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April 18 to May 13, 1990

Bristolia: Winter of Hope

Heather Spears

From the article in the Danish Red Cross magazine, Debat, September 1987.

In the winter of 1987, portrait artists, Heather Spears spent six weeks aboard the Red Cross Asylum Centre, the ship Bristolia, in Copenhagen Harbour. It was a time of great intensity, when she lived as a close observer of the refugee’s hope of finding a place in the world, of their strong will to survive, and of their loneliness and homesickness....About her work Spears says: “The truth in drawing is the dimension of time. A photograph catches only the moment, but even a quick drawing has a better chance of nearing the truth.”

Heather drew until the ship was closed, and the refugees spread to the winds. Some to other centre, to go on waiting for their cases to be reviewed, some to the integration program, and others to an uncertain fate in another country.

“Every drawing of course means something to me it’s hard to pick a few out. I came to care very much about these people and some have become friends for life.

“This man made a deep impression. He was at a standstill in his waiting. He couldn’t bring himself to read or write – he did absolutely nothing. He had lost contact with his wife and child – the doors were closed behind him...It is unbelievable what these people have survived and must survive. A family member dies – they get word of it muchd later – they cannot even go home to mourn.

“A typical and telling picture of life aboard ship. The crammed ashtray, homemade cigarettes, glasses with cold remains of tea, a radio, lemons...The refugees were each issued a fork and a tea glass, and had to look after them. Once I was offered tea in the cafeteria, before I knew the rules; I left the glass behind me and it was lost. That was bad.

“There wasn’t much to gather together for, or space to gather in. The cafeteria was used for card games, more at the start. As time passed, energy for enjoying games also disappeared. They waited.

“Thirteen-year-old Susan was eldest of a flock of eight children. She always had a little brother or sister clinging to her hip. But she wanted to appear in the picture alone. The picture doesn’t quite resemble her without the child who was always on her lap. Here is her little brother, bribed to sit on a chair. The family was expecting their ninth child.”

Two Rivers Gallery > Experience Art > Past Exhibitions > 1990 > Heather Spears: Bristolia

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