Wednesday, April 11, 2012

To Countenance Empowerment

To Countenance Empowerment
By Tom Wachunas

“Equality for women and girls is not only a basic human right, it is a social and economic imperative. Where women are educated and empowered, economies are more productive and strong. Where women are fully represented, societies are more peaceful and stable.” - Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General, at the July, 2010 creation of UN Women, the first UN entity dedicated exclusively to gender equality and women’s empowerment –

“I want the viewer to see these people as individuals, to know their names and a bit of their history, not just view them as an anonymous part of some remote ethnic or tribal group.” – Phil Borges, photographer and founder of Stirring The Fire: a global movement toward gender equality –

Photography can be a particularly efficacious medium for constructing the aura of truth about a person, place, or thing. In portraiture, the most compelling pictures are those that somehow get beneath the formal visage to raise up the possibility of deeply considering a real human being - to manifest the immediacy, and often the urgency, of a life.

That’s precisely what makes the 35 portraits by Phil Borges, currently on view at Translations Art Gallery and the adjacent Anderson Creative gallery, so breathtakingly inspired and inspiring. “Stirring The Fire” is a social documentary photography installation, sponsored locally by Soroptimist International of Canton/Stark County, that chronicles both the struggles and victories of women and girls from around the world – largely in developing countries – who are confronting searing issues such as violence and abuse, human trafficking, obstacles to education, and health.

Borges’ photographs are black and white, except for the sharply focused faces, the human flesh, filtered in such a way that all the individuals are rendered in warm, earthen tones. It’s a remarkably dramatic effect, presenting a diverse population from across the globe, simultaneously enhancing the subjects’ individuality while unifying them in and through their accompanying stories. Some of those stories, each just several sentences in length, are heartbreaking or startling, some shocking, but all carry a message of striving for and arriving at hope, enlightenment, and otherwise evolving cultural transformation in their respective communities.

For as much as these gripping, life-sized images are celebratory acknowledgements of individuals who have overcome cruel cultural practices and oppression (or are in the process), they are also haunting reminders of horrific suffering. But the aura exuded by these portraits is not one of sanctimonious anger or political vitriol. Theirs is a lovely spirit of strength and dignity, intended to be a catalyst for local rectifying actions that could have life-changing, global impact.

In considering the potential of art to be a viable tool for sociocultural reform, I’m reminded of how Dorothea Lange’s documentary photographs prompted government aid to Depression-era migrant families in California. Lewis Hines’ stark photographic record of children workers in the early decades of 20th century America were so useful in altering public awareness and opinion that child factory labor was outlawed by the 1930s. Of course art, in and of itself, can never be reasonably expected to put an end to egregious societal practices. Picasso’s “Guernica,” for all its explosive depiction of nightmarish terror, didn’t prevent the Nazis from spilling the blood of millions.

Still, in its most noble and compassionate intents, in its most formally consummate presentations, art such as that presented in this lovingly mounted exhibit, CAN be a powerful beacon, a clarion call to make a difference. A passing of the torch, as it were. A stirring of the fire. The faces here - the PEOPLE here – are unforgettable, as are their stories. Yet their stories may never be truly complete unless we transform our intellectual and aesthetic appreciation of suffering and injustice into tangible, pro-active change. And as remarkably courageous and commendable as this show is, it nonetheless remains a work in progress, requiring us to apply the finishing touches.

The exhibit runs through May 26 at Translations Art Gallery and Anderson Creative, 331 Cleveland Ave. NW in downtown Canton. Here are a few upcoming associated events: MAY 10, a reception at Translations Art Gallery with Phil Borges, 7 to 9 pm, tickets $15; MAY 13, “Microlending Film Project” documentary by Canton native Rachel Cook, at the Canton Palace Theatre, matinee at 3 pm ($5), VIP screening with filmmaker at 6 pm, $10.

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Photos by Phil Borges: Transito, age 91, from Ecuador / Rufo, age 7, from Ethiopia

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