Art Takes On Hate
CONFRONTING RACISM WITH PIXELS AND PETRI DISHES
Art—not unlike scholarly research—is about breaking boundaries, upending conventional thinking, and showing reality in a new and unexpected light. When done collaboratively, across disciplines, the effect is even more powerful.
Especially when the topic is racism.
Associate Professor of Art LUCY KIM literally went into a science lab to pursue her latest art project. In a one-of-a-kind endeavor, she is creating prints with melanin—the natural pigment that gives our eyes, hair, and skin their color—produced by a genetically modified strain of E. coli. “To me, the point of being an artist is to see something new,” she says. “I’m always trying to find a new path, confronting a new thing.”
While melanin helps protect skin cells from ultraviolet light, its biological function can be overshadowed by its role in perceptions of racial identity. “It’s a provocative material,” Kim says. Her captivating monochromatic prints raise questions about the social constructs imposed on human biology.
To make these prints, Kim learned how to culture the bacteria and create an ink while an artist-in-residence at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard from 2018 to 2021. Now, she plies her trade in the lab of JOHN CELENZA, an associate professor of biology at BU. Kim says she’s found kindred spirits in the scientists she’s consulted.
“Every time I describe why I think art is amazing to research scientists, they say, ‘That’s exactly how I describe science.’ The whole point of it is to learn.”
In another instance of an interdisciplinary artistic partnership at Boston University, an antiracist historian and a graphic artist joined forces.
IBRAM X. KENDI, founding director of BU’s CENTER FOR ANTIRACIST RESEARCH and Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, teamed up with Associate Professor of Art JOEL CHRISTIAN GILL (CFA’04) to render Kendi’s acclaimed book Stamped from the Beginning into a graphic novel. The 2016 National Book Award winner traces the history of racist ideas in America. Kendi thought a graphic treatment would reach a greater number—and different types—of eyes and ears. “There are some readers who will read this graphic [version], but they won’t necessarily read a 500-page narrative history,” he says.
Enter Gill, inaugural chair of the new MASTER OF FINE ARTS IN VISUAL NARRATIVE program. Kendi supplied him a PDF with highlighted sections and stepped out of the way. The result was delightful and surprising, peppered with modern twists while still treating the subject with respect.
“I built a narrative around those sections,” Gill says. “I added stuff like ‘IDK’ and ‘Are you mansplaining?’ after the fact. Trying to make something as serious as racism and the history of racist ideas in America funny is difficult. I feel most of the jokes are funny/not funny.”
“I didn’t fully know what to expect,” Kendi says, “although I did know that Joel was a great cartoonist and a historian in his own right. I suspected that whatever he produced would be great visually and conceptually.”
Whether in a lab, at the computer, or in the studio, one thing is clear—when great minds get together to think differently, the world is enriched.