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Exhibit exploring violence against women has resonance in Winnipeg

Artist Yoko Inoue's

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Artist Yoko Inoue's "Untitled 2007," digital print of performance, scanned from Polaroid is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Winnipeg Art Gallery

WINNIPEG - An anonymous woman stands, topless, with most of her breasts, nose and mouth covered by a large frying pan.

Her eyes are dark saucers that peek out over the shallow pan as her hands tightly grip the long handle.

In the photo, by Japanese artist Yoko Inoue, the frying pan is not a kitchen staple but a weapon against domestic violence, the caption explains.

"In some communities, where direct intervention is culturally impossible, women respond to severe domestic violence by assembling outside the household in question and bang out an alarm on pots and pans. This informs the man that the spirit he attempts to break belongs to many, not one."

The powerfully simple piece is part of a travelling exhibit titled "Off The Beaten Path," which is making its last Canadian stop at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, where it runs until April 20. It's hoped the exhibit featuring the works of artists from around the world will spark a discussion about the violence facing women from "womb to tomb."

The exhibit has particular resonance in Manitoba. The definitive number isn't known, but the Native Women's Association of Canada estimated in 2010 that 14 per cent of 582 missing and murdered women across Canada were from the province — one of the highest numbers in Canada.

More recent research pegged the total number at 824 with 111 of them from Manitoba.

A joint police task force was called to specifically investigate cases involving missing or murdered aboriginal women five years ago.

"We directly saw the link with missing and murdered aboriginal women," said chief curator Helen Delacretaz. "It is not something that happens elsewhere. It happens in our city and in our country."

Hopes are high that, through art, the exhibit might be able to engage anyone who has become desensitized to the issue.

"Art is extremely compelling," said Anna Wiebe, the gallery's head of education. "We approach it differently than we approach stats, numbers, news articles, various social media campaigns. When you come into a gallery and you're confronted with human creativity ... it can open minds to new ideas."

The exhibit has been travelling the world since 2009. It was the brain-child of Art Works For A Change, an American organization that builds art exhibitions to promote awareness of social and environmental issues.

"Some of the goals of the exhibition are to create a conversation around this topic," said Randy Jayne Rosenberg, executive director of Art Works for Change.

The majority of pieces are not literal.

One video installation by Yoko Ono shows her sitting on a stage wearing a black dress. One by one, people come and snip away parts of her clothing while she tries to maintain her dignity and composure.

Another depicts three roses against a black background. A closer look reveals the rose petals are sewn together.

Nahanni Fontaine, who recently won a Governor General's Award for her work on missing and murdered aboriginal women, said the exhibit is breaking new ground.

Just having the banner outside the gallery is a victory because it brings a formerly taboo subject into the open, said Fontaine, who is a special adviser to the provincial government.

"Art galleries are associated with culture and bourgeoisie. Here's something that is right in your face, talking about violence against women. I think that it's brilliant. I think that the Winnipeg Art Gallery doing this is very courageous, particularly in that space."

At the end of the exhibit, there's a spot for visitors to write down their thoughts and pin them to a clothesline. The idea is to make it not "strictly an exhibition which those interested in galleries will come and see but that it's opened up to the audience that needs to see it," Delacretaz said.

"We're just trying to present it respectfully. The idea is to enact change and to empower women in particular ... to act."

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