Controversies, debate arises in SPU Art Center

Using art as an avenue for expression

Ginger York The Falcon | This art exhibit shows how the importance of culture and diversity.

“Observe | Make | State,” an SPU gallery exhibition subtitled “A Collection of Design Reproductions and Artifacts That Convey Issues of Social Justice,” closed to the public on Nov. 17.
Campuswide, the exhibit generated conversation regarding issues of cultural and social justice, sometimes heated, with differing viewpoints emerging and bringing to light perceptions and experiences from a variety of backgrounds.

Featured in the exhibit was professional work from four different artists, each expressing aspects of social justice through the arts, as well as a series of message boards designed by students in the SPU art department.

Artists exhibited included W.E.B. Du Bois, who produced hand drawn charts for “The Exhibit of American Negroes” which were displayed at the International Paris Exhibition in 1900; 2015 American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) medalist Emory Douglas, who held the position of Art Director for the Black Panther’s newspaper for a period in the ’60s and ’70s; designer/filmmaker Chaz Maviyane Davies, who designed posters around topics ranging from human rights issues to anti-globalization; and Garland Kirkpatrick, who memorialized the upswing in racial killings in the ’90s.

Staff in the art department hoped that through the exhibit, art students could use visual sensibility in image-making for the purpose of expressing social justice while also engaging students, faculty, alumni or other visitors in responding to social justice issues that they were concerned about.

The show was a success in that regard, with some visitors writing poetry and text, and some using visual images to engage.

Professor Karen Gutowsky-Zimmerman commented that “protest is inherently dramatic. All protests have an element of drama.” There is an association with freedom of speech in expressions of social justice through art, she explained.

She also commented that the department did not want the message boards to be used as hate speech, and yet at the same time, did not want to put a damper on each person’s individual experience.

On campus, the exhibit generated debate, prompting the emergence and expression of differing viewpoints. One student commented that one exchange ended with a student labeling another with the term “bigot”, when neither could see the other’s viewpoints.

Gutowsky-Zimmerman said that others expressed thoughts like “White people need to get a clue” and “I thought that was offensive.”

“It is important to know that the work on the expression boards was not necessarily the opinions of SPU,” Gutowsky-Zimmerman said. Administration at SPU did receive reports, however, stating that the exhibition contained some offensive material.

Due to the controversial nature of the conversation, a student in the art department, who requested not to be named, stated that the university declined to comment on the exhibit, instead allowing the art department to make decisions regarding the material being displayed.

She felt that since this was art, and was meant as a free expression of social concerns, that this was the right stand for SPU to take. A colleague of Gutowsky-Zimmerman at Emory University commented that “Art is an excellent place for us to have these conversations.”

Gutowsky-Zimmerman also noted that, “All voices need to be heard. It is our narrative and our personal story that enables us to be part of the dialogue. It is important to know how to share in a proactive way without blaming or shaming.”

Jacqueline Estrada, a first year art student, believes that it is important for people to address arising issues, and art is a great way to do just that because art engages everyone.

“Art is a great way to bring issues to people’s attention because it’s something that can’t be overlooked,” she said. “I also feel like specific forms of art express certain emotions and can touch each individual differently, which is why we have these controversies!”

The Seattle Pacific Art Center has recently been awarded a grant for the art department which is designed for use in both showing and making work. In addition,the exhibition of “Observe | Make | State” was featured in the Oct. 28 issue of Print magazine in an article titled “Designer Garland Kirkpatrick: Keeping Social Issues Alive,” by Michael Dooley.

Dooley quotes Garland from an AIGA profile feature, “design is not a benign activity. It has the power to inform and to obscure … I think there is a huge potential for design to visualize diverse ideologies and to keep issues alive.”