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In August 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS) unleashed a campaign of genocide on the Yazidi people, a religious minority living in northern Iraq.

That month, Avi Asher-Schapiro, writing for the National Geographic News, reported, “Iraq’s estimated 500,000 Yazidis fear the end of their people and their religion. In less than two weeks, nearly all the Yazidis of Sinjar have fled north, seeking refuge in Kurdish territory, while thousands remained trapped in the rugged Sinjar mountains, awaiting rescue.”

More than 7,000 miles away in St. Helena, California, Nancy Willis was among those horrified by the stories of mass murder, and the rape and enslavement of Yazidi women by ISIS.

“I know I live in a beautiful place,” Willis said. “I am an artist. I need to — but I also need to feel a connection to the rest of the world.”

Willis set out to learn more about the conflict. Four years later, she has become an advocate for these faraway and little-known people, and the results of her work opens this week in a show, “Conflict Zone: Sinjar to St. Helena,” which runs Jan. 10-20 at Nimbus Arts. In conjunction with the show, on Tuesday, Jan. 15, Cameo Cinema will show “On Her Shoulders,” a documentary about Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who was captured by ISIS, escaped and won the Nobel Peace Prize as she shared her story with the world.

Who are the Yazidi?

“Yazidism is an ancient faith, with a rich oral tradition that integrates some Islamic beliefs with elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, a mystery religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Asher-Shapio wrote.

“The Yazidis have inhabited the mountains of northwestern Iraq for centuries, and the region is home to their holy places, shrines, and ancestral villages. For their beliefs, they have been the target of hatred for centuries. Considered heretical devil worshipers by many Muslims — including the advancing militants overrunning Iraq — the Yazidis have faced the possibility of genocide many times over.”

According to a BBC report by Lyse Doucet (September 2018), “the Yazidi people have endured 74 genocides throughout their tormented history, but the IS campaign to eradicate their faith and culture, recognised by the United Nations as genocide, may have dealt the most brutal blow.” As of 2018, Doucet wrote, “It is estimated that at least 3,000 women and children are still missing or held by ISIS.”

Art into empathy

A painter and print maker, Willis has long explored the connection between intimacy and social connection, and human relationships at home and in nature through series such as “The Bed,” “RSVP,” “Chandelier” and “Terrain.”

As she learned more about the Yazidis, she said, “I wanted to bring something here.”

The question is how to translate empathy into action, Willis said. “What I’ve discovered is that there are people like me who want to do something, but it feels insurmountable. I’m not rich. How can you make a difference in the world?”

Willis discovered that a community of Yazidi refugees were living in Houston, Texas. She called the University of Houston and found herself talking to Haider Elias, who had been studying biology at the university when ISIS attacked Sinjar. His brother was among the murdered men.

In the aftermath of the Yazidi genocide, Elias became one of the co-founders of Yazda, a multi-national organization helping to provide medical, humanitarian and psychological support for the Yazidi. She invited him to come to St. Helena. “For all he has been through, he is really funny,” Willis said. “He has a sense of joy and optimism.”

Willis also discovered that the University of Houston had a print-making facility. She applied for and received a Community Fund Grant from the Arts Council of Napa Valley, and as a result was able to travel to Houston where she worked with Yazidis to create a series of monotypes about their daily lives.

“One of the themes of my art is daily rituals and I wondered, ‘How do they do it?,” Willis said. “One of the critical things I was trying to convey was how art can be a messenger.”

She spent five days printmaking at the university with Yazidi refugees. What kind of prints? “Everything from temples to pizza,” Willis said. “Amazing things happen when you make art together.”

Next steps

After her trip to Texas, Willis said, “I knew it wasn’t the end.”

She applied for a second grant from the Arts Council, and with help from Elias, she was able to meet Nadia Murad, an Iraqi Yazidi who was captured on the same day that ISIS killed her mother and six brothers. Eighteen members of Murad’s family were killed or enslaved, and she was held by ISIS for three months until she was able to escape.

Now living in Germany, Murad has become a human rights activist, and in 2018, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Denis Mukwege, a doctor from the Congo, for “their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”

Willis met Murad at a hotel in London, and together they made prints recalling Nadia’s life before the ISIS genocide.

Murad’s work is part of Willis’ new St. Helena show, which also includes other Yazidi monotypes as well as Willis’s oil paintings of the landscape, schools and villages in northern Iraq. Willis said she hopes both the show and film will help raise awareness of the genocide but also demonstrate the power of art to bridge the distance between global and local actions.

In February, she will take the artworks to the Southern Graphics Council annual printmaking conference where she will give a lecture on “Art and Empathy.”

“I am trying to put a face on this,” Willis said. “It’s the richest thing I’ve done.”

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Features Editor

Sasha Paulsen has been features editor at the Napa Valley Register since 1999. A graduate of Napa High School, she studied English at UC Berkeley and St. Mary's College and earned a Masters in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.