Leading Scottish artist unveils exhibition in Forfar
An award-winning Scottish wildlife artist who took his work in a new direction to explore the experiences of refugees now hopes to make further work responding to the situation in Ukraine.
As his exhibition, ‘Migrations: A Field Study of Adversity’, is unveiled at The Meffan Museum & Art Gallery in Forfar (30 April), Derek is in contact with refugees recently arrived from Ukraine in the UK.
Derek says there are many parallels between his work for the Meffan exhibition, inspired by visiting refugee camps in Sicily, Cyprus and Jordan, and the evolving situation in Ukraine.
Derek said: “What’s going through my mind is, ‘Oh my God, not again!’ When I planned this exhibition, I never expected that we would be in the midst of a new refugee crisis.
“I have been in contact by phone and email with refugees from Ukraine who have arrived in the UK, and I’m thinking about how to respond to their situation.
“I started this series thinking ‘I’ll do a painting’. It quickly became a few paintings, now there are more than 80. I thought I would have finished what I was going to say by now, but there is always a new situation to respond to.
“One of my overriding impressions when I speak to refugees is that this could be my brother, my mother, my daughter, one of my close friends — people who are living their lives just as we are, who suddenly find themselves in the midst of terrible conflict and have to leave everything. All of this is directly applicable to what’s happening in Ukraine.”
Derek, 54, from Balermino in Fife, is best-known as an award-winning wildlife artist. However, his work took a new direction when he realised that the routes taken by refugees travelling to Europe mirrored those of migratory birds.
“The summer of boats was unfolding, and I was watching people arriving in distress on the shores of a Greek island. I realised I recognised the beach — it was on a tiny island where I’d gone to help scientists monitor migratory birds.
“The issues are complex, but there are studies which make direct links between climate change, conflict and migration. Our response to the issues of environmental change and the refugee crisis in the coming decades will define who we are.”
Derek spent a year travelling to refugee camps in Europe and the Middle East, visiting refugee camps in Sicily, Cyprus and Jordan, the borders of Syria and Iraq, and the infamous ‘Jungle’ in Calais just before it was demolished. He volunteered with charities and taught art in refugee schools, as well as sketching and painting.
Along the way he was mugged, escorted away by armed police, and only just escaped a riot. His paintings combine images of the camps with fragments of songs and stories, and the birds he encountered. Some also incorporate discarded wood, paper and fabric found in the camps.
“I didn’t take a camera, because pointing a lens at people in these places was dangerous and inappropriate. I found I was using the same approach I use when I am studying wildlife, to sit down at the edge of things and sketch. Because I wasn’t a threat, people would come up and see what I was doing, it was a great way of meeting people.
“It was so shocking and upsetting to see people in that level of distress that it felt unreal a lot of the time. I had to keep prodding myself and saying ‘This is real life’. At the same time, people’s courage and good humour, and the warmth of their hospitality, was humbling.”
Adeline Kinsella, Culture Lead for ANGUSAlive said: “We are delighted to showcase Derek’s thought-provoking Exhibition. Given the current situation it is particularly poignant and highlights the fragility of the natural world and human existence.”
A percentage of the proceeds from any paintings sold are gifted back to refugee charities in Scotland and overseas.
Article by Susan Mansfield