Aligned Academics: Two Northwestern courses offer in-depth exploration of “A Site of Struggle”

Northwestern’s Block Museum of Art centers teaching and learning as its primary mission. While the museum daily welcomes class tours, discussions, and groups from across the University, two 2022 courses go even further. Held within the museum walls these courses take the exhibition “A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence” as the primary source throughout the entirety of the quarter -using the exhibition as a catalyst for student research and exploration.

A Site of Struggle: Poetry, History, and Social Justice

  • Winter 2022 – Humanities / English
  • Taught by Natasha Tretheway, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, 19th US Poet Laureate, and Board of Trustees Professor of English

Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the good-will of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. —Toni Morrison

Responding to the question posed by the A Site of Struggle exhibition at the Block Museum—How has art been used to protest, process, mourn, and memorialize anti-black violence within the United States?—this course will focus on the reading and writing of poems that engage this difficult history. We will consider the function of poetry to document, bear witness, and to effect what Seamus Heaney called “the redress of poetry.” Along with reading poems that take up the subject, we will read several essays to undergird our discussion of the ethics of representation, positionality, and what it means to write about violence and trauma. In all of this, we will focus on the craft of writing poetry—metaphor, image, musicality, voice, etc.—with a focus on ekphrasis and intertextuality which will engage students in responding both to the works of art in the exhibition and the poems we will read in the course.

Museums: Critical Reflections on Racial Violence in American Art

  • Spring 2022 – Art History
  • Taught by Janet Dees, Curator of “A Site of Struggle” and Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Critical Reflections on Racial Violence in American Art surveys racial violence as a subject within 20th and early 21st-century American art, foregrounding African Americans as active shapers of visual discourse, and emphasizing how art has been used to protest, process, mourn, and memorialize this violence. It critically considers the challenges and opportunities posed by teaching and exhibiting this material and develops a historical context for current debates about the production and circulation of art that engages with incidents of historical and contemporary racial violence. The Block Museum of Art’s presentation of the exhibition A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence serves as a case study and source of primary materials for this course. A Site of Struggle explores how artists have engaged with the reality of anti-Black violence and its accompanying challenges of representation in ways that run from the explicit to the resolutely abstract.

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