Execution Wall - Spanish Civil War


For Eternity


Setsuko Ono

‘For Our Beautiful Earth’

A Personal Statement by the artist Setsuko Ono

October 2009

Despite measures made by the US Treasury Department to prevent Japanese artist Setsuko Ono from traveling to display her paintings pertaining to the Palestinian struggle in Cuba, the work itself nevertheless made it to the 10th Havana Biennial.

I have been concerned with the plight of the Palestinian people ever since I went to the Middle East in 1968 as a doctorate student at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. The students of the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva were invited by the Arab League in order to have the opportunity to understand the Arab perspective of the Six-Day War. The students traveled to Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, meeting representatives of those countries' governments, Palestinians in refugee camps, as well as Palestinian students at the University of Amman. I recount with emotion the visit made to refugee camps in Jordan and seeing children studying under tents. The gross injustice of this conflict angered me. Subsequently, I worked at the World Bank from 1976-2003. After retiring from the Bank, I started to work full time as a sculptor and then recently as a painter. The Palestinian question never left my mind. The thought of those children I met, fighting and sacrificing themselves as adults, and now with their children continuing the struggle, was difficult to bear.

In the spring of 2008, I received an invitation from Cuba to participate in the March/April 2009 Tenth Havana Biennial. One of the Biennial’s themes was resistance. While I had never painted political themes in the past, I decided to draw upon them for my forthcoming pieces. I chose the theme ‘Resistance to Overwhelming Power’. I started to paint the deep despair and the great damage to life that Franco's rebellion in Spain inflicted on the Spanish people, by juxtaposing it to the injustice inflicted on to the Palestinians by Israel. After finishing this scroll (titled ‘Resistance to Overwhelming Power’, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 2.10x 10.0 meters), I started an individual painting on paper called ‘The Sacred Life’, because I often felt that Western people do not consider Arab life as valuable as theirs and I wanted to express this element of dehumanization. While I was painting this on paper as a "draft", I realized that unconsciously I had painted an image reminiscent of the medieval depiction of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Initially thinking that if it provoked a comparison, it would make my message stronger, and I decided to finish the piece on paper and glued it to a canvas (acrylic and charcoal, 2.10x1.50 meters).

During Christmas, I came home from Paris thinking that my work for the exhibit at the Biennial was finished. However, after Christmas, the Israeli siege on Gaza began. As images appeared on television and in newspapers, my whole being started to burn with fury against the stances taken and the negligence posed by Israel, the United States and Europe regarding the conflict. I thought I had an obligation to express my feelings in a painting, showing how courageous the Palestinian people are, and that their fight is not only for their country, but for their children and that of the world at large. It is resistance for the sake of humanity, so that we, as human beings can have peace with dignity and justice. I exhibited these paintings (one scroll, and two individual paintings) and two other scrolls at the Tenth Havana Biennial. I titled my exhibit ‘For Our Beautiful Earth’, because I felt all resistance against injustice gives dignity to men and therefore it has value beyond an individual, or groups of individuals. I assigned the same title to the painting of Gaza (acrylic and charcoal 2.10 x 10.0 meters). I wished to remind Israel first and then Europe and the United States, that Palestinians are motivated by dreams of peace, a peace with human dignity and justice: a beautiful world. In the second room of the museum, I exhibited two other scrolls (2.20x 10.0 meters), under the title ‘Dreams of Peace’, and these paintings are stylistically abstract figurative. The exhibit had a resounding success.

*(caption for ‘Resistance to Overwhelming Force’ detail: This is a painting about a poem written by Federico Garcia Lorca, a Spanish poet executed by Franco's government the year the Civil War broke out entitled ‘Romance Somnambulo’.)