NORMAN — The faces are almost as striking — and challenging — as the stories told, in only a few words underneath them, in a show of photos of women and girls around the world by Phil Borges at the University of Oklahoma.
The “Stirring the Fire: A Global Movement to Empower Women and Girls” exhibit is made up of photographs done with skin tones in muted color and backgrounds in black-and-white, sometimes in a double format.
Sponsored by World Literature Today in conjunction with the OU literary magazine's 2013 Puterbaugh Festival, which was held April 9-12, the show runs through July 28 at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.
Meeting our eyes steadily, her chin resting on one hand, in front of the rubble of an old building and a sunlit mountain range, a thoughtful girl in war-torn Afghanistan, seems much older and wiser than her 11 years.
An apparently handwritten text beneath the haunting image informs us that the girl, whose name is Humaria, “sells eggs as a street vendor” in the country where only half of “children ages 7 to 13 attend school.”
Holding our attention just as forcefully are the eyes of Augustina, a 13-year-old, balancing a machete on top of her head in a statuesque pose, in front of a cornfield in Ghana, where the text tells us heavy logging has damaged crops.
Equally hard not to meet are the eyes of an 80-year-old woman, standing quietly behind a mud wall in a village in Ghana, where things are changing due to the work of a “women's savings and credit group.”
Standing with a long stave, sentinel-like, in a road where two children are walking, is a 50-year-old Ethiopian woman with a faint smile, but knitted brows, who spent much of her time fetching water before her village had a cistern.
Blurred, cutoff urban spaces truncate the backgrounds for Borges' portraits of two women in Bangladesh, both of whom were sold into prostitution at an early age, before becoming advocates of rights and protections for sex workers.
Bringing the issue closer to home is his picture of a woman, holding the railing of a Harlem building, recruited into the sex industry in her early teens, who founded an organization to “end commercial sexual exploitation of children.”
Another low-key yet evocative American image is a profile picture of Lucille Windy-Boy, a 71-year-old Montana grandmother and great-grandmother with a kindly smile, known for making high-quality tepees.
Seen in profile, too, is the lined face, under a pulled down hat, of Transito, a 91-year-old woman called the “Rosa Parks of Ecuador” for protesting her molestation by a hacienda owner when she was 17.
Visually understated but eloquent are three pictures of Ethiopian women, ages 28, 48 and 52, who have urged “the end of female circumcisions among the 1.3 million Afar people” in the country.
Another unforgettable image is his picture of a woman who became “the first female surgeon in Sri Lanka” after she realized that many of her patients had burned themselves following domestic abuse.
Also hard to meet is the questioning look of a woman from a northern Sri Lankan village, who holds up a picture of her younger self, before she was burned by acid, thrown by her boyfriend, angry at her for studying nursing.
Seeming to look out of the picture at the distance rather than us, by contrast, are three young Buddhist nuns with shaved heads who fled to India after they were imprisoned for protesting the occupation of Tibet.
Apt to stir our consciences at the same time that they reward our eyes and make us feel a little uncomfortable, the photos and facts in the show, as well as an accompanying video, are highly recommended to visitors.
— John Brandenburg