March 5, 2010
Last December, after a quiet nomination process by their professors, College seniors Maia Brown and Amina Hassen received unexpected e-mails informing them that they were in the running to receive the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio Award for Excellence in the Visual Arts.
On Monday, April 26, Brown accepted the Grand Award of $2,500 in cash as well as a chance to have her artwork shown by AICUO in its office at the Third Annual AICUO Award for Excellence in the Visual Arts Ceremony at Denison University’s Bryant Arts Center. According to Brown, the strongest part about her work is that it encompasses many artistic styles, from bookmaking to installation.
“We didn’t know what this award was until we were nominated and we needed to submit portfolios,” said Hassen. Over January, both artists selected, retouched and reformatted their images and uploaded them to the AICUO website.
Hassen, a photographer, focuses on domestic spaces and “the residue of relationships and people who have lived there,” according to her artist’s statement. The work that earned her a space among the six finalists is centered on abandoned and foreclosed houses located predominantly in Cleveland. This theme “kind of developed naturally,” said Hassen. Since the beginning of the year, she had been pushing herself to go out to shoot, and it so happened that one of the first places she came across was an abandoned house.
“I had been doing a lot of random projects, and when I was shooting that house, it was kind of like the first thing where I just had that epiphany moment. I was like, ‘Oh! I really like doing this! Maybe I should do more of this!’ So it was that one house that led me to search for other houses.” Her photographs are filled with shadows splayed across walls, leaves blowing in through open doors and “the palpable feelings of presence in a space of emptiness.” They are simple, quiet and astoundingly lonely.
Brown uses a wide variety of media and incorporates many elements into her work. She writes in her artist’s statement that her work includes “drawing, the tracing and retracing of memory and narrative, interplay of text and image, the book as an art object and a vehicle for a story ... [and] installation as a tool to create spaces and think sculpturally.”
“I think, visually, it looks like a lot of different materials,” Brown explained about her collection, “but a lot of times, I find myself drawn to things because they feel similar to other processes that I’m doing. So, I think some things that I’m doing with cloth and sewing just sort of evoke drawing for me, and book-binding is like that. The first time I took a book-making class at Oberlin, that became like a second love after drawing. It was such a relief to have some sort of form that is an art object but that can include text.”
Brown aims to “work within [her] own tradition of storytelling,” and the result is quietly powerful. Her artist’s statement proclaims that she is fascinated by “the human urge to record and preserve: what the act of remembering means to individuals, and how histories are used in the present to define identities and build communities.”
“Really, it’s just a nice [recognition that] you’ve been doing art for four years,” said Brown. “And here’s a venue to talk about it.”
Having studied Jewish women’s history — particularly radical activism — Brown is currently collecting oral histories of Jewish women who are active in the Palestine Solidarity Movement. Brown is transcribing them, “and I think in the future, they’ll become something,” she said. “But for now, they’re staying in the realm of things that I’m thinking about while I’m making the work.”
“I think what was one of the most valuable parts of the application process was forcing myself to go back through all of the work I have done at Oberlin and to [be] able to articulate the threads that connect them and the central themes that engage me as an artist,” Brown said. Despite the lure of online voters declaring one of the nominees the “people’s favorite” or winning the Grand Award, Hassen and Brown did not approach the contest in a cutthroat manner.
“It was certainly a surprise to win,” Brown added. “Amina Hassen is such a strong artist, and I so admire her and her work.”
Hassen paired up with College senior Allison Takahashi for her senior show, If You Listen Closely. It was held on Friday, March 12 at 8 p.m. in Fisher Gallery.
Brown’s show, You Who Stand in the Doorway, Come In, took place on Sunday, March 21, at the house at 166 S. Pleasant Street. The show was in collaboration with the Oberlin Underground Railroad Society and was one in a collection of shows by local residents and College students.
Brown has also received the Watson Fellowship, and she plans to travel to northern Ireland and South Africa next year to collect oral histories and biographies to further explore the chronicling aspect of her work.