Leave the Bones & Catch the Land: A Southern Sudanese Refugee Art Exhibit

Museums & Public Memory (Anth 159a), Mark Auslander, fall 2006.

Faculty Reflection by Mark Auslander, June 2007

I tried to use this course as an experimental space to forge meaningful and sustainable community partnerships with a new immigrant community through the process of exhibition development. At the start of the semester, I had thought the class would break into small groups to do a wide range of project, but the whole class became so deeply moved by the story of the southern Sudanese refugee community that everyone decided to work on a Sudan project. We were immeasurably aided in this process by Aduei Riak, a student in the class, who is a member of the southern Sudanese resettled community.

The class had numerous meetings with members of two local organizations, the Sudanese Education Fund (SEF) and the Massachusetts Southern Sudanese Youth Association; we developed a collaborative process for decision-making around exhibiting a collection of paintings by Southern Sudanese refugees in Kakuma Refugee Camp, lent to us by SEF (with the understanding that the collection will in time be donated to Brandeis). We mounted two versions of the exhibition, one in Dreitzer Gallery, Spingold (opening October 23) and a second, more ambitious one in Goldfarb Library (opening December 6). The latter installation featured a student-developed digital audio tour, in which the voices of Sudanese community members could be heard, on ipods checked out from the library circulation desk. About 50 library visitors took the ipod tour during the run of the show.

We revised the exhibition in Goldfarb based on constructive critiques of the Dreitzer version from our Sudanese community partners. For example, the show at Dreitzer had begun with Ajok Mayol's powerful painting of a dying child menaced by vultures; the students had felt this image properly brought to the fore the horrors of genocide. Yet our Sudanese partners were troubled by the thought that their collective historical experience might be reduced to their status as victims; they urged us to pick an opening image that foreground the community's long history of cultural vitality and hope for the future. We thus selected Jacob Lueth Achol's triumphant Wedding Parade to open the Goldfarb installation.

This process culminated in a roundtable on community-engaged exhibition development on December 6 in Rapaporte, attended by the class, community partners, faculty, staff, and university administrators. We documented this collaborative exhibition development process on a student-developed Web site.

The class also helped establish the new South Sudan Cultural Documentation Center at Brandeis, to preserve the paintings and related cultural materials.

After Fall 2006

This project has had several off-campus spin-offs during Spring 2007. We got very positive coverage on the class and exhibition in the Boston Globe West on January 11, 2007.

Some of the students and I developed a version of the exhibition for display at Tufts University' s art center, in conjunction with the March 3, 2007 Greater Boston Anthropology Consortium student conference, at which five Anthropology Department graduate students presented an award-winning poster session on developing our interactive Web site. Two graduate students presented a related paper on the exhibition process at the Northeast Anthropology Association Meetings in Ithaca in April, winning the conference prize for best graduate student paper. One of the students in the class, Aduei Riak '07 (herself a member of the Southern Sudanese resettled community) and I co-authored an academic paper on the paintings' gendered politics, presented at the Sudanese Studies Association annual conference at the University of Pennsylvania (May 25, 2007).