"Community Portraiture" is a new exhibit on display in the Horrmann Library's Spotlight Gallery at Wagner College through the end of May. It is the collective work of several Wagner College art and education students with participants in a program called Los Promotores, which focuses on improving literacy and learning skills in Port Richmond.
Below, Wagner College education professors Rhoda Frumkin and Katia Gonzalez, and art history professor Sarah J. Scott, give an overview of the project that produced “Community Portraiture.”
Portraiture has often been traditionally considered to be a mimetic likeness of an individual. However, across diverse places and throughout all periods of art, humans have used non-mimetic imagery to represent aspects of identity. African cultures subject abstract carved wooden objects to rituals which infuse them with the essence of an individual, Assyrian priests perform opening-of-the-mouth rituals on images of the king to imbue them with his power, British aristocrats covet tiny rings with a lock of hair of their sweetheart as if it were a replacement for a lost love. Artists in the modern eras depict abstract shapes and forms that evoke aspects of their identity to convey ideas related to self-representation.
This rich diversity of status and function of portraiture is the theme with which Wagner art majors have engaged this semester as they complete their senior learning community. They are learning how various artists express ideas related to individual and community identity, and are applying some of these ideas to their own creative work in the studio. Simultaneously, Wagner education students are working with families from Port Richmond who have dedicated themselves to improving their own communicative knowledge around English skills. These families too are learning how to express themselves but through writing. Hence, we have our collaborative project, “Community Portraiture,” which exhibits how art and the creative process can function as a communicative tool for sharing ideas about identity. Senior art students worked first with a group of Port Richmond Partnership Summit participants in a single afternoon workshop to create the first community portrait exhibited here on this wall. Participants were asked to share objects that they felt exhibited some aspect of their identity. Participants then sketched and ultimately painted their image on the canvas, and moved around the canvas to continue painting where others had left off.
A multi-session workshop was planned for the Los Promotores group, where identity sharing and a discussion of values and goals took part around the creation of the Community Portrait. Culturally responsive practices, through intercultural connections, can create a pathway into the development of deep and ongoing partnerships between community members with both intersecting and diverse experiences and backgrounds. For this collaborative project, participants had the opportunity to consider ways objects may represent a key aspect of their identity. Participants selected and brought in an object that was important to them and evoked an emotional response. Dialogue ensued providing the space for shared understanding to take place. In these contexts, individual and collective stories were communicated through written and spoken words, images, and actions.
The community portrait began with individual aspects of identity such as scientific tool in a students’ first microbiology lab, or a trophy won in a team sport. In these cases both objects were valued by their owners because they reflect a goal. Other objects featured here (such as jewelry or a doll given by a loved one) illustrate the shared human characteristic of feeling loved and part of a family. While walking through this exhibit, visitors are encouraged to engage with the messages being communicated and to explore how commonalities and differences can unite us all.
Special thanks to Wagner's Graduate Education Students, Wagner's Art History Students, and families from Los Promotores who were willing to fully engage in this experience.