Black Arts Festival 2019: Professor and Photographer Talk Intersection of Vision and Justice

Even as temperatures dropped and snow blanketed Harvard’s grounds, students, alumni, and Boston locals made the trek to the Barker Center to listen to Harvard professor Sarah E. Lewis and renowned photographer Tyler Mitchell speak about the intersection between visual arts and justice.

On March 3, co-chairs of the Black Arts Festival (BAF), Antonia L. Scott ’20 and Gabrielle S. Preston ’20 introduced Lewis and Mitchell, the first speakers in the weeklong series of events that made up the 2019 Black Arts Festival. For Scott and Preston, Mitchell — the 24-year-old photographer who made history as the first African American to shoot Beyoncé for the cover of Vogue — and Lewis — an esteemed scholar of race, contemporary art, and culture — provided insight into the ideas race and imagery.

According to Scott, Tyler and Lewis’s participation underscored a larger ideology that went beyond the opening event.

“BAF 2019 seeks to celebrate the artists, activists, and organizers that inspire us to see ourselves more clearly, imagine radical alternatives, and change our possibilities for the future, and Tyler Mitchell and Professor Lewis fit that description amazingly well,” Scott wrote in an email.

Throughout the night, Lewis and Mitchell traded off between discussions of the photography industry and the representation of race in fashion. Mitchell came prepared: He set up a minimalistic slideshow consisting of photographs that impacted him, and then of his own work. Lewis matched his efforts, offering analyses and commentaries on many of his photographs.

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Kayla U. Evans ’19 said that she appreciated the speakers’ synergy. “I was really excited to get the chance to hear about his motivations, and also hear Sarah Lewis’s interpretation of everything that he does,” she said. “Him showing us a piece of art, sharing what he thought of it, and then hearing Sarah come back and give all of her rich history, and her ideas, and the angle she saw was really impressive.”

At one point, Lewis mentioned Mitchell’s frequent use of double portraits. Mitchell explained that the aspect of twinning allowed him to expand on his ideas of the human state and double consciousness.

“I like to oscillate within that scale of freedom and repression,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell also said that the conversation was eye-opening for both him and his audience. Leaning back in his seat, Mitchell smiled. “You almost, in a way, have picked up more about my work than I have,” he said. The crowd chuckled in response.

After the event, Lewis said that she appreciated the new “lens” that Mitchell brought to the ideas of representation and justice. “What his work allows us to understand is that we can inaugurate a new mode of seeing, in particular, African-American figures through the lens,” she said. “So I see Tyler Mitchell’s work as central to my understanding of representational justice.”

A Q&A session followed immediately after the talk, where audience members asked Mitchell how he maintained his sense of self and dealt with the challenges of being black in the fashion industry.

“You have to realize that… you’re just being firm in your beliefs so, for me that was first, not getting too misty-eyed at any opportunities that were coming my way, and being clear-sighted on what my values were, and holding onto those,” Mitchell said.

Preston wrote in an email that both the night’s speakers and its audience underscored the importance of the talk.

“The conversation that I heard, and the bright focus that I felt from the audience, which lasted as the talk stretched past its scheduled end time and even after, as the building closed for the night, tells me that people are hungry for events like this,” Preston wrote.

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