Why would social scientists want to host an art show? Social science studies across place and time the behavior and experience of individuals and peoples – and the narratives they create, the life-ways they embody. Art is a mirror of that behavior and experience, a mirror permitting looks into our deepest selves – often looks into interior moments where the light of language shines only ephemerally, if at all. Upon confronting art, many people turn away, unwilling to face the insight art illuminates. Art grants light to see. Social science scholarship works to untangle what we see: looking to the past for understanding, scanning the present for mechanisms, and creating lenses to better see the future. Art lights the way.
Between the Shadow and the Light sprung up among a 2013 gathering of artists and educators from the U.S. and six different African countries – Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe – together in South Africa for two weeks of living and learning. Theirs was a social justice exploration. The questions they grappled with included: How do we remember the entwined and contested histories of various individuals and varied groups? In a post-colonial, multicultural society, who may represent whom? Therein is a frame of living that will be poignant to any attentive viewer.
While pondering the artists’ works and watching our contemporary news, I would add a questions that kept Lincoln awake at night: How do we insure that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth? How do we get there in the first instance? How do we unite what seems at first brush disparate? No forward search of any of these questions – here or in Africa or anywhere else around our hurting globe – fails to transverse social justice territory. Ouachita’s Sutton School of Social Sciences works to build eyes that see, ears that hear, and hands that labor in love.
Humans possess an extraordinary capacity for evil – even when they believe they have the best of intentions. Consider the Milgram obedience study, the American eugenics laws of the early 20th century, the racial inequality in our justice and penal systems, Jim Crow, the Zimbardo prison study, the three-fifths compromise. All this and much more from our own heritage.
The pieces in this exhibit hold up a mirror that reflects the universal injustice buried deep within human behavior and experience. Note how your eyes widen when you recognize yourself in Trespassers on Our Own Land. Ponder the tribal juxtaposition in An Intentional Intersection. Embrace the pain in The Ties that Bind: The Fabric of Our Being, the scale of misery in Property Lines, the love of life in The Queens of Soweto, the hope in Moment by Moment, the desperation in Tension: On the Way to Robben Island, or the call to spirit in Holy the Day.
Something that slaps me when I view these works is the darkness expressed by the American artists compared to the grounded vibrancy conveyed by the African artists. Now, why would that be so?
Tolstoy once observed that everyone thinks of changing the world but no one thinks of changing his or her self. If you can walk away from this collection and not wonder who you are or how you might be a brighter light, then you are not paying attention.
Ouachita is hosting the final North American stop of Between the Shadow and the Light: An Exhibit Out of South Africa through Feb. 23. Read more about the exhibit in Ouachita News.
*Lead photo artwork: Holy the Day by Theresa Couture
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