When Alpha Chi announced the theme for the 2019 National Convention’s Collaborative Research Competition as “Lines of Identity, Polarizing Perspectives, and Civil Discourse,” Lauren Lovelady had a vision for how her school’s chapter of Alpha Chi would add to the conversation.
Lauren, who was the chapter president of the Arkansas Beta chapter at Ouachita Baptist University, was about to embark on a trip to South Africa, and had already conducted background research into South Africa’s history and Apartheid. Besides Lauren’s interest, the Arkansas Beta chapter’s faculty sponsor, Dr. Myra Houser, happens to be the University’s resident expert in the legal history of South Africa. As the team discussed the theme, it seemed their interest in South Africa’s history lent itself naturally to the 2019 theme.
“I always like to throw books at them,” Dr. Houser jokes about her students. She provided her team of five Alpha Chi students with literature to jumpstart their project, but she soon stepped back as the students began to self-direct the topic and research. “They really carried the bulk of the work and even the folks who had a lot less familiarity with South Africa did a great job of jumping in and educating themselves as well.”
FINDING THEIR FOCUS
The Arkansas Beta chapter team was composed of five OBU students all studying a variety of disciplines: Lauren Lovelady (finance), Tucker Douglas (philosophy and history), Jessica Snelgrove (biology), Wesley Oliver (history and public history), and Lesley Howard (art and psychology). And while the team knew they wanted to apply the AX theme to recent South African history, they still had quite a way to go to narrow down their topic.
“At one point, we had a really, really broad topic,” Jessica says. “But we had to fit this in ten pages, so we narrowed it down a lot at the end.”
The team began this process of narrowing down their topic by choosing to focus on the generational differences between those who lived during the Apartheid and those who were born post-Apartheid (“born free”). Then the students had to decipher what medium they’d use to gain insight and perspective into these generational perspectives.
“The whole topic was seeing if we could discover the differences between the generations through their creative work,” Tucker explains. “We wanted to see how they thought about the world and how that’s reflected through what they produced.”
While the team initially considered examining works of literature that might provide creative insights into generational gaps, Lesley had an idea that proved invaluable to the project. Two years earlier, she had attended a South African art exhibit hosted by OBU, which inspired her idea to suggest the team use works of art to reveal perspectives and boundary lines.
In order to analyze generational differences, the group had to select the artists to analyze. To keep the study as comprehensive as possible, the team built a system for random selection of two South African artists from different generations based on a thorough exhibit of artists in South Africa at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa.
Beyond just analysis, the team wanted to gauge what the current perceptions and conversations were around the idea of Apartheid, South Africa, and the art that displays the nation’s fraught history. Lesley developed a survey instrument that would be sent out both to OBU students, as well as South African citizens who Dr. Houser and Lauren knew, to gain further insight.
From there, the roles that each student played to make their presentation a reality began falling into place. Wesley took on the background research of the historical context of Apartheid and the scholarly view of those generational differences. Jessica and Tucker each took one of the selected artists and analyzed their work. Lesley designed, delivered, and interpreted the survey that would gauge reaction to various pieces of art. Lauren managed many of the big picture elements to ensure that the survey, artist analyses, literature review, and historical context would all fit together to add to the conversation.
FROM POLARIZED TO PERSPECTIVE
Lauren’s work in tying the pieces together was centered on the connection between art and the human brain, as art is processed first visually and subsequently in the brain to trigger emotion. These emotions, and the inherent identity of the artist linked to their work, helped guide both the survey and the artist analyses.
For Jessica, she saw this revelation of identity and emotion in the works of her Apartheid artist, Penny Siopis.
“She’s still alive, but the work that she’s put out since Apartheid ended still reflects the political atmosphere that she grew up in,” Jessica says she learned. She also discovered that while her artist is a white South African whose family immigrated to South Africa from Greece prior to Siopis’ birth, the artist’s voice focuses more on guilt and regret rather than personal oppression.
“My artist was really focused on shame and things that are nightmarish . . . like dark and mean and evil things,” Jessica says. One of the paintings featured in their poster, Siopis’ “Slave” focuses on abuse. “Her work is all about death and shame and how she feels ashamed for the actions of her country as well.”
On the other hand, Tucker’s born-free artist, Athi-Patra Ruga, took a very different approach to portraying his identity as a South African.
“He was talking about apartheid and injustice… but he expanded what they were talking about,” Tucker explains. “There’s no legal structures being challenged in his work. It’s all about how the public will let you express yourself.”
He says Ruga’s work fits seamlessly into questions of identity, as the artist questions what gives someone credence to identify within a certain group, sect, or community. Ruga focused heavily on global themes of injustice relating to body positivity, self-acceptance, and marginalized communities beyond race.
“This broadening of what was addressed in the artwork was the biggest difference that we focused on between new and old artists,” Tucker states.
After parsing out meaning, insight, and perspective from the artists, the students turned to the survey results. While the team originally hypothesized that there would be overall negative reactions to both artists’ work, and ultimately, higher feelings of shame after viewing the Apartheid-born artist’s work, the results didn’t quite match up. While the Apartheid-born artist’s work did create a higher level of “shame” feelings for viewers (and thus an overall higher negative effect), both generations’ artwork created an overall positive effect in viewers.
“We were surprised because we expected all of our pieces to be perceived negatively,” Tucker says.
Wesley points out that sometimes it can prove challenging to distinguish between positive and negative word choices when it comes to describing the effect art has on us.
“I think what was happening with the survey is that words like, ‘fascinated’ and ‘interested’ were deemed positive even though just because you’re interested in something doesn’t mean you feel positively toward it,” he says.
“Lesley did hypothesize that just looking at art brought about positive reactions in people,” Dr. Houser explains, citing the complexity of the human interaction with art as a possible reason for the surprising results. “There are some really disturbing images on our poster, but it’s still art, so people still view that in a positive way.”
CROSSING BOUNDARIES, BUILDING CONNECTIONS
The evocative nature of art—both of positive and negative emotions—did more than just start a conversation between the Arkansas Beta students. It started building connections. Lesley concludes with a compelling argument for why the arts are important as a form of both self-expression and socio-political processing that goes beyond what is gleaned from a historical or legal perspective.
“It’s a form of coping and expression, but it’s also a way to communicate across cultures,” Dr. Houser adds, as the team not only realized there are cross-generational connections but cross-cultural implications as well.
“I hope people take away from this project that it’s not difficult to understand another culture if you just do some research on it,” Jessica says. “I didn’t know anything about art or South Africa, and I felt like I came out of this project with a knowledge about both of those things. I still have a lot to learn, but I feel like I understand the artist that I studied, and I can see why the things that happened around her influenced her so much.”
The team agreed that this project did exactly what Alpha Chi envisioned through choosing this theme: it broke down their own misconceptions and reminded them that their perspective is not the only one.
“Americans can think that Apartheid has ended, but it really hasn’t in some ways,” Jessica says. “It’s still a conversation that’s happening and evolving.”
Tucker pointed out that in his study of his born-free artist, he noticed a lot of political and social justice protests still taking place in South Africa today.
“Ruga’s work demonstrates that Apartheid is still there, but in a different sense,” Tucker says. “Even though there isn’t legal segregation between white and black people, there are still other kinds of discrimination against LGBTQ people, non-Christian people, and even black people. There is still a sense of injustice.”
The team also drew connections between the social justice movements taking place around the world today, reiterating the importance of being globally informed and hearing from a wide variety of perspectives.
“I think a lot of times Americans think that we’re the only ones that face these issues and then we kind of forget that the rest of the world is also a contemporary with us,” Jessica states. “The world is still having the same revelations that we are here.”
Not only did the Arkansas Beta chapter contribute their valuable insights to the conversation around Apartheid, art, and identity, and changing misconceptions, their hard work and dedication earned their chapter a $5000 prize that the members split evenly.
The Arkansas Beta chapter collaborative team members said that they left this year’s National Convention with not only a deeper understanding of their topic and their prize but with a stronger bond between fellow students they didn’t know before.
“One of my favorite things about Alpha Chi is just getting to know people from different disciplines,” Wesley says.
“I really like the opportunity to present. Even though I present a lot as a biology major, it’s great to present to people who don’t do the same things that I do” Jessica adds. “It helps me convey what I’m thinking to people who don’t necessarily know the same lingo that I do.”
While these collaborative team members have gone their separate ways—Jessica to medical school, Wesley to graduate school in public history, Tucker and Lesley to their last year of undergrad, and Lauren to an accounting firm—the Arkansas Beta chapter at OBU continues to plan to make their scholarship effective for good. Each year they host an all-campus book club in association with the President’s Office in the fall and spring, as well as help local middle schoolers with dissection, host a community fall festival and conduct an art project with elementary school students in the spring.
CONTRIBUTE TO THE CONVERSATION
Do you want to join in scholarly conversations with your chapter from Alpha Chi, just like the Arkansas Beta chapter did? Attend our “Cultures of Conspiracy” Collaborative Research Competition in 2020, and get a head start preparing for the 2021 national convention in Birmingham, Alabama.
And register now for the ABQ conference, as we continue to promote crossing boundaries through civil discourse. Hear from indigenous rights activist, Lyla June, and join in the ongoing conversation around social justice and changed perspectives.