Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh recently completed her residency with the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities, during which she installed an exhibit in the Institute’s gallery on South Thayer Street and designed six murals which are displayed around the University’s campus.
The project was funded through a $1.14 million four-year grant from the Mellon Foundation. Amanda Krugliak, arts curator and director of creative programming at the Institute for the Humanities, said she had heard of Fazlalizadeh’s work in the past and felt it would be a fitting project for the issues facing the campus community right now.
“As a curator, I’m really interested in projects that speak to what’s happening for us on campus and projects that students can really engage in,” Krugliak said. “It felt like this project could really meet that moment in, ‘how do we do things differently? How can we move forward in a positive way? How might discourse in public space lead us to this really positive outcome?’”
Fazlalizadeh’s exhibit in the Institute for the Humanities gallery is entitled “Pressed Against My Own Glass.” The exhibition reflects many elements of Fazlalizadeh’s Brooklyn home and incorporates personally meaningful paintings, readings and videos on the walls including an excerpt from her journal and an essay by bell hooks.
“‘Pressed Against My Own Glass’ is a show that I conceptualized about a year or so ago thinking about how I was experiencing and have experienced the home space,” Fazlalizadeh said. “(The home) in particular, is supposed to be safe for myself and safe for other Black women, but I’m sort of questioning what that safety looks like.”
Fazlalizadeh said while the intention behind this exhibition was to create a quiet, intimate space reflective of her internal consciousness, she found the murals also were a way to publicly display the lived experiences of students.
Fazlalizadeh based the murals and their accompanying messages on conversations with students in classes and around campus. Art & Design junior Santana Malnaik, who is featured in one of the two murals on the Diag, told The Michigan Daily that she sat down with Fazlalizadeh to continue a conversation initiated in one of her classes — Gender and Immigration: Identity, Race, and Place.
“Our discussion focused a lot on my experience as a mixed person,” Malnaik said. “At the end of this discussion, she took photographs and let me know that she would sketch from the photographs.”
Fazlalizadeh also worked with students to develop the messages on the murals, Malnaik said. After several of these discussions, Fazlalizadeh transformed the photos and sketches into the six distinct designs that are displayed around campus.
Krugliak said the murals went through a rigorous approval process before construction could begin on this temporary installation. She said while the University never suggested any alterations to the content, there were logistical considerations regarding location and material that needed to be discussed. The building murals are composed of an eco-vinyl material and attached with an adhesive designed specifically for brick, while the standing pieces are made of the same metal used in road signs.
The murals were gradually installed across campus in four locations: the Modern Languages Building, the Diag, Shapiro Undergraduate Library and Trotter Multicultural Center.
Dr. Kyra Shahid, director of the Trotter Multicultural Center, spoke about the meaning of the mural installed on the Trotter Center specifically.
“In this building, we are seen,” the mural reads. “Neither invisible nor hypervisible. Rather, acknowledged and loved.”
Shahid said this message speaks to the meaning of this project and of the Trotter Center for students of Color.
“The opportunity for students to be seen in ways that don’t infringe upon their humanness or their uniqueness and don’t set them up to be on display for someone else to critique or modify is sacred — it is powerful,” Shahid said. “It is not always the case for folks who are marginalized to have that opportunity. You stand out and stick out everywhere you go, there’s no way to blend in.”
LSA senior Amelia Popowics, vice chair of the LSA Student Government Sexual Misconduct Response and Prevention Task Force, said she believes the public presentation of this project will force members of the campus community to initiate conversations on issues of racism, sexism and sexual misconduct at the University.
“Her choice of a public mural kind of medium for this project is really smart for the college student demographic,” Popowics said. “We’re not as likely to go into an art gallery and take the time to do that, but when something is on the street right where you’re passing by, you’re confronted with the subject matter, even if you’re not seeking it out yourself.”
Shahid said the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the need for projects like this one to amplify the perspectives of students and help connect the campus community.
“I think so many students have experienced a sense of loneliness, a sense of not being connected to community, or a sense of being viewed but not seen,” Shahid said. “So for me, the murals that are around campus (are) an opportunity for people to be seen and not viewed.”
As an artist coming from outside of the University, Fazlalizadeh said her goal was to authentically and truthfully portray the experiences of U-M students, as opposed to the representations of students in University-sponsored Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives.
“I had no other agenda, other than to express their grievances and their emotions and their feelings to the best of my ability, and I think that does come with a great sense of authenticity,” Fazlalizadeh said. “This was part of some of the conversations that I had where students would talk about maybe seeing themselves in some brochure, and it’s clearly being used for DEI purposes — performative purposes.”
Amal Hassan Fadlalla, professor of Afroamerican and African studies, said she has enjoyed watching students engage with the art around campus and hopes the overarching message of the project will stick with students past the temporary exhibition.
“I saw some students also stopping by and looking at the art and reading the messages,” Fadlalla said. “It kind of forced you to stop. It forced you to think about the messages … This art is not going to be there forever, but it will make you think about something and then it will change you in the process.”
Fadlalla added that beyond provoking conversation and critical thought, she hopes the project will ignite institutional change at the University.
“I just hope that people who go by and look at these messages, they could actually think about different ways to address these issues,” Fadlalla said. “Not just through art, but also through our own teaching in the classroom, through conferences and conversation that could reach the institution’s upper levels.”
Popowics also said she hopes this project will motivate the University to enact meaningful policy changes. She suggested modifying the mandatory sexual assault prevention training for students, as well as increasing support for student services like the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC) and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).
“In the training, they have examples where there are people of Color, people in LGBTQ+ relationships and stuff like that, but they aren’t engaging with any intersectionality,” Popowics said. “I think that would be a crucial next step in elevating the efficacy of the training and just how it resonates with students’ experiences. I also think they could do a lot in terms of increasing funding and infrastructure for campus services that are utilized by people affected by sexual assault on campus.”
Malnaik pointed to historically low enrollment levels of Black students at the University, which she attributed to the end of affirmative action in U-M admissions in 2006. She said she hopes the University will increase its concerted efforts for a more diverse student body.
“The percentage of Black students that are admitted to U of M is unforgivably low, and has significantly gone down since affirmative action stopped,” Malnaik said. “So increasing the population of Black and brown students is (the) number one priority; at least I believe it should be.”
Malnaik said Fazlalizadeh’s desire to produce realistic and unsanitized representations of student experiences resonated with her throughout the creative process.
“One thing that Tatyana mentioned that really hit home for me is that (the project) shows representation of Black and brown people on campus, without the focus being the University pushing DEI,” Malnaik said. “It’s purely just showing different identities, rather than exploiting different identities.”
Daily Staff Reporter Samantha Rich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Daily News Contributor Madi Hammond contributed to the reporting of this article.