Art installation symbolizes mobility for minority cultures

Ellie Breed

To many people, crutches symbolize weakness and limitation. 

However, “(Forever Free) Ideas, Languages, and Conversations,” a new sculpture installed in the Gordon-White building, turns crutches into symbols of mobility and connects the past and present for minority cultures, according to the artist, Michael Ray Charles. Hosted by Landmarks, the interview with Charles explored the construction and symbolic nature of his installation.

The sculpture, which is suspended in mid-air and made of wooden crutches arranged in star-like formations, is placed in an atrium that connects a classic 1950s style building and a newly constructed addition. The location of the piece in that building and on a campus with diverse areas of study is central to its message, according to Charles.

“I could not avoid pondering the presence of the wall off of the old building,” Charles said. “I felt like I wanted to keep it as it was. I think there is beauty in the presence of the past. I would also like to think that what this piece provides for every student, if they spend enough time with it, is that all disciplines converge in art. It is just a matter of how we celebrate that.”

The use of crutches as a medium could have been controversial, considering the piece was installed in a building committed to studying the history and experience of minority cultures, Charles said.

“I wanted to take something that I could re-purpose and apply it in a way that offered the possibility for new interpretations, in the form of a star or a wheel,” Charles said. “I think assembling them in that fashion lets it be re-contextualized in ways that are uplifting and inspirational.”

Janisha Daniels, black studies and mathematics junior, said the use of crutches sends an important message to campus.

“I think the fact that he took those crutches and placed them in a black space is a really powerful statement of mobility for minorities,” Daniels said.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, an associate professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania who moderated the event, said this risk taking is not out of line with Charles’ previous work.

“Artists who go out and create take tremendous risk in having to face the criticism and responses that an audience has,” Shaw said. “This is a work that really takes risk and does it well.”