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Art speaks to the dignity of all


Singer/Songwriter Steve Bell engages the audience at Unveiling the Mystery, at the Invisible Dignity Exhibit opening on Saturday, September 22

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October 1, 2007
-Deborah Froese

Winnipeg, Man. — Visitors to the Invisible Dignity exhibit have the uncanny sense of being watched.  It’s not a wonder; windows to the soul peer out from every wall; eyes of the hungry, the poor, the exploited and the displaced.  The feeling is unsettling and more than a little compelling.  Those eyes evoke compassion and they demand a response.     

That is exactly what the exhibit is intended to do. 

The exhibit is the central platform of the Invisible Dignity Project, a series of events employing art, music and discussion to address a variety of social injustices.   Dr. Cornelius Buller, now the executive director of Urban Youth Adventures in Winnipeg, identified the need for such a venture several years ago when he conducted research into human trafficking for the Salvation Army Ethics Center.  He was appalled by the horrifying abuses he discovered – and by the pervasiveness of the issue.  He decided to do something about it.       

A conversation with artist Gerald Folkerts helped Buller find an appropriate response.  At the time, Folkerts was creating a series of paintings to tell the stories of individuals marginalized by society.  Buller and Folkerts realized they could collaborate to address their concerns.

Folkerts admits that the project involved a lot of talking – until about six months ago.  Then, suddenly, pieces began to fall into place.  “It was amazing to see God working in all of this, pulling it together,” he says. 

Buller and Folkerts approached others whom they felt might be inclined to support their initiative.  Dr. Cal Seerveld, a Toronto-based academic who has made a career out of connecting people to issues through art, agreed to be a keynote speaker.  Winnipeg Christian recording artist Steve Bell offered to provide musical support.  As the list of participants grew, the project solidified.

Five artists have contributed to the project; Yisa Akinbolaji, (Manitoba/Nigeria), Jo Cooper (Quebec), Ray Dirks (Manitoba), Gerald Folkerts (Manitoba) and Steve Prince (Virginia).

Ray Dirks, who also assisted in project planning and is the curator for one of the exhibit’s venues, the Mennonite Heritage Center Gallery, views the art and related events as an opportunity for self-examination.  He believes art touches people on a visceral level by evoking questions; how do I react to these people?  Do I pay attention to them?  Do I view them as equal creations made in the image of God?  “This gives us an opportunity to be confronted and stimulated,” he says.

Raising awareness is the first step toward action.

Art exhibits are on display at the Mennonite Heritage Center Gallery and Booth College until November 17.  The well-attended opening week entitled Unveiling the Mystery included presentations by a variety of guest speakers and an evening of discussion with the artists.  It attracted significant media attention.  The week closed with a day of prayer and fasting followed by a benefit concert.

Other related activities are scheduled into February 2008.  Gerald Folkerts reports that the Invisible Dignity Project has been invited to Philadelphia, PA and he is hopeful that it will continue to stir discussion.    

For more information and a glimpse of some of the works on display, visit the Invisible Dignity website at

Sidebar:  Influenced by the Great Creator

Each of the five artists involved in the Invisible Dignity Project has felt God’s influence on his or her work.

Yisa Akinbolaji says three ideas for this exhibit “came down from God” while he was on the verge of sleep.  He sprang from bed to quickly sketch an outline of “Cherish and Protect”, a portrait of a mother and child.  It took him six minutes.  He went back to bed and another idea came, then another.  “I said, God, that’s enough ideas already.  Let me sleep,’ ” Akinbolaji reports.  “But the ideas kept coming.”

Jo Cooper, the only women in the group, views herself as “a physical vehicle for the Creator who guides me.”  Her contributions to the exhibit portray graceful cloaked figures bending in the winds of adversity.   These faceless shapes reveal emotion and connectivity without interference from identifiers such as race or color.  “The reigning energy of mother love is a constant in all the paintings,” she says.

Ray Dirks says his paintings are inspired by the time he spends abroad living with ordinary people and learning their stories.  “Since 1978 my career has been in honor of the dignity of people,” he says.  Each of his paintings on display is subtly imprinted with words from Micah 6:8 that illustrate his motivation; “…and what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Gerald Folkerts remembers almost overlooking one of his subjects – Ralph, a street person – because he was so intent on sticking to his schedule. Fortunately, he responded to the small inner voice that nudged him to stop and talk.  Just before Folkerts did leave, he offered Ralph a cup of coffee.  Ralph shed tears of joy at this kindness and Folkerts was overwhelmed by the fact that he almost missed the opportunity to impact someone in that way.  “The Creator is head over heels in love with every one of us,” Folkerts says.   That perspective is what motivates his art.

Steve Prince’s series, the Urban Epistles, is created from intricately detailed block prints.  A kind of visual text, these pieces are layered with meaning to challenge viewers to question accepted norms and stereotypes.  He often dedicates his images to specific people or situations and he prays as he works that each piece he produces will speak to those who view it.