On June 23, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive held an artists’ talk with UC Berkeley Master of Fine Arts (MFA) students in conjunction with an exhibition of their work. With the tradition of celebrating the graduate students’ ingenuity and creativity starting in 1970, the exhibition is the 51st of its kind.
This year’s graduating artists are champoy, Fred Marque DeWitt, Emily Gui, Biz Iqbal, Anna Riley and Nadia Shihab. Each artist has their work displayed on the walls of BAMPFA for the public to see, and at the event, they got the opportunity to share details about the production of and meaning behind their art.
While there have been plenty of MFA exhibitions, none have been quite the same. Because the exhibition has no specific theme, the artists take viewers on a trip to all corners, whether it be the conventional and known or the mysterious and unusual. When put all together, their artwork displays all the twists and turns art can take and how random it may seem to an uninformed viewer.
What is art? Who can be an artist? What is an appropriate subject of art? The MFA artists answer these questions in all sorts of ways. Some artists such as DeWitt and Gui focused on our time now, the problems that affect our world and the changes we want to see.
As stores across the globe closed their doors, some for a few months and some for good, Amazon, an already thriving business to say the least, doubled its profits during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we sheltered in place, afraid to interact with each other, it was easy to get everything delivered to our doors in safe, protective cardboard boxes with our desired items inside. It was by tearing and blending cardboard boxes and other single-use packages that Gui created paper to wrap various types of objects for her artwork.
Through her art, Gui explored the emotions she’s felt towards objects: “Growing up in a home overpacked with found, free, cheap and discarded objects, I experienced dueling emotions from materials and things: lust, fascination, anxiety and repulsion.” With bowls and other domestic items encased in Gui’s handmade cardboard paper, her work also explores how people engage with capitalism, often helplessly, and how we become attached to objects.
DeWitt’s artwork features the faces of Black Americans who have been killed by the police such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. However, DeWitt did not choose an ordinary canvas to display the injustices of our history, using plates instead. These plates, when broken, spread seeds that grow into crops such as okra and cotton that have historical and cultural significance. When plants grow from DeWitt’s seed-bomb plates, he intends for them to create a safe space for Blackness while also serving as markers of our time.
DeWitt and Gui weren’t the only artists who chose unique mediums to display their ideas, emotions and concepts. When painting, Iqbal swapped canvas for styrofoam, a material that actually disintegrated because of his paint thinners. Iqbal’s artwork was inspired by the histories of the regions that once were a part of the ancient Persian empire. Growing up as an Afghan American, Iqbal observed the ways that war destroyed communities and entire regions. As the disintegration of the styrofoam slowly created dents and dips in his paintings, Iqbal realized that it was the perfect metaphor for the ways war and destruction can strip away the histories and memories of places.
This year, BAMPFA honors the MFA graduates with its doors open again, which in and of itself is monumental and a cause for celebration. While the artists’ talk allowed viewers to see the art from its creators’ eyes, each of their work creates its own distinctive and memorable experience for the viewer regardless. The MFA graduate exhibition, on display until July 11, reveals what is meaningful, beautiful and intriguing to these upcoming artists — and it’s certainly a sight to see.