The Human Rights Painting Project"
It's a hot Friday evening
and sound checks for 4th Street jazz are cranking up just up the street
from the Tessera Gallery. I'm ducking into the cool gallery space to
check out a show of dramatic paintings by Tom Block.
Each of the paintings
shows a real-life human being who has suffered extreme human rights
violations. Block donates one half of the proceeds from the show's
art sales to Amnesty International.
Thickly painted expressionist
portraits of the survivors line the white gallery walls. Grim reality
is balanced by rich color giving the work emotional vibrancy. Each
work is accompanied by a brief written description of the travails
of these victims. Many have overcome their personal anguishes to become
champions for justice.
One such example is
that of Wei JingSheng of China. Jailed for 18 years for questioning
the Chinese Communist Party, Wei, now in exile, continues to fight
for democracy. In the foreground a restless hand holds a cigarette
that twirls smoke upwards. In the set of this thinking man's jaw and
the hot colors of the piece overall Block captures the fighting spirit
of this stubborn battler against oppression.
Nigerian Sowore Omoyele's
reaction to seeing his family raped by military police at age 10 was
to become an outspoken activist for change. Block's portrayal of Omoyele
reminds me of the art of Chaim Soutine, who was also persecuted as
a Jew during the German invasion of France. Omoyele, who has been arrested
many times, is captured by Block as a warrior against oppression.
One of the more heartbreaking
images is of 12 year old Manoj Singh from India. Manoj Singh is a painting
of anguish that brings to mind Edvard Munch's The Scream. The crying
boy seems to want to crawl inside of himself as a strong hand roughly
pulls him away by the arm. Manoj was arrested for stealing a purse.
Inexplicably, Indian police brutally killed his father who had escorted
him to the station. Manoj was severely beaten. There is anguish in
this painting and story that is truly painful to observe.
The art of Van Gogh
comes to mind in Block's painting called Albanian Refugee. An old woman,
her face crumpled in grief, is all I need to see to understand the
hurt this displacement caused. Against a hot yellow background and
wearing a blue head covering, the woman's intense emotional expression
tells the tale of physical and emotional hardship. More than a million
ethnic Albanians were forced from Kosovo by Serbian troops in 1999.
United States policy
regarding the death penalty is taken to task in Shaka Sankofa (Gary
Graham). The artist paints Sankofa close up against a chain link fence.
In his wide staring eyes it is easy to see the fear and desperation
of the young man who was executed on scant evidence by the Texas Court
under then governor George W. Bush.
Block paints The Dalai
Lama in reds and deep yellows as a man that sees a troublesome truth.
Nonetheless, the spiritual leader radiates inner peace due to the courage
of his convictions. As in most of these oil paintings the layers of
thickly applied pigment and jewel-like color give a sense of psychological
depth to the images.
Besides being a strong, expressive painter, Tom Block is also a writer
and philosopher who working for change and justice in a grassroots
manner. So hats off to Block, Amnesty International and Tessera Gallery
for this important show lauded by senators, Amnesty International officials,
and even some of the victims of abuses that continue to fight on.
Greensboro, NC, July, 2005