students looking at art

UR's home for the humanities becomes a space for interactive experiences

October 17, 2022


A new art exhibit in the Humanities Building combines contemporary art and digital sound, as part of a larger effort to shake up perceptions of what it means to study the humanities. 

The multimedia exhibit appears in a shared space in the University’s renovated and expanded Humanities Building, which reopened after updates and expansion in fall 2021 that brought the philosophy, classical studies, history, and English departments into one place. 

The art installation appears on the walls of the public space called the Commons, amid busy students quietly studying at tables and in chairs around the room.

“This hopefully feels like an exhibition that might attract some people who might not otherwise go to art exhibitions,” said Nathan Snaza, coordinator for humanities in Arts & Sciences.

Visitors enter the Commons on the second floor of the building, then download a multimedia app to their smartphones to begin exploration of the exhibit created by artist Ashon Crawley, an associate professor of religious studies and African American and African studies at the University of Virginia. Crawley designed the sound and artwork specifically for the Commons, Snaza said.

Students discuss the exhibit in the Commons with Nathan Snaza, coordinator for humanities in Arts & Sciences.

As a visitor moves through the space, sensors trigger audio files on their smartphone, Snaza said. The audio plays while visitors view two large, framed multimedia pieces and other printed pieces of the exhibit that are meant to work in concert.

The sound files include music from the Black Pentecostal church that the artist grew up with. Later in life, Crawley, a gay black man, grew to feel shunned from the church. He also felt disconnected from the music of his youth, which he appreciated then and now.

A number of vellum posters show newspaper want ads for musicians and church leaders, Snaza said.  

“Broadly the work is an investigation into the ways that HIV/AIDS and the homophobia that emerged around the epidemic devasted communities of praise in the 1980s and’90s,” Snaza said, “especially affecting queer Black musicians in ways that made those lives difficult to mourn.”

UR junior Ananya Chetia was able to meet the artist last spring semester as part of the Humanities Fellows Program and said she appreciated the chance to experience the work on campus. 

“The art installation is eye-catching, especially in a common study area,” she said “You don’t just walk past it. And the audio made me feel like I was in the event, in a church or listening to a live speech while I looked at the artwork. No other space at UR is quite like this one.”

Snaza said the exhibit is specifically designed to contrast the solitary experience of hearing sound on headphones while taking in the art and its meaning, while students in the Commons area have their own experience of their humanities study.

“You can have an interesting and productive experience of the exhibition, because it’s an unusual multi-use space,” Snaza said. “You’re having an art experience but trying not to disturb the student writing their history paper.”