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Art really can change the world: Commission on the Status of Women

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Female artist activists told their inspiring stories yesterday, March 11, as part of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a two-week conference held by the United Nations every year.

The CSW58 began on Monday, March 10 and continues through next Friday, March 21. CSW gives women from every country in the world a voice, with presentations given throughout the two weeks on everything from female artists and journalists to the need for advancement in female mental health, technological advancement for young girls in third world countries, and thoughts on women’s reproductive health and education.

A parallel event of the CSW, organized by Women’s Caucus for Art and held at the Church Center across the street from the main United Nations building (777 UN Plaza), this presentation was titled “Women Artists/Activists and the MDGs: Art, Video, Work in the Field, and Conversation MDGs.” In the presentation, three incredible women of varying backgrounds provided highlights of their experiences in both the United States and in developing countries and told how they were helping to create a change in women there through art. The talk, as most CSW events are, was also connected to conversation on the MDGs, or the eight Millennium Development Goals developed by the United Nations to hopefully be completed by 2015 – these goals include halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, improving maternal health, reducing child mortality, and eradicating extreme poverty throughout the world.

Anne Kantor Kellet, who is an artist and owns a gallery in Wilmington, Vermont, spoke briefly about the works she has created – all an emotional response to surviving horrific human atrocities. Her painting work in the United States focuses on her responses to the Holocaust (her parents and other family were Holocaust survivors), and her photography work follows her response to the Rwandan genocide (survivors of which she met in person on multiple missions to the country). Kantor Kellet’s collection of Holocaust paintings are titled “Surviving Surviving” – telling stories of survivors – and this seems to be a theme throughout her entire work. She is certainly an inspiration in telling the stories of other women around the world.

Mary Oestereicher Hamill, Ph.D., spoke about her attempts to engage women in their own art-making, providing video and still cameras to poverty- and trauma-stricken women around the world. Her work started in Boston, where she provided the same outlet for homeless individuals, who then got to see their work put on display in exhibition. She has been to China and Vietnam on medical missions, where she continued her photography work with the less advantaged, hosting art festivals there and post-trip exhibitions in the States. Her most recent work has been through service in Cambodia, where she met with elderly widows stricken by trauma from the Khmer Rouge genocide – by engaging the widows in fabric printmaking, she has helped them to find an outlet for their grief. An exhibition in the United States is planned from her work in Cambodia.

The final speaker, Allison Milewski, is the founder of PhotoForward, an organization dedicated to providing an outlet for those in under-served nations to tell their stories through art. Her work takes her not only around the United States, but to Laos and Cambodia as well. Currently working on obtaining a certificate in Creative Arts Therapy from The New School, Milewski has over a decade of experience in the arts and international program development. Her organization helps to create sustainable programs around the world, teaching both young and old learners new technologies, including computer skills and photography and digital art-making, all in partnership with local organizations.

Each of these women excels in educating women and the less-advantaged on the power they have within themselves, and the ability they have to tell and share their stories through art. They in turn assist in that story-telling, bringing those inspirational tales back to the United States where more voices can be heard. Every one of us is affected by something in our lives, some more so than others – art is just one outlet we have to express ourselves. It is through the innovation and education of these three women that at least some women’s lives are made better through greater access to art. So it’s true – art really can change the world.

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