For both of my undergraduate courses that were offered during the Winter of 2013, I asked students to create artistic projects, which constituted about a third of their final grades. These are not art courses, mind you, and I myself have not had any formal training as an artist. But I have been plagued for years by a statement Toni Morrison made. She had been perturbed, she said, by the way in which social scientists teach her novels. They (we) often ignored or erased all of the beauty she had worked so hard to create. That troubled her. Of course the comment speaks squarely to the ways in which we do interdisciplinary work, but I think Morrison’s lament aims at something far deeper: What do we do with beauty as radical thinkers? How does beauty figure into our intellectual projects, particularly when so much of what we think about and work against concerns violence? If Morrison can attend to making beauty through the poetic mastery of language and image even as she wrestles with violence—one might even say the grotesque—how might we ask the same of ourselves and of those whom we teach?
In both courses, the guidelines were fairly simple—deceptively simple in relation to the scope and depth of the task!!! Students were to spend time on an artistic creation, the final version of which would be shared. For Dreams, they were to engage an image of freedom that held meaning for them. Some felt that freedom lay on the outside; they knew little of its interior dimensions. Others believed that they knew more about freedom’s impediments rather than about freedom itself. What was the color of the fear of freedom? To probe these reflections further, students had to travel while holding on to the idea that individual and collective freedom were closely intertwined. For that journey they had to dig deep. And they did.
For Migrations, students were asked to map elements of the city of Toronto that were sacred to them—that after examining a question posed by one of Lata Mani’s essays: “Is a dew drop sacred or secular? “ (See Lata Mani, SacredSecular: Contemplative Cultural Critique, Routledge India, 2009) Mani’s strong suggestion is that there is no neat separation between the sacred and the secular. This merging had to find its way into students’ projects and where possible, linked to the stories of sacred migrations within their own families, another facet of the overall class assignment. Almost all of the course readings had stressed the aesthetics of the sacred. Thus in this project, they were being asked to create that which spiritual communities have known to exist: a link between the aesthetic and the Divine. When, in the process of preparing for curation, Professor Andrea Fatona and visual artist Chiedza Pasipanodya (both of OCAD University, Toronto) visited Migrations and asked of each student: What inspired your creation? Where do you see it fitting in the overall landscape of the course? the shift from doing an assignment to becoming an artist was truly palpable.
The response to Toni Morrison is the lounge of WGSI, transformed now by more than four dozen works of art complete with title and artist statement and a consciousness, I dare say, about the desire to create. The photo below is a sneak preview of our exhibition that will open in the fall.
M. Jacqui Alexander
Andrea Fatona and Chiedza Pasipanodya: Installation, Migrations of the Sacred
Ashifa Rajwani and Jenny Eun Young Choi: Installation, Dreams of Freedom
And to all of the class participants who have come to an intimate knowing about “the dignity of risk.” Title of Julie Krstevska , project, participant, Dreams of Freedom.
Title: Rooted in our Sacred Spices
This mapping represents a crossing of various forms of the sacred through Toronto’s multicultural foods. Sacred spices converge to reveal a divinity that exists in the spaces within intersections; they evoke feelings and memories of home, transported into new spaces, sanctifying new geographies.
Artists: Abinaya Balasubramian and Aranie Rasalingam