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Teach-In on Race: Emerson Creatives Discuss ‘Art of Survival’

Zoom screen with Amy Clark and Tatiana Johnson-Boria
Panelist Tatiana Johnson-Boria, MFA ’20, right, speaks with moderator Amy Clark during “Art and the Art of Survival” on March 18.

By Zenebou Sylla ‘22

A panel of Emerson artists gathered last week as part of the 2021 Teach-In on Race to talk about how creatives are finding their place through the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and white supremacy, and how they’re creating art while practicing self-care.

“Art and the Art of Survival,” held Thursday, March 18, featured Visual and Media Arts Assistant Professor Ed Lee, comedy writer, and writer-producer of the film, Becoming Eddie; Tatiana Johnson-Boria, MFA ’21, a writer and artist; and Performing Arts Assistant Professor Nathaniel Justiniano, founder and artistic director of Naked Empire Bouffon Company. It was moderated by Writing, Literature, and Publishing affiliated faculty member Amy L. Clark, author of the story collections Wanting and Adulterous Generation, and the novel Palais Royale.

Johnson-Boria explained how difficult it was to balance mental health with trying to care for her mother, who is at high risk of contracting COVID-19 due to an impaired immune system. 

Amid violence and murders targeting the queer, Black and Asian communities, as well as the ongoing climate of police brutality and white supremacy, Johnson-Boria said she has been motivated to work on her own poetry, which she shared, in the hope it could offer peace, safety, and reclamation of her existence in this world.

“[At] the midst of the pandemic, I found myself at Franklin Park at a protest with thousands of other people, looking at photos of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many others,” Johnson-Boria said. “I thought of my own Blackness, my own fragile mind, my own risk of not being alive… the rally, the check-ins with my mother, the seeking of care for myself, and the things that felt imperative, were also moments that made me fight for my family, for my community, for my existence.”

Justiniano said his shows at the Naked Empire Bouffon Company focus on themes like hypocrisy, apathy in the queer community, capital punishment, state violence, fear of mortality, class privilege and its link with whiteness and race, American imperialism, and police brutality, among others. The hope is that the performances help audiences think about their roles in these societal issues, and how they can take an active role in dismantling them.

“It’s to look at ourselves, collectively, with clear eyes, admit our complicity, and provoke a discourse that leads to action,” said Justiniano.

While working on his comedy short film about growing up as a Korean American boy in the 1980s, Lee shared that it’s also allowed him to express so many emotions through his work, and that being able to collaborate with others on this project has allowed them to share their experiences with each other. 

“My work is expressing anger, but it’s also a comedy… about self-actualization. But one of the places I’ve found comfort and joy is through my collaborations with other people… Part of it is the communities’ that stories and art brings,” said Lee.   

Johnson-Boria, Justiniano, and Lee said while the pandemic and societal dysfunction have been a difficult time for many artists like themselves to produce and create, they have also recognized that the pandemic offered them an opportunity to share their feelings and experiences with others.

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