Faculty discuss the power of commemorative art

Photos courtesy of the Mount Holyoke College Office of Communications. Sohail Hashmi (left) and Kavita Khory (right).

BY MERYL PHAIR ’21

On Thursday, Oct. 11, a small group assembled in the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum (MHCAM) Gallery at 4:30 p.m. for a discussion titled “Faculty in Conversation: Conflict and Commemoration,” featuring Sohail Hashmi, Professor of International Relations on the Alumnae Foundation, and Kavita Khory, Ruth Lawson Professor of Politics. The event was the first in a series of faculty conversations connected to the current exhibition, “Major Themes: Celebrating Ten Years of Teaching with Art.”

The Art Museum’s “Teaching with Art” program creates collaborations with college classes across the curriculums.

“Every day at MHCAM, our education curators facilitate unique thought-provoking encounters with objects for students and faculty, and that is the inspiration for ‘Major Themes’,” said Hannah Blunt, Associate Curator at the Mount Holyoke Art Museum, in a press release on the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum website. “We wanted to showcase the incredible activities and surprising juxtapositions of artworks that happen behind the scenes in our teaching classrooms.”

Conflict and Commemoration is one aspect of the larger exhibit and is centered on bringing together objects and art reflecting experiences of war. Other exhibits in Major Themes include “Optics of Art,” which considers the STEM-related aspects of art, and “The Non-Human” which highlights the ways humans co-exist with mechanical and living beings. Additionally, “Afterlives of Objects considers the biographies of objects,” according to the MHCAM website. “‘The Precarious Body’ looks at representations of the human body in art.”

During the conversation, Hashmi and Khory discussed specific components of the exhibit. They invited the audience to partake in thought-provoking conversations about the implications of the work in front of them.

Khory turned to a photograph taken on Oct. 22, 2013, that depicts a mother, Iman Zenglo, and her five children in their tent outside a refugee camp on the Turkish side of the Syrian border.

“For students this image is striking because you’re looking at what could be an ordinary scene that could take place anywhere and with anyone,” said Khory. “It’s drastically different from the images we usually see of refugees and war zones, all the violence and harsh images. Context is crucial. It gives us a different viewpoint and allows us to think more deeply about what we are seeing.”

Hashmi discussed one of his personal favorite pieces in the exhibit, “The Last Civil War Veteran.” It is a large piece that dominates one wall of the exhibition space, done with oil paint on foam core mounted on wood backing. The 1987 painting is a tribute to Walter Washington Williams, who is recognized by the United States government as the last surviving Civil War veteran.

It highlights the way past wars and their heroes are commemorated and remembered. “It really shows how depictions of conflict evolve over time,” said Hashmi.

There are 14 other art pieces in “Conflict and Commemoration,” ranging from oil paintings, photographs and sculptures to a walnut wood and steel revolver from 1860, borrowed from Skinner Museum.

A description of the collection is written on the wall of the exhibition space and describes the purpose of “Conflict and Commemoration” as a way of telling the stories of soldiers, journalists and workers during periods of war. It also reflects those looking at war from the outside, attempting to understand the pain and suffering of others. Whether the pieces on display were made as social commentary, advertising or fine art, they offer personal and cultural reactions to war.

Themes of conflict and commemoration are prevalent in Mount Holyoke classes across departments, including English, anthropology, international relations and politics. According to the exhibit description, students can use this art as a resource to analyze issues ranging from emotional to national matters.

“It is an amazing show. It’s sort of everything an exhibition should be. It has elements of fun with the examples of color theory and little stuffed birds. But it can also be powerful,” said Clara Shaw ’20, co-chair of the Mount Holyoke College Art Society. “In the last section, ‘Conflict and Commemoration,’ you really see how art can express the human condition.”

Speaking about other art in the exhibit, Shaw explained how the sickly yellow of Yves Tanguy’s painting, “Lurid Sky,” is reminiscent of the horrendous chlorine gas used in the First World War and how Melvin Edwards’ steel sculpture “Sippi Eye” is instantly impactful in its sense of dead weight and its commentary on the history of racial violence in the U.S.

“This kind of interaction between the art, the museum faculty and the viewer is really the most important part of this and any exhibit. That the visitor comes out of the galleries having learned something, having felt touched by art in a really meaningful way,” said Shaw.

The Major Themes exhibit will be on display for the next two years. The Mount Holyoke College Art Museum is free; hours of operation are Tuesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday to Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

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