I painted this piece not long after the US invaded Iraq. For weeks after March 19, 2003, I went about my life with a feeling of something stuck in my throat, of being dangerously ill but unable to help myself, of being trapped in a futile muteness. Then I saw an article in the New York Times about an Iraqi family who had stumbled into a ground fight as they were trying to return to their home in the heart of Baghdad from a relative's house which had recently been bombed. They could not read the posted warning signs declaring their neighborhood a restricted zone because they were written in English. As the bullets began to fly and the soldiers began yelling in a foreign language from every side, the family tried speeding up to reach the safety of their home just around the corner.
In a few brief moments, every male member of the family—the drivers and front-seat passengers of the small convoy—had been killed by gunfire. The news photos showed a small group of devastated women spilling out of the motionless vehicles, holding onto their men or gesticulating explanations to the American soldiers. A handful of slump-shouldered American troops surrounded them, arms in hand, their distraught faces showing open confusion and shame, as they stood uselessly by
I saw myself in the soldiers, unable to understand how, in a democracy, this had come to pass, and how, as a citizen of that democracy, to bear the responsibility for it. I felt in need of a terrible forgiveness.
Shortly afterwards I saw an exhibit at the Mexican Museum of retablos and religious ex-voto images. A popular icon, repeated again and again, was that of Nuestra Señora del Refugio de Pecadores, or Our Lady, Refuge of Sinners. She is a figure of light and forgiveness, and a symbol of moral and spiritual refuge and guidance. In the symbolism of the flowering arch rising above the Madonna and the child she gently supports—representing grace, renewal, and the eternal blossoming of the human spirit—I saw something I needed: hope for a juvenile nation.
The painting draws upon the beauty of its Mexican/Catholic inspiration, but it incorporates a nation’s shame: Liberty is unable to support her flame; the tablet she dropped bears the date America invaded Iraq rather than the date of American independence; the rays of her crown pierce the eye, mouth and throat—the vision, voice and wisdom—of the Madonna. Yet the mother is undamaged, effortlessly steadying the faltering child.
Like its inspiration, this painting is a type of prayer for protection, not so much from the outrageous political acts that brought our nation to this pass, but from the cynicism I feared it awakened in me and others like me. In painting the rays of light, the gentleness and wisdom of the subject, the vibrant, living colors of the blossoms—and the flag—the painting became a meditation on daring to hope. It is also my secular form of penance. But most of all, it is a call to hope, for myself as a citizen, and for my country.
— Susan “Montana” Murdoch