Four black-and-white portraits hang side by side on the wall of Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University, overlaid by a transparent projection of a slideshow of similar photos. The themes of freedom, citizenship and a new American Dream are taking over a space typically reserved for frantic late-night studying.
This is “Re-Birth,” internationally acclaimed photographer Sheila Pree Bright’s multi-installation commission for BU. Pree Bright’s photography was brought to campus by the BU Arts Initiative and BU Libraries, and Bright’s message was inspired by Stephen P. Mugar himself.
“In coming to America from Armenia, my parents opened the door of freedom to me,” Mugar had once said, according to a quote on Pree Bright’s website. “America’s public schools and libraries opened my eyes to the unlimited opportunity in this great land, as well as the privileges and obligations of citizenship.”
Mugar’s words about American freedom and opportunity sparked the idea behind Pree Bright’s series, which includes four photos of women of color wrapped in or centered around the American flag. The exhibition explores coming to terms with one’s American identity, and what it means to be free.
Pree Bright hosted an “Artist Talk” on Friday to discuss her new installation. Pree Bright spoke about how “Re-Birth” addresses topics of equity, access and voting rights, as well as how the BU community shaped the work.
University Librarian K. Matthew Dames introduced Pree Bright at the talk. He said the installation is especially important during a time of uncertainty and fear in America.
“My hope [is] that our library’s resources, including our spaces, can foster a sense of liberty and freedom that benefits our students, faculty and staff during the time of such marked change,” Dames said at the event.
A video projected over the photos on display shows changing text. Pree Bright said the incorporated quotes were taken from her discussions with BU students about their perception of American freedom.
During the discussion, Pree Bright said the models photographed were able to pose however they’d like with the flag, which she said added to the power of their stories and perspective.
“I didn’t ask them to pose in a certain way. This was their take on America,” Pree Bright said. “Women are … going to be the driving force behind the rebirth of this nation. That’s why I called it ‘Re-Birth.’”
Pree Bright said she noticed a common thread from her conversations with diverse BU students: they each had a complicated relationship with the great American myth of inclusivity and freedom for all.
“I think, as I’m an older person now, we need to listen to Generation Z, because [they] do have a voice,” Pree Bright said. “It always takes a young person to be able to make change.”
CAS senior Ryan Joy said the installation is important for the BU community, especially because students’ voices are included.
“The themes are relevant and timely,” Joy said. “I like how the artist included quotes from the students as well, because it’s a big reflection of how the people feel.”
Those who visit Mugar will see the installation upon entry. By placing it here, Pree Bright said, she hopes her photos draw students’ attention to these underrepresented perspectives.
“The library is a place to come to where you do research, you learn, you’re being educated,” Pree Bright said. “I’m always interested in the voices of the unheard.”