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Art helps social work students see the full picture

For nearly an hour, the students puzzled over the details of the wall-sized photograph on display at UNC’s Ackland Art Museum. First, they identified every obvious element. There were four shrouded female figures. Each varied in age and each stared back at their observers from a room blanketed in what appeared to be Arabic script. The river-like text even flowed over the models’ clothing and partially exposed skin.

The image’s more subtle details, including the artist’s message, were slightly more difficult to discern. Cautiously, the classmates tossed out their questions. Could it be a sacred text? Was there a multigenerational meaning?  Was the artist exploring choice and individuality?

“But what’s your emotional response to this?” nudged Mimi Chapman, an associate professor at UNC’s School of Social Work. “How does it make you feel?”
One reply was direct. “It makes me angry,” said one MSW student. “My first thought was about gender and power and how it just brings up a lot of what I’ve learned about Islamic culture and the ways that women are treated. So whether or not this picture is about that, I don’t know. But that’s my reaction.”

For this class lesson, there were no right or wrong answers, only opportunities for a group of social work students to look inward and explore how their perceptions shape the world they see. Chapman uses the exercise in a couple of her classes as an innovative way of challenging students to think about the art of diagnosis and client care.

Through art, Chapman encourages the students to examine, for example, how political and religious beliefs, or personal characteristics, such as race, gender, age and sexual orientation, influence a social worker’s conclusions about a client and that client’s needs.

“This is a different way of understanding our own assumptions,” explained Chapman, who partnered with Robert Colby, Ackland’s coordinator of academic programs, to develop the art and observation exercise. “As a clinician, you have to open yourself up to a wide range of possibilities. And yet, we live and work in an environment that narrows the possibilities, both through the symptoms that we use to get a diagnosis and then through stereotypes and things like that.

“So this is a way to break that open and to help people think about what it is that they see naturally and what they might be missing because of their own biases. It’s really all about what we bring to the work that we do and how that might color our connections with clients.”

Although art is often incorporated into other disciplines, Chapman became interested in collaborating with the Ackland after reading about a program at Yale University that uses art to help medical students sharpen their observational skills. Chapman thought a similar exercise could benefit her students because social workers, like other health professionals, often struggle to assess their clients.

“Sometimes, I think our students get a sense of something that they see, but they don’t know exactly what they’re zeroing in on when they’re talking to a client,” she said.

Colby welcomed the idea of working with the social work students. After all, art enables individuals to examine the explicit and the implicit within a neutral environment. And people, like art, can be very confusing sometimes, he said. When faced with something or someone we don’t understand, it is only human nature to try to affix meaning to the unknown, Colby added.

“I think when we see something we don’t know, our minds actually go into a mini panic, and it works very quickly to make that image comfortable — to put it somewhere very quickly into some kind of matrix so that we can know what that is,” Colby explained. “I’m sure that goes back to how our brains are wired. But that mentality doesn’t serve us so well if we’re looking for longer or fuller understanding of what we have. So looking intentionally and talking about it extends that experience.”

During the recent session at the Ackland, Chapman’s students gathered in the museum’s print study room to discuss a handful of works Colby had selected for the class assignment. At the moment, the classmates were still pondering the shrouded figures in the oversized photograph.

The work is part of a series by New York-based artist Lalla A. Essaydi, who grew up in Morocco and lived in Saudi Arabia for many years. But this information and the artist’s creative intentions were purposely absent to help promote a more thoughtful conversation around the work, Colby said.

“So if we were to draw a conclusion about what this work of art was about, what it is that this work of art is saying, or what is the message — understanding that messages can be complicated — what kind of conclusions could we draw?” Colby asked.

One student wondered if the artist was addressing assimilation, noting that the younger girls in the photograph were each covered less by cloth and by what appeared to be religious text than the other older women standing next to them.

“I look at this and I’m thinking coming from an American point of view, that maybe if this is taking place in the U.S., then as the generations are getting younger, religion is becoming a little bit less (important),” said the student. “And as a result, their outward appearances are changing.”

Colby encouraged other classmates to weigh in with their thoughts. Another suggested that the work illustrates the disappearance of identity.

“As they age, they’re covered – by the text, whatever it is — and so to me, it’s about a loss of individuality,” the student said. “And it’s about how sometimes religion is externally put on you, and so it may or may not be their choice to be covered.”

Colby nodded with interest and after a few more minutes of scrutinizing, revealed the photograph’s background. Although most students had suggested that the image illustrates oppression, the artist, Essaydi, intended just the opposite, he explained. Essaydi actually photographed the models in a house that once belonged to her extended family. According to a narrative description of the work, the space was once used “to isolate errand girls and women, banishing them for as long as a month to atone in silence for transgressions against the social order.”

Essaydi was using her art, Colby explained, to reclaim this space by intentionally placing the models in the room where they were once confined. The artist enables the women and girls to speak by inscribing the walls, and their clothing and skin with traditional Arabic calligraphy — a skill that Moroccan women were once forbidden to learn.

Colby encouraged the students to consider the impact of the additional information.
“I think I can relate to the idea of creating new memories in a space,” offered one student. “It’s something that I’ve had to do in my own life … creating a memory that you can associate with something more positive, rather than negative.”

Such realizations are a valuable part of the lesson, said Chapman. A task of a good social worker is to learn not to rush to judgment in their desire to solve a problem, she said. Clinicians must understand that the individuals and families they serve are multidimensional and by fully understanding these dimensions, they can better target interventions.

“You have to figure out how to make yourself a person who is open to a diversity of experiences so that you are able to learn from your client,” Chapman said.

MSW student Helen Lewis Gibbs agreed. Gibbs, who is earning a dual degree in social work and divinity, was introduced to Chapman’s art and observation exercise last fall. She was happy to see the activity included in the course she’s taking this spring. Gibbs said she’s eager to apply her new observational skills in the field.

“The exercise really helps remind us that our initial impression is not always the full picture,” she said. “We have to continue to seek information and ask questions and give space for people to ask questions of us because then we gain a greater understanding and greater appreciation for the full picture.”

Chapman hopes to hammer home that message this semester as part of another exercise requiring the students to interact with Ackland art. The assignment focuses on work by photographer Janet Jarman, whose images capture the life of a family from Mexico before and after their immigration to the United States. Chapman is also using Jarman’s art as part of a training exercise for middle school teachers in Chatham County. The training is part of a project that Chapman is directing to address the mental health needs of Latino youth.

The photographs and art in general are powerful tools for encouraging both students and professionals to consider the complexity behind the country’s fastest growing and very diverse population, Chapman said.

“I think that art is a great venue that we can use to get away from our point of view — to see the world through someone else’s eyes,” she said. “It’s looking at what we choose to see and what we don’t choose to see.”