Friday, March 07, 2008

Imagining Human Rights

Turi Aksdal, Article 16, 2007
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Human rights are difficult enough for us as a people to realize through our actions, let alone for an artist to try and visualize through the lens of a camera. But Norwegian photographer Turi Aksdal (b. 1962) found a solution and created a body of work based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. “I’ve been struggling for a long time to find the right expression for the diverse content in these articles,” she says. “But its been an exiting process and I'm very happy with the result.”

That end result is a photograph for each of the articles in the declaration, their words trickling poem-like down the sides of the images, which often feature human shadows cast across rough city surfaces. Anonymous figures in unidentified places. Yet they exude a familiarity and elicit a compassionate response from the viewer. Aksdal's images level and unite us. The shadow could be you. It could be me.

Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 26. (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

The 30 articles that constitute the UN's declaration define the rights to which we are all born and came about largely as a response to the horrors of World War I and World War II because, as stated in its preamble, the "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."

The declaration, which Eleanor Roosevelt called "the international Magna Carta," was intended to be taught in classrooms around the world, though despite a higher education, I must admit I only recognize the most famous phrases and I certainly didn't realize there were 30 defined articles, spelled out in such a clear and precise language. Aksdal's vision has broadened my own.

Article 30. Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

Article 25. (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

In a fitting tribute to the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the declaraton, Aksdal's work is on view at Manhattan's Trygve Lie Gallery, a venue is devoted to the promotion of Scandinavian - and particularly Norwegian - artists.

Human Rights Pictures
Photographs by Turi Aksdal
March 13 through April 6, 2008
The exhibition will be opened by Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, Ms. Hilde Frafjord Johnson
Trygve Lie Gallery, 317 East 52nd Street

Article 24. Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 13. (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

The artist's website:

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