Surbhi Bharadwaj

In light of the presidential election, MFA students at the Yale School of Art are incorporating the current political ethos into their work. Faculty members at the School of Art have altered the material they teach and are working to engender social change through their work.

The election has opened new opportunities for School of Art students and faculty, who have long been involved in activism, to engage in social issues. From paintings of a gentrifying Brooklyn to photographs about colonization, students at the School of Art are making art that reflects the current political and social climate.

There seems to be increased engagement right now, for obvious reasons,” said School of Art faculty member and activist Pamela Hovland. “We have all woken up to the realization that democracy is not a spectator sport — we have to move from the passive to the active.” 

With the election, faculty at the School of Art are engaging with social-activist and political movements now more than ever, according to Hovland, who added that she thinks Zoom and social media have contributed to a greater level of engagement for artists than before. 

Hovland’s own organization, called Class Action Collective, is working to mobilize people in light of the upcoming election. Leading up to the election, Anoka Faruqee — another faculty member and activist — created a fundraising initiative called “Walk the Walk” to support grassroots community organizations. These organizations are strengthening electoral power in Black and Latinx communities in eight swing states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Arizona, Ohio and Texas.

“Structural forces have decimated our public institutions of education, healthcare, and democracy itself, so now is our chance to utilize all of the democratic pathways that are still available to us,” Faruqee wrote in an article on Medium.

Hovland added that many professors at the School of Art have interrupted their usual syllabi to “make space” for students to discuss what is going on — both individually and collaboratively. She said it is important for students to reflect on what matters to them and how they can use their work to contribute to the existing artistic dialogue.

Nabil Harb ART ’21 primarily takes pictures of his hometown of Lakeland, Florida. His photographs look at themes of consumption, colonization and the environment. His work interrogates what it means for him, a queer man and first-generation American of Palestinian descent, to add to the region’s artistic narrative. Even though his work has always maintained a political bent, Harb said that in the context of a growing activism movement, he has begun to talk and think about his art more politically.

“I’ve sort of begun to hone in the gestures in the work that are political,” Harb said. For example, he had never looked at a particular photograph — showing a fence post covered in grasshoppers — with a climate-change perspective. But now, he said that in retrospect his work highlights “environmentalism and the precariousness of our landscape.”

Danielle De Jesus ART ’21 takes pictures of the place where she grew up — Brooklyn, New York. She documents the gentrification that occurred in recent years and often wears a sweatshirt with the words “Gentrification is war.” Her paintings contrast the aesthetics of gentrification alongside the harsh reality of its consequences. Even though this is not a new project, it has taken on new meaning and importance in the context of the election.  

It is often left to the artists and designers to ascribe meaning in times of historic shifts and many of us feel that responsibility — a duty, really — to comment on and perhaps even clarify the world we inhabit,” Hovland said.

In light of the uncertainties and anxieties posed by the election, School of Art Dean Marta Kuzma emailed the School of Art community yesterday. She announced that assistant deans will hold discussion hours over the course of the week for students to “drop-in and share any questions, concerns, fears.” These will begin on Wednesday, Nov. 4 after the election.

Annie Radillo |