Always keeping an eye out for beauty, two Winnipeg artists who set out to help Manitobans understand the diversity of the province’s religious communities have recently delivered a portfolio full of captivating images and stories.
"We wanted it to be about people, but we also wanted to appeal to the beauty that can be found in these different faiths," said painter and curator Ray Dirks, who co-authored A World of Faith and Spirituality with painter Manju Lodha.
A decade in the making, the resulting 213-page coffee table book is packed with essays and reflections by some 200 people, reflecting dozens of faith traditions. It also includes 800 photos of sacred spaces and the people who worship there. Most were shot by Dirks, who retired as curator of the MHC Gallery at Canadian Mennonite University last summer.
The project grew out of Lodha’s desire to reflect the diversity of Manitoba’s religious and cultural communities beyond the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The book includes contributions from Buddhists, Indigenous Peoples, Hindus, Baha’i, Jains, Sikhs, Unitarian Universalists and Yazidis.
"We were accepted as harmless artists," said Lodha of the welcome she and Dirks received in these communities. "We hadn’t come to preach anything, we hadn’t come to enforce anything. We were seeking understanding."
Lodha and Dirks will launch their book 7:30 p.m. tonight at the chapel at CMU (600 Shaftesbury Blvd.).
In 2018, the pair received the Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for the Advancement of Interreligious Understanding for their multifaith and multicultural work in schools and art exhibits. In 2011, Dirks and Lodha, along with artist Isam Aboud, a Muslim man originally from Sudan, published In the Spirit of Humanity, featuring art collected from their school workshops.
This project is much wider in scope. Lodha and Dirks visited Sagkeeng First Nation, Muslim newcomers in Altona, many houses of worship in Winnipeg, and participated in Shabbat dinner at the River Heights home of Ruth Ashrafi.
"That was the most amazing experience," recalled Dirks of how Ashrafi invited Mennonite and Hindu guests to the traditional Jewish Friday family meal. "We were seeking, and they were willing to share."
That curiosity extended both ways, and feels easier in Canada than her native Holland, said Ashrafi, who moved to Winnipeg about 15 years ago
"I think it’s one of the great attractions of Winnipeg that there are so many faith traditions and people don’t live in a silo," said Ashrafi, regional director for Manitoba for B’nai Brith Canada.
A publication such as World of Faith can be a great resource for educators and anyone interested in knowing more about their neighbours, said Belle Jarniewski, who wrote a short reflection for the book as past-president of the Manitoba Multifaith Council.
"The more you know about one another, the better relationship we have with (one) another," said Jarniewski, executive director of Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada. "We’re enriched by sharing of faith (traditions)."
Recalling her hesitancy when she first met Dirks, wondering if a Mennonite art gallery would be interested in the art of someone who practised Hinduism and Jainism, Lodha said this book is a fulfilment of her dream to see more resources for the discussion of world religions in schools and homes.
"The core values are the same and we all seek divinity," said Lodha. "We seek it in different people and different things."
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.