Art Sparks Dialogue On Race, Religion

In Philadelphia, interfaith show aims to combat intolerance

Artist Blanche VanDusen is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She tells a remarkable story: She was visiting Auschwitz and standing where her father's mother and sister had been sent to the gas chamber.

"I was angrier than I had ever been in my life," she recalls. And she carried that anger for a long time.

Years later, Ms. VanDusen went to see the Irish National Theatre Production of "Juno and the Paycock" by Sean O'Casey. In one scene, a mother is mourning the loss of her son who was "riddled with bullets."

Cursing and weeping, she then stops and quietly prays to God: "Please don't turn my heart to stone...."

That moment changed VanDusen's life. "I understood how easy it is to lose touch with the love within ourselves and how my own anger had led me to a fragmented view of the world."

Such a story demonstrates the power of art and adds poignancy to a bronze sculpture created by VanDusen titled "The Dance of the Dervish." The sculpture illustrates the whirling dance performed by men in Turkey to symbolize the continual remembrance of their Creator.

VanDusen's sculpture is one of 120 works in the exhibition "Art & Religion: The Many Faces of Faith" showing at the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies in Philadelphia and Villanova University Art Gallery in Villanova, Pa., through Aug. 22.

The exhibit is sponsored by the Committee to Combat Racism and the Advocacy, Service, and Justice Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. The show, along with related exhibits and events around the city, was organized to celebrate the 1997 General Convention of the Episcopal Church held in Philadelphia last month.

Far-reaching aims

The exhibit is billed as a multi-ethnic, interfaith show with the purpose to help combat intolerance among races and religions and to build community.

"Racism is thriving in this country," says Kay Meyers, who conceived of the idea for the exhibit several years ago. "White people don't tend to think about it, saying, 'Oh it's better, so it's going away.' For people of color, the experience is there all the time. This exhibit is meant to stimulate conversation."

"The works are religious," says Homer Jackson, an interdisciplinary artist and a juror for the exhibit. "But they have a ring that is more akin to the part after church when you shake hands.

"These artists are telling stories, and you can see pieces of yourself in their work regardless of your religious beliefs."

Mr. Jackson says he hopes the show compels viewers to think deeply about what they hold in their thought daily - and differentiate thoughts that are valuable from those that are not.

Be sensitive not only to racism, he suggests, but also sexism, ageism, and judgment based on creed, religion, economic status, where a person lives, and so on.

"I think the potential for healing is there," Jackson says. "It's amazing how many people haven't rationalized the common humanity in people - that when we get tickled most of us laugh; when we get hit, we cry; when our stomachs growl, most of us eat."

Some 2,000 submissions by more than 500 artists - professional as well as amateur from across the country - were sent in after the committee started to solicit.

A jury of five Philadelphia artists - an African-American, a Latino, an Asian American, a native American, and a European American - made selections and chose prizewinners.

Exhibited works include Latino retablos (prayer paintings), a photograph of a "Young Buddhist Monk at Prayer," Jewish prayer shawls, and folded paper sculpture by a Chinese dissident.

Accompanying the works are artists' written statements about racism. Banners hanging from the ceilings quote from various religions' teachings that relate to brotherly love.

Many echo the golden rule. From Confucianism: "Surely it is the maxim of loving kindness: Do not unto others that you would not have them unto you." (Analects 15:23)

Outgrowth of experiences

Some of the pieces here are direct responses to the experience of racism, such as Jinliang Chi's calligraphy "Tolerance." Others are related to faith, such as "To Believe," by Pew Fellowship award-winner Barbara J. Bullock.

Several local arts writers have criticized organizers for trying to take on too much at once - art, religion, and racism. Some say the exhibit ignores the fact that through history, discrimination has been allowed, justified, even encouraged by religious movements.

To which Jackson muses, "It's funny that people say you try to do too much when there's so much to do." The arts can't solve problems, but they can raise questions and challenge thought, he says. If one person left the exhibit moved, it is successful.

A kind of performance art

To judge this project only critically might be missing the point. The motive is positive, even if the delivery seems to be more a survey than an exhibit, as one critic states. And in a way, the process of building the exhibit is a kind of performance art - a testimonial to people of different races and faiths working together.

And the show does spark dialogue. As artist VanDusen put it: "When we see ourselves as part of all that surrounds us, we have true 'religion' - religio (rebinding), and any type of discrimination against others is impossible. Before we are of any race, creed, or religion, we are 'children of God,' and that spark within us all unites us all."

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