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The Art of Activism

The Art of ActivismSeniors Nora Chovanec and Jennifer Bailey discuss a conference hosted at Tufts in celebration of artists involved in social activism.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [04.03.09]  With any number of social justice issues, including race, hunger and sexuality reaching varying communities across the globe, many artists are adding a new title to their resume - social activists.

In a celebration of the contributions artists have made toward social change, Nora Chovanec and Jennifer Bailey, seniors working on their Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service Citizenship and Public Service Scholars project present a three-day conference entitled "Convergence: The Intersection of Arts and Activism."

The conference, which begins Friday, Apr. 3 at 3:30 at The Fletcher School's Hall of Flags and runs through Sunday, Apr. 5, includes a myriad of exhibits throughout the Medford campus.

Nora Chovanec, a senior dual-degree student with the School of The Museum of Fine Arts, is co-curator of one of the exhibits, "Politics, Protest, Posters," which showcases the poster art of Chaz Maviyane-Davies, Favianna Rodriguez, and the group Think Again.

"We have boarded up one section of the gallery, which will be a community response wall, and have markers with instructions that people can come and write out their own thoughts on the exhibit or display their own posters," says Chovanec of the exhibit, which will run through the entire month of April in the Remis Sculpture Court.

Chovanec worked on the exhibit with Mindy Nierenberg, senior programs manager for Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. "It was really important for me to have a way to hear what other people think and to display their own work," says Chovanec, who is the first student to curate an exhibit at Remis.

Co-sponsored by Tisch College and the Massachusetts Campus Compact, a nonprofit coalition of college and university presidents that seeks to develop civic-mindedness in students, the "Convergence" conference has been a long time in the works, according to Chovanec.

For a full schedule and more details about this weekend's events, visit the Convergence Web site.

"My freshman year I took a class with Mindy Nierenberg, which was all about arts and social activism," says Chovanec, who coordinated the event with fellow senior Jennifer Bailey. "We kicked around the idea of doing a project that brought together students, faculty and artists, but at the time it was just a pipe dream," she says.

"This has been a conversation that has been in the work for years between Mindy and Massachusetts Campus Compact, but they never really found the venue, time, students or people who were passionate enough about it to undertake it," says Bailey. "When the opportunity presented itself to us in the spring of 2008, we jumped on it."

After attending a number of conferences on social activism and the arts around the country, Chovanec realized that each one was missing something-students.

With Nierenberg's help, the pair spent the last year pulling together artists involved with social activism from all over the country, packing this weekend full of panel discussions, film screenings, concerts and a number of workshops throughout campus.

Keynote speakers at the event include award-winning Zimbabwe native Chaz Maviyane-Davies, a controversial designer who has taken on issues of consumerism, health, nutrition, social responsibility, the environment and human rights, and Pam Korza, co-director of "Animating Democracy," a program of Americans for the Arts that fosters civic engagement through art and culture.

"I couldn't have done this on my own, and having Jen and Nora be able to take on leadership roles with such passion has allowed this to become a reality," says Nierenberg, who has worked on the development of this idea for the past eight years. "When I had originally envisioned this, I thought about it as being a student conference, but not as in students taking the leadership of it, so this has allowed the conference to have so much more relevance to the students than I could have provided as a staff member."

As an artist herself, Chovanec realizes that a lot of people view art as a solitary pursuit, but in reality, she says, artists have been coming together for years to do collaborative, social justice and community art-based work.

"This is an important venue to get inspired and see, oh this person is doing this in Tennessee and someone is doing that in Maine, and while they are in different places tackling different social justice issues, they have a lot in common with each other," she says.

"I don't think some activists realize the tool art can be in spreading a message," says Bailey, former president of the Emerging Black Leaders of Tufts. "Whether it is through music, visual arts or drama, art can really serve as a platform to start a dialogue about social justice issues, be it race, women's issues or any number of things, in a non-hostile way."

Bailey and Chovanec are hopeful that the weekend's events will provide a number of great opportunities for both the artists and the community.

"I think a tangible takeaway is that this is a great networking opportunity, providing people with face-to-face time so they can really vibe off of one another and maybe have some great projects and collaborations come out of it," Bailey says.

"I think the community will come away from this and understand that artists are contributing to the health of society and are creative thinkers, finding new solutions to entrenched social issues. They have become more and more respected," Nierenberg says. "People are now looking more and more to artist activists, and it is a growing realm of interest and a profession that people can create a life with."

 Story and audio slideshow production by Kaitlin Provencher, Web Communications. Photos by Joanie Tobin for University Photography.

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