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Chris Matthews poses for a photo at the Global Hub in Posvar Hall.
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Honors College hosts Changemakers in Art panels for Black History Month

The+David+C.+Frederick+Honors+College+in+the+Cathedral+of+Learning.
Image via David C. Frederick Honors College
The David C. Frederick Honors College in the Cathedral of Learning.

The David C. Frederick Honors College hosted their three-part Changemakers in Art series last Thursday and Friday, with events in the Center for Creativity’s Understory in the Cathedral of Learning, the William Pitt Union and Hillman Library. In congruence with the 2024 national theme of Black History Month, “African Americans and the Arts,” Changemakers in Art prompted discourse on the local and global impact of African American art — with Pitt faculty at the helm. 

The series kicked off with “Visual Arts Panel,” which featured the Frederick Honors College’s Artist-in-Residence Morgan Overton, Diplomat-in-Residence Sherry Zalika Sykes and interdisciplinary artist Emmai Alaquiva. The series continued on Friday with “Finding Your Rhythm,” which featured Alaquiva and pieces from his exhibit OPTICVOICES: Mama’s Boys and concluded with “Literary Arts Panel,” which featured the Frederick Honors College’s Writer-in-Residence Damon Young and electus faculty fellow Dr. Michael Sawyer in a discussion moderated by assistant professor Joy Priest.

Nicola Foote, dean of the Honors College, said Mary Angbanzan, the Honors College’s outreach and engagement coordinator for social innovation, was behind the idea for the three-part series. Foote said her own contribution to the event was the Experts-in-Residence Program, which brought Young, Overton and Sykes to Pitt. 

“I really want to make sure everyone knows Mary, our student, came up with this vision of the triumvirate,” Foote said. “But I think I can say that the Experts-in-Residence program was my idea, right? And I recruited Damon and Morgan to join us.” 

Foote said the Honors College will continue to sponsor heritage month events and capitalize on their resident experts to strengthen them. She added that because the arts provide students with the chance to diversify their interests, the Honors College will continue to prioritize them.

“Our goal is to have Black History Month events every year. We do celebrate all the big heritage months, but this idea of using our experts to connect into the heritage months I think is really powerful,” Foote said. “We will always have a central place for the arts in the Honors College programing, because you know our goal is to create opportunities for students to explore outside of their main areas of academic emphasis.”

Ron Idoko, director of social innovation for the Honors College and associate director of the Center on Race and Social Problems, moderated the visual arts panel. He said in creating the event, his office wanted students to become cognizant of how their imagination can be a tool for creating change.

“This was organized by my office,” Idoko said. “Part of what we really want to focus on is the idea that students have the ability to develop these sorts of programs. We want students to leverage their imaginations, [and] say ‘what are the new ways in which we can really think about creating an awesome experience and opportunity for people who want to learn how to make change happen?’”

Pitt alum Morgan Overton said the desire to provide students with creative opportunities motivates her, especially because art has the ability to address and bring awareness to difficult topics.

“I want to equip students with what I wish I had when I was a Pitt student. I wish I had avenues where I could’ve expressed myself creatively,” Overton said. “I know there are students on this campus that have some sort of talent — it could be painting, drawing, poetry, music — and those are probably the most powerful forms of educating and inspiring when it might be a little tricky to talk about it.”

The Understory displayed large posters featuring some of Overton’s portraits of Black changemakers alongside their quotes regarding the arts and social change. The colorful portraits, in combination with the bright orange chairs and multi-colored wall panels, distinguished the Understory from the rest of the Cathedral basement.

On the panel, Overton said she intentionally uses lively mediums to breathe life into the people she paints and revive their place in today’s society.

“A lot of [my work] you see is in watercolor because I feel like it’s such a vibrant medium,” Overton said. “Especially when it comes to Black history figures, if we’re lucky, we see them in a history book in black and white, and it tends to take away them being in recent history — it takes away their humanity in a way. So I’m like, ‘No, I want to bring them back in living color.’” 

The event’s inclusivity went beyond race. All three events were free and open to the public, and the two panel discussions were recorded and accessible via Zoom. At one point, Emmai Alaquiva taught the audience how to sign “Black lives matter” in BASL, or Black American Sign Language.

Idoko said they recorded the event in case they had low turnout, so it could be shared with the community beyond those who physically attended.

“Sometimes it can be a challenge [getting students to attend] … but we’re always grateful for whoever comes out,” Idoko said. “Part of the reason why we wanted to record it was to say, ‘You know what, just in case we can’t get people here the day of, we’ll have something we can share with them after and that can exist in perpetuity.’”

The panel discussed how art can influence people and people can influence the world, but the focus was on actionable steps in addition to the philosophical principles behind the idea. At the end, Sykes shared resources, like the Art in Embassies program, that provide artists with the opportunity to share their work on a global scale.

Overton said the cruciality of the Changemakers in Art series stems from its ability to encourage self-awareness and perspective in people.

“I think that events like this are so important because they’re planting seeds for people’s consciousness, and they activate every single one of us to understand what role and what stake we play,” Overton said.

Idoko encourages people to remember they have the ability to choose action over passivity and control the narrative, even when the state of the world looks bleak.

“I think it can be very easy to be overwhelmed by things, by all the challenges that are occurring in the world,” Idoko said. “But I also think it’s important for folks to remind themselves that we have agency, that we don’t have to sit and be content with things not working the way that we want, you know, that we can really begin to actively envision what a better world looks like.”

 

About the Contributor
Daniella Levick, Senior Staff Writer
Daniella Levick is a first-year English poetry writing major. She is Australian, a shameless Oxford comma enthusiast and crazy cat lady who spends an embarrassing amount of time trying to stop her kitten from walking on her keyboard. In her free time she daydreams about a parallel universe where her to-be-read pile is not taller than her.