A portrait of Jewls Davis (C’19) in the Writing Center of DuPont Library. Photo by Max Saltman (C’21).
By Dakota Collins
As students, staff, and community members entered the Torian Room on Tuesday, January 30 for The Reframing Project: A Dialogue on Visual Representation, they were greeted by members of the Organization for Cross-Cultural Understanding (OCCU), who instructed each entrant to scribe their name and preferred pronouns on one of the many colorful name tags available by the door. After, the visitors sat in one of several circles of neatly arranged chairs, or gravitated towards the snack table at the back while waiting for the dialogue to begin.
Amid quiet, polite small talk, Mandy Tu (C’21), President of the OCCU and dialogue ambassador for The Reframing Project, floated around the Torian Room in her gown, counting chairs and making sure everyone had a nametag. When it was time, Tu closed the large wooden doors, turned to the gathering of about twenty or so, and began.
The Reframing Project is an initiative by Dialogue Across Difference to call attention to the importance of bringing visual representation of diversity to Sewanee’s campus. The goal of January’s dialogue was to bring together a diverse group of Sewaneeans to share their thoughts and experiences on what visual representation means to them.
At the opening of the discussion, Tu invited Jessica Wohl, assistant professor of art, to speak on the exhibit Faces of Sewanee. The exhibit, a collection of paintings hanging on the ground floor of duPont Library curated by Wohl, features paintings created by her “Topics in Contemporary Painting” class; portraits represent Sewanee student leaders, alumni, faculty, and staff. The portraits are lively and colorful, and feature noticeably diverse muses, meant to juxtapose with the traditional portraits Sewanee displays around campus—particularly those of previous Vice-Chancellors: muted, severe, male, and white.
Before breaking into those discussion groups, Tu invited everyone to go downstairs and examine the Faces of Sewanee portraits together, and to write down one that particularly stuck out and why.
Per instruction, the gathering filed downstairs and walked through the library’s Learning Commons, occasionally catching strange glances, but largely ignored by the students studying there. At one point, Professor Wohl took a moment to straighten a portrait of Jewls Davis (C’19) hanging in the Writing Center. It was obvious the exhibit meant a lot to her, but, moreover, that she holds her students and their art dear. She took pains to laud the students whose work made the exhibit—and that day’s dialogue—possible.
As people trickled back into the Torian Room, the quiet atmosphere of before was replaced with vibrant conversation, even before Tu thanked everyone for returning on time and handed it over to the dialogue facilitators, members of the OCCU. In groups of five, attendees shared which portrait they had chosen and why it stood out to them, then, more broadly, what they thought about the message behind the exhibit, the call for more visual representation on campus.
Visual representation is just as it sounds: seeing one’s own identity, be it racial, gender, cultural, religious, sexual orientation, etc., openly displayed in one’s environment. The Faces of Sewanee exhibit exemplifies this, but visual representation is also a person-to-person phenomenon, and can be as simple as seeing someone who looks like you walking down University Avenue, teaching a class in Gailor, or welcoming you to McClurg. It is no secret to anyone that looks around campus that Sewanee does not have the most diverse population, not just in terms of students, but faculty and staff, as well. The purpose of the Reframing Project is to draw attention to this lack of diversity, and to the impact it has on Sewaneeans.
The views expressed by attendees of the dialogue were asked to remain anonymous, but broadly, it was clear that cultivating an environment of visual representation on campus through projects like the Faces of Sewanee exhibit is important to members of all facets of the Sewanee community. That word, community, is key: if a member of a community feels that they are alone, the whole spirit of community has failed. Improving visual representation on campus would, therefore, improve the overall sense of community, even for those who may feel current rates of visual representation are adequate.
This was the first of what Tu hopes will be a number of open dialogues about visual representation at Sewanee. At the next, which she tentatively predicts for early March, Tu plans to move the discussion from how community members feel about current visual representation on campus to what can be done to improve it. Ideally, she hopes that more administrators will attend that meeting as well, that they may provide insight on what actions can be taken.
But it’s not just administration who Tu invites to the next dialogue—she encourages people who wouldn’t normally find themselves at a discussion group about visual representation to come out to the next meeting.
“It’s not a scary event,” Tu said. “You just sit and you talk, and then you get a say in what happens on your campus… The first step is showing up, right?”