Partnership Spotlight: Mapping identity with The Leadership Project

In Fall 2020, the Block’s Engagement Department was proud to continue its years-long history of collaboration with Evanston’s Y.O.U. (Youth & Opportunity United), a youth development agency that provides services and leadership to meet the emerging needs of young people and their families in our community.

We partnered with the organization’s high school program The Leadership Project, which is focused on exploring the intersections of race and class through research, art, and discussions. Working with program leaders Olivia Tsotsos and Allen Moore, the Block’s engagement department sought to extend the program’s ongoing dialogues around themes of “body policing” through art.

In their regular sessions, Leadership Project students were engaging in discussions around “how Eurocentrism has impacted the ways people and their bodies are policed.” The Block sought to offer works in the collection that might serve to frame these issues through art. Immediately, educators were drawn to contemporary artist Deborah Roberts’ collage work She’s Mighty, Mighty (2017).

Deborah Roberts (American, born 1962), She’s Mighty, Mighty, 2017. Collage 76.2 × 55.9 cm. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, purchased with funds donated by Diane and Craig Solomon, 2017.11.

Roberts’ artistic practice draws on her own experience as an African American woman whose “early ideals of race and beauty were shaped by and linked through paintings of renaissance artists and photographs in fashion magazines” which “embodied a particular status that was not afforded equally to anyone [she] knew”(Artist’s Website). Her work “takes on social commentary, critiquing perceptions of ideal beauty” and “challenges the notion of universal beauty—making room for women of color who are not included in this definition”

She’s Mighty, Mighty seemed an apt lens through which to examine ideas of body policing–the assessment and attempted control of our exteriorities by means of these very notions of beauty,” notes Block Museum educator América Salomón.

Salomón and Erin Northington, The Block’s Associate Director of Campus and Community Engagement, joined a number of The Leadership Project’s regular Zoom sessions, first introducing students to Roberts’ work through facilitated discussion, and then asking them to consider their own identities–exterior and interior, seen and unseen–through an artmaking activity in Roberts’ own medium of collage.

@SeanSuPhoto |@PurplePhotoCo

“In the first of these companion sessions, we began by prompting students with an “identities trees” exercise, asking them to briefly diagram some of their personal and social identities, to retain for their own reference. We then began our close-looking with She’s Mighty, Mighty, where students noted details like the figure’s red boxing gloves and their seeming weight against the figure’s frame,” Salomón shared.

The Engagement team talked with students about Deborah Roberts’ artistic approach and segmented into breakout rooms to discuss how the artist’s perspectives around her work influenced their own interpretations, as well as connecting the work back to ideas of body policing.

The group reconvened to share from their breakout discussions, and to begin an artmaking prompt based on Robert’s own words.

“The boys and girls who populate my work, while subject to societal pressures and projected images, are still unfixed in their identity. Each child has character and agency to find their own way amidst the complicated narratives of American, African American and art history”

Artist Deborah Roberts

Using this notion of “unfixed identities” and the many influences that serve to shape them, and thinking of the medium of collage–a literal collection of parts to make a whole–, students were asked to create their own “collage self-portrait” to share back at their next session.

Students were also invited to revisit their “identities trees” as a tool for developing what they would like to include in their collage self-portraits, mapping out and considering their many identities and what has helped to shape them. “In a final session together, then, the group shared back and celebrated what we’d made (facilitators included!) and reflected on the experience of making these artworks” said Salomón.

Together the students and facilitators contemplated art as a path to self-understanding, showing “what others can see on both the outside and inside” said Isabel Horek Guialtire, Y.O.U. Fall 2020 Leadership Project student

See below front window installation shots of student work created during the Block Museum collaboration, alongside works for Y.O.U.’s Diverse Communities United (DCU), an “annual celebration of peace, diversity, unity, leadership, and service help in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day” (Y.O.U.).

This project is presented as part of Thinking about History with The Block’s Collection. This year-long initiative marks The Block Museum of Art’s 40th anniversary with projects, programs, and events that use the museum’s evolving collection as a springboard for thinking about history.

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