The SMFA encourages a new kind of artistic exchange

Wellesley News

The School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) presents an exhibit unlike most, crafted in a way more representative of a continuously evolving project than a conventionally static art exhibit. “Histories of Now: A Space for Dialogue, Art and Activism,” which opened at the School  last month, focuses on worldwide social movements and artistic approaches to talking about social change. The project will culminate with a final publication and symposium held on Tuesday, March 12.

The multimedia exhibit grew out of an exhibit the SMFA hosted last year titled “Histories of Now: Six Artists from Cairo.” The former “Histories of Now” showcased the works of various Egyptian artists produced in reaction to the 2011 Egyptian revolution in Cairo. Last year’s exhibit encouraged discussions on how art lends itself to building dialoguearound contemporary social movements.

“Histories of Now: A Space for Dialogue, Art and Activism” aims to reprise the conversations that took place at last year’s exhibit. “While working on the first exhibition and symposium, we realized that further ‘conversations’ with the artists would be extraordinarily enriching and that the ‘Now’ in the title is currently, drastically different,” says SMFAMuseum curator, Joanna Soltan. “The subject now [in this project] is broader and structured differently.” Rather than have discussions directed around the 2011 Egyptian revolution, this year’s “Histories of Now” touches upon social change worldwide.

For this project, SMFA’s Barbara and Steven Grossman Gallery space was divided into two spaces, with the first section of the exhibit being a screening room and the second section a conventional gallery space that displays visual art. The cinema space, a darkened room with pillows scattering the floor, displays works by seasoned filmmakers and SMFAstudents alike, a testimony to the close partnership the “Histories of Now” project has with SMFA students.

Soltan remarks, “This project is utterly collaborative and students play a very important part in it.” Additionally, a section of the exhibit has been converted to a rehearsal space for students in a Rock and Roll Aesthetics class taught at SMFA. Along with faculty members, local activists, journalists, members of the public and students contribute to the discussions that take place within the gallery space.

The general gallery space is sparse as there are few works displayed on the walls and no plaques explaining them. Nevertheless, this sparseness expresses the constantly evolving quality of the exhibit. In fact, the exhibit’s fluidity seems to suggest that the exhibit is less about the pieces in the room than the actual dialogue they induce. According to Soltan, there are few plaques on the walls because the works change so frequently depending on the direction dialogue takes. In this way, dialogue drives the nature of the exhibit. “Depending on when you come, different ‘pieces’ will be on view and the decision how to present them will be made by different people,” Soltan said.

Every week, “Histories of Now” focuses on a different social movement depending on the dialogues of the previous week. This week, the exhibit centered on the idea of immigration as a social movement in the United States. Many of the works displayed on the walls focused on this topic, ranging from images of YouTube videos of El Salvador, to a Huffington Post article on power imbalance between a wealthy minority and working-poor, Latino majority in California. On another wall, Facebook images of Latino youths were lined up side by side next to a street sign from Cairo. Since social media played such a large role in the revolutions in Cairo, the exhibit’s display of various social media forms is instrumental in showing how social media is an art form.

The project demonstrates how art is valuable as more than just a commodity or aesthetically pleasing object. It can also generate provocative discussions about human society. While the concept that art is often a reflection of social movements of its time is nothing new, the “Histories of Now” projects are unique in that they use art to initiate discussions on those issues.

A multimedia publication will conclude this year’s exhibit, documenting the various ideas discussed in the month-long exhibit through images, sounds, moving images, etc. Soltan says that similar projects that can foster conversations will be featured in the future; however, how the project will be recreated remains up in the air. “Whether with this structure, or another, in the gallery, classroom, living room or wherever, dialogue is always something that we want to facilitate at SMFA,” Soltan said.

Published in the Wellesley News, 2/27/2013

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