During tent-covered outdoor sessions last week, students at Mount Tabor High School explored the complexities of racial diversity, cultural differences and the stereotypes associated with them.
Wake Forest University Art Professor David Finn said he conceived “The Big Tent” as a way of using art to delve into the issues surrounding race and culture and spark some honest conversations in a safe and accepting environment. Participants gather under the colorful tent and use the works of art on the tent and inside of it to spark discussion.
“(The goal is) to look at these artworks and begin to understand through the artworks some of the complexities that are involved in stereotypes. They can reflect the complexity of the real world better than slogans. These issues are not simple, and these works reflect that,” Finn said.
The works under the tent were generated by the Transforming Race project, a collaboration between the Wake Forest Art Department and the City of Winston-Salem’s Human Relations Department, which challenges youth to use visual art to communicate across racial barriers. Local high school students collaborated with WFU students to create the pieces, just as they did to create the tent for the project. The 25- tent features a bold collage of flowers that are meant to represent the beauty of individuality, and chains inscribed with statements about discrimination and ignorance – things students feel hold them back. Hundreds of students have contributed designs and ideas or volunteered to help paint the exterior of the tent, which began its tour of local high schools with a visit to Parkland IB Magnet last year. Finn also hopes to showcase it at citywide and community events.
“The reason I wanted to do it with young people is that by the time they get my age, society is going to be a society of minorities, and I think it’s the right time to start preparing for that,” he explained. “There’s a certain tolerance that we all have to have, and I don’t think you can say that enough.”
The vibrant tent was set-up in Tabor’s sunny courtyard on Oct. 24. A steady stream of students visited. Wake Forest student volunteers guided small groups of high schoolers from one exhibit to the next, encouraging them to dialogue about the feelings pieces of art invoked.
“I think it’s an awesome opportunity for our students,” said Ed Weiss, principal of Mount Tabor, which is roughly 48 percent white, 38 percent African American and 14 percent mixed race or other ethnicities. “…The multicultural theme of the Big Tent kind of works hand in hand with the melting pot of our student population.”
Among the featured works was a golden birdcage titled “False Freedom: Escaping Stereotypes” and “Ambiguity in Race: The Haziness of Societal Lines,” a trifold display featuring life-sized portraits of three racially ambiguous individuals.
“They’re portraits, but they’re not smiling,” WFU junior Taylor Rousseau told her group as they examined the latter work. “We might look at their faces and think, why are they making that face towards me? But being racially ambiguous, these are faces that they may get from other people when they enter a room.”
Rousseau, who is Filipino and African American, says she constantly gets questions about her racial heritage. The Los Angeles native said she got involved in the Big Tent project last fall, when her chapter of Delta Xi Phi, a multicultural sorority she helped to charter at Wake, took it on as a community service project.
“Dr. Finn has done an incredible job of opening the door for conversations,” she said. “I think it’s important, especially looking at young students who aren’t completely self aware yet or haven’t had the opportunity to talk about race in an open environment.”
Mount Tabor senior Rico Walker said his favorite display was a series of paintings featuring Disney princesses on one side and caricatures of the stereotypes associated with the characters’ cultural backgrounds on the other side.
“I thought it was interesting,” said Walker. “I thought it showed how the media portrayed … the different stereotypes.”
Walker has a unique perspective on race. He is Puerto Rican and white, but is being raised by an African American step-father.
“I have all elements of diversity in my life, so I’ve never been one to discriminate against anyone,” said the aspiring forensic detective.
Fellow senior Christian Babayemi said he enjoyed the exhibit.
“I liked it. It kind of made me think about how I see other races and other people, and how I see my own race,” commented Babeyemi, who is African American. “It just kind of made my perspective a little more clear.”
Finn said he too has learned from the project.
“I’m 60, so anytime I really listen to young people, I gain something, and in this project, in talking about race and diversity, I’ve really gained some perspective of people who are a lot younger than me,” he related. “They’re not burdened by the history of race as much as people in my generation are. They’re a little bit less trapped.”
To book the Big Tent project to appear at an upcoming event, contact Finn at HYPERLINK “mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org” email@example.com.