BWI airport becomes art gallery to celebrate human rights

Some of the bravest people in the world can be found at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. The Dalai Lama.

These and many other figures are featured in a photo exhibit organized to honor human-rights defenders around the world.

Part of the airport's upper concourse, just off the main atrium of the international terminal, has been transformed into a photo gallery to display the traveling exhibit "Speak Truth to Power," which runs through May 31.

The exhibit was organized by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that was formed in 1968 in memory of the former U.S. senator and attorney general, who was assassinated that year at age 42.

It is based on a book written by Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and president of the RFK Center. All of the black-and-white images were taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Eddie Adams.

Kerry Kennedy's book has been adapted for the stage by playwright Ariel Dorfman. Titled "Speak Truth to Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark," the play was presented at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2000, broadcast on PBS and subsequently produced around the world.

Since it was first displayed at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2000, the photo exhibit has traveled to more than 20 cities on four continents. The BWI stop marks one of the first times it has been on view in the Mid-Atlantic since the inaugural showing.

"My father once said that 'those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the world," said Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former lieutenant governor of Maryland and an RFK Center board member. "Through this exhibition, we ensure that these courageous human-rights defenders will find companions in Baltimore and beyond."

The free exhibit gives viewers an opportunity to learn about 53 men and women who faced imprisonment, torture and, in some cases, death, for confronting issues ranging from poverty and domestic violence to police brutality and sex slavery. A brief biography accompanies each portrait. In some cases, such as Tutu's fight against South Africa's apartheid system, the figures have received worldwide attention. Others are less well known.

The exhibit's goal, organizers say, is to show that that people around the globe are working to create a "just and peaceful" world.

Adams traveled extensively to create the portraits. In some, his subjects stare directly at the camera, and only the face or part of a face is shown. In others, they are shown standing or seated. Clothes and backdrops help depict the diversity of the subjects.

On a recent day, the large, striking photographs caught the attention of people waiting to meet someone arriving on a plane or walking from the international terminal to catch a domestic flight. Some stopped just for a minute or two; others lingered and read the biographies and quotes from Robert Kennedy.

Many American airports display artwork, but not many do so to the degree that BWI does.

For many years, the directors of BWI have used both permanent and temporary art exhibits to help create "a strong, valuable sense of place," said airport spokesman Jonathan Dean.

Examples range from color photos of Baltimore and Washington to a large glass crab that has moved around the airport.

One of the largest permanent exhibits is local artist David Hess' "Momentum Study" sculpture, located in the rental car facility. The "daily garage" features ceramic tile murals that mark each level of the garage.

The RFK Center's exhibit is the latest in a series of temporary exhibits at the airport. Others have included paintings from the U.S. Air Force depicting military and space program aircraft and historic aviation events, work from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and five exhibits by the Arts Council of Anne Arundel County.

With millions of passengers passing through each year, BWI is a fitting location for exhibits such as "Speak Truth to Power," representatives say.

"We have presented many diverse examples of high-quality artwork here," said Paul J. Wiedefeld, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration. "This exhibition continues our commitment to provide a positive, memorable travel experience for our customers."

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