Sister Francoise Bosteels has spent the last 40 years in India, living in turn in cities and villages, most of them desperately poor and oppressed. Currently based in Bangalore, she has spent those 40 years sharing in the lives of the communities she’s worked in; sharing their pain, sorrow, joy and hope.
Sr Francoise is a nun of the Sisters of the Divine Saviour, a Roman Catholic order.
In sharing their stories with her, many of which were accounts of abuse, injustice and discrimination, Sr Francoise understood the trust they had placed in her and saw a need to relay their stories to a broader audience.
Some of these stories are set alongside those from the Bible, which facilitates her work in spreading the Gospel teachings and the message of the never-ending need for compassion and humanity in our lives.
She does this through dolls – her dolls hand-made from fabric. Faceless dolls that tell powerfully of the horrors of rape, child abuse, prejudice and slavery, as well as the joys of the Nativity, the one-ness of a multi-faceted world and the power of people’s movements.
Just last month in May, Sr Francoise held an exhibition of her dolls, “The Dolls Speak – Meeting Jesus Through the Needle’s Eye”, at CANA the Catholic Centre in Singapore.
The exhibition was modest in scale and layout, and simultaneously grand in depth. Several standard rectangular meeting tables were set up along the walls of a flourescent-lit room. The dolls, clad in sarees and dhotis were neatly laid out on the tables, each collection focused on a specific topic or part of Scripture.
Issues such as the backlash of globalisation, modern-day slavery and the excesses of materialism stared the visitor squarely in the face with nowhere really to hide or retreat. The faceless dolls train one’s eye to Sr Francoise’s attention to detail in their making. Their postures and bodily expressions make them come alive, as if in motion.
Mounted on one of the walls of the room are samples of individual dolls with accompanying texts – poetry and prose – written by people who work or who have at some point had the privilege of meeting Sr Francoise. According to a volunteer who was helping to man the exhibition, the nun’s work has enabled her to raise awareness of the plight of the disadvantaged and underprivileged in her communities. For example, Sr Francoise, has conducted workshops for sex workers who, through the dolls, tell their stories of despair such as being sold by their parents to a pimp for the equivalent of 15 Singapore dollars. Therapy and a semblance of empowerment are two tangible results of such workshops.
Why did this exhibition move me?
Dolls aren’t typically fashioned into lifeless bodies stripped half naked and left on the street – Raped Woman.
They also aren’t usually capable of motion unless they’re fitted with slots for AA batteries – A Woman is Accused of Being a Prostitute.
And they certainly don’t often have a voice – Woman Hugging a Tree.
At its heart, the exhibition is real. It tells of real stories and it offers real interpretations and contexts. Even the suppositions are real. A cat makes an appearance in Mary and Martha’s household. And why not?
I had the privilege of speaking with Sr Francoise in person at the exhibition. Her thick brown hair tied loosely into a low bun. Some strands of grey, but not many. A sturdy voice and a slender figure standing ramrod straight. Dressed in a t-shirt and cargo type trousers nipped at the ankles. She had a radiance about her; a glow that can only come from a genuine desire and commitment to making this wretched world a better place.
I looked at 72-year-old Sr Francoise from Belgium and thought, “Few women are as beautiful.” Jane Goodall is another who comes to mind.
I don’t always give my complete attention at exhibitions. It’s hard work filtering the mediocre and space-wasters from the worthwhile. This, however, required a negotiating and bargaining for more time to take everything in; to savour every swish of the hand or droop of the saree or gasp of sadness.
Sr Francoise prepares you for this. She knows all too well that most visitors to exhibitions need structure and instruction. She welcomes you with a simple brochure and this invitation: “As you wander through this space, we invite you to still your mind and to slow down your pace.”
A sign at the entrance asks that you seek permission to take photographs, which immediately kicks a techno-crutch right out from under your armpit. There will be no incessant need to document anything until you’ve taken the time to understand what it is you’re looking at.
With a smile as she sends you on your way, she says, “Enjoy your time with God.”
For more information on Sr Francoise: http://francoisebosteels.blogspot.sg/