Students Explore American Society in New Art Project

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Nearly 100 students from East Hampton, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor, Hampton Bays, and Southampton high schools, in addition to students from Suffolk Community College’s Mythology Class, will participate in artist Barthélémy Toguo’s international postcard community art project, Head above Water. The project intends to address the question “Where do I fit in in American society?” and will be displayed this summer at the Parrish Art Museum as part of Mr. Toguo’s multidisciplinary 2018 Platform installation. The cards will be featured in a framed grid.

Barthélémy Toguo was born in Cameroon in 1967. His art explores migration, mobility, colonialism, race, and globalism. Mediums of his include photography, performance pieces, and other installed art. His work is forthcoming in the June, 2018 Art Basel UNLIMITED show and has also appeared in the International Biennial of Contemporary Art, Seville show. In Cameroon, in 2007, Mr. Toguo established Bandjoun Station, an arts center featuring residencies, a library, a school, a space for exhibitions, and a farm. Leading up to his Parrish Art Museum exhibition, Mr. Toguo will be in residence at the Watermill Center during the end of June as the 2018 Inga Maren Otto Fellow, where he will work on his museum installation.

Barthelemy Tuogo with Corinne Erni and Terrie Sultan of the Parrish Art Museum.

The international postcard project has been ongoing since 2004. For this continuous work, Mr. Toguo has recruited people from around the world in his work; past series have featured postcards from Cuba, Mexico, Tunisia, Hiroshima, and Johannesburg. Mr. Toguo said, of the project, that it gives “ordinary people the opportunity for their voices to be heard.” From its inception, the project has addressed the changing socio-political climate of the communities it features.

Postcards, which have been designed by Mr. Toguo and boast original artwork of a horse’s head, are provided to students. The iconography is a nod to Native American imagery: the horse signifies freedom, wealth, privilege, and imperialism. Students are asked, in addition to sharing their thoughts on the postcards, to address the cards to Mr. Toguo and to select a stamp for them from the United States Postal Service’s National Parks collection.

This year, the specific question that Mr. Toguo has asked students to address is one that reflects the American condition in 2018. In a politically divisive climate — one that panders to exclusivism over inclusivism — asking students where they fit into American society points to a greater question about nativism, patriotism, and how we view ourselves as Americans.

At Bridgehampton High School, Tom House’s senior Advanced Placement Literature class has embraced the project. Jade Maldonado, 17, described the project as “thought provoking.” “It made me think a lot about how I fit into American society,” Ms. Maldonado who will be attending St. Joseph’s College in the fall, said. “There’s definitely been times where I’ve stood out a lot, and it was good to think about that. It made me think about what the norm is in high school. I think that everyone really benefitted from it and that they all really enjoyed it.”

For some students, the project struck a more personal chord. Class salutatorian Autumn Street, 18, who will be attending Howard University, wrote on her postcard, “It seems that, no matter how much people that look like me contribute to America, we never truly fit into society. We are constantly shunned to the corner, as if our opinions and our selves don’t matter. Why is it that my darker skin automatically makes me inferior to those around me? When will I ever fit into American society?” The issue of inclusiveness had clearly been on her mind, long before Mr. Toguo’s project was introduced to her literature class. “I realized that this was something I constantly think about every day,” she said.

Patricia Figueroa, 18, felt a similar connection to the topic. “I wrote about how stereotypes have not changed,” she said. “I wrote about how Hispanic women are housemaids and housekeepers and it bothers me a lot that it’s a stereotype. It’s something that’s been bothering me for a while — I’ve just grown to get used to it.” Ms. Figueroa, who will be attending the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo in the fall, summed up the project nicely. “I think that this project gives people the opportunity to say something that maybe they’re not so comfortable saying,” she said.

Postcards from the project will be on view at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill beginning August 5.

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