All too often, certain topics can be especially difficult for families to broach; these taboo topics can often be an elephant in the room, but discussing them is uncomfortable. A new program at SAY Sí aims to fix that through art.
In “Stories Seldom Told: No Need to Whisper,” SAY Sí’s student artists have taken a close look at taboo subjects. They investigate assumptions that underlie things we don’t usually talk about, like religious extremism or violence against women. By sharing thoughtful perspectives, the youth artists encourage their communities to get comfortable talking about uncomfortable things. The group exhibition of visual art, media art, and devised theatre premieres Friday, July 10 and runs until Friday, August 22.
Solo and collaborative works inspired by the taboo theme filled SAY Sí’s galleries and Black Box Theatre. Each piece represents the culmination of a months-long process of researching subjects and refining ideas. SAY Sí has been nationally recognized by the Wallace Foundation for the way it leads students through the process of expressing ideas through artwork.
During the school year, students spend eight to ten hours a week at SAY Sí’s converted warehouse space in Southtown. They have the opportunity to spend more hours at the extracurricular organization during the summer. The studios offer students access to state of the art equipment. Through hands-on practice with animation software or woodworking materials, students develop the pieces they will eventually show.
“There (are) resources, but it’s more than that,” artist and high school Marlowe Romero said. Each student I talked with expressed the sense that SAY Sí is a community.
Support from mentors and peers is central to the SAY Sí process. Developing work involves lots of conversation and collaboration among students. It also involves lots of dialogue between students and their professional artist instructors. Theatre instructor Joy Jimenez said SAY Sí asks a lot because instructors respect the students as artists.
“Stories Seldom Told: No Need to Whisper“ exhibits pieces by individuals, pairs, and groups of artists, but it’s clear that the larger SAY Sí community is also present in each work.
Students in the visual arts program display work from a variety of mediums. An installation by Mattie Myers hangs in the center of one room amidst paintings, drawings, and sculptures. “Chan-De-Leg” is a large-scale piece. It displays an almost-overwhelming number of hanging legs. They are tape-casts made out of clear shiny tape, hanging in a three-tiered pattern from a supporting wood frame. Before I saw the title of the piece, its shape made me think of a chandelier. My automatic association is reinforced by the clear and crystalline qualities of Myers’s chosen materials. Plastic decorative pieces draped about the structure also convey chandelier to me.
Myers discussed her piece in the context of the taboo subject of our relationships to our own bodies. She is especially curious about why there is not much social pushback when men publicly display their bodies, yet there tends to be more social pushback when women do. For example, girls can be criticized for “showing too much leg.” She pointed out that school dress codes participate in the leg-shaming phenomenon, and girls who wear too-short shorts often get in trouble. Myers thinks that trend does not help in efforts to “be proud of your body.”
In “Chan-De-Leg” she works against leg-shaming by “portraying legs in a pretty way.” Her choice to make the legs prominent by positioning them as the room’s center-piece also suggests a sense of pride in showing a lot of leg.
I like this interpretation, but Myers’s work is rich enough to inspire other meanings, too.
“I like to do work where you have to think about it — where the meaning behind it isn’t really obvious,” she said. “It’s whatever you think it is. I like having it a little mysterious.”
A life-size magazine piece called “Atelophobia” represents a collaboration between visual artist Camryn Blackmon and media artist Sarah Ramirez. The title suggests that the piece addresses the fear of not being good enough. Like Myers, Ramirez and Blackmon also take on the taboo subject of how we relate to our own bodies. Through its interactive pages, the magazine exposes viewers to the many different layers of this complex relationship. It expresses the sense that there are perks and downfalls connected to the ways our bodies might change in a lifetime.
Through the exhibition’s opening weekend, the Activating Leadership through Art and Service Youth Theatre Company, also known as ALAS will present a number of devised theatre pieces. Alas also translates to “wings” in Spanish. Romero tells me that devised theatre lets the company “create our own plays by working with each other.”
Jimenez added that the devising process lets students make works directly from their own “minds, experience, beliefs, and questions” rather than adjusting their experiences and messages to an already-written work. She says that devising is a “team process” in which company members are constantly researching, improvising, writing, and building upon each others’ ideas.
As they investigate particular taboo subjects, the pieces devised for this exhibit also look at how taboos become taboos. More specifically, they center on how youth can productively have a voice in social situations that restrict freedom of expression.
“Phrases” takes on ageism by looking at the difficulties young people have when they try to contribute beliefs and opinions to social conversations. “The Code” explores censorship and rights for youth in family structures. “The Red Bird” looks at what it’s like to express who you are when you have a foot in two very different worlds.
The show as a whole proclaims a desire for dialogue. Ramirez says “through our art work we shine light on what’s happening in our culture and what’s happening in other places.” Each piece asks viewers to acknowledge that uncomfortable things happen in the world. Jimenez explained that they’re using “discomfort as a technique for dialogue.” The artists want more people to talk about real experiences and real beliefs. They see conversation as a way to help perspectives become more broad.
“Stories Seldom Told 2014: No Need to Whisper,” ann artistic study of socially prohibited subjects by SAY Sí’s creative youth, opens Friday, July 11. A free and open-to-the-public reception will be held 7-10 p.m. in the SAY Sí gallery space and Black Box Theater at 1518 S. Alamo St.
ALAS Youth Theatre Company performances will be held Saturday, July 12, 7-9 p.m. and Sunday, July 13, 3-5 p.m. with a $5 admission, but free for students and children.
*Featured/top image: “Chan-De-Leg” by Mattie Myers, 15, at SAY Sí. Photo by Erin Hood.