A universal language

Exhibit turns art into a language to discuss, overcome worldly differences

“Untitled” by Islam Aboud. Islam Aboud
“Let love and faithfulness never leave you” by Ray Dirks. Ray Dirks
“She can laugh at the days to come” by Ray Dirks. Ray Dirks

Gather a group of strangers from different corners of the world with vastly different life experiences and ask them to talk about their lives.

How would you do it, knowing most don’t even speak the same language?

Well, you get them to draw and paint it all out.

That’s the driving force behind In the Spirit of Humanity, the latest exhibit showing at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery.

And for curator Ray Dirks, it has been a long and rewarding journey that began in 2008, taking him from India to classrooms across Winnipeg.

“Art in many ways is a universal language,” Dirks said. “So maybe people who don’t have the written or speaking skills in English can express themselves in art no matter what their language is.

“Everyone in some fashion can draw or paint. We’re not judging it, we just want people to express themselves. It’s nice to see people just as people (without the stereotypes).”

Art in many ways is a universal language. Everyone in some fashion can draw or paint. We’re not judging it, we just want people to express themselves.

Ray Dirks, curator

The first exhibit showed in India in January 2009. Earlier this year, a second exhibit highlighted the work of ethnic persons from across Winnipeg, ranging from Grade 2 students to adults studying English as an Additional Language.

The 70 pieces in the latest “layer” of this project feature watercolour work by Dirks and the close friends he has made while on this journey.

In each piece, the artists reflect on working with people and helping them realize that they’re not very different from each other. That human experience is universal: a smile is a smile, a mother’s love for her children is unwavering, and we all seek out and need friendship.

Other artists featured in the exhibit include Manju Lodha, Isam Aboud & Dr. M.K. Sharma.

“The (four) of us for years have all, in different ways, been working on trying to get people who are marginalized to feel that they have value,” Dirks said. “If we can get to know each other, we don’t need to fear each other. So we’re reflecting the kind of issues we feel are important for wider society.”

Dirks’s push toward tolerance and diversity through art is evident in the people he chose to surround himself with for the project.

“People can expect to see artists who have worked as a team, but still each one is very different,” Dirks said. “Manju is Hindu, Isam is Muslim, yet we work side by side as a team. Our art is not the same, but we have the same general goal.

“Just in that I think there’s a statement.”

In the Spirit of Humanity is on display at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery (600 Shaftesbury Blvd.) until Saturday, Sept. 18. The exhibit is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. Visit www.tinyurl.com/MHCGallery.

Published in Volume 65, Number 1 of The Uniter (September 2, 2010)

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