Art, Creativity and Activism in Challenging Times

Students discuss at "Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired"

Students discuss at "Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired"

Nov 11, 2016

In the weeks preceding and following the 2016 election in the United States, the Ethics Center’s Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts joined with The Rose Art Museum to host two distinguished guest residencies at Brandeis.

American cultural worker, composer, activist and educator artist-in-residence Jane Wilburn Sapp, a longtime Ethics Center associate, and Turkish arts administrator Eylem Ertürk, new to the Ethics Center’s circle (and supported by a prestigious fellowship from CEC ArtsLink), engaged deeply with the life and work of the campus. Both women joined with Brandeis students to explore the contributions of arts and culture to social transformation in the challenging circumstances confronting their communities.

“There are common challenges experienced by communities in the United States and abroad, notes Kristin Parker, acting director of The Rose Art Museum. "Through these residencies we have identified some of those common challenges, and have built and enhanced networks of people and organizations dedicated to addressing them. We will rely on these newly found networks for solidarity, and to strengthen our work through exchange of best practices and future collaborations."

A highlight of Jane Sapp’s residency was “Imagining Freedom: Creating Justice,” a series of three salons at The Rose, co-hosted with LaShawn Simmons ’18. In the first salon, “Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired,” some 25 students and members of the faculty and staff engaged with works by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg in the Lee Gallery, listened as Simmons read excerpts from the speech in which Fannie Lou Hamer first uttered the words “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” and then, with support from Jane, collectively wrote a song with the refrain: “Are we talkin’? Are we walkin’ the talk – or just talkin’?”

In the second salon, “Creating Art, Seeking Justice,” participants shared their own poetry and visual art.Simmons and Sapp

In “Staging Social Change,” the third salon, Sapp and Simmons shared their own songs and poetry, contrasting creativity that arises from and directs itself toward the community with the personal creative expressions of individual artists (pictured above). Participants shared stories that illuminated threads of continuity from their communities – sources of inspiration that sustain them and their quest for justice. These stories opened a space for a candid conversation about racism, forgiveness, and the impulse to create a better world. The group also explored the relationship between the transformative potential of their shared stories and the early brushstroke paintings of David Reed on the surrounding walls of the Fineberg Gallery, as these were variously interpreted by salon participants.

Simmons was “grateful to work closely with Rose Art Museum curators Kim Conaty and Caitlin Rubin in interpreting ways in which social justice is at work in the pieces from the Lee Gallery.”

She also valued and enjoyed working with Jane Sapp. “Beyond our shared Southern roots and overall passion for communal transformation, both of us have intrinsic ties to the topics discussed in the salons, including racial injustice,” says Simmons. “I appreciate Jane’s commitment to creating spaces that are uplifting, powerful, and most of all hopeful.”

While at Brandeis, Jane Sapp also worked on a collection of songs she has composed with children throughout the US and recorded material for a related podcast series; began composing a song cycle dedicated to her granddaughter; explored themes related to art, autobiography and spirituality with Gannit Ankori’s class “Frida Kahlo: Art, Life and Legacy,” and created an original song with students in Thomas King’s “Performance Studies” class.

“The trajectory of her life story and her ways of being in the world – combining as she does art, creativity and activism – inspired my students and me profoundly,” says Ankori. “There is a generosity in the way Jane shares her talents and her experiences that is truly a gift.”Erturk

Eylem Ertürk (pictured, second from left) is a project development and fundraising coordinator at Anadolu Kültür, a non-profit arts and cultural organization based in Istanbul that works throughout Turkey. 

During her Brandeis residency Ertürk shared her expertise in a design lab on the rebuilding of Aleppo organized by the Creativity, the Arts and Social Transformation (CAST) minor and the Rose Art Museum, and explored possible future collaborations with Brandeis.

She also lectured on her organization’s engagement with visual arts and multi-media productions to strengthen intergroup relationships (Turkish-Kurdish, Turkish-Greek, Turkish-Armenian); shared short films jointly created by young Turkish and Kurdish filmmakers; and described an exhibition on the theme of apology that comments indirectly on the Turkish government’s refusal to apologize to the Armenian people for genocidal atrocities committed in the early 20th century; and described her work with Syrian refugees, including producing books designed to educate children about their rich and vulnerable cultural heritage.

Ertürk also sensitized the Brandeis community to post-coup actions of the Erdogan government. Precisely during the weeks that she was in residence at Brandeis, the Turkish government initiated a series of crackdowns on educators, writers, journalists and civil society organizations, as well as Kurdish leaders and their allies. Partners of Ertürk’s organization Anadolu Kültür’s were among those directly targeted.

Even while Brandeis community members and members of the larger international peacebuilding and the arts community expressed concern for the situation in Turkey, Ertürk shared her reflections on the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. “I am very sorry for the results,” she says, “but I believe that this has the potential to start a solidarity movement, which can change things in the long run.”

The salon series at the Rose Art Museum was supported by CAST donors Naomi Sinnreich P’13, Elaine Reuben, ’63, and Amy Merrill ’69, and by a grant from the Mellon Foundation to support Brandeis faculty and students to engage either works in the collection of The Rose Art Museum. The International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life; The Division of Creative Arts, and the English Department also supported aspects of Jane Sapp’s residency.