World | Portrait Artist Stephen Bennett Counters Invisibility of Indigenous Girls
Stephen Bennett. “Penan Girl,” from Bario, Sarawak, Malaysia. 2006. Acrylic on canvas. 108 x 96 in.
All too often indigenous peoples are pushed to the fringes of modern society. My work is about breaking through those barriers.
— Stephen Bennett
BY GRACE ANEIZA ALI | GIRLS ISSUE | MARCH, 2013
“When I meet someone new, I cannot help but begin to study their face,” says Stephen Bennett. In the last 20 years, Bennett, a U.S.-based portrait artist, has travelled to over 30 countries painting the faces of people living in indigenous communities.
“All too often indigenous peoples are pushed to the fringes of modern society,” says Bennett. “My work is about breaking through those barriers.”
His goal is to paint 1,000 portraits of indigenous peoples across the globe. Bennett has transformed this global mission into the aptly titled organization, Faces of the World, a non-profit with a mission of increasing cultural pride and affirming the importance of indigenous cultures.
Currently, there are over 370 million indigenous peoples living in 70 countries worldwide. According to the United Nations, of that number, 67 million indigenous youth around the world continue to face great challenges. Further, women and girls “are often subjected to a double burden of discrimination on the ground of being female, and on the ground of being part of an indigenous population,” reported the 57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women held in New York in March. Girls in indigenous communities must confront several challenges: lack of educational opportunities, risks of being forced into early marriages as ways to alleviate their families’ poverty, and increased threats of physical and sexual violence.
Despite these odds, Bennett’s portraits of indigenous girls in countries such as Malaysia (above), New Guinea, Polynesia, and Seychelles (below), are full of intensity and radiance. They evoke a wondrous sense of magical realism, a result of Bennett’s use of paints hand-mixed from pure pigments. In his portraits, these girls are vibrant. They are not marked by hopelessness or victimization. They are not reflections of the challenges that surround them.
And yet, Bennett’s portraits draw attention to a sobering duality: the natural beauty inherent to these girls and their invisibility. As indigenous peoples they are among the most impoverished of our world’s citizens; they are also among the world’s most invisible. What seems as a simple act by Bennett—to use the art of portraiture to reflect the faces of these girls—becomes a powerful gesture of activism to counter invisibility.
In the last 6 years, Faces of the World has taught portrait workshops to over 7,000 children within indigenous communities and around the world. The organization has also curated exhibitions taking Bennett’s portraits to public audiences in Mexico, Malaysia, Tanzania, Dubai, Seychelles, and the United Nations headquarters in New York, among others. “Today these cultures are vanishing at unprecedented rates,” says Bennett. “Capturing their essence and making records is critically important.”
Bennett is half-way through his goal to paint 1,000 portraits of indigenous peoples. This year, he plans to visit indigenous communities throughout Myanmar and China.
Stephen Bennett. “Girl from Bagabaga,” Papaua New Guinea. 2007. Acrylic on canvas. 80 x 64 in.
Stephen Bennett. “Don’t Look at the Yellow Flower,” Moorea, French Polynesia, 2000. Acrylic on linen. 24 x 18 in.
Stephen Bennett. “Beach Baby,” Seychelles. 2002. Acrylic on canvas. 80 x 64 in.
Grace Aneiza Ali is the founder and editorial director of Of Note Magazine.
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