Helen de Sybel




Border series


A series of mixed media paintings made in response to the refugee crisis,
displayed in the forthcoming exhibition:

BORDERS at Highgate Gallery

25 Jun - 08 Jul 2021




Crucifixion at the Border 2018
Oil and collage on board 90x74 cm




Artist's introduction to the work

Borders first grew out of a deeply felt reaction to the plight of the refugees in the ‘Calais Jungle’ (2016).  Through the medium of oil paint and collage she references the conditions of war and displacement that have driven many of these individuals and their families from their countries of origin to seek a better life.

“In this body of work, I have become interested in the separation between the figures which struggle to remain ‘whole’ and the surrounding hostile and unstable landscape in which they find themselves.”

The characters who populate these canvasses are highly ambiguous, in singles and in pairs, sometimes running, sometimes hiding or following or being followed.  Much is left open for the viewer to interpret in these charged, vital, expressionistic works.




Border 2018
Oil and collage on board 33x69 cm



Border Detail


Border Detail


Border Detail




Father and daughter Calais Jungle 2018
Medium oil and collage
81x105 cm




Border installation 2018
Medium: oil and collage
100x95 cms

Click and scroll image for large view.




On The Way 2020
Acrylic and Gouache 12x30cm




Evening On The Road 2020
Acrylic and Gouache 15x45 cm




Early Morning 2020
Mixed Media 12X30




Child Refugee 2019
Mixed Media 10x14 cm




On the road 2019
Oil pastel and charcoal on paper 122X153cm




Calais Camp Evening 2019
Charcoal and conte 50X40cm




Old man resting 2019
Mixed Media 21X20cm




Border Post 2021
Acrylic, charcoal and pastel




Child refugee in the camp 2021
Acrylic and pastel




Child refugee on the road 2021
Acrylic and pastel




Letter 2021
Collage 48x60cm




Separation 2021
Collage 46x60cm




Journey 2021
Collage 58x60cm




Mother 2021
Collage 58x60cm




At the Border 2021
Oil and pastel on canvas 95x107cm



Towards The Bridge 2021
Oil and pastel on canvas 95x107cm




Dusk 2021
Oil and pastel on canvas 95x107cm



Walking Through 2021
Oil and pastel on paper




Richard Cork

The onset of the gruesome Covid pandemic, and the immense suffering it still inflicts across the world, has taken attention away from the tragic misery of refugees. Their plight is overlooked far too often when they arrive in countries which fail to give them compassionate support. But most refugees are intensely vulnerable, lonely individuals. And Helen de Sybel’s heartfelt work succeeds in exploring the desperation they experience while struggling to survive.
One of her largest paintings, Father and Daughter Calais Jungle, shows these two figures making their way through a blighted battleground. They look determined, and refuse to hide away in despair. Even so, the shattered structures surrounding them – made even more palpable by de Sybel’s eloquent use of collage as well as pigment – offer no source of hope.
No wonder the word ‘crucifixion’ is scrawled twice on the surface of another painting. It shows a borderland area where so many refugees fail to make their much-needed transition from one country to another. The handling of oil and collage vividly conveys the urgency experienced by the broken figures in the foreground, one of whom has suddenly decided to run.
But the nightmare will not go away. In a powerful triptych simply called Border, de Sybel places a variety of hard, gleaming objects among her agitated brushstrokes. These metallic elements add to the feelings of oppression and captivity which afflict the people struggling for survival here. The anguished words ‘why have you forsaken me’ are scrawled in a turbulent sky, and throughout the triptych ominous soldiers can be glimpsed with their menacing weapons.
Most of the time, though, de Sybel focuses on the refugees themselves. In images like Early Morning, On The Way, Walking Through and Evening on the Road, she deploys a horizontal format which emphasizes the sheer immensity of desolate places. The figures are small in relation to their surroundings, and they cannot protect themselves from the brutal weather often attacking them. Although buildings can be glimpsed sometimes, they look derelict rather than protective. And in a large painting called Towards The Bridge, an isolated woman walks bravely in the direction of structures on the verge of imminent collapse.
Even when figures are shown near the shed-like buildings which may provide temporary shelter, paintings like Dusk are full of foreboding. In Looking Out, an unusually large and robust refugee gazing into the distance might still feel overwhelmed by the daunting bleakness he surveys. De Sybel uses her agitated handling of acrylic, charcoal and pastel to express a very raw emotion in Border Post. Its wildness contrasts with Journey, where collage enables her to assemble a surprising number of separate images in one wall-like space, where they convey many different aspects of the suffering undergone by refugees.
Among the most agonising afflictions charted by de Sybel is the tragic separation of individual family members. Mother is dominated by the forlorn face of a woman striving to cope with her children’s loss. A poignant handwritten letter is even included in one elaborate collage, and Ikon juxtaposes a grieving female face with a metal bar redolent of a prison cell. Even in Britain, refugees are all too often treated like captives, and de Sybel’s images range from bewildered children to an exhausted old man. Although he is resting, the turbulence around him threatens his ability to survive.
In Refugee Girl, the courage conveyed all over her face seems challenged by the stormy mark-making nearby. Elsewhere, de Sybel decides to focus on a poignant close-up of a Child Refugee, where stoicism and determination prompt our sympathetic admiration. Even here, though, the melancholy sense of loss makes us realise just how devastating this child’s future may well turn out to be.