“Boundless Space” Artist Stories Part 7: Drawing Through Grief and Destruction to New Beginnings

Welcome to the seventh in our Boundless Space storytelling series, which introduces just a few of the astonishing artists who have contributed work to the online auction, Boundless Space: The Possibilities of Burning Man. A diverse and delightful collection of work by 180 artists is now open for bidding. We’re inviting YOU and the world to peruse the richly illustrated online catalogue — which closes October 8, 2021. Proceeds from the Boundless Space auction will support participating artists and Burning Man Project.

Today we’re introducing you to Hani Abbas and Michael Bilsborough, two graphic artists from opposite ends of the globe. Whether their landscapes are emotional or ephemeral, each shares his art as a kind of alchemy to tell stories with the potential to shift realities. Each speaks of new beginnings. Meet a Syrian artist whose editorial cartoons forced his migration to a new home. And encounter a wary Black Rock City visitor, who came to love our desert city as a source of endless inspiration. We learn from both that every journey, however risky, is worth the effort.

Hani Abbas

Hani Abbas is a Palestinian cartoonist. Hani was born in 1977 in Yarmouk Camp, a camp for Palestinian refugees near Damascus, Syria, where at one point more than 100,000 refugees lived. A graduate of the First Teachers’ House in Damascus, Hani studied at the Faculty of Education at Damascus University, and worked as a teacher in Damascus schools from 1997 until 2011. During this same period, he worked as a cartoonist in many Syrian, Palestinian, and Arab newspapers, and won several Arab and international awards.

“I have a special vision about the works of art that are accomplished during periods of revolution, war, and asylum. I believe in the power of art to convey the true narrative of events away from news bulletins and political accounts.

“Art is the true narrator of the lives of people who lived in difficult times, the art that writes the real history and conveys the true picture of what is going on.”

During his final years in Syria, Hani lived through bombardment and siege in southern Damascus and Yarmouk Camp. With the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Hani stood with the revolution and painted for freedom. In 2012, Hani created a cartoon showing the flower that symbolizes the Syrian Revolution as immortal, and posted it on Facebook. He became wanted by the Syrian regime, and he and his family moved several times to escape persecution. At the end of 2012, Hani managed to escape to Lebanon, where he was awarded the International Press Freedom Award from Qatar.

“This is not a game. In fighting for the rights of others, you can lose your freedom or even your life.”

In 2014, Hani Abbas received the Editorial Cartoon International Prize (Prix International du Dessin de Presse), presented by Kofi Annan of the United Nations and the City of Geneva.

Hani has generously contributed a series of three drawings to the Boundless Space auction. At once simple and evocative, each one lovingly welcomes the viewer into a complex emotional landscape. Titled Waiting for the girls to leave the house, Love and Hope, and Reunion, the series is a window into the human soul in times of sorrow, connection, and transition. Its power is immediate, both heartbreaking and full of hope for a better future.

“Reunion, Love and Hope, Waiting for the girls to leave the house” by Hani Abbas

“In these three paintings we have a tragic vision of the destruction that occurred and the people we lost… the two girls who entered the house and did not leave it after that… the mother who pulled out pictures of her children from the rubble… and the migration that changed our addresses.

“Love and the need to escape with this love to new and far places… and a new life with all its hope… and pain… and waiting for something… something no one knows what it is.”

Hani is currently working as an art teacher at the Arts Center and International Schools of Geneva, and a cartoonist for several Arab and European newspapers.

Boundless Space is open for bidding until Friday, October 8 at 8am PT.

Michael Bilsborough

Michael Bilsborough is an artist and Burner living and working in Brooklyn, New York. After growing up in a small desert town in Southern California, he studied philosophy at Columbia University and earned his MFA from the School of Visual Arts. 

“I’ve always made art. I’ve always identified as an artist. My parents always steered me as an artist.

“When I was in third grade, I remember that on the last day of school, they gave out awards and certificates to every student in the class. So there was best athlete and best dancer, best storyteller. Then there was Best Artist, and the award went to one of my classmates who was kind of like my rival, the other artist in class. I was totally despondent because I didn’t know what else was left. And then the teacher said ‘most creative’ and ‘Michael Bilsborough’, and that was the award I got. So I was satisfied with that. It felt like most creative is prior to best artist, you know, it’s a condition of being an artist. So I was really happy about that.”

Michael teaches drawing and painting classes to college students, which has presented new challenges since the COVID pandemic began. 

“I’ve had to adapt the curriculum to the COVID world, and prepare to teach a hybrid class … every semester I’ve had to create a new course to respond to how the world is changing. But I’m looking forward to it because when I teach drawing and painting classes, I’m trying to teach students how to tell their story through methods and techniques that are adapted through art history. After the last year and half, they’re going to have a lot of stories.”

“Do It Live: Drawings From Black Rock City” by Michael Bilsborough (Image courtesy of the artist)

The six drawings of Michael’s in the Boundless Space catalogue (here and here) are scenes from Black Rock City 2019, as witnessed and documented by the artist. 

“In 2008 when my partner Alex mentioned Burning Man, I was kind of horrified. It sounded like all of the things that I don’t really like: festivals and desert camping. It took him four years to persuade me to go and I finally agreed to join him just so he would stop asking me to go … We had an amazing time and I’ve been back every year since then.

“At Black Rock City, I needed to find my role as a participant. I realized that I could make drawings live, in the moment, which offered both documentation and acknowledgement for some of the Burners building the city and culture.

“I grew up in the desert in California and, for me, the desert was always a place of open space and quietude and contemplation. You could just walk or run into the desert and sort of disappear. But at Burning Man, I saw that the desert was used sort of as a backdrop or a starting point. And it was like the platform for the constant spectacle that seemed to never end. 

“Do It Live: Drawings From Black Rock City” by Michael Bilsborough (Image courtesy of the artist)

“You know, if you see a fireworks show, there’s a beginning and a middle and an end, there’s a climax. But at Burning Man, it felt like the climax just continued over and over and it was always happening panoramically, and I liked seeing the desert animated that way. And then at the end, everything was broken down and it seemed like the desert was restored to that same contemplative space.

“Art is always based in alchemy and at Burning Man, there was alchemy on a grand scale, like an ecosystem scale.” 


Cover image features a portion of “Love and Hope” by Hani Abbas (All images courtesy of the artists)

About the author: Megan Miller

Megan Miller

As Burning Man Project's Senior Advisor, Megan oversees the organization's year-round communications team, which facilitates the flow of information to and from Burning Man’s founders, Board of Directors, volunteers, the media, and the broader public. Before joining the Burning Man staff in 2012, Megan spent 10 years in the public and non-profit sectors working for environmental protection, HIV/AIDS prevention, political campaigns, and the United States Senate. Born and raised in Juneau, Alaska, Megan earned a Bachelor’s degree in English & Art History from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. On playa she’s known as ‘Juno’ and can be found at Media Mecca.

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