The McMullen Student Ambassadors are pleased to present Art in Focus, featuring an informal discussion between Boston College professors from various academic departments. With each new episode, we aim to uncover a unique perspective on the works on display, informed by research and methodologies in areas of study across the University. Each conversation will bring the exhibition’s works “into focus” to highlight art’s expansive reach and interdisciplinary nature.
The following podcast is the first installment in the Art in Focus series, where we explore different themes and artwork from the “Gateway to Himalayan Art” exhibition. For this episode, we invited Boston College Visting Assitant Professor Matthew Vale and his colleague Associate Professor Yonder Gillihan of the Theology Department to talk about one of the paintings, Panjarnatha Mahakala, in the exhibit. Together, they discuss, as theologians, how iconography from other religious traditions can provoke reflections and help, for example, Christians learn more about their own faith.
In the McMullen Museum’s Spring 2023 installation, The Shared_Studios Portal, Boston College students, faculty, and visitors had the opportunity to transcend borders and time zones in a virtual experience to foster conversation about our world’s most pressing issues. The portal is a unique video conference experience that connects two locations, “live and full-body,” through eye-level cameras that create the illusion that both parties are in the same room. During the exhibition’s tenure at the McMullen, the Boston College community connected to portals around the globe in hopes of increasing a collective dialogue. Some of the McMullen’s partner portals included ones in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nakivale, Uganda; and Walkers Reserve, Barbados. Working with the United Nations and COP27, Shared_Studios, a New York-based company, organized these connections to expand climate dialogue in all corners of the world.
Many of the connections made within the portal last semester focused on but were not limited to, issues of climate change. The portal became a place to discuss the impact of rising temperatures on individual lives and overall environments, and our portal-goers found ways toward common ground and shared experiences by hearing previously unheard perspectives from the Global South. Scholarly discourse has begun to heavily criticize the current conversation around climate change as Western-centric, in which views from the majority of the world go unnoticed. For example, during a connection with the McMullen portal, a curator from the Barbados portal, located in a former-quarry-turned-nature reserve, discouraged using the term “quiet voices” to describe the climate activists in the Southern Hemisphere and insisted on using “unheard voices.” This particular portal is hosted by the Walkers Institute for Regenerative Research, Education, and Design (WIRRED) and aims to “bring solutions to complex problems by creating disruptive design systems that increase biodiversity, enhance ecosystem services, and improve the well-being of individuals and communities.”1 Conversations such as these gave Boston College students and other portal users a chance to hear those voices.
One memorable conversation I attended was on Tuesday, April 11th, 2023, when the McMullen portal connected with curators Haya and Ahmed in Erbil, Iraq. While our portal was on the third-floor gallery of the McMullen, Erbil’s was in a renovated water station, which is now a cubic structure in an Iraqi refugee camp for people displaced by ISIS’s invasion of Mosul in 2014. Haya, the translator, is a young female Iraqi novelist. Her first novel focuses on forgiveness in hardship and tells the story of a blind girl who lost her eyes in an accident and has a complicated history with the family who later adopts her. She is currently working on a second novel about climate change and pursuing a degree in architecture. She joined us with Ahmed, who works for the WISH Organization and runs an NGO as an elementary school teacher in the refugee camp, primarily teaching Arabic and science. After asking how climate change has affected their lives, an insightful yet grim discussion blossomed.
Haya explained how it has become impossible to avoid the climate crisis in Erbil. Each year, the temperature continuously rises, most likely due to the high pollution levels and the overall loss of the green cover. Historically, ancient forests and vegetation once covered many parts of Iraq; however, as the vegetation decreases, they can no longer help moderate the increasing temperature. Haya noted that in summer months, temperatures reach 120° F— so hot that you can crack an egg and cook it on any surface—Ahmed added that he was hospitalized due to heat exhaustion. Haya stressed that climate change is affecting the community; she pointed out that the divorce ratio in the summer is higher than in the winter. When asked if this was normal in Iraq, Haya and Ahmed noted how, according to their parents, it was not like this forty years ago. In the past, the highest temperature typically reached was around 95° F, and people did not need AC. So, Iraqi architects designed the houses to let in the sun and regulate the home based on past temperatures. However, these past designs make houses feel far too hot today and require numerous AC units. This conversation exemplified one of the many ways man-made environmental destruction continues to affect our lives.
Not all portal connections focused explicitly on the Climate. As a Student Ambassador, when I curated an exhibit with the Nakivale portal, located in a Ugandan refugee camp—populated mainly by those escaping Civil Wars in the Congo—I had an extremely compelling connection that had nothing, yet everything, to do with the planet’s health. Seeing that the session was open to the public, meaning the museum had no class scheduled to attend, I anticipated being on my own for most of the connection, if not all. To begin, I asked Jim and Benjamin, the Nakivale portal curators, about their careers as entrepreneurs. They talked about the two businesses they had started: Jim created made-at-home farming kits for refugees to grow and sell mushrooms and Benjamin shepharded a troubled youth school, where he taught English and life skills. The conversation shifted, however, when I asked them what their “why” was to be an entrepreneur, a routine question taught in entrepreneurial management classes.
Jim answered, “to reduce young girls getting pregnant in the refugee camp.” Thinking I had misheard him, I asked him to clarify. He explained, “a lot of girls in the camp don’t have soap or clothes or food and go to men to get those things, which leads to them getting pregnant.”
Not knowing how to respond, I sat silently, and Benjamin began to explain why he founded his company. “To help kids,” Benjamin stated, “to keep these kids fleeing the Congo and other war-torn countries on the right path.” He described life for young men in the refugee camps and the importance of making the right decisions early before becoming trapped in a cycle of mistakes made out of desperation. Benjamin is a role model at his school for kids who never had one.
Planting spores like Jim or teaching English like Benjamin is far from the typical Boston area start-up but arguably more consequential than most. It is not that these small actions will save or change the world, but they have the potential to pave paths that do. This connection, among others in the portal, showed me and other Student Ambassadors that behemoth ambitions, fighting climate change or combating inequality, may begin at the most minor and most uneventful levels.
While the portal left the McMullen in June 2023, this November, the portal has returned to BC’s main campus, rebranding itself as the Global Engagement Portal, with connections to Erbil, Iraq; Mexico City, Mexico; Lagos, Nigeria; Walkers Savannah, Barbados; and Nakivale, Uganda. Whether your classmate has told you the portal is a genuine social experiment aimed at overcoming barriers or a performative gimmick seeking to serve a voyeuristic gaze, students now have the opportunity to see for themselves in the pop-up shipping container located between O’Neill and Devlin during its walk-in hours Monday, November 13th through Thursday, November 16th. Regardless of whether you can visit the portal, impactful conversations are always one difficult question away.
H is both a Student Ambassador for the McMullen Museum and the Policy Coordinator for the Queer Leadership Council (QLC) here at Boston College.
Creative minds in the Queer community are no secret. The Queer community has always worked to transgress norms and signal to others their queerness and their differentness. This beauty is precisely what the Queer Leadership Council hopes to celebrate and cherish in the Boston College community. The Queer Leadership Council, formerly known as the GLBTQ+ Leadership Council, started Pride Week with a re-naming of its council and ended Pride Week with a Queer film night at the McMullen Museum.
Changing the name to include the word Queer was one of profound importance to the community at Boston College. As the primary student organization that exists for LGBTQ+ students, we have the responsibility of channeling a practice and environment that cherishes unity, acceptance, and care. QLC believes the name GLC represents an inequitable centering of cisgender male students who identify as gay and a neglect of women and gender non-conforming students. Through this name change, we recenter the experiences of people of all sexual practices and all gender performances as a unified community under the Queer label. With the integration of Queer resources into the Bowman AHANA+ Intercultural Center, Boston College has entered a new era that can impact the experiences of Queer students. Additionally, it allows us to take part in impactful change more broadly and reflects the commitment we have in QLC to cultivate community.
Pride Week, a week surrounding National Coming Out Day, was the perfect day to release the re-naming news. We hoped to start our celebration of Queer lives, joys, and experiences with a reclaiming of who we are. The Pride Week events had a central theme of connecting Queer students to resources. We wanted to remind students that the school, its resources, spaces, and administrators exist for all of us. The McMullen Museum collaboration was one of the connections we hoped to bridge for Queer students during Pride Week. We wanted to introduce students to the museum and, by showing an explicitly queer film, prove to them the space is for them.
Students came to the terrace of McMullen to watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire: a French film from 2019 with themes around forbidden queer love, memory, and the complexities of gender and sexuality in a patriarchal, hetero-normative society. Through the complicated relationship between an artist and her subject, this film beautifully connects the ways that being Queer, being a female artist, and taking up space all transgresses the norms drawn by society. The crowd was joyful, enjoying the film and giving commentary. The McMullen was a safe space that night and will continue to be for diverse identities across Boston College’s campus. As a student ambassador, I want to continue to hold space for all identities and work to connect students to the magical resources of our beautiful museum through its art, programming, and space.