Art as therapy, healing through art – it seems so simple. And yet, despite abundant psychological and social evidence in support of this fact, and contrary to what many societies before us have instinctually known, there is a great deal of skepticism in the West as to the functional role of art.

Blame it on our fanatical adherence to scientific analysis and its behaviorist principles, but the notion of art serving a practical function apart from aesthetic appreciation –whether it is psychological, social or political – is one that leaves many ill at ease.

This cynicism, of course, filters its way to funding, at which level it affects the prevalence, quality and even the very existence of artistic endeavors in our society, and consequently its quality and that of its inhabitants.

It was therefore not only refreshing but a great reassurance to all believers in the power of art to hear of Beit Zatoun Gallery’s latest exhibit, a mixed-media work produced by former political prisoners and titled Lines of Resistance: Prison Art from the Middle East.

Created by Dr. Shahrzad Mojab, professor of Women’s Studies at UofT’s OISE, Lines of Resistance marks the cumulative efforts of a five-year project studying the effects of violence and war on women and learning.

Part of a larger project led by Mojab called Words, Colour, Movement: Remembering and Learning Through the Arts, the Lines of Resistance exhibit unites former political refugees from Iran and Turkey who, through the workshops and the ultimate exhibit, visualize their individual and collective resistance against the atrocities committed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and other oppressive Middle Eastern states.

As an Iranian that fled the repressive regimes in the 1980s, Mojab had always been active in its resistance. “Her work with former political prisoners is very personal – it is part of her history,” says Bethany Osborne, who worked on the project with Mojab as a PhD student. “She is incredibly invested in seeing people affected by state violence receive healing so that they can continue to actively resist oppressive regimes.”

Since the coming to power of the Islamic regime in Iran in 1988 and the massacres that followed it, thousands of innocents have been imprisoned, tortured and executed, a number that has grown exponentially following the rebellion caused by what is rumored to be a fraudulent 2009 election.

According to Mojab and Osborne, this “continuum of state violence has been surrounded in an official culture of silence.” In Mojab’s project statement, she writes: “When atrocities are committed, it becomes essential to document both their occurrence and the journeys of those who have experienced the violence in order to prevent history from repeating itself.”

It is exactly the functional power of art that attracts Mojab to the nature of her research, and that spawned the project and Lines of Resistance. Art, its creation and its communication, has both a healing power and a political power that is unrivaled by many more traditional approaches to both, such as therapy for victims of trauma or more informational approaches to political action.

The type of art that Mojab’s project enables, in which former political prisoners meet bi-monthly and create multi-media art, facilitates the “realization of the importance of political autobiography writing as a process of resistance and conscious healing.”

When asked what she was most moved by in her experience with the project, Osborne’s answers repeatedly intimated the hope with which the art was created and through which it was expressed. From a picture of a woman knitting a sweater onto her body, adorned with a giant ball of yarn as her head, to a plant sprouting from an empty shell, it is the message of hope and resistance to trauma that resonates.

“Some of the images are about horrible events – torture and execution, the loss of family and friends – and yet often, in a small corner, there is a shaft of light or a piece of a green plant. And it is always described as hope.”

Lines of Resistance: Prison Art from the Middle East, runs at Beit Zatoun Gallery, 612 Markham St., from April 9 to 17.

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