New York street artist spotlights racial, gender experiences of U-M students on campus buildings

September 30, 2022

Brooklyn-based public art phenom Tatyana Fazlalizadeh has installed larger-than-life portraits of Black and brown, queer and women-identified students at the University of Michigan upon the facades of several buildings across campus.

As artist in residence at the U-M Institute for the Humanities, Fazlalizadeh created “To Be Heard,” an exploration of identity encouraging understanding of racial and gender experiences on campus through art, publicly on view through mid-October.

Well known for her previous collection “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” which was profiled by The New York Times, NPR, The New Yorker and Time, Fazlalizadeh’s work takes on social justice issues in an upfront, visual way.

In the classroom, she will lead conversations with students around thought-provoking world issues surrounding race, gender, and their personal opinions and experiences at U-M, in particular—from the experience of walking around campus, to pressures they experience in the classroom; how they got here and why they chose this university; who their community of support is while they are at school vs. in their home life.

Signage promoting Tatyana Fazlalizadeh's exhibit on the U-M diag. Image credit: Jeremy Marble, Michigan News
Signage promoting Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s exhibit on the U-M diag. Image credit: Jeremy Marble, Michigan News

“My work is meant to provide space for voices that need to be heard, so I want those voices to be loud and I want them to be honest. I want them to be very bold and very brave,” Fazlalizadeh said.

The impermanence of her work contributes to the meaning and urgency of its message, she said.

“We have these faces and words we are amplifying, but it won’t be up forever, so once you see this, what do you do with it? Do you let it go away, as the work comes down, or do you take their message with you into your lives, like the lives and experiences of the art’s subjects continue to unfold and develop,” she said.

Fazlalizadeh challenges the university to keep the conversation going and to continue to challenge oppression in its many forms.

“Fazlalizadeh’s work is very much about the students being heard and occupying institutional spaces,” said Amanda Krugliak, curator at the Institute for the Humanities Gallery. “It isn’t static. The project has built into it space for discourse, for dissent, for constructive critique and future visions. It continues to challenge archaic ideas as to who we should honor in public spaces with monuments or buildings, and to publicly present the thoughts and voices of people whose voices have historically been overlooked.”

Several oversized murals adorn the Modern Languages Building, Shapiro Undergraduate Library and Trotter Multicultural Center. There are also several cutouts of lifesize drawings posted on the grounds of Central Campus.

A poster from the exhibit "To Be Heard". Image credit: Jeremy Marble, Michigan News
A poster from the exhibit “To Be Heard”. Image credit: Jeremy Marble, Michigan News

“Each cutout and each installation on each building has the potential to be resonant in a different way and change the very landscape on campus and the way we see things,” Krugliak said.

While Fazlalizadeh has worked with other universities and institutions, including Columbia University’s Black Girl Magic conference, this is her first time having a gallery exhibition in conjunction with her public mural project.

“They sort of balance each other out,” she said. “We have this big public art project with many voices confronting the institutional sexism or racism on in the world, but in the gallery we have this more quiet exhibition that is thinking about the same topics but within an enclosed, private, intimate space; we still wrestle and navigate those same issues in different spaces and environments, and these works show what that feels like.”

“Pressed Against My Own Glass,” a multimedia installation on Black womanhood within the home space, will be on view at the Humanities Gallery through Oct. 21. Here Fazlalizadeh explores her childhood and adulthood within the domestic space and how it connects to the experiences of other Black women and those who had a “girlhood.”

Using paintings, drawings, video and reappropriated home objects, she examines her experiences of joy, rest, sadness, fellowship and even threats of violence within the home in times of the civil unrest we have seen in recent years.

In a conversation between Fazlalizadeh and Krugliak, they discuss an inactive space becoming active; the idea that even once the art is removed from the facades of these impenetrable-seeming buildings, they will have forever changed the picture. They hope and believe that people will never look at those walls the same way again once they have seen Tatyana’s work on them, making these buildings less daunting, more “for everyone.”