Labor of love: art, activism, collaborative learning

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Sol Aramendi, Apple Eco Power. Courtesy of Eva Mayhabal Davis.

Creating art and reflecting on artwork is often a cooperative experience that supports empathic responses to lived experiences. Both the artist and the viewer put effort into formulating understandings of issues affecting the cultural environment. In this respect, art informs us about the lives of others and raises our consciousness regarding how we view ourselves and others within the culture at large.

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El Coop Mobile, Installation at Queens Museum. Courtesy of Eva Mayhabal Davis.

Making art is a labor of love that employs a combination of social, emotional and cognitive actions. Artists make art because they care about expressing themes that impact the human experience. Art is a wonderful methodology for experiential learning, because it allows the artist and viewer to engage in a cooperative dialogue. The artist makes the artwork around a theme of their interest, and then it is left to the viewer to find value within the work and make their own unique connections to it.

I advocate throughout this blog that art doesn’t have to be realized within the traditional ‘art world’ (see: Danto, 1964). I disagree with the idea that something is only defined as art if it is established by art academics, critics and institutional professionals. While not everyone who makes art is going to be recognized in the field of fine arts, everyone has the ability to live artfully. Living artfully means translating the studio habits of mind that we learn from the arts (see: Educating Through Art) into everyday actions. Contemporary artists like Sol Aramendi, are making an important contribution to both the institutional art world and the larger world outside of the creative sector.

Aramendi immigrated from Argentina 17 years ago and collaborates with local immigrant populations to realize socially engaged artworks. Her recent creative partnerships include the Workers’ Studio, an ongoing project with women day laborers who come from diverse backgrounds. The common thread between Aramendi and the women laborers is their advocacy for workers’ to reverse the exploitation of labor, which includes wage theft and unsafe working conditions. Under the auspices of the Workers’ Studio, art making is the vehicle for raising awareness in support of equal, equitable and justice driven labor systems.

Aramendi’s artistic initiative is a form of social sculpture (see: Everybody is an Artist), where the act of making art reflects social conditions such as immigration and the right to a living wage. The Workers’ Studio is nomadic, meaning that it can be successfully implemented in all sorts of environments. This element is important both functionally and symbolically for addressing themes of labor and immigration. Because the project can move from place to place, it is easily accessible to a wide group of participants, whose narratives signify a vibrant tapestry of experience and creativity. The artistic contributions, which are on display in an exhibition at the Queens Museum titled Workers’ Studio: El Co-op (curated by Eva Mayhabal Davis), come from women who have organized into co-op businesses, where each worker owns a share in the company. The co-ops who have artworks featured in the exhibition are: Love & Learn Childcare Cooperative, Apple Eco Cleaning, Brightly Port Richmond Cleaning Cooperative, and Mirror Beauty Cooperative. The work created by the workers of these co-ops include photographs, writings and mixed-media objects. There are several workshops and events throughout the course of the exhibition (on view until January 12, 2020) that support creative discourse and action around the issues of labor and worker organization.

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Materials and resources at the El Coop Mobile. Courtesy of Eva Mayhabal Davis.

One of the benefits of participatory art projects, is the collaborative/cooperative learning aspect that comes from sharing and relating experiences. Collaborative/cooperative learning expands our ability to understand and express ourselves through scaffolding and building upon each other’s skills and resources. In the educational realm, this pedagogical approach “promotes interaction among students and shared responsibility for academic achievement” (Stein and Hurd, 2000).  Similarly, the work created through the Workers’ Studio supports the reciprocity of ideas, resources and authority, in order to benefit all members of the collective. The personal stories that are expressed via the creative process inform us about the power of coming together and raise our consciousness towards advocating for worker’s rights, and human rights. You can see the labor of love within the imagery and materials on display.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Danto, Arthur C. “The Artworld” (1964) Journal of Philosophy LXI, 571-584.

Stein, Ruth Federman & Hurd, Sandra. Using Student Teams in the Classroom. Bolton MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc. 2000. admin.leeuniversity.edu/Media/Website%20Resources/pdf/cte/SteinHurd_UsingStudentTeams.pdf.

The Fourth Grade Project

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Installation view of archival pigment prints from The Fourth Grade Project by Judy Gelles, in the exhibition Overlap: Life Tapestries on view at Pen + Brush, New York. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Students from around the world are the subjects and co-collaborators of an ongoing participatory artwork and educational experience titled The Fourth Grade Project. The project was initiated by Judy Gelles, a contemporary artist who works as a photographer. Gelles travels internationally to visit with students in their schools, and have a dialogue about their life experiences. The students are only a decade old but they have incredible insight about the world around them. Gelles photographs the students in rear perspective view, so that they remain anonymous. The final prints include verbatim text juxtaposed with each student’s portrait. The text tells their personal narratives, which were prompted by three questions: Who do you live with? What do you wish for? What do you worry about?

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Judy Gelles, Lived Closer: USA California Private School, archival pigment print. Photograph by Adam Zucker

The eloquent responses to these questions reflect the students’ sociocultural understandings. Each student has a unique perspective regarding how they see themselves in the scope of the human condition. While there is diversity in their responses due to the different geographical regions they represent, the stories they share signify several commonalities. They worry about themselves and their family; feel stressed about their performance in school and/or in social and athletic settings; and contemplate the future. They also express their aspirations for happiness and success. All children deserve to feel safe and valued in their schools, families and communities. The Fourth Grade Project makes it clear that this is not the case for all school aged children around the world. Too many students are worried about violence and sociocultural woes affecting them, their classmates and their families. An essential question for us to collectively address is how to bridge the social, cultural and economic gaps that create inequitable situations within society?

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Judy Gelles, Be Murdered, South Africa: Public School, archival pigment print. Photograph by Adam Zucker

The Fourth Grade Project is being utilized as a way for students across the globe to feel empowered expressing themselves and learning about one another. In doing so, they will make connections between their own stories and those of other students. Gelles is working with educators and administrators in Philadelphia to create a curriculum that can be implemented in schools throughout the world. What Gelles and the classroom teachers have noticed, is that giving students the agency to express themselves via the three aforementioned queries, benefits their participation and involvement in school. Students were struggling to make connections between their lives and the required reading, which impacted the development of their literary and writing skills. By making stories relatable to their social, emotional and cultural experiences, students were passionate about reading and writing. As a result of participating in the project, both quantitative and qualitative assessments of the students’ work supported their individual growth in English Language Arts (ELA). Furthermore, by reading the students’ stories, teachers and administrators gain significant insight into the myriad of social issues affecting their students. Due to overcrowded schools and large class sizes, it is often difficult for educators to spend enough time with each student to have dialogues about their lives outside of school. This project enables teachers to learn more about what personal concerns might be affecting a student’s performance in class. In addition to this dialogue being beneficial for educators to gain greater understandings about their students, classmates also gain insight into their peers’ innermost feelings. These compassionate responses build a more empathetic environment where everyone in the school works together and is supportive of each other’s physical and emotional space.

Understanding one another and being able to show empathy for what others are enduring is a major lesson that the arts can teach us (see: Exhibiting Empathy and Educating Through Art). Through social and emotional learning and reflections on personal and collective experiences, The Fourth Grade Project has the potential to help students grow academically and personally.

 

Back to Nature: Learning about ecosystems of the past and building future ecological awareness

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Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some people call New York City a ‘concrete jungle.’ This metaphor refers in part to the city’s lack of greenery and the plethora of large concrete and glass structures in its stead. However, New York City was once a lush natural environment and our urbanization of the land has displaced generations of natural growth. The large swaths of commuters, tourists and residents that hustle and bustle across the metropolis probably don’t often think of a pre-colonial Manhattan and the diverse island ecosystem that existed.

We can learn a lot from artworks that re-present the lost ecosystem of the city. Michael Wang and Alan Sonfist both incorporate scientific processes into their artistic practice. Their work aims to raise our awareness about how post-industrial human beings have transformed, molded and largely stripped the land of its natural essence. Through bringing the results of their scientific research into cultural spaces, their work invites us to view an ecosystem that once did not have to be nurtured by an artist. Our consumer-driven interactions with the world around us have made these artworks necessary in order to experience the landscapes of the past.

Artists throughout history have become awestruck by nature and portray it in all its glory and lushness. The paintings of the Hudson River School artists depict nearly pristine views of America’s landscape right as the industrial revolution transformed forests and valleys into sprawling towns and large cities. These artists were rebelling against what they saw as a grave danger to humanity: our sociocultural and economic influence on the environment. Wang’s Extinct in New York (2019-ongoing) and Sonfist’s Time Landscape (1965-present) attempt to revive the actual ecological features of New York City that have been erased by urbanization and consumerism.

Wang and Sonfist use natural resources as their art materials. Their work begins with analysis of quantitative data, historical accounts and archival imagery.  Thanks to the careful documentation by both artists and scientists, Sonfist and Wang were able to fulfill their objectives to re-present New York City’s lost and disappearing fauna.

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Michael Wang, Extinct in New York. Installation photograph at LMCC’s Arts Center at Governors Island. Courtesy of LMCC and Sacks & Co.

Extinct in New York, which was just recently on display at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s (LMCC) Arts Center on Governors Island, creates a space where viewers can observe live specimens of specific native plants, algae and lichen that have vanished from New York City’s ecosystem. Wang’s extensive research accompanies the live specimens in a publication detailing the name of each plant, algae or lichen, and the last time it was found in its natural setting. The installation of these specimens resembles a greenhouse laboratory and, sure enough, it requires nurturing care from gallery staff, local students and volunteers. When the project is de-installed, the goal is to re-introduce the plants, algae and lichen to the land where they once grew unrestrained. The irony is that now they will require the care of human beings in managed spaces like urban community gardens and public parks. Alongside the live materials, Wang displays photographs and botanical drawings that document and express the traces of nature and its ephemerality.

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Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1965-present, site-specific land art. Courtesy of the artist.

Time Landscape recreates a pre-colonial natural forest, which would have provided sustenance, shelter and community to the indigenous peoples of what is now the five boroughs. Sonfist designed a plot of land, which is located at the northeast corner of La Guardia Place and West Houston Street in downtown Manhattan, to resemble the likeness of a natural forest that would have been observed prior to European interference. The initial planting process depicted the three phases of natural forest growth: seeds to saplings to grown trees and mature plants. Now, the land artwork is ripe with old growth and is even susceptible to post-colonial species of fauna (which are periodically weeded out by Parks Department workers). Time Landscape is a living sculpture, which could also be considered as a memorial to a past ecological epoch. It raises our social, emotional and cognitive awareness to the prowess and fragility of our natural world.

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Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1965-present. Courtesy of the artist.

In the Anthropocene era, it is important that our educational settings provide real-world and hands-on learning scenarios for students to explore, discover and make insightful responses to the environment. In order to do this, teachers will likely require support from their administration and professional development to learn ways that they can incorporate environmental issues into their curriculum.

Brooklyn College’s Graduate Art Education program has implemented a Summer course called Human Tracks in the Urban Landscape, which focuses on inquiry-based pedagogical frameworks that current and future art and science educators can use in their classrooms. Using Prospect Park as both a case study and experiential site, the course combines classroom discussions where educators learn the natural history of New York’s ecology, with on-site and studio based explorations, such as projects, installations and performances. At the end of the course, educators produce multi-disciplinary projects that combine artistic and scientific processes and address a specific ecological topic of interest.

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Shauna Woods Gonzalez, Bill Vaughn, Adam Zucker, Pick-up Picnic, 2017, London Plane bark, litter, edible native and invasive plants gathered and foraged from Prospect Park.

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Shauna Woods Gonzalez, Bill Vaughn, Adam Zucker, detail of Pick-up Picnic, 2017, London Plane bark, litter, edible native and invasive plants gathered and foraged from Prospect Park.

When I took this course in its inaugural year (2017), my team (consisting of three art educators including myself) researched the history of foraging in New York City parks and came up with a list of edible plants that thrived in Prospect Park. We focused on native and invasive species that could be foraged and utilized by local communities as nutritional sources of food, as well as ways to sustainably interact with the park’s natural resources. We created a temporary site-specific installation and performance, where we juxtaposed the park’s useful natural elements with the abundance of consumer-based refuse (fast food wrappers, plastic bottles and junk food scraps) that were littered throughout the landscape. The result was a ‘picnic’ of foraged plants and trash. The idea for this installation started with an adverse reaction to being in the park. I could not enjoy myself because I was preoccupied with the amount of litter strewn across the natural space. The trash was distracting me from the abundant paths that surrounded us. I tried to move forward, but I kept thinking ‘how could we let our natural oasis get this way?’ As an artist, my concerns are visualizing and documenting experiences that focus on our accountability to our surroundings.

 

My strong reaction to the amount of garbage in Prospect Park led me to wonder why there isn’t a campaign to promote the clean and sustainable use of the park as a natural resource within the urban ecology. There are lots of plants for anyone in the city to enjoy for medicinal, culinary or other purposes (like creating fabrics and dyes). Ultimately, we need to take in knowledge about the natural scenery and take out the litter that threatens our local resources. We can promote a healthy relationship by thinking about what we consume and how it affects the environment. Learning to forage is one of the best things that I have learned, especially because mushrooms in particular are quite pricey in city markets! I hope more people will trust what is available around them in nature versus what is pre-packaged and mass-consumed. Perhaps through the incorporation of art and ecology curricula within our city’s schools, generations of students will gain expertise regarding the use of natural resources and become stewards to the ecosystems that exist within the urban landscape.

Representing Pittsburgh and Tehran

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Sohrab Kashani (left) and Jon Rubin (right), Blueroom (diptych) from the project The Other Apartment, 2019. Photos by Siavash Naghshbandi (Tehran)/Tom Little (Pittsburgh). Courtesy of Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is a great city, but not one that you might automatically think of when discussing global issues. However, the Steel City has been getting a lot of attention regarding global affairs lately. President Trump declared on June 1, 2017, when withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement that: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” As a counter to Trump’s unabashed and callous attitude on the climate crisis, Pittsburgh’s mayor Bill Peduto responded: “as the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy and future.”

Pittsburgh is once again in the cultural spotlight of an international dialogue with another global city via an artist initiated installation called The Other Apartment on view at the Mattress Factory. The Other Apartment, a collaboration between artists Jon Rubin, based in Pittsburgh, and Sohrab Kashani, based in Tehran, Iran, explores the beneficial impact that creative collaboration has on shifting the oft-negative narrative between the United States and Iran. It largely speaks to artists’ abilities to think outside of the box, embrace ambiguity and make social, emotional and cognitive connections with others (all studio habits of mind that the arts teach us).

This is such an important project that is taking place at a time when the United States is increasingly engaging in volatile diplomacy, and isolating itself from the global community. While it may seem insurmountable to bridge the gap between two very contentious nations, artworks such as The Other Apartment make connections when it may otherwise seem impossible to do so. Art communicates beyond social constructs like geographical boundaries and demarcated borders, and gives us access to intimate spaces and unique cultural insights that are typically marginalized and overshadowed by conflict and propaganda. Within Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory, Rubin and Kashani have created an exact replica of Kashani’s apartment in Tehran. They worked with fabricators to make duplicates of all the objects within Kashani’s flat. The fact that a likeness of Kashani’s space is on display within a public museum is fitting, because for the past eleven years he has opened up his Tehran home to the public as an exhibition space and artist residency.

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Sohrab Kashani (left) and Jon Rubin (right), Event Room Watching II (diptych) from the project The Other Apartment, 2019. Photos by Siavash Naghshbandi (Tehran)/Tom Little (Pittsburgh). Courtesy of Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

It is remarkable that Rubin and Kashani are fulfilling this collaboration without being in the same physical place due to Iranians being affected by Trump’s travel ban. Therefore, the artists had to work from detailed photographs and utilize telecommunication technology to transform the Mattress Factory’s gallery into Kashani’s apartment. Throughout the course of the exhibition, which runs through July 2020, the two artists will work in tandem to develop events, exhibitions, art objects and programming. Every happening that transpires in one space will be identically reproduced in the other space.

The Other Apartment could inspire classroom projects (The Other Classroom perhaps…) where students from two distant regions of the world connect and collaborate with each other, creating a communal classroom full of students who may never have the opportunity to meet in person. It is a great way to learn about other’s experiences and build empathy for one another. Students and educators could come up with a learning segment where each classroom has an opportunity to address a topic that they want to share with their cooperating class, and conduct a series of activities to be performed collectively that seek to realize common aims and objectives. The exchange of empirical cultural and social knowledge would be beneficial for a diverse body of students to foster both personal and professional relationships with one another.

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Sohrab Kashani (left) and Jon Rubin (right), Studio Opening (diptych) from the project The Other Apartment, 2019. Photos by Shirin Rezaee (Tehran)/Jon Rubin (Pittsburgh). Courtesy of Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

The Other Apartment is an example of how art can foster diplomacy and deep sociocultural understandings. Reflecting on creative endeavors like this, it is clear that migration has a profound effect on society at large; and it is imperative that we open our minds, borders and communities to others who are eager to share their culture, knowledge, creativity and passion with the world.

 

No Room to Play

“There was a time when we wore flowers on our heads…wishing it would never get dark so we could continue to play. We chased freedom and joy every day. We learnt about fear, delight and laughter……but ended up running the race.

But there was a day when we weren’t told the truth.We didn’t know enough to understand the bad news.Others took our decisions, others took our strength. Welcome to earth. There was a time when we wore flowers on our heads……but then it became cold in the summer and hot in the winter. We were promised Neverland.That imaginary faraway place……but true happiness never came.We wander now in darkness and despair.” – Narration from No Room to Play by Minerva Cuevas (2019).

Minerva Cuevas’ video No Room to Play (2019) portrays a cautionary dystopian narrative, in which urban public playgrounds are left to decay. The inspiration for the video comes from Post-WWII Western civilization, where urbanization and increased competition, in such forms as organized sports, economic and social status often overrule the importance of free play.

No Room to Play is symbolic of the decline of play, public space and autonomy, which psychologist Peter Gray recognizes as a major contemporary issue that is harmful for children’s development. A primary reason for this, Gray asserts, is that there is an incredible amount of herding of young minds and bodies within today’s society. Whether at home or in school, adults are directing the activities that children partake in, and children are learning that their free-will comes at a price, such as rigid judgement and assessment from adults. With children spending longer hours at school (or organized sports/clubs) under the tutelage of adults, and less time engaging in self-directed actions with their peers, they are being stifled socially and emotionally. This also takes a toll on their ability to think creatively, because they are often not given enough agency to think outside of the box or make judgements in the absence of rules (see: Eisner, 2002).

Cuevas’ poignant video blurs the lines between science fiction, fantasy and the realistic outlook of Gray’s assertion that children are more anxious and depressed than ever (Gray, 2010), because their inclination to play is not being supported within our modern society.

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Still from Minerva Cuevas’ No Room to Play, 2019, video retro-projection on hanging screen, 6’29.” On view at Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College in the exhibition Minerva Cuevas: Disidencia.

As dark and moody scenes of an abandoned playground are featured on screen, the voice of a German girl narrates how the loss of playgrounds affect children’s sense of place and self. Some of the playgrounds have naturalistic elements that resemble plants and animals, which alludes to the idea of Kindergarten (literally meaning a ‘children-garden’), a pedagogical model that supports growth through playful learning and activities that build upon children’s experience, emotions and intellect (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits). Friedrich Fröbel, who coined the name Kindergarten, believed that children should be nurtured like plants in a garden. In a depressing turn of events, the public spaces for play in No Room to Play have fallen into a total state of despair, suggesting a metaphor for the loss of environmental resources and the ability to provide a nourishing setting for children’s social, emotional and cognitive development. Our current trajectory of creating massive urbanized and commercial environments stresses competitiveness and production (mass produced labor) over natural processes of human development.

Having agency to partake in unadulterated child-centered moments of play has significant benefits on children’s creative and cognitive development (see: Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art). Children learn dynamic lessons and skills such as cooperation, procedural knowledge, patience and empathy by developing and implementing their own frameworks of play. Furthermore, play has been recognized by generations as a vital element of the human condition, as evident in constructivist  pedagogical models such as the Reggio Emilia Approach. To strip current and future generations of ample playtime, is an affront on nature.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Eisner, Elliot. The Arts and the Creation of Mind, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002.

Feldman, Claire Alaina, Bogossian, Gabriel, Farkas, Solange and Press Clayton. “Minerva Cuevas: Disidencia, exhibition catalogue, Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College, New York, 2019. https://www.baruch.cuny.edu/wsas/artsculture/mishkingallery/documents/MC_Disidencia_FINAL_LR.pdf

Gray, Peter. “The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders.” Psychology Today, 26 Jan 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201001/the-decline-play-and-rise-in-childrens-mental-disorders

Exhibiting Empathy

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Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at the Seattle Art Museum. © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Do you suffer from a lack of empathy? Is it getting harder to find meaningful connections between your life and the lives of those who are socially, economically and culturally different than you? On any given day, we see horrible images of violence, famine, floods, habitat and environmental loss on the news or social media, and moments later, we switch the channel to South Park and “like” a photo of a poodle wearing a tuxedo on Instagram. With a myriad of responsibilities and distractions, it is hard for some of us to take a moment to see things through the lens of another person.

Empathy is the ability to foster an understanding of each other’s lived experiences by going outside our perceived reality and into the reality of another person. Empathy is being able to consciously feel what others are going through and expressing. As psychologist Douglas LaBier describes:

“empathy is what you feel only when you can step outside of yourself and enter the internal world of the other person. There, without abandoning or losing your own perspective, you can experience the other’s emotions, conflicts, or aspirations from within the vantage point of that person’s world. That’s not telepathy; it’s a hard-wired capacity in all of us…”

It has been theorized that in today’s climate, we are afflicted by what is known as Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD) (LaBier, 2010). Lack of empathy can affect equity, because if we are unable to grasp the experiences and realities of others then we don’t truly develop a respect for their social, emotional and cognitive perspective. As discussed in the two previous posts about making art more equitable, realizing differences and adapting to include variability in our sociocultural conversations is important in shifting canonical systems of social stratification to a balanced and multifaceted social climate.

One of the ways that we can become more empathetic and equitable is by utilizing creativity to envision environments that are inclusive and receptive to social and cultural diversity. Art can function as a resource that inspires and challenges us to think about local and global perspectives and the importance of experiencing other cultures from a vantage point within their world. The essential question within our current global framework is how can we coexist in such fragmented and perilous times? One way is by learning to make space within ourselves for other people’s self expression. Doing so means going beyond just listening to their words or seeing their imagery. It means being able to identify and comprehend what they feel.

The Seattle Art Museum makes empathy and equity an active learning experience by offering cultural and experiential education alongside the objects in their galleries. The museum has a substantial collection of art from many African nations, and its presentation shifts our gaze from colonialism to community. One way of doing this is by activating the objects in the space so that they reference and illuminate cultural traditions in an authentic manner. Masks are presented over the faces of mannequins rather than on the wall or in display cases, so we get a sense of how these objects would actually function within the cultural context of the region. The museum is also very conscious in getting advice and feedback from contemporary artists and citizens of African nations. These individuals and groups are given precedence over anthropological and patrimonial discourse that is often too common in regards to the presentation and interpretation of artworks created throughout the continent.

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Okumpka Masquerade Players (1950-2007). Installation view of Chukwu Okoro Masks at the Seattle Art Museum, 2016, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

The museum’s display of Okumpka Masquerade Players (1950-2007), incorporates the contextual knowledge and experience of individuals who are primary participants with the objects on view. The installation features Afikpo Igbo masks created by Chukwu Okoro, a renowned Nigerian carver from Mgbom Villege, Afikpo. Okoro’s masks characterize spirits, and are utilized in Afikpo masquerades called Okumpka plays, which enable performers to purge themselves of embarrassment and embrace their playful and vulnerable nature. The installation on view presents mannequins donning masks and costumes that are part of the oft-humorous Okumpka plays, popular among Igbo Afikpo tribes in Nigeria. In front of them is a pot, which is a vessel for the masked players to announce their injudicious actions and compete for the honor of being the most foolish. Additionally, performers have the agency to challenge authority and through humor and satire, expose problematic elements of society. Those who stand accused of misdeeds are “obliged to listen without retaliating.” The idea is that airing grievances and listening to the feelings of those who have been wronged will encourage those who have done the wrongdoing to understand how their actions affect the feelings of others.

The costume elements were assembled by Sam Irem, a former president of the Afikpo Association of America, while Eze Anamelechi, an Igbo artist and native, was invited to the museum in order to supervise the fabrication. The insight gained through having these individuals partake in the work’s display is meaningful because it allows us to view and interpret it as it is culturally relevant.

Regarding the museum’s display of the Afikpo Masquerade Players, contemporary Igbo sound artist Emeka Ogboh, exclaimed: “This is one of the best places I’ve seen masks installed because normally they would hang it on the wall. But doing it this way, with the costumes and everything, also gives it character because these masks were not really meant to be hanging on the wall like that” (Ogboh, 2018). The masquerade players became the foundation and inspiration for him to create artwork for the 2015 group exhibition Disguise. About the work he made for Disguise, Ogboh says “I try to make that connection with what was existing here already, which was trying to work with sounds that could go with this whole situation of masquerading and find a way to give it a contemporary feel for the installation for the exhibition” (ibid).

In Disguise, works by contemporary artists are juxtaposed with traditional objects, themes and practices, illustrating how tradition is both maintained and transformed through generations. This methodology is central to the Seattle Art Museum’s pedagogical approach of presenting their collection and organizing exhibitions in ways that express empathy and equity.

The Afikpo Masquerade Players are currently part of a conceptual exhibition titled Lessons from the Institute of Empathy. The premise of the exhibition is that:

“Three Empathics have moved into the Seattle Art Museum and established a virtual space where you can step outside your normal, routine self and improve your ability to understand others…..Here, the Empathics display their trademarked process for transformation—absorbing vapors that spread digitally on the walls and floor. Surrounding this showroom is art the Empathics selected because they felt it could awaken empathy in the viewer.” – Wall text courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum.

A conceptual commonality in the presentation of these artworks, is the envisioning of a near-future civilization, where we are unified by the web of identities that each of us employ; and our ability to express empathy for each other’s unique experiences.

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Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at the Seattle Art Museum. © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

At the crux of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, is Saya Woolfalk’s ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space (2015), an immersive multi-disciplinary installation that explores a futuristic society where we have transcended our traditional form of humanity for a hybrid type of post-human existence. In this scenario, we have transformed out of our human bodies to form interpersonal connections with other races, ethnicity, genders and biological forms such as plants and animals. The work incorporates physical objects such as Sowei-inspired helmet masks –traditional versions of these masks, made by the Mende Culture in Sierra Leone, are on view nearby with explanations from a Sowei student who describes their importance in regards to female initiation rituals– and digital animation as a means to tell stories that reflect both the physical and metaphysical space. Through the amalgamation of media and narratives, we can enter the environment and feel a sense of transformation within ourselves. The idea is that we should remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle of our consumer based lifestyle and enter a reflective space where we are absorbed by the sights, sounds and feelings of nature and spiritual transcendence.

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Installation view of Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness at the Seattle Art Museum, 2019, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

In addition to the re-presentation of the Seattle Art Museum’s African art collection, a current exhibition by Zanele Muholi titled Somnyama Ngonyama (Zulu for Hail the Dark Lioness) questions prior cultural narratives around African identity. Muholi’s politically charged black and white self-portrait photographs, express intersectional facets of black identity, through an exploration of how black bodies are stereotyped into ethnographic archetypes. In these self-portraits, Muholi portrays the identity of other black bodies, like the Afro-Japanese, who have been marginalized and tokenized for exploitative purposes. Muholi utilizes props made from found materials like rubber gloves and plastic to critique the message of colonialism’s influence on the way black bodies are misrepresented and compartmentalized in Western narratives. The series is a powerful rebuttal of black beauty ideals and standards, which typically have violent and oppressive origins.

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Zanele Muholi, South African, b. 1972, Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016. ©️ Zanele Muholi, Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.

Viewing these portraits, may enable us to feel a connection to the subject as Muholi states, “with this work people would see that it is possible, that the gallery is meant to be for everybody.” Even if we don’t personally identify with the figures in the photographs, we can learn a lot about other people’s social, emotional and cognitive experiences through viewing them. We come to the realization that we are part of a system that oppresses and ignores others for political and economic gain. Western culture has a tradition of fetishisizing and making a commodity out of the human body in a manner that ignores and/or negates intersectional identities.

Muholi’s art behooves us to re-frame our thinking about beauty and body image in a manner that promotes unity and interconnection between seemingly diverse groups of people. Upon the aforementioned works at the Seattle Art Museum, we enter other people’s social, emotional and cognitive space from the vantage point of their world.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Joy, Charlotte, “African art in Western museums: it’s patrimony not heritage,” Aeon, 20 Feb. 2019. https://aeon.co/ideas/african-art-in-western-museums-its-patrimony-not-heritage

LaBier, Douglas. “Are You Suffering From Empathy Deficit Disorder?” Psychology Today. 12 Apr. 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-new-resilience/201004/are-you-suffering-empathy-deficit-disorder

Muholi, Zanele and Seattle Art Museum. “Zanele Muholi on “Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness” at Seattle Art Museum,” YouTube, 20 Sept. 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=180&v=fppJn5N2-Ks

Ogboh, Emeka and Seattle Art Museum. “My Favorite Things: Artist Emeka Ogboh on Chukwu Okoro masks,” YouTube, 11 Aug. 2015. https://youtu.be/OtGJCTRilVE

 

 

Art on the Spectrum

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Marlon Mullen, Untitled, 2016, acrylic on canvas. Collection of the Portland Museum of Art. Museum Purchase: Funds provided by Shane Akeroyd, © unknown, research required, 2018.19.1

For individuals on the autism spectrum, communicating through visual art can have a positive outcome in establishing their position within the culture at large. This is the case for contemporary artist Marlon Mullen, whose work is featured in the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Mullen is non-verbal, however he utilizes alternative methods in order to speak to others and make his mark on the world.

Mullen has found his means of expression through painting in a style that is both very raw and very refined. His painterly vocabulary is focused on a combination of abstract text and imagery, which he acutely mines and synthesizes from fine art magazines and other cultural periodicals. His form and content often derives from advertisements for exhibitions, article headlines or the covers of these magazines, but the context of his work is unique.

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Marlon Mullen, untitled, 2017, acrylic on canvas. CHARLES BENTON/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JTT, NEW YORK

The extent of Mullen’s literary comprehension is unclear, and since he isn’t able to verbally converse about his art it would be unfair to make assumptions about his creative intent. However, his aesthetic output signifies clear and concise insight and skill for using visual cues, representation and abstraction in an advanced manner. His paintings reflect the language of modern and contemporary art by breaking down a myriad of representational and non-representational forms into symbolic shapes and color, therein creating new avenues for the viewer’s experience. The paintings require applying acute perception and judgement from both the artist and viewer. They elicit observational (realistic and practical) and intuitive (theoretical and knowledge focused) modes of thinking (cognitive learning) and feeling (social-emotional learning).

Mullen is a strong participant of visual culture with a significant talent for making new meaning from the materials and subject matter he interacts with. His re-presentation of aesthetic and functional aspects within cultural publications utilizes studio habits of mind such as noticing deeply, embodying (experiencing works of art and representing that experience physically) and creating patterns and relationships from what he sees in other aesthetic forms expressively within his own voice.

Marlon Mullen from NIAD Art Center on Vimeo.