I'm not the only person that has made the connection between
art, imagination and the heroic. This spring a show sponsored by
Arts for Amnesty International opened in Washington D.C. The
exhibit featured the work of artist Tom Block, who depicts both
prisoners of conscience and those working for their freedom, and
for the dignity and human rights of oppressed people around the
If there's a word that summarizes the work exhibited and
people depicted, it's diverse. Some of the people painted
by Block, such as the Dalai Lama, are known around the world.
Others embody anonymity, such as the Albanian refugees and
Algerian civilians. There are Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and
people with no particular religion.
One of the most fascinating subjects is a man who dared to
criticize the system of which he was a part. Jose Gallardo was
the youngest brigadier general in the history of the Mexican
army. As such, he was in a position to know about that
institution's abuse of human rights. He wrote about the abuse in
his master's thesis and called for reform of the army. For his
troubles, he was sentenced to 28 years in prison on trumped-up
charges. President Fox released him in march after Amnesty
International and other groups brought attention to his case.
Block's painting of Gallardo in an officer's uniform, staring
out from behind prison bars, captures the price of following
your conscience in a way that words can't. Similarly, the
suffering of an Albanian refugee, an old woman bearing a
striking resemblance to Mother Teresa, is depicted in a
disturbing manner not in the debased modern sense of upsetting
one's sensibilities, but in a way that makes you think about
things you'd rather not.
In his new book, Carpe Manana, Drew University
theologian Leonard Sweet writes about the importance of what he
calls "image based literacy" that is, an appreciation
of the way in which images shape the way people think and feel.
However well Arts for Amnesty International works as a
fundraiser, it does succeed as a means of getting inside the
reader's imagination and, from there, perhaps to his or her
Images like these are not a substitute for words. But they do
provide, at least, a partial answer to the question, "Why
should I be interested?"