Drawing Words and Writing Pictures

Today’s guest post comes from Anna Mudd, Curriculum Coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies Outreach Center and MTS ’09. 

Dreams That Matter collage

Collage created by Anna Mudd in response to the book "Dreams That Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination" by Amira Mittermaier

What are the possibilities for creation and production of visual art in the university classroom?  How can we encourage students to not only criticize and consume but also produce visual communication?  What kinds of insights and learning benefits are to be gained from asking students to process, analyze and communicate their work not only through text but through visual response “papers,” essays, or research?

This is an exciting time for the graphic arts in the academy. Graphic non-fiction regularly appears in news outlets and literary magazines; the MLA recently published Teaching the Graphic Novel, a highly praised edited volume on using comics in the university classroom; and Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home has been nominated for numerous literary awards. In many learning and teaching contexts, one no longer has to take a defensive posture when claiming that graphic texts are rigorous pieces of intellectual work and towering artistic achievements, capable of expressing stories, information, and ideas with grace and depth. Indeed, as prize committees and professional associations continue to honor graphic journalism and graphic memoir, graphic dissertations may soon take their place in the academy.

The role of the written word as image has a unique centrality in the visual arts of Islamicate cultures and civilizations. As curriculum coordinator for Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies Outreach Center for the past two years, I have had the opportunity to explore this topic collaboratively with Krystina Friedlander of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic studies program. We are excited to announce two upcoming art-making workshops for undergraduate students.

The workshops will take place on March 28th and April 4th (click here for the event page.) Run by me and by Krystina, and made possible in part by a grant from the Office for the Arts, the two workshops will take place from 7:00 – 8:30pm in the Adams House Art Space.  The first part of each workshop will introduce students to examples of Islamicate arts such as “zoomorphic” Arabic calligraphy, a wildly creative art form in which written words and phrases are transformed into the image of an animal that reflects embedded meaning within the text.  We will also look at contemporary manifestations of these legacies, including Arabic language street art and graffiti, as well as comics and graphic novels from the Middle East and Muslim world.  This artistic trajectory provides a wonderful range of models for playing with the often permeable boundaries between communication in written and visual media.  Each participant will spend the second part of the workshop creating his or her own visual “translation,” a stand-alone piece of visual art that communicates the idea expressed in a piece of written scholarship; this could be in the form of a collage, comic, “morphic” drawing of key words and phrases, or other medium to which a student feels drawn.

The workshops will culminate with a small exhibit of student work, with the goal of opening up new avenues for collaborative sharing and dissemination of ideas on the campus. The exhibit will make it possible to “read” the work of 20 undergraduates in one sweep of the eye.

Sufism In Islam collage

Collage created by Anna Mudd is a visual depiction of some ideas taken from my notes on Prof. Ali Asani's lecture about the history of Sufism in Islam.

Professor Ali Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Culture, has been a major source of inspiration for our exploration of the relation between visual and written media.  In his courses, students explore the multi-valent significance of “text” in Islam.  In addition to its written form, students are introduced to the ways in which the Qur’an is visually embedded in different cultural contexts through inclusion of visually rendered quotations in architecture, objects of daily use, and personal possessions.  Students read and write about this idea, as they would in any course, but they also model and perform it visually, by creating a calligraphic response whose choice of design and medium reflects their understanding of the course material.  As a Teaching Fellow for the course, I have been stunned by the level of insight that surfaced when students engaged in this exercise.

One of the major themes of the course is reflection on the unique perspectives and assumptions we each bring to the study of religion, and many of the students integrated this idea in moving and skillful ways.  Some used photography to capture their own hands creating letters and images, reflecting on their encounter with the material and the mark they leave upon it through their own studies and processing of the information.  Some created collages in which intersecting images evoked their experience of the material as both exciting and inspiring as well, at times, as overwhelming and confusing.  Many of the most moving pieces were created not by students who identify as artists, but those for whom it was a new challenge to translate their weekly written reflections through new sign systems of expression and communication. Several students remarked on how using visual images allowed them to productively depict the experience of bewilderment—that frequent companion of the learning process—in a way that formal writing does not.

This experience mirrored those I had in the CMES Outreach Center when we began learning about the possibilities for teaching and learning about the Middle East through the form of “sequential art” known as comics.  Will Eisner and Scott McCloud  define comics as a medium that depends on visual relationships, in which meaning is made through the juxtaposition and sequencing of images and ideas as well as the spaces between them. Drawing on the work of Professor Ali Asani and Professor Diane Moore of the Harvard Divinity School, we emphasized that religious and cultural communities are tremendously diverse and dynamic, and that each source of information about them represents only a very partial glimpse, defined by the author’s perspective and identity.  Comic art is often not directly representational, using self portraits that are iconic rather than realistic.  Graphic nonfiction invites readers to reflect on how, literally, the author has chosen to portray herself and how she sees herself in the space she describes. We can then invite students to do their own, iconic self-portraits in the space of a comic narrative, reflecting on how they see themselves reading the comic, and how they might communicate that experience to others.

These same meta-cognitive and reflective practices can be brought to the comic as a whole.  Asking readers to provide a verbal or written description of a wordless comic, or to describe what they think is happening in the space between the panels (the “gutter”) likewise provides an opportunity to reflect on how we, as readers, co-create meaning with an author.  Possibilities continue to open up from there.  As students reflect on how tone and pacing is communicated through the layout of panels and drawing style, the discussion they have engages with ideas about the use of symbol, metaphor, and other dimensions of visual, narrative, and expositional literacy.

Krystina and I look forward to seeing what new ideas and inspirations will come from the chance to collaborate with our undergraduate colleagues.

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