Strathmore creates digital monuments to influential local artists

Marjan Naderi, a Muslim Afghan American poet, and printmaker Terron Cooper Sorrells are among the six local artists featured in “Monuments: Creative Forces.” (Photo: Courtesy of Strathmore)

Strathmore is using its 16-acre campus in Bethesda, Maryland, to bring the museum experience outdoors with an art installation that taps into today’s era of pandemic and protest.

“Monuments: Creative Forces” features enormous video portraits of six regional artists projected onto the trees at Strathmore, the arts complex that is home to a music center and historic mansion.

The installation, which was created by Australian artist Craig Walsh, is consciously designed to honor living local heroes shaping their communities as opposed to long-gone figures, which Strathmore’s artistic director called particularly important in light of the current controversies over historical monuments.

“The idea that we can celebrate people who are living and currently contributing to the community was particularly important to us,” said artistic director Joi Brown. “This isn’t fixed and concrete. It’s not something permanent for all time, but really allows us … to celebrate people who are addressing topical issues in this exact moment in time.”

Those issues include “racial and cultural imperatives and speaking truth to power,” Brown said.

Using those criteria, Strathmore came up with a list of 40 artists working in various genres who had a history with the arts center. An outside panel narrowed that list down to the six featured artists.

The result is a diverse showcase. It includes Be Steadwell, a singer-songwriter and filmmaker who seeks to make other Black girls, queers, introverts and — as she puts it — “generally marginalized weirdos” feel seen and loved.

C. Brian Williams, a Howard University graduate who founded the popular Step Afrika! dance troupe, is also included.

“One of the things I love about the way this turned out is that we were able to recognize people at different stages of their careers,” Brown said. In addition to artists with established careers, “we wanted to make sure we were saving space for people who were providing us with a new, fresh energy, so we have some young participants as well.”

That’s why the list also includes 18-year-old Marjan Naderi, a Muslim Afghan American author and performer who was named the 2020 D.C. Youth Poet Laureate. Naderi has received acclaim for her poetry, which deals with the complexities of growing up in America as an Afghan Muslim woman, whose narrative, she writes, is “shoved to the back of the closet.”

Other honorees include Terron Cooper Sorrells, a painter and printmaker whose recent exhibition explored the resiliency of slaves; Black pianist Daryl Davis, who interviewed KKK leaders for his book “Klan-Destine Relationships,” and Yoko K. Sen, a Japanese-born, classically trained pianist who uses ambient electronic music to “alleviate suffering through transforming sound design in hospitals.”

The idea of making hospitals a more soothing place is particularly timely in light of the pandemic, and Brown said that’s also the goal of “Monuments,” which she hopes will become a “sanctuary space” where visitors can enjoy not only the striking visuals on display, but also the messages behind them.

“These are digital video projections, so they’re very animated. The faces are looking around and taking in the environment, and patrons can walk around and experience this up close,” she told WTOP.

“People have been really grateful for not just the artistry of the installation … but for the content as well — the fact that these are inspiring people,” she added. “So we’re really hoping this place rejuvenates and inspires people.”

Monuments: Creative Forces” is open until Oct. 25. Tickets are pay-what-you-can and have designated time slots to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

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