Kayla Williams and Jewel Phan (first years) curated their first art exhibit, “Seeing the Unseen” March 27 outside the student bookstore. The pair was one of two recipients of the new Oxy Arts Initiate! grant, a program that subsidizes interdisciplinary art endeavors relating to its current theme: the 75th anniversary of the Japanese Incarceration. The other recipients, Agnes Waithira (sophomore) and Olani Ewunnet (senior), will present their work April 10. Williams and Phan chose to thematically address ideas of uprising, resistance and silence with an exhibit featuring 15 painters, writers, musicians, performers and artists to explore what it means to be a person of color today.
Oxy Arts Director Deena Selenow created the program last semester to give students the opportunity to curate their own interdisciplinary public event, workshop or program. The grant provides two proposed projects with a $750 stipend for materials, marketing, guest artist fees, snacks and documentation of their work. Selenow sent out requests for proposals last December through email and advertised the opportunity with posters around campus. To be eligible for the grant, proposed works needed to include two or more student organizers from two or more departments, be interdisciplinary in nature by including multiple art mediums such as music and painting and thematically or literally relate to the anniversary of the Japanese incarceration. Selenow explained that she plans for the grant to have a different theme each year. Selenow worked with International Programs Office Associate Director Julie Santos in an effort to generate projects that would coincide with “Never Again,” a series of speakers, films and exhibits commemorating the impacts of Executive Order 9066.
According to Selenow, Williams and Phan interpreted the criteria of Japanese incarceration thematically with art-making as a form of rebellion and visibility. Their breadth of ideas and enthusiasm for the project also impressed her.
“I love that they [Williams and Phan] are freshmen and that they are so excited and have a lot of broad ideas. I was excited in working with them curatorially about how to take the idea of inclusion and openness and make something that’s really intentional and can apply to everyone and is really about intersectionality,” Selenow said.
Williams and Phan described themselves not as artistic but, rather, as supporters of the arts. The idea of raising visibility for stories of people of color (POC) inspired the exhibit’s title “Seeing the Unseen.”
“We thought it would be a great opportunity to bring the community together to highlight people who aren’t seen as often in the art community. For as much as they are working and doing, POC aren’t as visible as they should be,” Phan said.
Williams and Phan knew they wanted to curate an art exhibit and collaborated with the artists on the details of the project. After sending out a call for student artists on social media, the enthusiasm in the responses they received from visual artists, performance artists, poets, musicians and photographers impressed them. Before the exhibit opened, Phan and Williams had not seen any of the work that was going to be displayed because they wanted the exhibit to be a surprise to everyone, including themselves. Instead, the artists sent them outlines and general descriptions of the pieces for Phan and Williams to approve. They asked artists to create works centered around their identity as POC, but were very open to the kinds of art they wanted to show. Williams explained that there is no one way to be a person of color and she wanted the show to reflect that.
“Quite often when art is shown, it’s struggle art, showing all the negative things paired with being a POC. We were very intentional asking the artists to talk about their identity. Some artists are talking about the harder times of their lives, but others are talking about the beauty of their lives and existing as a POC,” Williams said.
After the exhibit, Williams and Phan plan to create more events centered around being a person of color. They plan to create a self-care club for students of color from all backgrounds in order to help foster dialogue regarding the issues students of color currently face.