STORY WRITTEN BY ERIC DEVLIN
@Eric_Devlin on Twitter
COLLEGEVILLE >> On an otherwise desolate campus at Ursinus College, days before students were scheduled to arrive to start the new semester, there was a flurry of activity in the upstairs section of the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art.
Students, professors, an artist and other staff members were a little over a week away from unveiling the result of an undertaking that’s required months of studying, planning and preparation. The project has never been tried before on the campus and the clock was ticking to finish.
“We don’t have that much time,” said Shelby Bryant, a junior history major. “It feels like it’s slipping away. We’re booking it. But with classes starting, it’s going to be really interesting.”
The museum’s newest showcase, “Natessa Amin: Dancing on the Water Tank” is the first exhibition organized under Ursinus’s new minor in museum studies. Ten Ursinus students installed the exhibition from Jan. 9-13 in preparation for the Jan. 20 opening. The exhibition will run from Jan. 20 to June 4.
Amin finds inspiration for her work in vibrant African textiles, Pennsylvania Dutch folk art, and the intricate details of South Asian architecture and garden design. Her work has previously been displayed at Hangar H18 Gallery in Brussels, Belgium, and at the Woodmere Art Museum and Ice Box Project Space in Philadelphia, a press release stated.
Forget the safe exhibit format of the past featuring white walls and black-and-white photos encased in black picture frames. In order to really capture the spirit of Amin’s 40 immersive paintings and sculptures on display, which draw on her explorations of family history and her unique ethnic roots, students weren’t afraid to use color.
By painting one of the room’s walls a bold shade of purple, and covering another with a wallpaper created from pieces of screen printing dyed with shades of green, pink and black, Bryant said the goal of the exhibition is “to blow everyone’s mind when they come up here.”
Students were required to take two courses prior to curating the exhibit: an introduction to museum studies and a course on curatorial practices. They also gained experience from various field trips to area museums and local artist studios in preparation for this first-time curation.
“Experiential learning is a cornerstone of liberal education at Ursinus,” said Deborah Barkun, chair of the art and art history department and a specialist in contemporary art history. She is the course’s co-professor along with Ginny Kollak, curator of exhibitions. “And so experiences like this, or off-site visits to museums, or studios, or things of that nature are an incredibly valuable way to put the intellectual history and the practices into a really strong and experiential component. I think this is a really important part of everything that’s been leading up to this moment.”
Part of that experiential learning meant working closely with Amin, a co-director of FJORD, an artist-run exhibition space located in the North Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Students visited Amin’s studio in October and then again during the curation of the exhibition.
“I think this was a really ambitious project,” Amin said, “because curating is a really big endeavor.”
Kollak said she and Barkun chose Amin as the artist before the class began.
“We thought that in order to get the most out of our class time together we needed to come up with a direction,” she said. “And by having an artist to focus on from the start, that really helped us to be able to do that.”
While neither professor was very familiar with Amin’s work, “we thought it would be a very beneficial experience to have an artist who was easily accessible to the class, so we could do a studio visit and have somebody who was around and able to dialogue,” Barkun said. “Whether in visits or virtually with the students. I think that worked pretty well.”
Students dove deeply into the Amin’s work to help them best articulate the themes in their show. The show gets its name from the centerpiece of the exhibit, Bryant said.
“‘Dancing on the Water Tank’ is actually a piece that we all really want people to stare at and notice,” Bryant said. “It’s got a really good story behind it. When we unwrapped we were like ‘this is the piece.’”
Morgan Larese, a junior history major, explained that Amin spent two-and-a half months in a Kenyan village orphanage occupied by children and grandparents. The middle generation died from AIDS, so the two generations would take care of each other. To help out, Amin made a map of the village and helped paint numbers on all of the houses.
‘Dancing on the Water Tank’ comes from the time when she and her coworkers would go to the nearby water tank, he said.
“They would hang out there it had this rickety ladder,” he said. “They would lay there, dance around and do cool things there.”
“I think this piece exemplifies the types of mediums she likes to use as well,” said Daniella Statui, a junior art history major. She noted the dye pigments found in the piece which are included in many of Amin’s work. Students tried to replicate those pigments with the wall paper they created. Statui also noted the variety of materials incorporated into the piece like “fuzzy paper.”
“It’s what makes her stuff really interesting, contemporary and modern,” she said. “It sort of sets her apart from other pieces. I know when I first saw them I had no idea what it was but it’s eye catching and it really sort of speaks to the cultural themes she tries to fit into her work as well.”
The students also touched on the imagery of a snake eye found throughout most of Amin’s work. They said the artist saw the image once while traveling with her brother in India.
“She wasn’t able to take a photograph of it but drew it over and over again in her sketchbook,” Kollak said. “It’s become a kind of protective motif, the idea of something watching over you.”
Having so many people analyze, discuss, write and think about her work so deeply has been a dream for Amin, she said. The experience working with the students has left her humbled.
“I’m feeling really inspired right now,” she said. “I’m feeling excited and just grateful to have this kind of experience.”
Curating an exhibit is a big enough task for students, but as Amin said, adding “nine or 10 other opinions or thoughts to it, it becomes even more complicated. But I think that really only added to the development of the show.”
Others agreed saying while it was challenging making decisions about the look and feel of the exhibit, generating a consensus meant everyone had a voice.
“This class in particular, working with so many people it’s really interesting to see all the different perspectives come together into one show,” Bryant said.
“For me I think it was a really unique experience, because you never get the opportunity to put in your two cents,” said Statui. “So we get to decide where everything goes on the walls. We got to make art that goes on the walls. So it’s not just (Amin)’s work, it’s also a piece of us that gets up there.”
“The students were so thoughtful and invested,” Amin said. “They were willing to voice their opinions.”
In addition to curating the exhibit, students also created a zine to accompany the show. The publication features student created writing, poetry and other artistic samples that will be distributed to guests as they come to the exhibit.
“We’re all contributing our own images or writings, so it’s really cool that we get to make it,” said Larese. “And then we’re actually going to have it so people can take it and it will be all of our work together.”
“The zine really represents how we all are different yet can create this,” Bryant said. “Our names are all over this but all of our names are all over everything. I don’t think any of us will be able to point at one thing and be like ‘that was only mine.’ It’s going to be ‘that was mine originally but then Morgan threw in this idea and then Teddi was all over here.’”
“It’s going to be really interesting to see the whole show together,” she said.