Merrimack Faculty and Students Turn to Art to Examine Social Problems

The Interdisciplinary Institute at Merrimack College created a multimedia exhibition to help faculty and students explore social issues through art.

In spring 2020, the Interdisciplinary Institute invited the Merrimack community and the general public to a multimedia exhibition under the title “Bodies, Borders, Bridges,” which reflects the institute’s multi-year theme.

“Art can be a powerful tool to address social issues, transcending language barriers and disciplinary jargons,” said Simona Sharoni, director of the Interdisciplinary Institute and professor of women’s and gender studies.

The exhibit features work by a diverse group of local artists from Lawrence, Lowell, Haverhill, and Salem, as well as artists located in other parts of the country and outside of the U.S.

“Bodies, Borders, Bridges” expanded upon the Storage Closet Gallery exhibition, “Children: Artists Unified Against Family Separation.” That exhibition was curated in summer 2019 by Brian Alves, chair of the art & design department at Salem State University, with conceptual curatorial advising and installation assistance by Mica Lin-Alves and Rayza Carrasco.

Following an opening reception featuring two young artists, Malak Matar from Gaza, Palestine and James-Valenín from Lawrence, MA, the focus of the project shifted to working with faculty across campus to integrate the exhibit into the curriculum. Faculty from three different schools at Merrimack, the School of Liberal Arts, the School of Education and Social Policy, and the School of Health Sciences, responded to the invitation by integrating the exhibit and course assignments and bringing students to view the exhibit.

Luis Saenz de Viguera, associate professor and chair of world languages and cultural studies, designed an interactive activity for students in his Contemporary Latin American and Spanish Film classes. Students walked through the exhibit in pairs, using Post-it notes to pose questions they had about the artifacts, and then responded to their classmates’ questions.

“When we discussed what questions and works had impacted them the most, it was abundantly clear that the exhibition had opened their eyes to the complex realities of immigration and the borderlands, as well as to the relevance of art in tackling contemporary urgent issues,” Saenz de Viguera said. “The shared experience at the exhibition really set the tone for the rest of the semester.”

Nancy Wynn, associate professor of graphic design and chair of the visual and performing arts department brought the students in her senior seminar to the exhibit in February. Wynn said the experience was helpful for her students to view a completed and installed exhibition since they were installing one at the end of the semester in the McCoy Gallery.

Wynn said the students enjoyed talking with Malak Matar, one of the featured artists, and seeing the completed work and how it was curated and installed. She said the exhibition was also helpful in their understanding of conceptualization and intentionality when making art.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Interdisciplinary Institute staff worked with Brian Alves to create a virtual presence for the exhibit. They also contacted participating artists to invite them to participate in a virtual webinar about the exhibit and to serve as guest speakers in the courses that were scheduled to visit the exhibit later in the spring.

Seven artists participated in the virtual webinar, which was held in April 2020 under the title: “Bodies, Borders, Bridges: The Role of Artists in Times of Crisis.” The roundtable featured a conversation among artists, not only about the original work they created for the exhibit, but also about how they have used art to cope with and to respond to the global pandemic. Several dozen people from across the United States and six other countries attended the webinar and many others viewed the event’s recording.

Laura Hsu, associate professor of human development and human services, offered students in her Diversity, Social Justice & Ethics class to attend the virtual webinar to fulfill their remaining service learning hours. A dozen students from the class attended the event and reflected on what they learned.

“We were lucky to have this moved to a webinar because, had it been in person, we wouldn’t have been able to see this exhibit as well as we did,” Kelley Churcher, a junior, pursuing a double major in education and human development and human services, wrote in her reflection paper after attending the event. “It is important for us as young individuals to recognize what is happening in our world and use our resources to make change in a peaceful, non-violent way.”

Students in Foundations of Environmental Health, a class led by assistant professor of health science April Bowling, held a virtual gallery “walk-through” and participated in a roundtable with three of the featured artists.

“The roundtable helped students understand the many connections that exist between art and health, including the use of art to call attention to health disparities, among other social disparities,” Bowling said.

The multimedia exhibit will remain on display at Merrimack College during fall 2020. The Interdisciplinary Institute will continue to plan creative curricular responses to the global pandemic and racial injustice.

See Photos from Exhibit


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