Arts Initiative launches collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma, regional artists


Maps are used to represent physical topographies of land or borders between nations, and to assist with directing us to a desired destination. But can they also be used to represent emotions? To make unseen connections? Or to understand the past or move forward into a new future?

Can the arts help to shape a new kind of map?

A new residency with international performing artist Yo-Yo Ma, launched by the University of Michigan Arts Initiative in partnership with the University Musical Society, will explore these ideas.

Ma will join a newly-formed steering committee composed of six U-M students and three Michigan-based artists from Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn — representing all three U-M campuses — who will be charged with developing new variations of maps to express what the U-M community has experienced in the past year.

The residency will kick off from 6-7 p.m. April 15 with a public, virtual event titled “Mapping without Boundaries.” It is free, but registration is required.

The event will feature President Mark Schlissel with Yo-Yo Ma and members of the steering committee reflecting on the challenges of the past year and how the pandemic radically altered educational modes and dispersed the university’s students, faculty and staff. It will also incorporate performance and audience participation.

Acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma performs at Hill Auditorium in February 2019. Ma will be in an artistic residency at U-M as part of Arts Initiative collaboration. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

“The arts have a unique power to express how we collectively feel as a community and society, and bring us together, especially after a yearlong separation and the difficulties and pain of the COVID pandemic,” said Christina Olsen, director of the U-M Museum of Art, and Arts Initiative co-chair.

“This is the Arts Initiative’s first major project and we’re thrilled Yo-Yo Ma is partnering with us on it, given his long and deep commitment to working collaboratively and with a strong focus on inclusion and social justice.”

The steering committee includes students from all three campuses, student coordinators and representatives from Central Student Government, as well as three Michigan artists:

  • Nour Ballout, aDetroit-based interdisciplinary visual artist and curator.
  • Tunde Olaniran, a Flint-based musician and performer.
  • Avery Williamson, an Ann Arbor-based interdisciplinary artist whose work includes weaving, photography, jewelry, painting and drawing.

An advisory council of faculty and staff from all three campuses will serve as a consultative body for the steering committee.

The president launched the Arts Initiative in fall 2019. It is currently completing the first cycle of a three-year startup phase that aims to identify models for promoting arts experiences across all of the U-M campuses.

“UMS is proud to help launch this partnership between the Arts Initiative, our longtime friend and colleague Yo-Yo Ma, and a very special steering committee comprised of Michigan students and artists,” said Matthew VanBesien, UMS president and Arts Initiative working group member.

“We believe this project can serve as a new model for the way a major university like Michigan can work collaboratively, centering the arts and engaging a new generation of creative thinkers to explore broad questions and challenges in our world.”

Ma and the steering committee will work together over the summer to further develop creative ways to bring community members together and share their own experiences through a shared platform. The new mapping project will be created from crowd-sourced data points ahead of the 2021 fall semester.

According to the steering group, each phase of the project will incorporate participatory moments, including at the April 15 launch event, where the audience will have an opportunity to share their voices.

Ma’s residency culminates in September with the unveiling of a virtual project that aims to mark the isolation of the past year, while celebrating the possibilities of a return to campus. The project will evolve as it develops in response to wider community input and public health guidelines.

Student steering committee members include:

  • Audrey Banks, Art and Design, UM-Flint
  • Alyssa Melani, School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Ann Arbor.
  • Ashwin Prakash, student, College of Engineering, Ann Arbor.
  • Nithya Arun, president of Central Student Government, Ann Arbor.
  • Darena Matti, DEI liaison and Central Student Government, UM-Dearborn.
  • Samantha Uptmor, president of Central Student Government, UM-Flint.

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