“The arts are not just ephemeral,” Harvard Professor Sarah Lewis told Milton students. “They carry real weight in the real world.”
Professor Lewis visited Milton as this year’s Margaret A. Johnson Speaker. An assistant professor in Harvard’s Department of Art and Architecture and the Department of African and African American Studies, Professor Lewis works “at the nexus of visual representation, racial inequity and social justice.”
Professor Lewis shared with students several iconic images that depict how art can measure and impact human life, rather than simply reflect it, including a drawing of the Brookes, a British slave ship, whose severe overcrowding and inhumane conditions ushered along the abolition movement in England.
In another example, Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Japanese Americans during World War II were considered so critical of the government’s wartime actions that the Army impounded most of the images until much later. The images of American citizens being rounded up and detained would have given some balance to anti-Japanese propaganda at the time, Professor Lewis said.
People of all races are impacted by imagery, which is used—and sometimes “weaponized”—in cultural generalizations across all media, Professor Lewis explained. Her research and her students’ work explores how those images shape culture and history.
“It isn’t about who is oppressing whom,” she said. “It’s about how all of our narratives have been shaped by representation.”
Visual representation can make a direct impact on people’s lives, Professor Lewis said. Showing Pete Souza’s famed photo of a 5-year-old African American boy comparing his own hair texture with President Barack Obama’s, she explained that images of a black president helped to expand black children’s ambitions for themselves.
“Arts and imagery model for all of us what we can become,” Professor Lewis said. “We can’t become what we can’t imagine.”
The Margaret A. Johnson Endowed Speaker series honors Ms. Johnson’s legacy as a leader of Milton Academy’s former Girls’ School. The series brings women to campus who are leaders in their fields. Professor Lewis is the guest editor of the landmark “Vision & Justice” issue of Aperture, now required reading for all incoming freshman at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (2014). She has been the keynote speaker at a range of events and institutions, including TED, SXSW, the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Federal Reserve Bank.