"Hibakusha" is the Japanese term for survivors of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki; its literal meaning is "bomb-affected people." The Project involves paintings of hibakusha, their stories
performed by Bernhardt, with music by Greta Bro, a musician who was her creative partner in the project.
The project began in 2003, when Bernhardt heard about US plans to develop tactical nuclear weapons. She was appalled
at her government's willingness to bring the devastating power of nuclear weapons into the arsenal of standard warfare.
She traveled to Japan in August of that year, spending two and a half weeks interviewing hibakusha and capturing their
likenesses in a series of collage portraits. After she returned, she crafted their stories and poems into a performance piece.
The final work can be presented in a number of forms: a simple art exhibit, a solo performance, or a multimedia piece with
music, dance, and portraits. "People think it will be ghastly," she says. "but it's really quite beautiful.
The piece goes through darkness into a vision of healing."
In describing the purpose of the Hibakusha Peace Project, Bernhardt seems to be summarizing everything she did from
1983 until then:
"My premise is that, if we don't get who we are, then we can't
live here as human beings. If we don't get the stories of the Hibakusha, the people who have lived through the unthinkable,
if we don't hear them, if we don't get what happens to humanity when it's burnt alive, if we don't allow our hearts to be
softened by the anguish or tears of these stories and the faces that bear the imprint, then how are we going to be human and
live like human beings?"
In the process of crafting a
series of works that communicate on such a profound level, Bernhardt has entered those deep levels herself: a total immersion
in the lives of others. It's a taxing process, and this was never more true than in the Hibakusha Peace Project. The cumulative
toll brought on a persistent illness that prompted her to turn in a new direction: "I have gone inwards in the sense
that the still small voice, the calling, has been 'Be still, be still, be still.'"