Public Art Highlights Human Rights Struggles

Visitors to the yard on April 18 may be surprised to encounter billowing folds of saffron fabric and monks offering bowls of rice to passers-by. But there’s no need to worry—you’re still in Cambridge. These exotic additions are all a part of this year’s Arts First festival.

The Office for the Arts’ (OFA) annual Public Art Workshop and the Harvard Human Rights Advocates (HHRA) will collaborate on a public art installation with the theme of human rights struggles in Burma. In three meetings, which began on March 9 and will culminate on April 17, the participating artists hope to create a piece that will visually engage viewers, while raising awareness and support for Burma’s current political situation.

“Even though it’s just one installation in one day in Harvard Yard, the impact can be profound,” says Boston artist Gary L. Duehr, the workshop director and an editor for the OFA’s newsletter, “Spectrum.”

The workshop, now in its fifth year, developed as part of an effort to increase the visual arts presence at Arts First. In past years, installations have responded thematically to the setting of Harvard Yard, tackling subjects that affect student life. This is the first time that the workshop has taken a politically charged issue as a starting point.

Maya S. Sugarman ’12, head of the HHRA Burma campaign, first learned about the country’s political situation in a high school history class. She has since become deeply involved in human rights work, spending a gap year teaching Burmese refugees on the Thai border. When she contacted the OFA about doing an installation to raise on-campus awareness, she was introduced to Duehr to collaborate on a project with his public art workshop.

Sugarman’s HHRA campaign primarily focuses on the unjust retention of political prisoners by the Burmese military government, which has held power for 19 years. Among those prisoners is Nobel Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, who was elected Prime Minister of Burma in 1990 but was never allowed to take office. One difficulty Sugarman’s group faces is that activism in the U.S. can yield few concrete results, as the U.S. has very little sway in Burma. However, the HHRA still believes strongly in remaining informed of the country’s political strife, and in utilizing art as a vehicle to spread awareness.

“There are so many people at Harvard with something to say that a lot of messages get lost,” Sugarman says. “Art is a good way to get past that. Art attracts a variety of people who are not necessarily into human rights and creates a consciousness of those issues.”

Duehr, who co-directs a local public art collective, the Invisible Cities Group, and has a permanent piece installed at North Station, believes just as strongly in art’s ability to galvanize viewers. His own work does not tend toward the political but instead toward exploring communication and engaging all five senses through a combination of visual and performance elements. Regarding the workshop, Duehr says, “With this piece, the goal is to bridge the two worlds between preaching and being abstract. We’re trying to connect with people on a human level.... The project is meant to bring viewers out of the realm of spectators and into the realm of action.”

In the preliminary meeting, workshop students experimented with draping saffron material from trees and considered asking exiled Burmese monks to meditate and pass out rice in the yard—an act that references past demonstrations in which monks symbolically overturned rice bowls to express their dissent against the military. Sugarman, who had envisioned a slightly simpler project, was thrilled by the way her ideas grew during the initial dialogue between the artists and activists in the workshop.

“At Harvard, it is usually not fun to work in groups because people have different expectations. But this is a positive collaboration,” she says.

Margaret Min ’12, a VES concentrator involved in the workshop for the second year, admits that she does not know much about Burma but hopes to become informed through her fellow participants.

Of Duehr, Min says, “He’s a really organized person. For him, it was not a social thing, it was ‘let’s do this.’ He’s also really open minded, always takes notes, always listens to us.... He knows what he’s doing. It’s helpful to have him at Harvard.”

In the future, Min hopes that Harvard will put more energy into promoting their public art programs and that more students will take an interest. Counter to what one may expect, she remarks that public art doesn’t just advertise itself—people have to look for it.

“This year there are seven people including myself. Considering the fact that Harvard has 6000 undergrads, that’s pretty low,” Min says. “[But] I think Harvard’s getting there. This is just the beginning of art promotion.”