In some places trophy skulls of enemies were carried around and preserved, in some cultures it is skulls of revered ancestors. In some locations, bones are disinterred and painted and/or displayed. Some skulls have decorative incisions, red ochre, shell eyes or other modifications. Other cultures, I believe, would find some practices appalling, if not sacrilegious.
Our relationship to the dead seems to be defined by our outlook on death, which, yes, I think could be possibly redefined by replacing fear with hope.
If you liked this article, please consider becoming a Patron and contributing to the work we do here at The Mantle.