Cedarville professor creates art to raise awareness of Syrian refugee crisis
by Daniel Garcia
A Cedarville art professor is working on a new project to urge viewers to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis.
This will be the second refugee-related artwork by sculpture and ceramics professor Zachariah Benson.
Before beginning his work on the projects, Benson said most of his views regarding refugees came from politics. When the Syrian refugee crisis surfaced, he aligned with his political party’s response. As time went on, however, he said he began asking not what politicians said, but what the church said.
Benson asked questions like “Where does Christ fit in with this?”, and “Where does He see the church needing to be?”
He said these questions led him away from art that was simply aesthetic in nature to art designed to convey an idea. Benson said this spurred his desire to create art highlighting the Syrian refugee crisis.
This spring will mark two years since the completion of Benson’s first refugee-related project. Consisting only of HVAC ducts and spanning nearly fifteen feet in length, it replicates the outer border of a raft used by Syrian refugees when crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Syria to Greece. Benson created the piece as a response to the difficulties of the journey that many refugees have to make, a journey that many do not survive.
His second project, which is still in progress and expected to be completed by next fall, is a continuation of his reflections on the Syrian refugee crisis.
“That [first] piece was responding to kind of their specific journey,” Benson said. “This [second] piece is kind of my toiling over my response to the issue.”
The second project is a replica of one of the many tents set up in Syrian refugee camps around the globe. Several of these tents contain Arabic text spray-painted on the outside, messages written by the refugees to the world. The specific tent that Benson replicated had writing which translates to “Fear God in us, oh nations.”
Benson said he first read the phrase as a threat, warning the nations that God’s wrath was coming through those they neglected. However, after doing some research, Benson learned that a more accurate translation would be “If you have a fear of God, show it in us, oh nations.”
The phrase is a plea, asking those who believe in God to act on their faith in how they treat refugees. The text, and Benson’s piece, is a call for viewers to not just understand, but to respond.
Dr. Matthew Bennett, professor of missions and theology, worked closely with Benson in the making of his most recent project. Bennett said he was particularly excited about Benson’s desire to destigmatize the Arabic language, something that few mediums besides art can achieve.
Besides sparking conversations, Benson said he also wants to allow the piece to influence his own response to the issue.
“If you would have talked to me two years ago or three years ago, I would have never thought … that the Lord would have used my artwork to draw me closer to Him,” Benson said.
For him, this has come in the form of getting involved with King’s Kids, an outreach ministry that works closely with refugees.
“My perspective of my world has gotten bigger; my care for the world has gotten bigger,” Benson said.
Bennett also said that Benson’s work has the potential to inspire others, beyond the artist himself.
“I really appreciate his heart in wanting to raise that awareness,” he said. “The Gospel should compel us to at least be moved with more compassion than sometimes we are.”
On a broader scale, both Benson and Bennett agree that art can be used as a powerful vehicle for social change.
“If a work of art is great, it can communicate [just as well], if not better, than verbal communication,” Benson said.
Both professors also emphasize the need for the responses to these pieces, and to refugees, to be Christ-centered.
“Our heart has to expand to be able to care for these individuals. And the only way to do that, I think, is through Christ,” Benson said.
Likewise, Bennett said that projects like Benson’s are trying to push viewers to think of the people rather than the issues. Believers specifically, Bennett said, should consider “what would the Gospel have us do?”
Benson said his aim is for others to be encouraged to boldly navigate difficult issues, issues that often no one wants to talk about.
He plans on finishing the tent replica by next year. It will be displayed as part of his solo art show in the fall of 2019.
Just as his art has changed his own ideas and his own perspectives, Benson wants it to challenge others’ ideas and perspectives as well. Ultimately, his goal is for his viewers to become better followers of Christ.
Daniel Garcia is a sophomore computer engineering major and a writer for Cedars. He likes chocolate milk, the metric system, and pretending he knows more than he really does about comic books.