Manhattan Magazine
“Brushstroke Stories: Human Rights Painting Project Depicts Global Leaders”
New York City, NY
Spring 2008

The 27 colorful, richly textured canvases of artist Tom Block’s series Human Rights Painting Project sent a strong and timely message to the Jasper community at an opening reception in February. The series of paintings on display until May in the Alumni Room of the O’Malley Library, depict men and women who have raised awareness of human rights abuses in their countries.

At the reception, Block delivered an illustrated lecture Artist as Shaman in an Age of Uncertainty. A shaman is believed to be able to foretell the future through communication with good and evil spirits, a relationship that the artist explores in his work. His portraits of lawyers, writers, students and labor union leaders juxtapose the goodness of their work against the violence and corruption of oppressive government regimes.

“The series of works that he (Block) does on various subjects are apropos to Manhattan College because they deal with spirituality and human rights and goodness in the world,” says Amy Surak, the college’s archivist. She met Block, a member of Amnesty International, at the Peace and Justice Association’s 2006 conference held on Manhattan’s campus, which is where they first discussed the idea of an exhibit.

Each painting, paired with a short bio, serves as a mini history lesson. Up close, the canvases appear to be wild splatters of every color of paint on Block’s palette, but step back, and the lush brushstrokes form the exaggerated figures of his larger-than-life subjects. Most of his subjects are individuals, such as his red, pink and magenta striped rendering of Jacqueline Moudeina of Chad. She became a prominent human rights lawyer four decades after her father was poisoned to death with a potion made from lion saliva because he refused to join in government politics.

Block also groups single countries into one human composite. His Algerian Villager signifies the more than 100,000 people, including many innocent civilians, caught in the fray of warring groups. Another bold canvas, Afghan Woman Shedding Burka, depicts a woman in a sea of red, green, violet, yellow and orange burkas, a tribute to the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan. The members of this group, started in 1977, smuggled cameras under their burkas to snap pictures of Taliban abuses, such as public executions and floggings, which they posted on their website for the world to see.

From rural villages to big cities, the stories behind Block’s paintings connect people from all over the world. Like their subjects, the paintings rally for change and offer a powerful conduit for conversation on human rights.