Social justice self-portraits take the spotlight in 'Pass Us the Mic' 

click to enlarge Chazmir Law, a 17-year-old in the Flower City Arts Center's Expanding the Field program, poses for his self-portrait, "Police Brutality in America."

PHOTO PROVIDED.

Chazmir Law, a 17-year-old in the Flower City Arts Center's Expanding the Field program, poses for his self-portrait, "Police Brutality in America."

The idea of using the human body as a canvas is often invoked with regard to tattoos and other corporeal modification. But for Rashaad Parker, a filmmaker who runs the Expanding the Field after-school program at the Flower City Arts Center, the concept allows students to explore how their work intersects with broader issues.

“It's one thing to say something, but then to have it in your own handwriting and projected back onto you?” Parker said. “It's just this sense of ownership, this sense of accountability, this sense of agency of what that entails.”

The 14 student artists in the collaborative program will have their self-portraits displayed at the George Eastman Museum’s Gallery Obscura in a new exhibition titled “Pass Us the Mic: We’ve Got Something to Say.” Parker served as the project’s conceptional designer along with digital photography instructor Kylie Newcomer.

The students’ photos represent the culmination of shared work with their instructors and peers. To begin, Parker had each artist choose and research a social justice issue — systemic racism, reproductive rights, trans equality — then write a declarative statement about it.

From there, the students dressed in white and had their words beamed back onto them. Parker worked with each artist to determine the glow of color that could further personalize the portrait.

“When we're on set, as we think about the subject matter itself, [I asked], what color resonates with you when you want to make this statement?” he said.

click to enlarge Abigael Moreau, 15, worked on her self-portrait, "Generational Stereotypes," which will be displayed at the George Eastman Museum. - PHOTO PROVIDED.
  • PHOTO PROVIDED.
  • Abigael Moreau, 15, worked on her self-portrait, "Generational Stereotypes," which will be displayed at the George Eastman Museum.
The final products are simple but striking.

The words in the frame take on added emphasis in relation to the students’ faces and, more importantly, their body language. In “Police Brutality in America,” the entry from 17-year-old Chazmir Law, the artist stands with his arms raised in a “hands up, don’t shoot” posture. His shadow, looming large behind him, multiplies the effect.

Parker said expressions like that are the main takeaway of the project.

“I had them make this declarative statement, but what they learned through this process is how important it is to give voice to them, to visualize it," he said, "and then to share that out.”

Amy Schelemanow, GEM's director of exhibitions, publishing and design, said featuring these self-portraits at such an institution shines a bigger spotlight on artists from communities that have historically been underrepresented.

“We want to focus on teens in order for underserved audiences and teens in the inner city to recognize they have a place not only in a museum — any museum, not just our museum — but also on the walls,” she said.

And now, at the world’s oldest photography museum, students from Flower City Arts Center find their portraits featured where work from visual artists like 20th century filmmaker Gordon Parks and current Rochester Institute of Technology professor Joshua Rashaad McFadden have likewise hung.

click to enlarge Lilyana Pyatt-Ramos, 15, created her self-portrait, "63 Missing in Rochester, NY," with guidance from filmmaker and instructor Rashaad Parker. - PHOTO PROVIDED.
  • PHOTO PROVIDED.
  • Lilyana Pyatt-Ramos, 15, created her self-portrait, "63 Missing in Rochester, NY," with guidance from filmmaker and instructor Rashaad Parker.
The Eastman Museum began its partnership with Flower City Arts Center with an exhibition highlighting the work of its Studio 678 Photo Club in March 2023. The plan, Schelemanow said, is to continue that collaboration.

For Parker, one of the key goals of the Expanding the Field program, along with mentorship, is showing the students that their work belongs in those institutions.

“Think about museums and art galleries. These are spaces Black kids or Black youth or Black people in general are not usually represented,” he said. “What we want to do is increase the visibility of students of color in spaces that historically were not [welcoming].”

“Pass Us the Mic: We’ve Got Something to Say” is on display June 22 through November 10 at the George Eastman Museum’s Gallery Obscura. More information here.

This article has been updated to correct the dates of the exhibition.

Patrick Hosken is an arts writer for CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
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