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Escapism: Dream or Reality?

by Ariana Lucido and Farhana Ahmed

right: "Rwandan Refugee Camp with Mother and Child". Sabastião Salgado, Brazilian, b. 1944. gelatin silver print.Ackland Fund. Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A common theme in relation to the feast is the idea of suspended time and space. There seems to be something about a feast that involves assigning importance to the present moment and simultaneously distancing oneself from the harsh realities of life. This distance could be the result of a hiatus from normal daily life or a dissociation of oneself from a significant event or trauma. The feast’s ability to fit a myriad of situations and circumstances attests to its flexibility, ranging from an ethereal fantasy to the very real context of profound suffering. This new idea of escapist motifs are clearly depicted in Nicolas Lancret’s Dance in a Garden, created in France during the mid 1730s, and Sebastião Salgado’s Rwandan Refugee Camp with Mother and Child, taken in Tanzania 1994. In both cases, a sharp break with life is depicted in two very distinct ways. Lancret’s piece is a portrayal of a fantasy retreat complete with costume and aristocratic airs, whereas Salgado’s photograph graphically illustrates the aftermath of genocide within the confines of a desolate landscape in Tanzania. Despite vastly different geographical settings along starkly contrasting media and historical contexts, the images when juxtaposed reveal the flexibility of the feast as it plays the ever important role of respite. Both pieces have elements of hearth and home that characterize the feast, but the Salgado work lacks many of the defining characteristics of feasting that are displayed as archetypal in Lancret’s, highlighting the contrasts between the two; despite this, the theme of community and the convention of everyday life are common to both pieces of art.

Starting with the different media, the construction of each piece reveals the basis for Dance in a Garden as a foil to Rwandan Refugee Camp with Mother and Child. To enhance the stark poignancy of the subject matter, Salgado uses a gelatin silver print to increase the contrast within the black and white image, making it more striking to the eye. The photographer utilizes this photographic medium because he wants the audience to see a highly realistic and graphic portrayal of residuum from one of the worst crimes attributable to mankind. This contrasts starkly with Lancret’s medium – oil and canvas. His fictional portrayal of reality requires a method that doesn’t depict a hyper-realistic view of the world like Salgado’s photographs, but rather embosses the painting with a superficiality that more readily complements the themes of fantasy and escapism. Such juxtapositions make the works foils of each other.

The setting is particularly significant with regards to the type of escape each artist is attempting to showcase. The landscape of the refugee camp and its natural characteristics develop this atmosphere of desolation and decay: bodies are strewn around makeshift tents and plants struggle to flourish, much like their human counterparts. The raw nature of their surroundings speaks to a lack of nourishment and of comfort that comes with forced displacement from their homeland and the consequent loss of identity. With an alternative link to nature, Lancret places his figures in a forest that alludes to the bounty and luxury of the aristocrats’ lifestyle, choosing it as their location for debauchery and merriment as it is far removed from the judgments of fellow courtesans. While we see that the refugee camp is characterized by a lack of provision of all basic needs, the tents of the aristocracy represent a surplus in health and material goods that makes their escape one of delight and fancy instead of massacre and survival, furthering the seeming opposition between them.

The formal background elements of both pieces contribute to the motif of escapism through the glimmers of normalcy in these divergent, surreal existences. Salgado’s focal point draws in the Rwandan subjects in the background, as they look towards the camera and involuntarily smile; this common human act poignantly illustrates the omnipresent fact that life goes on, amidst even the massive violations of human life and the associated guilt. This voyeuristic aspect flows into the Lancret work as the pampered elites, with their charged glances, seemingly devour the dancing couple as an aperitif of entertainment. The Bard, on the other hand, is seen as a provider of amusement who, by the very nature of his status, is a facilitator, not a participant. Though not in the background, the presence of the servant washing out wine bottles is in direct opposition to this elitist escape; a further reinforcement of his day-to-day activities, the servant is confined by his socioeconomic status and is thus denied direct participation in the pleasures of this fantastical adventure into the woods. These features of both works manifest the imposition of communal values on both situations, paralleling the transient nature of feasting in diverse ways.

Juxtaposing the various realities of escape comes together neatly when the feast of the affluent is contrasted with the half-empty pots of the refugees. Lancret’s work boasts of indulgent wine and luxurious fruit, while Salgado’s only alludes to the minimal presence of food and, even then, only as barely meeting the requisite amount for sustenance. A baby gazing at his mother, sitting amidst thousands of other Rwandan refugees in this giant encampment, ties together the entire image by presenting this idea of the resilience of archetypal human relationships in the face of suffering and the apparent ruination of a multiplicity of lives and identities. The overarching themes and motifs in this piece reach their natural denouement when the aristocratic dancing partners are contrasted with the unfortunate victims in the refugee camp. The aristocrats are kinesthetically distinct in that their movement and physical display of vitality and health are a testament to their escape as both ethereal and voluntary. The refugees, however, are chained to their oppressive, burdensome reality; this weighs them down in an almost lethargy of helplessness that explains the lack of movement and sedentary tendencies depicted within the photo. These observations serve to complement the differences in these two distinct portrayals of community.

Highlighting the numerous contrasts between these foils elucidates both artists’ conception of community in the feast. The lack of food or abundance in each work reveals interesting and nuanced ties to conceptions of normalcy and convention as related to the feast.



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