Every month, we’re dusting off a piece of art from the British Red Cross collection to give it the attention it deserves. This month, it’s a sculpture that takes a no-holds-barred look at a crisis that touched the nation.
There is something about this sculpture that sticks in the memory.
At a glance, it seems slight and brittle. The concave figure looks like it might snap in two. The head is twisted to one side in exhaustion – with the palms held up. The viewer’s eye flows down the body to the woman’s feet, where a small child lies: curled up and weak.
In fact, the sculpture is made from heavy bronze, measuring 65 by 34 centimetres across.
Its title is ‘Famine’.
The worst famine in memory
Artist Lyn Constable Maxwell made the artwork in 1985, after she watched a documentary on the drought in Africa.
“I remember sitting up all night planning the sculpture after I had watched the programme,” she says – the memory still vivid.
The drought had put Ethiopia in the grips of a devastating famine – the worst in living memory.
Red Cross nurse Clare Bertschinger brought this situation to the world’s attention when she spoke to the BBC’s Michael Buerk, surrounded by 85,000 starving people.
Life hanging by a thread
Clare had been given the terrible task of choosing which children to let into the Red Cross feeding centre – with many already close to death.
In a letter in December 1984, Clare wrote: “In our present Red Cross feeding centre we feed, three times daily, seven days a week, an average of 550 children plus their mothers – well over a thousand in all.”
But the feeding centre did not have the capacity to care for everyone – there were just too many people.
Clare wrote that she saw “tens of thousands of starving Ethiopians just sit and wait to be saved from starvation.”
She added: “Life hangs by a thread for these people…”
Still giving out food
All around the world, the Red Cross still supports those in urgent need of food and at risk of disease and malnutrition.
Recently, we handed out food and water to the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes to escape the fighting in Iraq.
In South Sudan, we dropped emergency food out of aeroplanes. This was our first airdrop in nearly 20 years – a drastic step to reach 420,000 people in a country where access is difficult.
The power of image
Lyn’s sculpture of a mother and child was a reaction to a particular time, place and situation. However, she would like the artwork to remind people that chronic hunger still affects millions of people today.
“I hope that ‘Famine’ may still draw people’s attention to the desperate plight of victims around the world,” she tells me. “I believe so strongly in the power of image.”