Arts & Culture

250th celebration features art panels, exhibits

'Girl Swarm' exhibit focuses on digital feminism, panel features documentary filmmakers

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, March 10, 2014

Yoruba Richen ’94, center, and Betsy West ’73, right, talk about their recent film projects in one of Saturday’s panels entitled “Social Justice, Social Change: The Role of the Documentary,” moderated by Allison Stewart ’88, right.

As the hungry hordes at the cake-cutting ceremony of the 250th anniversary celebration eyed the 650-pound behemoth of a confection Friday evening, President Christina Paxson asked them to suppress their appetites for just a few moments more. Cake would come, but only after the student group Word! came to the podium to perform a spoken word poem in commemoration of Brown’s birthday.

“We are all races. We are all voices. We are heard. We are a part of the history,” the performers asserted, providing a look at Brown’s past that highlighted the first students of color and the first women on campus.

The weekend’s celebration gathered performers, curators, producers and designers, celebrating with sweets in some cases and demanding social dialogue in others.


A digital moment

Two events in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts asked visitors to contemplate the feminist movement Friday.

“Girl Swarm,” curated by Celine Katzman ’15, Ana Cecilia Alvarez ’13 and Katarah DaSilva ’15, introduced its collection of paintings, collages, pop culture items and visual projections with a printed statement: “The next wave of feminism will be digital.” The exhibit gathered work from students at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design, as well as from professional artists in Providence and New York.

The art connected through the idea of “girl swarm,” a “critical mass” of work identifiable as “girly” or as aligned with feminist ideas, Alvarez said. “Girl swarm” work gets shared through social media such as Tumblr, and users form a community, amounting to something larger than the individual works.

This weekend, Disney princess stickers, hand-made pamphlets with names such as “Fat Feminine Masochist,” “The Cyborg Gaze” and “I (Heart) Marlon Brando,” underwear with printed cats entitled “Cat Call” and paintings ranging from nudes to the discovery of menstruation by an adolescent adorned the walls of Granoff’s lower lobby.

“One thing that stuck with me was the idea of networks and how people influenced each other,” especially on the Internet, Alvarez said.


Documenting inequality

A few levels up on Friday night, Donna Zaccaro ’83 screened her new Showtime Channel documentary “Paving the Way: Geraldine Ferraro,” about Zaccaro’s mother and her time as the first female vice presidential candidate in U.S. history. “Things have gotten a lot better for women since my mother ran in 1984, but there’s still a long way to go — women are still getting attacked” over issues such as abortion, war and foreign policy, Zaccaro said.

How exactly a film can expose such inequality was the focus of “Social Justice, Social Change: The Role of the Documentary,” one of the talks that formed the Virtues of a Liberal Education colloquium in Salomon 101 Saturday. Yoruba Richen ’94 and Betsy West ’73 joined moderator Alison Stewart ’88 to discuss their recent projects and how they fit into the larger theme of using video to raise awareness of key issues.

Richen’s recently produced “The New Black,” a documentary about “the intersection of race and gay rights in politics” as raised by referendums to make same-sex marriage illegal or legal in states such as California and Maryland. When the California referendum to ban same-sex marriage, Proposition Eight, passed in 2008, “immediately black groups were blamed” due to perceptions of “homophobia in the black community,” Richen said. The trailer showcased a young lesbian woman recounting how difficult it was to come out, a preacher claiming that “it’s not civil rights … it’s sacred rights” and a swarm of black marchers pressing for marriage equality.

West’s documentary “MAKERS: Women Who Make America” focuses on the evolution and trials of the women’s movement.

“I don’t think I really appreciated the courage, creativity and chutzpah of the women who changed the status quo,” West said — a realization that prompted her to make a visual history of “so many of the stories young women don’t know,” from Title IX to protests of Miss America.

In presenting issues important to them, both documentarians stated the importance of clearly displaying the facts. “I think that all films do have a point of view, but as a journalist I want to get at the truth,” West said, adding that her film also “looks at the failures of the women’s movement.”

“You need to be clear about what you are trying to do and be honest with the audience,” Richen said, discussing the accusations of bias that are often thrown at so-called “advocacy films.”

Even with crucial social issues, documentaries “should be engaging. … They shouldn’t be ‘take your medicine,’” West said.

While these issues mixed in with thoughts of a 250th anniversary celebration, the presenters themselves preferred to look forward.

“‘Girl Swarm’ wasn’t designed with 250th in mind, it just happened to be a useful coincidence,” Katzman said.

The film on Ferraro is “not necessarily a look back at Brown’s history, but an important part of women’s and American history,” Zaccaro said.


Curating history

The Haffenreffer Museum in Manning Hall also hosted a special anniversary exhibit this weekend, curated by Professor of Anthropology William Simmons ’60.

“All universities have symbols just like countries have flags,” Simmons said in describing an exhibit that explored the symbolism and underlying meaning of objects related to Brown’s history. The demonstration featured various memorabilia from the museum, not typically displayed, that explained some traditions of the University, from the three seals of the school’s past — created when Brown was called the College of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations — to the current seal stamped on students’ degrees.

Simmons also told the story of things students see every day, like the bear statue Indomitable on Ittleson Quadrangle, constructed with the help of animal anatomy experts and portrayed with its mouth closed because that is how bears look when they are determined. The University’s mascot, Simmons said, used to be a real bear led around on a leash.

The mace that is traditionally carried by a faculty member at graduation was also on display. A traditional item in churches and parliament, the mace serves as a “symbol of sovereignty and office,” which is fitting for colleges that are “little communities in a society that goes by its own rules,” Simmons said.

The display made it clear that symbolism is not limited to physical objects­­ — it also highlighted Brown’s musical past with a presentation of the various renditions of the Alma Mater throughout the past two and a half centuries.

Simmons said symbols and traditions like the ones on display create “a lasting sense of community to those who have worked at Brown and studied at Brown.”


-With additional reporting by Sarah Perelman

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