ANN ARBOR – Tanaka Chavanduka was inspired on a recent trip to Washington, D.C. to come up with an innovative way to make his research more visible after visiting the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
A project manager at the University of Michigan Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities, Chavanduka said he came up with the idea to translate research into visual art.
“I’m often exposed to the emotions, sadness and healing behind the numbers—and my experience on this trip made it clear that traditional ways of sharing research aren’t designed to express emotion in the same way art is.
“If our work as researchers took up space in the same way art does, that could help the people we work with feel seen. We expect communities to be vulnerable with us when participating in research, so why not also create a pipeline for creatives who exist in those communities to process that vulnerability and share it in a way that’s respectful, disarming and accessible?”
He organized a new community art exhibition titled “The Art of Queer Health Sciences” to encourage individuals to rethink how art can be used to share knowledge, generate healing and transform communities.
The exhibition is currently on view in downtown Ann Arbor in the windows of several businesses, including Abracadabra, Avalon Cafe, Bløm Meadworks, Cahoots, Thrive Juicery, Vault of Midnight, Vinology and Zingerman’s Greyline. It will be on view until May 5.
Funded by the U-M Arts Initiative, the artwork aims to “communicate research findings from the Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities, whose mission is to improve sexual and reproductive health and reduce health disparities in marginalized communities -- with a specific focus on sexual and gender minorities,” according to a release.
“Traditionally, this type of research makes its way into the world via academic journals and conference presentations—so the information that is most valuable to marginalized communities doesn’t always make it to those communities,” Chavanduka said in a statement.
He worked with CSHD research programs manager and exhibition coordinator Renee Pitter to select four student artists -- who all identify as queer -- from the U-M Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design to participate in the exhibition.
CSHD faculty chose four research projects for the artists to use to create artwork.
Several workshops for the students and researchers were then facilitated by Chavanduka and Pitter so that they could learn more about each other’s practices and work.
Assistant professor of nursing, Michelle Munro-Kramer, was paired with student artist Noe Canahan to find a way to visually present her research on control tactics and power dynamics among college students.
“The highlight for me has really been in seeing how others interpret my research,” Munro-Kramer said in a statement. “I’m very focused on practical results, but I don’t always have the opportunity to talk with others about how they understand and see my work.
“Working with artists allowed me to really see this and encouraged me to be more creative in the way I disseminate my work so that it is accessible to different populations and learners.”
Assistant professor of nursing, Akshay Sharma, echoed Munro-Kramer’s experience when describing how working with student artist Shalin Berman helped transform the way he saw his research on HIV and STD testing in men.
“Collaborating with Shalin enlightened me on how a talented artist can bring emotions to life,” Sharma said in a statement. “What I found most surprising is how beautifully they captured and conveyed the spirit of a moment that was being experienced by a participant—such as feeling empowered or overwhelmed—despite Shalin’s limited engagement during the actual conduct of the study.”
Chavanduka and Pitter hope the exhibition will inspire other researchers and scientist to consider how science can drive knowledge and empathy by interconnecting with art.
“We are hoping this project will help to start to bridge the gap between science and art, particularly in the area of social sciences,” Pitter said in a statement. “I have very much enjoyed watching the relationship between faculty and students and being engaged myself in the creative process with students.”