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Exhibition examines the wrong paths taken

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Gabriela Morawetz's  J'ai reve que... (I have dreamed that...) from The Sleeping Self series, 2008-2009.

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Gabriela Morawetz's J'ai reve que... (I have dreamed that...) from The Sleeping Self series, 2008-2009.

Every day, all over the world, millions of women and girls of all ages and backgrounds are the victims of gender-based violence -- be it physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or economical.

And every day, all over the world, millions of women and girls suffer in silence.

Off the Beaten Path: Violence, Women and Art, which opens Feb. 1 and runs until April 20 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, is a contemporary art exhibit that examines this pervasive social problem and seeks to create an open dialogue about it. Featuring the multimedia work of 30 well-known female artists -- including Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovic, Mona Hatoum and Wangechi Mutu, among others -- from 25 different countries, the exhibit deals with everything from trafficking to rape as a weapon of war.

A wide range of perspectives and experiences are represented, which is why artworks are grouped by several themes -- violence and the individual, violence and family, violence and the community, violence and politics, and violence and culture.

The travelling show has been presented all over the world since it debuted in Norway in 2009. It is curated by Randy Jayne Rosenberg, executive director, chief curator and founder of Art Works for Change, an American organization whose mission is to "harness the transformative power of art to promote awareness, provoke dialogue and inspire action."

When a proposal to bring Off the Beaten Path to Winnipeg crossed the desk of Helen Delacreatz, chief curator at the WAG, she was intrigued. "We get a lot of proposals but this one caught my eye. I was impressed by the slate of artists involved, but it's also an exhibit that has a lot of connections to this city. There's always so much in the press about missing and murdered aboriginal women," she says.

Indeed, aboriginal women face disproportionately higher rates of gendered violence in Canada than non-aboriginal women. Last week, a new public database compiled by Ottawa researcher Maryanne Pearce placed the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada at 824. Manitoba accounts for 111 of that total.

With those grim stats in mind, the WAG was interested in localizing the show. "The exhibition was not built in Canada, so we've added two additional works from our Inuit Collection to bring it back home," Delacreatz says. She says the fact the artworks are from the North is significant to the Canadian experience: in 2013, Statistics Canada reported that Nunavut's rate of domestic violence is 13 times higher the national average.

The first work is Pitseolak's Hardships #1, by the late Inuit artist Napachie Pootoogook.

"She had these amazing autobiographical drawings that spoke to domestic and family abuse. This one was very specific: it detailed the abuse of her mother at the hands of her father," Delacreatz explains.

The second work is by Inuit actor, filmmaker and sculptor Natar Ungalaaq, entitled Man and Female Slave.

"It's a whale bone sculpture that depicts a man reining in a woman, and she's pulling him along. She's in the water and he's on an ice floe," Delacreatz says.

Rosenberg says each country that has presented Off the Beaten Path has embraced the topic differently.

"I know that in Manitoba there's a focus on domestic violence and trafficking," she says.

That the exhibit has been shown everywhere from Mexico to South Africa speaks to the prevalence of the issue. "No culture is immune to it; there are no barriers," Rosenberg says.

The exhibit has travelled to places where violence against women is deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric. A few years ago, Rosenberg and her team mounted an abbreviated version of the show in Senegal. "They didn't have the security or climate control to be able to bring the whole show there, but we did send videos and involved some of the local artists. Very few even saw violence against women as an issue because it's so part of the culture," she says.

Opening people's eyes to a global problem is a big part of what Art Works for Change does via its exhibitions. For Rosenberg, one of the most unique aspects of Off the Beaten Path is the opportunity to transform galleries and museums into safe spaces in which to engage the community.

"I see conferences come to town for three days and then everyone goes home," she says. "The exhibit stays up for three months. It's a great opportunity for ongoing programming. Some of the advocacy and educational groups in a community who didn't know each other had an opportunity to work together. We've been excited about all the possibilities."

Absent from Off tThe Beaten Path is any graphic or sensationalist imagery, which Rosenberg says perpetuates violence. "We see so many acts of violence on TV and movies that we become desensitized to it. The language of art is a different way to communicate. We want to create empathy."

Delacreatz echoes that sentiment: "We want to provide ways to look at the world differently -- a lens through which to look at the world. Visual arts is a lens through which we can explore significant issues that impact us all."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 G3

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