News and Features

Art Projects Aim For Social Progress

Janeil_Engelstad at ArtMill2
Janeil Engelstad in residence at Art Mill in the Czech Republic. Photo credit: Alex Katis

This fall, dozens of art projects will emerge across North Texas with a common goal – social change. the projects are part of an initiative called Make Art With Purpose – or MAP. By the early 1990s, Janeil Engelstad’s career was already on the rise. She’d earned an MFA in photography from NYU. Her work was included in gallery shows.

But as her professional life was taking off, she began volunteering, teaching photography to homeless kids. She got hooked on the combination of art and social activism.

“I was in a group show where I had three straight photographs. And it wasn’t that I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment; I felt like I was showing something that I was no longer connected to and it didn’t make sense for me,” she said.

Engelstad decided to shift her focus to social art. And she’s become a force in the growing field, creating work around the world and lecturing at universities. She’s lived in Dallas for more than a decade, and now she’s finally taking on a major venture in her adopted hometown.

Engelstad has recruited artists from North Texas and around the world for Make Art With Purpose, a collection of art projects that address issues as varied as domestic violence, immigration, gentrification and environmental concerns.

Morehshin Allahyari is a new-media artist and visiting assistant professor at UTD. She moved to the U.S. from Iran in 2007, but her homeland’s history of censorship has stayed with her. Since 2010, she’s been working on an online video performance art piece in which she teaches viewers how to censor.

Later this month, Allahyari will explore censorship with a live audience for her contribution to MAP. At UTD, visitors will watch a similar performance piece and be asked for their feedback.

“It’s not just about a person coming and seeing a performance,” she says. “It’s really about community building, it’s about getting the people who are there or who are interested in topics like this to participate, or if they don’t know much about it, think deeper.”

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WORDS/SWORDS, 2013, Jin-Ya Huang, Digital c-print, 24×36 inches

Jin-Ya Huang, another Dallas artist, also will explore a personal topic with her MAP project. After a difficult divorce she wanted to connect with others who need help healing.

Engelstad introduced her to Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, which provides legal services for immigrants who are victims of violent crimes. She’s created a series of abstract photographs paired with quotes she recorded while interviewing the victims. One piece also captures her own experience.

“What we’re looking at is an abstract portrait of a woman,” she says. “The main words are, ‘His words were like swords.’ That’s in all caps, and then the text that’s written is, ‘even though he never laid a hand on me, I felt like this every day.’”

Huang says the immigrants’ stories – and their strength of spirit – has helped her to heal. She’s donating her photographs to Human Rights Initiative.

Engelstad takes a different approach — creating experiences rather than objects.

“Most practitioners are making paintings or sculptures or photographs or an object,” she says. “The value of that is usually pretty immediate – you like it, you don’t like it, you connect to it. Where the value of the work I’m doing is in the legacy that’s left in the community.”

And, Huang says, with the participating artists.

“Bringing this citywide … it’s the ripples and the waves we all have longed for as artists all our lives. We were born to do this. And having the opportunity to participate in something so grand, that’s the part that makes anyone feel like they’re making a difference.”

.  Image outfront from Living Condition, an animated documentary that screens Oct. 12 at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center.

  • bill holston

    Thanks Stephen for this great story. We’re really proud at HRI to participate in MAP.