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Exhibitions and Performances


By Sala Levin ’10

Stand at the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue in downtown D.C. long enough—trust us, it won’t be long at all—and you’ll notice tourist after tourist, phone camera at the ready, walking up a little path outside the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Their destination: a giant mushroom sculpture made of slabs from five kinds of trees.

Foon Sham headshotCreated by UMD art Professor Foon Sham, "Mushroom," with its varying colors and textures, isn’t just a distinctive photo op backdrop. It’s a prominent part of a new Smithsonian Gardens exhibition with installations at 14 sites across the Mall running from last month through December 2020. Sham has three pieces in the “Habitat” exhibit, which highlights how protecting habitats is crucial to protecting the flora and fauna that rely on them.

When the Smithsonian approached Sham two years ago to be part of the exhibit, he settled on the mushroom form to emphasize how fungi, trees and soil share a symbiotic relationship, relying on one another for nutrients and other life essentials. He also appreciated mushrooms’ underground networks of “thousands of interlocking strands … They’re communicating to each other and supplying nutrients. They symbolize what we are doing today, that we connect to each other with phone and Internet.”

"Arches of Life" sculptureThe trees that became Sham’s mushroom—felled by lightning, age or disease—came from the grounds of the Smithsonian, and are a mix of birch, oak, elm, cypress and Katsura, native to Japan.

Sham’s other two pieces in the exhibit are "Arches of Life," a series of hollow, arched wood structures meant to symbolize how dead wood can become a critical habitat for animals and insects, and "Vascular Form XI, Unbound," a towering vessel that occupies a small island in a fountain-centric garden to represent how water also contains life.

His work has been displayed at galleries and spaces in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Norway, Hungary and elsewhere around the world. “For all the physicality of Sham’s work—its size, look and even smell—the essential escape he offers is into the imagination,” The Washington Post once wrote of him.

"Vascular Form XI, Unbound" sculptureSham began his artistic career nearly 40 years ago working with materials like steel, concrete and Plexiglass, but soon moved to wood, drawn to the material for the way in which each slab is unique. “Each individual piece has an individual identity,” he says, likening the differences between pieces of wood to the differences between people.

Wood sculptures also honor the lives of the trees that died for them to exist, Sham says. “Trees have to go sometimes, but I give them a second life and a second identity.”






y Keener stepped out onto the nearly monochromatic, frozen landscape surrounding the northernmost city in the U.S. The scene outside at Utqiagvik, Alaska (formerly known as Barrow) was breathtaking this April morning: Giant, fractured blocks of sea ice loomed over the assistant professor of art, and the stillness was at odds with the ocean that churned silently and invisibly beneath the surface.

Keener was at once awed and melancholic. He knew that this vast expanse of ice at the top of the world—the oldest sections of which have shrunk by 95% since 1980—could vanish within a few decades.

Some 3,400 miles away, in a street-facing window of the Rockville, Md., VisArts center, Keener planned to visually document this ice from May to September as it slowly thinned. Using sensors buried two meters into the ice, Keener and his collaborator, Justine Holzman of the University of Toronto, intended to track its thickness daily, transforming that information into “Sea Ice 71.348778º N, 156.690918º W,” an art installation in which hanging strips of 6-foot-long, blue-green polyester film would reflect the depth of the ice. Over the warm months, the lengths of the ever-growing number of strips—Keener added new ones every four days—would dramatically shorten.

But then, two snags: First, a polar bear destroyed one of the two sensors. (Standard job hazard.) Then, the piece of ice containing the second sensor detached from land and floated out to sea in mid-June. The ice further broke up, and the buoy traveled into open water. Keener could no longer receive data about ice thickness—unprecedented warming had already melted the ice he was depending on.

“Of course, I was disappointed, but I also think it’s indicative of what’s going on in the sense that in past years that ice might not have broken off” until much later, said Keener.

Instead of hanging strips, Keener made a series of six 30-by-70-inch maps of Arctic sea ice extent for 2019 to compare with sea ice extent in 2007.

Trained as both an artist and architect, Keener has long been interested in how technology, art and the environment intersect. He’s used sensors to track the movement of stones along a riverbed during flooding and buoys to monitor ocean currents. While working on a glacier project, Keener met a researcher from the National Ice Center, who linked Keener with a National Science Foundation-funded Arctic expedition.

“One of the struggles of art that tries to engage in issues like climate is that it gets cloistered away in a gallery setting … where not that many people go,” said Keener. “I liked the idea of the street being the audience, as opposed to whoever wandered into [a] gallery. It’s a 3-D billboard for melting Arctic ice.”


When you close your eyes while listening to music, it can feel like you’re in the room with the musicians. Now, thanks to a new virtual reality collaboration between the university’s College of Arts and Humanities and the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS), you almost will be.


Irina Muresanu, an associate professor of violin, has been digitally captured and transported to locations that represent musical compositions from different cultures that make up her “Four Strings Around the World” project, a studio album and series of live concerts that celebrate diverse musical cultures.

The technology the VR project puts on display can also empower teaching, remote medicine and other applications—along with new vistas in the performing arts. Attending a live concert performance can be impossible for hospital patients, or those with low incomes, said Amitabh Varshney, professor of computer science and CMNS dean. “We don’t want anyone to be deprived of these amazing gems of human performances that can lift people up in a very dramatic way,” he said.


Known for her parts on “Orange Is the New Black” and “Jane the Virgin,” actress Diane Guerrero took the stage at the Hoff Theater yesterday to discuss a different role in her life: immigration reform activist, and daughter and sister of deported immigrants.

Part of the university’s third annual Social Justice Day, sponsored by the College of Arts and Humanities, College of Education and A. James Clark School of Engineering, Guerrero delivered the day’s keynote address, focusing on her family’s story, in keeping with UMD’s yearlong theme of the Year of Immigration.

The day of programming also included an awards reception, mini TED-style talks and the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences-organized “Immigrant Stories” panel, moderated by UMD’s Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development Shibley Telhami. It featured UMD President Wallace D. Loh; New School Professor Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev; and former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Maria Otero ’72 sharing their experiences.Diane Guerrero

Guerrero answered questions from members of UndocuTerps, the university’s group for undocumented students, about the experience of her parents and brother being deported to Colombia when she was 14 years old, an event she chronicled in her book, “In the Country We Love: My Family Divided.”

“Many times I wanted to give up and say, ‘No, this is not my life, I will not accept this as my life,’” she said. “The minute that I decided to own that truth, to say, ‘Yes, I was a child and product of separation of a family ... and there’s no shame in that,' that was the minute I started growing.”

Other topics Guerrero addressed:

On what she hopes to achieve: What does Guerrero hope to see when it comes to immigration policy? “I’d like to see a path to citizenship,” she said. “I’d like to see our visa system updated. I’d like to see immigration reform. I’d like to see more solutions, and I’d like to see the conversation continued … I am someone who has experienced the separation of family and what that does to the mind, body and soul, and it’s horrific.”

On community: Guerrero emphasized the importance of sharing one’s life experiences with others who have similar stories. “What happens when you share common experiences with people who are going through the same thing is that you go to sleep and you say, ‘Wow, I’m not alone.’”

On intersectionality: Recognizing the interconnectedness of people’s backgrounds and social issues is central to Guerrero. “I cannot care about one issue without caring about another,” she said. “I cannot care about immigrants and immigrants’ rights if I don’t care about women, and vice versa. I can’t care about women’s rights if I don’t care about racial equality.”

On seeing her parents in prison as a teen: “I didn’t know my parents as criminals,” she said. “Everything you’re taught as a kid is that when you go to prison, you’re a bad person …I got there and my understanding of my parents sort of shifted. ‘I don’t see my parents as bad people, but they’re here, so are they?’”

On working on shows with a social message: “Jane the Virgin” and “Orange Is the New Black” have dealt with a range of political and social issues, from the experiences of women in prison and criminal justice to immigration. “It’s a huge privilege,” said Guerrero. “At first I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to be on a show where I’m in prison, I already saw this—I’m not going to learn anything. This is real life for me.’ But it has been a privilege to tell these stories … there’s no coincidence as to why I landed on these shows that had such a heavy message, because I had a heavy message to tell.”

On the experience of working with a primarily Latinx cast: “Jane the Virgin” is one of the few television shows to feature primarily Latinx characters, an experience Guerrero has cherished. “We weren’t running away from our culture and who we were and who we are, and we were also not making fun of it,” she said. “We celebrated it on ‘Jane the Virgin’ and I found that helped me understand and love myself just a little bit more.”

By Sala Levin ’10


By Lorraine Graham | Photos by J. J. Nelson

Known for her novels, stories and memoirs exploring Haitian history and immigrant experiences, award-winning writer Edwidge Danticat visited the University of Maryland on April 17 to share her work and talk about the power of storytelling in connecting across generations.

Her visit was the last event in the 2018-19 Arts and Humanities Dean's Lecture Series. Danticat spent the afternoon speaking with a group of graduate students in the English department's masters of fine arts program in creative writing before joining Grenadian writer and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Merle Collins that evening for a public conversation in Dekelboum Concert Hall. Danticat and Collins spoke about how writing can be a form of witness and memorializing, especially in immigrant and diasporic communities.

The Arts and Humanities Dean's Lecture Series provides an opportunity for the campus community to engage with contemporary issues through the lens of arts and humanities scholarship.To complement UMD's yearlong theme of the Year of Immigration, the 2018-19 series focused on storytelling and immigration. The fall lecture featured Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and 2017 MacArthur Fellow Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose book “The Refugees” is Maryland’s 2018-19 First Year Book.

Danticat answered questions from both Collins and the audience, about how—in the space of six months—her uncle, with whom she lived for many years in Haiti before joining her parents in the U.S., died in U.S. immigration custody while seeking asylum, her daugher, Mira, was born and her father died of pulmonary fibrosis. These experiences prompted her to write a family memoir, "Brother, I'm Dying."

"This was not a book I wanted to have to write," Danticat said. "But I knew that my daughter would never meet my uncle, and I was afraid she would not meet my father—so this book was a way to reach across generations."

Other topics Danticat and Collins discussed:

On writing and history: In response to a question from the audience about incorporating history into writing, Danticat said, "I've always been very interested in history in general, and Haitian history in particular. Fiction gives you a kind of space in which to expand history. We can spend years learning about something and then you flesh it out."

On writing as a monument to people who might otherwise be forgotten: Collins asked about "Farming of Bones," Danticat's second novel set against the background of the 1937 massacre of Haitian emigrants by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, and the way that particular book is "a monument to the disappeared." Danticat discussed how historical novels can function as a kind of memorial, and she discussed the importance of rituals surrounding death in Haiti. "Part of the tragedy of dying was not only that they were butchered and massacred," Danticat said, "but that they had no final rituals."

On the immigrant artist, storytelling and survival: Danticat grew up hearing traditional stories and Haitian folklore. She discussed remembering one story about a girl unable to cope with the death of her father, and drawing on it for comfort when her own father died. "All this time I thought I was being entertained," she said. "But instead I realized I had been given a tool to survive and to understand critical moments in my life. This reinforced the power of storytelling, why certain mythologies exist and how these stories are part of our survival as diasporic people."

On connecting with younger generations through story: Danticat talked about how enslaved Africans carried stories with them across the water as a way of keeping their culture alive. Immigrants also bring their stories with them to new places and into new languages. "All I have to leave my children are my stories," she said. "Storytelling feels like another layer of survival, the thread that carries us all the way from the African continent and through the Caribbean."

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks about his new book, "The Refugees," at the First Year Book event at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018.

By Samantha Hawkins
For The Diamondback

A Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist urged University of Maryland students on Tuesday to seek out and share the stories of refugees and other groups who often feel unwanted in their home country and in the United States.

“We live in an age of narrative scarcity,” said Viet Thanh Nguyen, the best-selling author of The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016.

People should have access to a variety of voices, Nguyen said, from refugees and minorities to women and the LGBT community. He calls this “narrative plentitude.”

Nguyen’s new book, The Refugees, was selected as this university’s 2018-19 First Year Book. The book is a collection of short stories from twenty years of documenting the hardships of relocation and explores what it means to belong somewhere.His visit is part of the “Year of Immigration,” an initiative by this university to increase dialogue about global migration and refugees.

A MacArthur Fellow and professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California, Nguyen has been called the “voice to the previously voiceless” by The New York Times, though he claims this is not praise.

“Have you met a Vietnamese person? We’re not voiceless. We talk all the time. We’re not heard,” Nguyen said. “Justice is not about elevating voices for the voiceless. It’s about creating a condition where all voices are heard.”

The lecture comes at a time when immigration has become a significant part of the national conversation. Two migrant caravans from Central America are currently making their way to the U.S., and President Trump has threatened to shutter the border in response.

Earlier this year, following the U.S. Justice Department’s announcement of a “zero tolerance” policy for immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, several thousand migrant children were separated from their parents. The policy has caused significant national backlash.

Nguyen has experienced family separation first-hand. He and his family, who fled war-torn Vietnam in 1975 when he was 4 years old, were forced to separate so they could leave the refugee camp they were staying in. Nguyen was taken to live with a sponsor — a white family — while his parents and brother were sent somewhere else. Months later, they were reunited.

“I know the feeling of terror from being abandoned. That memory has never gone away,” Nguyen said. “That’s how I know that children at the border are going to be forever marked from being taken away from their parents.”

“Closing the borders is not a solution,” Nguyen said. Instead the United States should be setting an example for the world by taking in refugees and asylum-seekers. “Refugees and undocumented immigrants are going to keep on coming, and if we actually had a sensible policy, we wouldn’t be confronted with the crisis we have today.”

Nguyen describes himself growing up as being “born in Vietnam but made in America.” Never really sure of how to identify himself, Nguyen didn’t claim the term “Asian-American” as his own until he reached college.

Many students in the nearly full auditorium at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center could relate to Nguyen’s message. Kak Wong, a physics graduate student from Hong Kong, said that though Nguyen’s experience is different than his, he still connected to the speaker’s story.

“Now that I’m in America, I am transitioning into Asian-American,” Wong said. “I’m still at that junction of crisis where I don’t really know where I’m at.”

James Ozaki, a University of Illinois student living in Washington D.C. this semester for an internship at the Smithsonian, is Japanese-American, and his grandparents were incarcerated during World War II. That helped him connect with what Nguyen was saying.

“This impacts me in the sense that it makes it personal,” he said. "And that continuing narrative throughout history that he mentioned? It’s the same story.”



By Morgan Politzer | Stories Beneath the Shell

"National Public Radio political correspondent Mara Liasson led a discussion Wednesday night about dealing with hate, bias and the changing world of political reporting under Trump.

"Liasson has been a political correspondent for NPR for over 30 years. She discussed how the political landscape has changed since President Trump took office, as well as the impact his actions have had on both a national and international scale."

Read the complete article in Stories Beneath the Shell.

Photo by Morgan Politzer via Stories Beneath the Shell.


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