Courtesy of Social Justice Fund

Artist Tavares Strachan ART ’06 and philanthropist, businesswoman and activist Clara Wu Tsai came together in the auditorium of the Yale University Art Gallery on the morning of Feb. 10 to discuss their collaboration on the #YouBelongHere public art campaign.

Kymberly Pinder GRD ’95, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Dean of the Yale School of Art, curated the panel discussion, which centered around the role of public art and the question of what it means to “belong” in a community or space.

“You have an idea and you act on it, you work really hard with good collaborators to make things happen,” Strachan said about his partnership with Wu Tsai. 

Strachan’s work exists at the intersection of art, science and questions of identity — his pieces often incorporate extensive historical and scientific research, addressing the power of human ability. Strachan received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2003 and an MFA from Yale University in 2006. His work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions at various national and international venues, including the Frye Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Venice Biennale, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Institute of Contemporary Art. In 2022, he received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, more commonly known as the “Genius Grant.”

Wu Tsai, founder of the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation, centers her social justice work around economic mobility and racial justice. In 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, the foundation established a Social Justice Fund focused on addressing these issues in Brooklyn, New York.

 “A big focus of our social justice fund work is access to capital, because I do believe that entrepreneurship is a definite pathway to wealth creation,” she explained during the talk. 

As part of a campaign by this new fund called #YouBelongHere, Strachan created his public art installation “You Belong Here/We Belong Here,” which is displayed in the plaza outside of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The two large neon signs reading “You Belong Here” in white and “We Belong Here” in pink could not go unnoticed by any individual passing by. 

Tamar Szabó Gendler ’87, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and professor of philosophy, psychology and cognitive science, introduced the conversation by welcoming the range of individuals in the crowd: students, artists, professionals and members of the New Haven community. 

Pinder stated in a conversation prior to the event that she hoped that this panel could reflect how individuals with different backgrounds can meet and work together on projects that mattered to them. 

“You never know what kind of natural collision happens in environments where people have different interests and what can come out of those collisions,” Pinder said. “There are intersections and overlaps that you may never expect but happen at a place like Yale.”

The panel discussion then addressed questions of place and belonging. Wu Tsai discussed her background as the child of Taiwanese immigrants growing up in Kansas. 

“It’s important to think about how fragile belonging is,” Wu Tsai stated. “Even though I grew up in Kansas, and I belong to that place, there were a lot of times in that community, as a woman of color, where I didn’t really feel like I belonged.” 

Strachan was born in Nassau, a small island in the Caribbean, and moved to the United States for his studies. 

He said that growing up, he had a “very subconscious way of feeling that I like I didn’t belong.” 

“You start realizing that all of the architecture in the island and in the city is telling you that you don’t belong,” Strachan said. “Or that the curriculum in the school is reinforcing the idea that you’re a second. Or that the way that the town is laid out, is reinforcing the idea that you don’t fit in.”

Through its words, Strachan’s installation attempted to directly address this concept, telling passersby that they belong. However, as a member of the audience — who claimed to be “very confused” about the piece — pointed out, the construction of the Barclays Center displaced many Brooklyn inhabitants, creating a dichotomy between the work’s message and the place it is situated in.

Wu Tsai acknowledged this displacement and noted that the work was made to pay homage to organic protests. 

“I think it’s a perfectly fine position to have to not get it. I think it’s a part of public discourse,” Stratchan added.

The Yale School of Art was founded in 1869.