Lost and Found 

The ‘Lost Boys’ displaced by Sudanese genocide seek refuge in Nashville through art

Great loss and tragedy turn some people to substance abuse, others to violence or suicide. The horrors James Makuac witnessed during the nearly 14 years he endured as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan turned him into an artist, and he vividly remembers how it happened.
Great loss and tragedy turn some people to substance abuse, others to violence or suicide. The horrors James Makuac witnessed during the nearly 14 years he endured as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan turned him into an artist, and he vividly remembers how it happened. He was in the third of nine years he would eventually spend in a refugee camp in Kenya. “I was in school in a classroom,” he says, “and the teacher brought in a coffee cup and put it in front of the class and told us to draw what we see.”

Makuac took the teacher’s advice to heart. “I drew the cup,” he says, sitting at a table in the computer room at the Lost Boys Center & Gallery in Nashville’s SoBro district. He wears a suit, starched white shirt, tie and raincoat belted around his slim frame. “After a while, I started to draw other things that I saw,” he says, smiling shyly but frequently, “and then I began to draw my memories.”

Those memories—of great beauty, unimaginable sadness and unspeakable violence—are painted on canvases that hang on the gallery walls in two rooms at the front of the building. On Dec. 1, they will be available for auction, along with pieces donated by photographers, painters and sculptors, at a special event to raise funds for The Lost Boys Foundation of Nashville, which owns and operates the Lost Boys Center & Gallery.

The foundation was created by photographer Jack Spencer in response to the senseless murder of one of the 150 or so Lost Boys who were brought from Kenya to Nashville in 2001. Spencer is known for his themed series of photographs, often enhanced with lush, painterly effects. Upon hearing of the Sudanese refugees, he was inspired to make a portrait series of The Lost Boys. In doing so, he not only created a compelling collection of photographs, he became friends with the young men, moved by their heartrending stories and resilience.

“I had no interest in selling the work,” Spencer says. “I just wanted to photograph their spirits as best I could.”

In September 2004, two of the Lost Boys he had photographed—Pel Gai and Dourading Duop—were stabbed in a South Nashville nightclub by a drunken soldier. Duop recovered after a lengthy hospitalization, but Gai died the following morning at Vanderbilt Hospital. “The irony of Pel surviving those horrors only to come to the land of opportunity and be senselessly murdered was so confounding to me,” Spencer says.

The inspiration to launch The Lost Boys Foundation came as he went to colleagues and friends to supplement the money that other Lost Boys raised to bury Gai. The foundation’s long-term mission became creating a place where the Lost Boys could gather—most had scattered throughout Nashville wherever they could find work and housing—while providing job training, computer and life skills, and studio space where they could develop their talents and crafts as sources of accomplishment and income.

Early this year after extensive fund-raising efforts, the foundation acquired a corner building at 535 Fourth Ave. S. that had previously been an industrial shop. “The place was literally collapsing,” Spencer recalls. “It was filthy and dark. I wanted to turn around and walk out when I realized the enormity of what we had taken on.”

Instead, he took five months to transform the dank building into two light-filled exhibition rooms, a computer room, a small kitchen and a large studio in the rear. The young men gather there on weekends to work on painting, carvings, masks and clay vessels.

The Lost Boys Center & Gallery opened June 6 with an exhibition by The Lost Boys, as well as several photos from Spencer’s Lost Boys series. James Makuac was on hand that day to meet guests and answer questions about his work. He stood before a large painting that showed an antelope standing in grass with a city skyline behind it; above it was a sign saying “Welcome to Nairobi” and an airplane emblazoned with the words “Pride of Africa.” The piece depicted Makuac’s departure from Africa in June 2001, but his life as a carefree young boy had ended long before that.

Makuac was born June 24, 1976 in the village of Bor in Southern Sudan. Civil war had raged in his country for several years, but in 1987 it escalated into full-blown genocide. Soldiers raided and destroyed villages at random, raping the women and killing boys and men. Whenever word reached a village that soldiers were on the way, boys too young to fight were ordered by the elders to run away, in hopes of saving some of their people. Makuac, already fatherless, was one of those boys. When he was just 11 years old, he left his mother and sister in the middle of the night, escaping with only the clothes on his back.

He fled to the tall grasses of Ajakgeer, where he and other boys from his village met up with boys from other villages. They began walking, headed toward what they hoped would be refuge in Ethiopia.

“It was bad, really bad,” Makuac says softly, his eyes down. He repeats the words often as he recounts the next 13-and-a-half years of his life.

Ultimately, over 20,000 boys aged 4 to 15 wandered Sudan and crossed the Gilo River into Ethiopia. They stayed nearly four years, until war broke out in that country and the Lost Boys were driven back to Sudan. “They chased us to the Gilo River, shooting at us,” Makuac remembers. “The enemy was behind us, the river in front of us. All we could do was jump into the river. The current was so strong and many could not swim. The soldiers were shooting and there were crocodiles in the water. The river was full of bodies and so much blood, the water turned red.”

Those who survived spent another eight months walking—at night, in long single-file lines—to a refugee camp in Kenya, arriving in 1992. It was there Makuac began painting what he saw, and what he had seen. By the time American charities began bringing the Lost Boys to the United States, only about 3,600 were still alive.

Makuac and 150 others came to Nashville. They were provided with housing for three months and leads on jobs. Makuac’s day job now is with Tyson Meats, but when he is not working, he paints. Among the works to be exhibited at the Dec. 1 show is “Nights of Danger,” showing the deadly effects of one exploded bomb and another about to detonate as boys run. Another painting shows the Gilo River filled with bodies; another depicts a long line of boys snaking though tall grass at night, a million stars twinkling overhead.

Still another, Makuac says with a smile, is “life before”—his village and his mother at work among flowers, pounding grain with a mortar and pestle.

According to Spencer, the original funds were exhausted in the renovation of the building and in purchasing supplies. An accommodating rent agreement with the building’s landlord for the first year is about to expire, and the foundation sorely needs funds to continue operating and fulfill its mission.

“When Jack opened the center, we had a place to be,” says Makuac. “We had a place to come and be together and make art. I would like the center to continue. I hope that it can.”

The Lost Boys Foundation will present the auction—overseen by board member and Cumberland Gallery owner Carol Stein—and reception with food from Park Cafe and Whole Foods and wine from Lipman Bros. on Saturday, Dec. 1 from 6-9 p.m. Work from nearly 35 artists, including Spencer, Hiroshi Watanabe, Tom Chambers, Mark Tucker, Kurt Meer and Julia Martin, will be available for bidding. Admission is free, and bid numbers can be purchased for $10. All proceeds go to The Lost Boys Foundation. For more information, call 256-8302. The gallery is at 535 Fourth Ave. S.

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