The Pennsylvania State University

School of Visual Arts

Polyphony: I See What Others Are Saying

PolyPhony Collage Image by Professor Lonnie Graham

Polyphony, the title of an exhibition of photographs and drawings produced by students who participated in a week-long workshop held recently in Christchurch, New Zealand, led by SoVA Professor Lonnie Graham, refers to the notion of speaking in many voices, or as Graham describes, “I see what others are saying.” In the workshop, participants were encouraged to “speak up” about social issues. Professor Graham was invited by the Christchurch City Council to collaborate with the Te Ora Hou Ōtautahi, a Maori youth and community development organization, with the goal of helping youth find vision and voice through art-making practices. The process of image making and identity forming used in the workshop is similar to how Graham collaborates with individuals and communities around the globe in the various iterations of his ongoing project, Conversations with the World.  

In an interview with local press, Profesor Graham made the point that the young participants did not necessarily see themselves as artists; however, he was confident in their capacity to use their aspirations to think about social change. He explained it this way:

“With the University of Canterbury we worked with young people and marginalized individuals. I engaged them in a conversation about how they were perceived, how they’d like to be perceived and what ideas they had so that we could visualize those things and put them in a place where they could share their ideas. I tried to get them to tell me what they were thinking. They didn’t want to. We talked some more. Then they started saying what they think, we started going back and forth, talking, writing and sketching. They told us stories about their heritage, culture, gifts, ideas, what they wanted to leave behind and what they wanted to carry into the future with them.”

According to Graham, the work the young participants created was very impressive. “The people in that room, at that point, had never thought they could do something that could be seen by somebody else, that they could share their ideas or that anybody would care,” said Graham. He described the work of one student:

“One student, Vicki, turned up on the second day with skin raising. I had never seen anything like that before. This is what she and her family do before they do permanent tattoos.  She takes a pin or a needle or something and scratches until it forms a welt of whatever design they have chosen. She used a flashlight so the light rakes across the design. She creates dramatic photographs of someone’s body with these beautiful designs, very elegantly. I thought ‘success.’” (Cited in Anderson, V. May 23, 2014, "Polyphony: Voices in Common," p. 14, Go Arts section, Press Newspaper of Christchurch, New Zealand)