“People may marginalize him by labeling him some things. Indigenous. Alcoholic. Junkie. They don’t see the parts that make up his soul self.”
Rhonda Gilbertson-Evans wrote those words in a poem called “Why I Do This Work.” The poem explains her reasons for serving people experiencing homelessness, including a man dear to her heart.
“It’s not that easy for many of our community members who are homeless. Some hills are unsurmountable,” she said.
Gilberston-Evans was one of more than 50 artists who had their works featured in the 2022 North Dakota Human Rights Film and Arts Festival, which tours the state in communities like Williston, Minot, Grand Forks, Fargo and Bismarck each year. The North Dakota Human Rights Film and Arts Festival is a juried traveling exhibition featuring 2D, 3D and performance artists, writers, experimental filmmakers and animators who have work relating to human rights, civil rights or social justice issues.
“The festival opens the door to dialogue, understanding and empathy,” said Sean Coffman, director of Human Family, the nonprofit that curates and stewards the festival.
Artists from North Dakota, Minnesota and around the world participate each year, and more than 1,634 people viewed the poems, paintings and films submitted to the 2022 festival, which took on themes like climate change and impact, representation in art and the interconnectedness of culture.
“These festivals also serve as an outlet for the artists of our region,” Coffman said. “They need a place to showcase their creativity and this festival offers it to them.”
CREATING ART, CREATING DIALOGUE
One featured local artist is Anna Johnson, a prominent, two-spirit, mixed-media artist who regularly produces artwork relevant to human rights and social justice. Her work received awards in 2017 and 2020 from the jury of the North Dakota Human Rights Film and Arts Festival. Most recently, she created a 16x60-foot mural of the Northern Lights with Ojibwa floral on the outside of a liquor store in Fargo.
“Art has been a way for people to communicate since the beginning of time,” she said. “Art is an observation of what we’re seeing in the world at the time that it’s going on.”
Through her art, Johnson seeks to bridge the gap between the world she lives in and her culture of origin, as an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. The imagery she uses comes directly from her Chippewa culture, and she incorporates many different totem animals and traditional designs. She works with a variety of media and concentrates on drawing and printmaking.
“Art may be difficult to look at or watch, however, it’s also a conversation starter,” Johnson said.
Sister Nancy Gunderson, Bismarck, is another featured local artist. She paints and quilts. Her piece, “Lamentation,” portrays a meadowlark flying above a barren North Dakota landscape.
“I am concerned with climate change. … I am concerned about our land, stressed by drought. And unless we make significant changes, I am concerned about what could come next,” she said.
Themes featured in the exhibit can be controversial, though Coffman sees them as a way to create dialogue. He said event attendees may have strong feelings, though they communicate them with diplomacy and respect.
“By the end of the evening, we all seem to have learned something new and gained a greater perspective,” he said.
Johnson said one of the best ways to support these and other artists is to “share, share and share with everybody that you know.”
“That can be through social media, word of mouth or anything you want it to be,” she said.
That can also be through attending local arts events, which are often free and open to the public.
To learn more about the North Dakota Human Rights Film and Arts Festival, for information on the 2023 festival and dates for upcoming events, or to view works and films, visit www.human-family.org.
Katie Ryan-Anderson is a freelance writer and former co-op communicator. She is a Dakota Valley Electric Cooperative member and lives in Marion with her husband and two boys.