I always leave the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) graduate opening reception sweating. With more than 100 artists, it’s a marathon art-viewing experience. Bring your water, grab some cookies, and take it all in. Every year I leave saying, “I’m exhausted.” However, this year, things look a lot different.
Originally slated to open April 24 with a comprehensive floor plan in the Sullivan Galleries, the MFA thesis show was a year-long process for curatorial fellows. But as we know, those plans were put to a halt with the pandemic hitting the U.S. earlier this year. The planning for the show was finalized on March 12 and on the same day, the school president, Elissa Tenny, announced the closure of the campus. The curators were forced to modify their plans and work with the turbulent and uneasy times.
SAIC launched their MFA thesis show, “The Future of Our Plans,” as an online art exhibition on August 5 cataloging the 150 graduate students in the class of 2020. In SAIC style, the website where the exhibition lives is sexy, sleek, and clean. It begins with an introduction text from Arnold Kemp, the dean of graduate studies, wishing the best of luck to a class entering an unknown future in a distressing time.
The website selects three graduate students for every day in August and highlights their work. Taking in 150 artists in real life at an opening is a lot of work, so I appreciate this type of introduction on the website, which allows me, as the viewer, to easily digest the work of a select few artists. It also keeps me coming back, as every day there is a new trio to check out. Additionally, folks can filter through artists. As a viewer, you can select an area by medium, degree, department, and theme. Having a BFA in photography myself, it’s the first section I picked. There I discovered the work of MFA candidate of photography, Chelsea Emuakhagbon.
“Process has always been at the core of my image-making practice,” Emuakhagbon says. Her photographic project began in Dallas while working on a series that focused on family and her uncle’s migration from Nigeria to Japan. When in Japan continuing the project, Emuakhagbon met a few African migrant workers and began having conversations about migration and the definition of “home.” During this experience, she says, “the project became less and less about anguished confusion and searching, and more about located hope, solidity, and structure. It's less about the pain within the waiting and seeking of the journey, and more about the hope found while stripping oneself of the once-perceived burdens of the move itself. Less pain and mourning, more reverence.”
Emuakhagbon’s work in the exhibition also includes audio with her uncle as well as a silent film that depicts the making of a segaiha pattern in Japan. This pattern is also physically held by many of the subjects in her photographs, which represents the connection between humanity, migration, and culture.
When I ask Emuakhagbon how her graduate experience was altered due to COVID-19 she says, “I think SAIC is just being what it is and has always been: a private university. It's a school that was built in a specific way for a specific type of people. It's attempting the only way it's able to understand how to adapt to society's current atmosphere.” She goes on to say that faculty and students helped with this strange transition to the new normal.
The MFA exhibition is a culmination of two-year projects for many students. SAIC’s thesis website does a great job of not overwhelming the viewer with images. By having three artists a day on display, a viewer can visit the website for a gradual viewing process. Or, if they are ready to dive in, they have access to all of the artists. Amira Hegazy’s artist statement mentions her upbringing between American and Egyptian culture and how this influences her activism, while Megan Tepper explores their body and sexual relationships through photography and film. Viewers can sit longer with the artist’s work and take control of their viewing experience. They can look at a few pieces and exit the experience. It’s not as demanding as an in-person opening.
At the beginning of the year, the fate of many undergraduate and graduate shows was at the mercy of the pandemic. Though many students and staff were disappointed at the postponed MFA shows and cancellation of events, the curators investigated alternative methods for presenting projects and exhibitions during a pandemic. SAIC adapted to the crisis and created something more digestible and accessible for folks to view as these artists graduate and enter into the art world in even more uncertain times than usual. Having virtual events and a virtual gallery gives the final exhibition—and the work of many artists—a much larger audience beyond Chicago. v