With each new time era, new social justice issues arise. Our modern age has been dominated by movements such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives, to name just a few.
Recently, UT collaborated with Fisk University and Tennessee State University to create an art exhibit entitled, “Toxic. Misinformation. JUSTICE.: Student Interpretations on Words of the Year.” The exhibit focuses on timely and relevant social justice issues, ranging from homelessness to Civil Rights.
The fascinating exhibit does a wonderful job of poignantly expressing emotion through graphic displays. The ceiling at the entrance to the exhibit is lined with a row of bright, colorful graphics displaying different virtues, such as inclusion, generosity and humility. The display is a UT class project from the fall 2018 section of Prints and Social Practice.
Each word is accompanied by a stunning and creative graphic visualization of the concept. For example, “inclusion” is paired with an intricate print of criss-crossing lines, “generosity” is illustrated by a drawing of a bow on a present and “humility” is displayed with a pair of tattered tennis shoes. The graphics do a fantastic job of drawing meaningful virtues to attach to otherwise simple objects.
Additionally, one of the most detailed pieces in the exhibit is a mixed media project created by UT student Celine Gobert. Gobert crafted a small ceramic statue of a man holding a cardboard sign and sitting besides a shopping cart; he appears to be homeless, and he is wearing tattered boots and fingerless gloves.
The cardboard sign says, “Why lie? My country did this to me,” alongside the name “Sam Stone.” “Sam Stone” is a song by John Prine that tells the story of a veteran’s extremely difficult life after returning home from war.
The tiny shopping cart was filled with numerous exquisitely detailed items; the artist crafted several imitations of mock books out of ceramic, including “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “A Light in the Attic” and “Lord of the Flies.” The attention to detail in this piece was absolutely fascinating. The shopping cart also contained playing cards, trash bags, a stuffed animal and alcohol, all scaled down to doll-like sizes.
It is incredulous to imagine the level of work that went into creating this piece. Because all elements of the project are so small, the artist likely had to work with incredibly small tools and a precise hand.
The overall piece fantastically executes its commentary on the way that veterans are treated when they return from war. Many veterans, despite their time serving the country, are unable to support themselves nor are they adequately supported by America. Many former soldiers end up tragically homeless just like the balding, ceramic man presently on display.
Furthermore, most of the artwork featured in the gallery focuses on Civil Rights and race relations. A television in the gallery plays a powerful visual and auditory melange of clips of Civil Rights activists speaking.
These videos are supplemented with the sounds of gunshots and rap music. The display effectively draws attention to issues faced by African Americans by discussing Civil Rights while simultaneously displaying other elements of African American culture.
Another piece on display combines rap music with tragedy as well. Fisk University student Meaghan Hall’s painting “In My Eyes” depicts an image of a pair of eyes crying what appears to be blood. The eyes overlay 19 lines of lyrics from rapper Kendrick Lamar’s song “FEAR.”
The nearly eight-minute long song details the pain of someone suffering greatly for many different reasons, including severe racial discrimination.
“Why God, why God do I gotta suffer? Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle. Why God, why God do I gotta bleed,” the painting reads.
In recent years, Lamar has been recognized multiple times for the artistic and deeply moving nature of his music, particularly for his talented ability to draw attention to the struggles of African Americans. Therefore, Hall’s choice to use Lamar’s lyrics in her painting was an eloquent one. Anyone who is associated with Lamar’s work will automatically gain a deeper understanding of Hall’s painting just through its usage of the words from “FEAR.”
One of the most unique pieces in the exhibit “Don’t Play Me” was created by UT student Kalyn Roberts. The work is an instrument that resembles a sort of elongated banjo and is adorned with intricate fabrics around the base, along with delicately strung strings. At the top of the instrument a metal ax protrudes, and the instrument’s strings are tied around the blade of the ax.
I was blown away by the power of this object. My interpretation of the protrusion of a violent blade from a beautiful instrument was the idea that if you mistreat something or someone that is good, that thing or person will bring out their bad side. I viewed the piece as a necessary warning: Don’t take advantage of kind people unless you want to experience an extremely unpleasant backlash.
Overall, the exhibit was extremely touching and timely. The student artists did a fantastic job of conveying greatly complex emotions through their concrete work.