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Library exhibit ‘Creative Justice’ celebrates Arts and Social Justice Fellows program

By Susan M. Carini 04G March 23, 2023

Turns out, there are no convenient times to fight for justice.

As the nation reeled from the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in spring 2020, people came together, despite the pandemic, to grieve and protest.

On campus, it was no different. Emory responded in a variety of ways — one of which was the creation of the Arts and Social Justice (ASJ) Fellows program, a partnership between Emory Arts and the Ethics and the Arts program of the Emory University Center for Ethics. The ASJ Fellows program brings professors and students together with Atlanta artists to explore how artistic expression can be a catalyst for greater equality. 

For the past three years, the program has been, in the words of co-creator/co-director Carlton Mackey, “a beautiful and rewarding journey of discovery that reflects the intersection of arts and justice.” 

Providing transformational education

Now, the fruits of that journey are evident in an exhibit titled “Creative Justice: A Celebration of Emory’s Arts and Social Justice Fellows Program,” which showcases how Emory students, working with the fellows and faculty, translated their learning into creative activism. 

Mackey curated the exhibit with Sierra King, a 2022 ASJ fellow, serving as the archival and curatorial assistant. Kathryn Dixson, Emory Libraries exhibition manager, along with her team — John Klingler and Christian Hill — mounted the displays, which bring to life videos, a graffiti mural, photographs and other art the classes produced.

The Emory Symphony Orchestra, along with artist and archivist Sierra King (above), created “I Will Remember You.” Centered on a piece African American composer George Walker dedicated to his grandmother, it uses archival, participatory, interpretive, photographic and performative elements.

In 2021, the artist Mr. Totem designed the mural painted by faculty, students and community members for the course Disruptive and Conduct Disorder Diagnosis Bias and the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Creative and Compassionate Interventions for BIPOC Children. It features the words and visuals students chose to demonstrate the biases that BIPOC students face. A video on the ASJ Fellows site shows the mural being assembled. 

Also in the exhibit, a computer kiosk shows video from the pipeline class as well as Hip Hop Dance and Identity, a class from the last cohort.

One display shows a timeline of all the courses, while other aspects focus on individual faculty, fellows and courses as representative of the program’s courageous inquiry. 

Dixson sees the exhibit as providing the program “exposure in another venue, beyond the annual showcase event and ASJ website. We hope it will garner more support for the program. The conversation between photographers Tom Dorsey and Jim Alexander was another opportunity for expanding that audience,” she says.

Notable contributions of faculty and fellows

Emory faculty member Hank Klibanoff leads the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, is creator of the "Buried Truths" podcast and serves as professor of practice in Emory's Creative Writing program.

In 2020, Klibanoff teamed with actor Garrett Turner 11C to focus students on the victims of the 1906 Atlanta race massacre by imagining the untold stories of victims and observers. Those narratives became 16 dramatic readings by professional actors. The exhibit offers an enclosure where viewers can watch these performances with private space and time to reflect.

Letters from Arthur W. Rowell to his mother are in a display case. Principal of Clark University’s Normal Department, Rowell witnessed the massacre. Selected from his papers, which are housed in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, are these letters in which Rowell expressed being ashamed of his country for this act against the African American community.

“Creative Justice” features the work of celebrated Atlanta photographer Jim Alexander, who placed a large collection of his photographs (circa 1960-2022) with the Rose Library. In 2021, Alexander collaborated with faculty member Michelle Y. Gordon, associate professor of teaching in the Department of African American Studies, by helping students create images of themselves protesting issues such as environmental degradation, racism and women’s bodily autonomy.

Influenced by meeting legendary documentary photographer Gordon Parks in 1968, Alexander agreed to teach the art of photography to make a living, but resolved to do documentary work on the side to highlight human rights and the Black experience. 

That “work on the side” attracted widespread acclaim. In 1995, when Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs began its annual Master Artist program, Alexander was the first artist chosen, “for his contribution to Atlanta and the world.”

“Creative Justice” opens on March 23 and continues through May 13, 2023 in the Schatten Gallery on Level Three of the Robert W. Woodruff Library.

A thumbnail history of a blockbuster program 

As Kevin Karnes, co-creator/co-director of the ASJ Fellows program, recalled at an event celebrating the completion of the 2022 projects: “In summer 2020, it was 100 of us on a Zoom call. We did what we could.” 

“We gathered last year for the first time,” he continued, “but everyone was wearing masks and we were on a smaller stage.” 

“This is a real gathering,” Karnes said to audience cheers. “We can move among the artwork and have conversations about what we are experiencing together. We can circulate among individuals, trading thoughts and exchanging views about the works and the questions they are raising.”

The richness of recent projects

In the 2022 cohort, the courses were:

Eleven area artists, the largest cohort in the program’s history, joined Emory faculty and students. The result, said Mackey, were “journeys of discovery and transformational education. We are grateful that Emory students had the opportunity to intersect with these artists and faculty. Hopefully, we are able to effect change in hearts and minds, not just at Emory but also in our communities.”

Mecko Gibson is of a mind to foster change, describing his career focus as being to “combat prejudice, discrimination and bigotry through art and religion.” He is pursuing an MTS at Candler School of Theology and was a student in the History of Antisemitism course offered by Ellie Schainker, Arthur Blank Family Foundation Associate Professor of Modern European Jewish History, and Alex Mari, an interdisciplinary performance artist.

“We tend to focus only on issues and problems as they relate to us, but injustices exist outside of our personal purview. My intent was to learn more about antisemitism, especially what it looks like in today’s modern context,” Gibson observes.

One of his course contributions was the poem “Walking,” part of which reads:

Just the other day,
I walked into a conversation,
That boldly made the statement,
That maybe I should walk back to where I came from … 

The conversation involved three cops, two donuts and one cup of coffee,
So, naturally, I walked away

Complementing Schainker’s historical take on the subject, Mari “facilitated deeper understanding of antisemitism by allowing us to experience — through performance art — how time, space, awareness and sensory focus can add meaning and perspective to any topic,” Gibson says.

Devon Goss, assistant professor of sociology at Oxford College, participated in the program for the first time through her Introduction to Sociology course, which aims to connect individual circumstances to larger social issues. 

“Choreographer Leo Briggs 19C brought the personal, individualized movement of dance in conversation with cultural and social issues. We used dance to study a variety of topics, including gender, sexuality, race, embodiment, labor and health. Students were able to take what felt like such a different discipline — dance — and unravel the ways in which sociological study can help to deepen that discipline,” notes Goss.

Calling Emory faculty and area artists

Taking to the floor in the course Hip Hop Dance and Identity are (l-r) Professor Julio Medina 13C, David Qiu 25C and Yujin Kwon 25C.

Applications for the fall 2023 cohort are open for both faculty and artists.

Faculty from all divisions of the university are encouraged to apply. They work together with artist fellows to design a project that reflects on racial or other inequities and to embed their project into one of the faculty member’s existing syllabi on any topic. The deadline for faculty applications is March 31.

ASJ Fellows receive a summer stipend and a salary in the fall, and each faculty/fellow pair receives funding to cover materials and other expenses for their project. In league with the faculty member, fellows decide how to incorporate the creative project into the syllabus, as well as the nature and frequency of the fellow’s engagement with the class. The deadline for artist applications is April 3.

Photos by Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video.