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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Portraits of Purpose’ an inspiring exhibition

Published: February 7, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

It seemed fitting that I visited “Portraits of Purpose” by photojournalist Don West, while the “Introduction to Jazz Improvisation” class met in the recital hall of Slosberg Music Center. As I circled the room, the sounds of soulful jazz piano wove in and out of a fervent trumpet solo, perfectly capturing the spirit of the exhibit. Jazz embodies an age filled with profound hope and change. It is clear that this exhibit does the same.

The exhibit begins with wall text, written by the student curator, Daniela Dimitrova ’16. The text is candid and inspirational, providing a sense of unity to the exhibition that is difficult to achieve in a space as chaotic as Slosberg. Most importantly, it directly asks the viewer questions, entrenching the exhibition in Visual Thinking Strategies, a new way of looking at art championed by the Rose Art Museum. By doing this, this text makes the exhibition thought-provoking and meaningful. This exhibition is more than a series of images on a wall, but a pointed way of engaging the audience member with social justice.

There is no clear way to progress through the exhibition because there is no chronological order to the grouping of the photographs. Instead, Dimitrova makes a bold decision to group the pictures in quartets. This is not simply an aesthetically pleasing choice. Rather, it is a decision that creates a dynamic of community, both among the figures on the wall and between the photographs and the viewer. In a grouping of four notable black leaders, Mel King, Gail Snowden, James Baldwin and Paul Goodnight, there is clear interaction among the figures on the wall. Baldwin appears to stare at King, in pensive reflection. It is interesting to consider what Baldwin could be thinking about. Luckily, the wall text supplies us a possible answer, offering an inspiring quote from each of the four leaders. Other, more informative text is provided, which, although well written, seems less powerful than the bolded quote emblazoned above it.
I found myself not particularly caring what each leader had accomplished. Instead, I wondered what my generation could accomplish in response. Some of the figures on the wall seemed to wonder this as well. Mel King, depicted with a slight, mysterious smile, stares directly at the viewer. An expression of silent faith, it was a wise choice to put this particular photograph in the sightline of the viewer. This motivates a dreamy optimism, very much in the spirit of the entire ’DEIS Impact festival.

The groupings of four continued throughout the exhibition. Overall, this was an effective choice. In the larger body of work, however, it became apparent this exhibition was forced to deal with a relative lack of racial diversity that impeded the conceptualization of change as a community. I do not think this was a fault of the organizers of the exhibition but rather a result of the sort of photographs that Don West takes. Focusing on the Boston area, “Portraits of Purpose” are images of leaders, either residents of the city or mere visitors. They occupy a nebulous territory between a candid and a portrait. These photographs capture a moment in history, and sometimes, our history is not diverse, balanced or fair.

The show ends fittingly with a poster and sticky notes, encouraging viewers to answer the questions the wall text prompted at the beginning. At the time I visited, a few people had added their answers. The responses were a little cheesy, but they were hopeful and proud. I felt a little silly adding my own sticky note, but I was glad I did. Once I stuck my sticky note to the page, and walked away, my voice mingled with all the other sanguine voices of my generation. Out of all the exhibitions this could have been done for, I was glad it was done for “Portraits of Purpose.” Art is a way of looking toward a better future, and this gesture mixed art and good intentions in the best possible way.