The MacLaren Art Centre, a gallery in Barrie, is hosting a fantastic exhibit that J. and I saw today.

Called Enduring Women: Veils of Secrecy it came to being when southwestern Ontario artists Gerald Pedros and Sylvia Curtis-Norcross “challenged one another to examine and respond to the issue of violence against women – not in general theoretical or historical terms, but rather in the way we allow ourselves to see and to hear,” as the gallery explains.

The result is a multimedia show that turns us, as viewers, into participants. We touch and feel and comprehend in a way far beyond simply taking in an image or abstraction on a wall.

At first glance, the room in the gallery seems to be full of filmy white squares and rectangles, some painted and vigorously scrawled on, others blank in sections.

Stepping closer, I press my fingers on the pale surface and push against the details below. I’m allowed to do this. Large signs say “please touch.”

Called mylar, the top material obscures collages of sketched images and written words, bits of newspaper articles that report stories of sexual abuse and murder. When pushed against the bottom layer, the mylar comes clear and details emerge through the pearly fog.

In one piece, the image of a sword is drawn over the Venus de Milo. In another, the story of what happens when a woman becomes embroiled in a violent relationship is carefully written out.

Red thread thickly zig-zags across the top, strands falling loose, tangling with my fingers as I push the paper together, a few lines at a time. As details come clear, others fade away. It’s easy to miss things. Like the psychological confusion that accompanies violence – who is wrong, who is right – that the artist describes in the piece.

But most powerful to me are several large works that use life-size sketches of naked women. As I touch the smooth skin-like surface to discover their shapes and their stories, I feel as if I’m touching them. Eyes look at me at eye-level. It is an experience that elicits such strange intimacy that I move my fingers on the outskirts of their bodies, avoiding the pencil-sketches of breasts and privates.

‘Privates’ is an accurate word. These women are hidden within their own privacy, secreted inside situations that are all too common and that gain power from being quieted away – while 1993 statistics report that over half of Canadian women have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence, only 6% of sexual assaults are reported to the police (according to Statistics Canada, 1993).

The power of this show is that the viewer is given the task of breaking through the barriers, of pushing through the white hush. In the interactive process, interest and compassion are called forth.

As I am seduced into the show, soon engaged in discovering and listening and looking, I am drawn into the conversation, into an intimacy with the enduring women who stand behind the veils.

The show runs until April 14, 2007. On March 31st, there will be a talk with Sylvia Curtis-Norcross and a guest speaker.