While many Ottawans enjoy this year’s Winterlude festival and the host of artistic displays it includes, it’s easy to forget that the arts can play a role beyond entertainment and esthetic pleasure. Sure, ice sculptures are fun, but a look indoors this week reveals another facet of the art world – one that is considerably more important.
The Art of Zhen Shan Ren exhibit will be wrapping up at the St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts this Sunday, following a five-day stay that was just one of its many stops on a worldwide circuit. The show has been displayed in 50 different countries to date, telling a story that’s relevant far beyond China, the nation that inspired the collection.
Each of the paintings occupying the gallery’s walls depicts elements of Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline that emerged in China in the early '90s, characterized by its moral teachings and meditation. Despite (and most likely because of) its widespread popularity, Falun Gong’s practitioners have since been targeted by the country’s government and have been the victims of various human rights abuses. Their struggles and beliefs lie at the heart of the exhibit.
At its most basic level, The Art of Zhen Shan Ren offers viewers across the globe an opportunity to gain insight into the struggles and persecution of an under-represented group, but its significance runs far deeper than that. It’s also a stark reminder of art’s unique power to convey truth and elicit empathy across cultures, something as relevant in a democracy like Canada's as it is in China’s oppressive state.
While exposure to exhibits and issues from other social contexts is undoubtedly essential in broadening our global understanding, it can be all too easy to fall into a mindset that sees civil crises as something unique to the countries of others, and to overlook those that occur at home. That isn’t to say that activism has had no place in Canada’s artistic tradition – far from it. You don’t need to delve too far into the vaults to remember the waves made by politicized artists during the 2008 federal election, when Conservative cuts to the arts were widely debated during campaigning.
But there are myriad examples of artists across the country, creating socially aware and acutely critical works with the potential, given the right exposure, to stimulate meaningful dialogue. What they produce is more than a reactive rallying cry against immediate threats to their own livelihoods. Individuals and collectives address everything from economic trials, as is the case with Windsor’s Broken City Lab, to the systemic abuse and marginalization of Aboriginal women in Canada, represented in startling works created by Rebecca Bellmore, before her frustrated resignation from the public stage.
Today, there are still plenty of current public issues to make citizens (artistic and otherwise) bristle.
Recent Idle No More demonstrations come to mind, but the motivations that have underpinned that movement are by no means the only causes for discontent in this country.
With a little searching, it’s easy to find people who are expressing that sentiment through various media. Art, when the need arises, can be a formidable weapon to combat both complacency and cynicism – and one that Canadian artists have as much reason to wield as anyone else.