On March 16, 2020, three days after former President Trump declared COVID-19 a public health emergency, the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art closed its doors.
For the first time in more than a year, the fine art museum recently reopened on both the physical and virtual stages. In collaboration with UC Davis, the museum presents a series of exhibitions and installations available both in-person and online.
The move reduces crowd capacity, per COVID-19 protocol, and increases access to the museum’s galleries and collections for patrons inside and outside the greater Sacramento region.
Each collection celebrates a section of UC Davis’s history or identity, a mix of photography, painting, sculpture, print, and text. Artists and presenters provide description, analysis and critique through videos on the museum’s online platform.
One of the most intriguing exhibitions is “Andrea Bowers: Education Should Be Free (UC Davis).” The project spans wide, an umbrella for a master of fine arts collaboration and sister collection to “Reflecting Self-Care.”
Andrea Bowers: Education Should Be Free is ongoing. College students and staff will respond and contribute to the exhibition throughout the 2021-2022 academic year.
Andrea Bowers: Education Should Be Free
Bowers’s Education Should Be Free is a tangle of rainbow-colored neon lights. They spell the phrase, each letter forming a cool-toned gradient. The words sit at a slant, narrowing towards a vanishing point. A red, glowing band snakes around their edges.
A virtual description reads “neon, steel, aluminum channel letters, and an automotive paint.”
The signage’s playful disposition sits in direct contrast to its subject matter. Through the work, Bowers is both artist and activist: She’s “trying to change hearts and minds with aesthetics,” she writes.
Education Should Be Free demands just that: Bowers believes education should be a human right, free from the chains of “racism, patriarchy, ableism” and “the burdens of student debt.”
Bowers invites UC Davis students, patrons, and the community to question their public education system:
“How do we envision free education?” Bowers asks. “How do we provide open access to learning opportunities? And how do we enact profound change within our institutions?”
Bowers’s online resource provides discussion topics, literature, articles, organizations and film for exploration.
Design MFA Collaboration with Andrea Bowers
Bowers collaborated with five MFA students on a two-part plan. The first project, by students Valentyna Hrushkevych and Rova Yilmaz, interrogated student debt.
The pair sought anonymous stories from across California. Participants submitted testimonials under their location or age, each describing the effect of student debt on their daily lives.
One submission shouldered insurmountable responsibility:
“Thirteen years out of graduate school, and I am still paying off my student loans,” admitted a 38-year-old in Sacramento, “I was lucky to consolidate to a lower rate.”
Another said that debt crippled their dreams:
“I decided to go to community college and transfer to UCLA. I still ended up with 30K in debt,” a Los Angeles resident recalled. “After I graduated, I wanted to travel the world, but I felt this enormous debt looming over me, so I got a job right away. It took me several years, but I finally paid it off.”
Hrushkevych and Yilmaz projected all responses on the Manetti Shrem Museum event plaza.
The second project, by Fatema Mostafa, Quinessa Stibbins and Edward Whelan, asked: What should education be free from?
The trio aimed to uplift marginalized voices in education.
Participants detailed their experiences on physical and digital postcards. Answers were diverse: “Fees” and “inequity” to “corporal punishment” and “Betsy Devos.”
Mostafa, Stibbins and Whelan collected all responses and consolidated them under Instagram page @edushouldbefree.
Reflecting Self-Care opens its main page with a definition of a radical act:
“Self-care is a resilient act that prioritizes mental and corporeal well-being, rather than the hyperproductive expectations of neoliberal capitalism,” it reads. “Self-preservation begins with acknowledging that this system has a direct influence on our holistic wellness. The identification of systemic inequality and oppressive social institutions are at the root of self-care’s radicalism.”
A ubiquitous definition demands diverse media; Reflecting Self-Care is a mixed-media collection. Through artwork, video, photography, sculpture, podcast, radio and spoken word, UC Davis’s “AHI 102: Exhibition Practicum” cultivated a multifaceted picture of self-care.
Associate professor Susette Min led the project. Artists wrote descriptions in chalk outside the exhibit. They painted abstract art and film. Some described meditative poses and breathing techniques. Others vented their frustrations with a society that equates productivity to happiness. Most took up arms against their educational institution.
Many UC Davis students in the project felt the university is complicit in the lack of self-care its curriculum and environment engender; in an institution where students are too busy, self-care is a radical act.
Reflecting-Self Care Radio was a student-curated playlist of music, ambient sounds, spoken word and podcasts centered on self-care. Speakers guided patrons and viewers through the works and subject matter.
Fiona Heenan ended with a poem about her father, buds, and blossoms:
I remember how carefully
we dug up the root vegetables
Not wanting to unearth
Anything before its time
The earth’s great secret
Gets told each season
And my favorite thing about myself
Is that I am the same every day
The Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art’s online series, originally scheduled for last January, will be available until November 12.
Education Should Be Free (UC Davis), 2021 and sister projects will be on view through March.