Forthright Questions and Creative Response: Discussing “A Site of Struggle” at Auburn University

How do academic art museums support cross-disciplinary teaching and learning, in and outside of the classroom, and with communities on and off campus?

This was the question on the table during a two-day engagement between the Block Museum and students of Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. On Thursday and Friday, September 8 and 9, 2022,  Block Museum staff members Janet Dees, Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Erin Northington, Susan and Stephen Wilson Associate Director, Campus and Community Education and Engagement, offered a program focused on the Block’s exhibition A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Arts at Auburn University in Auburn. Attended by staff, faculty, students, and members of the public, the program was presented as part of the museum’s “Teaching with Collections” series which invites professionals from museums nationwide to share how academic art museums and their collections support teaching and learning. The invitation to participate in the series came through Chris Molinksi, Director of Education, Engagement and Learning at the Jule Smith Collins Museum.

Janet Dees and Erin Northington visit the Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn University

Entitled Teaching and Learning with A Site of Struggle: Care, Collaboration, and Community, Erin and Janet’s visit included an evening program and a visit to A Site of Struggle at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) for Auburn University students the next day.

Ashley M. Jones, Poet Laureate of the State of Alabama opened the Thursday evening event with a poetry reading. Jones read a selection of poems by Black woman poets, including herself, that emotionally explored historical and contemporary incidences of racial violence.  Janet and Erin then gave a presentation about A Site of Struggle focused on curricular, co-curricular and public engagements and how this exhibition may impact the Block’s work going forward. After the presentation, they were joined by Elijah Gaddis, Assistant Professor of History at Auburn in a conversation moderated by Jones, in which they further explored the exhibition’s design and impact, strategies for visitor experience and self-care, and reflected on how exhibitions like A Site of Struggle help us better understand our shared histories. In addition to staff, students, and faculty from Auburn, Janet and Erin were honored to have colleagues from Tuskegee University and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art in the audience.

Credits: Sept. 8  program about A Site of Struggle at the Jule Collins Smith Museum, Auburn University Clockwise from top left: Ashley M. Jones, Alabama Poet Laureate and Janet Dees; Janet Dees and Erin Northington; Ashley M. Jones; Janet Dees. Images Courtesy of the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art. Photo(s) by Mason Williams.

On Friday morning, Janet and Erin boarded a bus with more than 30 Auburn students connected to the Jule Collins Smith Museum and from Prof. Gaddis’s class on African-American material culture for an hourlong-ride to Montgomery to visit A Site of Struggle in person at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. After a self-guided visit to the exhibition, Janet and Erin co-facilitated a discussion with the students focusing on works that felt particularly resonant, and connections the students made between the exhibition, their experiences on campus, and what they are learning in the classroom.

Before Janet and Erin sent students into the galleries, they asked them to hold two guiding questions in mind: What works are resonating with you, and why? What connections do you see between the exhibition and what you’re discussing in class or in your work at the museum? These prompts lead to a rich exchange of ideas. “Something that really stuck with me, in terms of what students were sharing, was that they were resonating with works that addressed intersections of race, sex, and gender, and they were also very articulate about how these themes connect with their experience as Auburn students,” noted Erin.

One thing that I really appreciated was how forthright and vulnerable the students were within our discussion. I was struck by their comfortability and facility with discussing issues related to race and gender that the show elicits.

Janet Dees, Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Students arrive at The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts

Further conversation was also drawn from the connections between A Site of Struggle and the related concurrent exhibition Power for Change. The exhibition was comprised of work by college students and young adults in a variety of media. Just as A Site of Struggle explores how artists and activists address issues of anti-Black violence and representation in art, the young, Montgomery-based artists in the exhibition explore the power of art to serve as an agent of change. Through their work, they seek to draw attention to violence against African-Americans and what many artists identify as a lack of quality public education about issues of racial and social justice in Alabama. In addition to this, artists in this gallery also are using their work to highlight stories of strength, resilience, joy, and beauty.

Left: Precious Roberts-Miller, Targets (2022), Right: Toni Toney, Go For It (2022)

The rich discussion on both exhibitions and their resonances was kicked off by a response poem offered by Zion “Zee” McThomas, spoken word artist, poet, and MA student in history at Auburn University


Why must we look to death for life

Why must my people pull at your heartstrings to invoke decency

Why can’t you be a decent human being

Why can’t you white liberals and sympathizers get the rest of your clan on board

Black folks always have a code, a guidebook, maps of how to maneuver white fragility and violence

We teach our boys to be respectful and inviting, our girls to look neat not too enticing

Code switching in order to provide options

Respectability rules our consciousness

But you

We have to provide reasons in order for you to see that we’re human

Constantly repurposing strange fruit out of art fixtures and Twitter posts

Why do we have to teach you how to see us

When we’ve been watching over you since day one

From slaves to soldiers

Nurses and singers

Leaders and dreamers

This nation’s existence came off of the backs of my ancestors

But cry and gasp when you see a piece of our realities

Make your rounds feeding the conscious of those who are one of the “Good” ones

So when the discussion is over and the sympathies run dry

I still have to be Black in a nation that truly isn’t mine

So what’s worse: knowing that you aren’t free or being told that you are when you’re not

I’m tired of tears being the only way to get you to open your eyes

— Zion “Zee” McThomas (@Zeethanomad)

A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence originated at the Block Museum of Art Northwestern University and is on view at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama unitl November 6, 2022.

Top Image Credit: Auburn University students visit A Site of Struggle at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts led by Janet Dees and Erin Northington

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