Public Art as Platform for Collective Memory

June 26, 2020, 2:00 PM - 3:30 PM

Session Type: Panel

How can an artist’s voice amplify forgotten, overlooked, or marginalized community stories? How can a rigorous artistic practice uncover and meaningfully manifest collective memories of place and home? How can the public display of community memory raise awareness of historic wrongs, build empathy for marginalized peoples, and instill a greater understanding of shared humanity? In this session, three multidisciplinary artists will discuss intimate and long-term collaborations with community-based organizations in the Pittsburgh region, facilitated by the Office of Public Art, that resulted in public artworks that amplify unheard, underrepresented, or marginalized narratives. Through large-scale, muralistic photo collages, an analog graphic display board, and an immersive theater experience, respectively, these three artists inscribed the stories of their collaborating communities in the public consciousness and expressed the power of art to represent collective experience. In the historically Black neighborhood of the Hill District, artist and multimedia producer Njaimeh Njie collaborated with the Hill House Association to gather oral histories, photographs, and archival materials from dozens of residents, libraries, and archives. Njie created richly layered, large-scale, muralistic photographic installations on public facades of a neighborhood that has faced structural and institutional racism and disinvestment. Her Homecoming: Hill District, USA and companion website centers the voice of the community, authentically reflecting a people’s history of the Hill District. Multidisciplinary visual artist John Peña led recurring story-sharing sessions with the senior residents at the Larimer Consensus Group, who felt their memories were being erased by time and rapid redevelopment. Peña worked with the residents to install a literal platform for their forgotten histories in the form of a call-and-response analog visual display. Titled Larimer Stories, this artwork displays first person memories of this racially and economically diverse neighborhood. Over the course of a year, the text on the displays changed every two weeks, allowing a narrative of the neighborhood to unfold in time and space. Playwright Molly Rice collaborated with newly arrived Afghan women refugees through a two year artist residency with the resettlement program at the Northern Area Multi Service Center. Rice came to understand the deep connection for these women between their memories of home and the tastes and smells of their regional cuisine. With the women, she co-created an immersive theater experience, titled Khūrākī, that combined first-person actor portrayals of the womens’ stories of their home country with food that was prepared onsite by the women themselves and even served to the audience by the women’s children. The project continues to resonate as Rice supports the women in efforts to build entrepreneurship skills and start their own catering business. In order to authentically research, develop, and represent collective memory, each artist underwent an intensive process that involved trust-building, community and stakeholder engagement, and ongoing communication and project management. This process, managed by the Office of Public Art (OPA), placed each artist either in residency or in close collaboration with a partnering community-based organization. Hear from OPA on the development and implementation of these processes and from the artists on both the challenges they faced and the successes they enjoyed. Arts administrators, artists, and creative professionals seeking to create, develop, or learn more about artist-community collaborations are welcome and encouraged to bring questions of their own to this panel-style session. Time will be held at the end of the session for learning from each other and acknowledging the expertise in the room.
Learning Objectives:
  • Identify and evaluate aspects of critical creative practice that contribute to authentic engagement, relationship- and trust-building, and community buy-in for works of public art.

  • Recognize common themes in process and project management that support meaningful, positive, and productive outcomes for artists, community members, and arts administrators.

  • Understand the artist’s point of view through three firsthand accounts from a playwright, a multimedia producer, and a visual artist about the processes and practices behind the creation of three diverse public artworks that illuminate and center the collective memories of underrepresented and marginalized communities.