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Public art project confronts street harassment

Northeastern’s new artist-in-residence Tatyana Fazlalizadeh created a powerful public art series called “Stop Telling Women to Smile” featuring portraits of women whom she’s interviewed about their experiences with gender-based street harassment. The portraits include statements from these women about these experiences, ranging from “I am not public space” to “My outfit is not an invitation.”

On Tuesday, Northeastern students joined Fazlalizadeh in bringing this series to campus in an effort to blend public art with activism and increase dialogue around this important issue. Students spent an hour in the morning wheat pasting 33 of the Brooklyn-based artist’s portraits to the side of Nightingale Hall facing Forsyth Street.

“I’m glad students are a part of the process,” said Fazlalizadeh, as she used her paintbrush to apply an extra coat of wheat paste to the row of posters. “We were able to talk about a tough subject and also explore what for most of these students was a new art form.”

Fazlalizadeh started the project as a way to speak out about her own experiences with street harassment, and she said it is important that her artwork be featured in public spaces.

“For young women, this will hopefully empower them and make them feel like they have agency over their bodies,” she said, noting that she hopes the project will also make men think twice about “catcalling” women or making other comments about their appearance or demeanor.

President Joseph E. Aoun, center, meets with artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, left, on Forsyth Street where Fazlalizadeh and Northeastern students were installing wheat-paste posters. Photo by Matt "Modoono.

President Joseph E. Aoun, center, meets with artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, left, on Forsyth Street where Fazlalizadeh and Northeastern students were installing wheat-paste posters. Photo by Matt Modoono.

Fazlalizadeh’s residency, which runs from Oct. 6-9, is the result of a collaboration between the Northeastern Center for the Arts and the university’s Public Art Initiative, which aims to provide students, faculty, and artists from around the world “canvases” throughout campus to display their works for the entire Northeastern community to experience. Fazlalizadeh’s series began on the streets of New York City and has since become a global phenomenon. Assistant professor Sarah Jackson and associate professor Greg Goodale also played important roles in bringing Fazlalizadeh to campus; Fazlalizadeh will speak to students in their courses for discussions on race, gender, and activism as part of her residency.

Fifth-year student Megan Fernandes, SSH’15, found the public art powerful because it puts faces to women who’ve experienced street harassment. She echoed Fazlalizadeh in saying that it can be empowering for women to see these faces and realize for themselves that this behavior is not OK.

“I think this will help a lot of people, both men and women, realize how big a problem this is,” Fernandes said. “Women hear comments about them all the time on the street. People [react] to these comments in different ways, but it makes many women uncomfortable.”

Henoss Taddesse, SSH’19, works on the wheat-paste project with artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Henoss Taddesse, SSH’19, works on the wheat-paste project with artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Henoss Taddesse, SSH’19, joined Fernandes in the wheat-pasting project. He noted that the public art’s message hits close to home, adding that his mother and sister are his strongest influences and that they’ve taught him the importance of respecting women.

While taking a break from wheat-pasting, Taddesse reflected on the effect of the art series, which aims to capture the attention of passersby and prompt them to think about the issue of street harassment. “This,” he said, “is how we can start a conversation of change.”

On Tuesday afternoon, students also joined Fazlaizadeh in applying another one of her “Stop Telling Women to Smile” posters on the façade of the Latino/a Student Cultural Center, where they installed a large portrait of a Latina woman bearing the phrase “No me llamo mamacita.”

Passersby stopped and reflected on the art and its messages throughout the day, while many others in the Northeastern community took to Twitter to react.

The second wheat-pasting project aligned with the kickoff of a block party on Centennial Common to celebrate women, Fazlalizadeh’s art, and taking a stand against all forms of harassment. The block party featured live performances, information booths, and giveaways including wristbands emblazoned with the phrase “#NURespect.”

Following the block party, Fazlaizadeh joined Northeastern faculty for an interdisciplinary discussion on public art and public policy, particularly Title IX and the Clery Act, a federal law requiring colleges and universities to disclose crime statistics. Goodale and Fazlalizadeh were joined by law faculty Martha Davis and Aziza Ahmed as panelists at the event, hosted by NuLawLab in the School of Law’s Dockser Hall. Goodale noted that on college campuses, it’s up to the entire university community to affect change on an issues like sexual harassment and equality for all. He lauded Fazlalizadeh’s efforts, saying “She reminds us that there are people in this world who can bring change in innovative ways.”

Goodale asked Fazlalizadeh about what she considered the benefits and disadvantages of being an activist. In response, Fazlalizadeh said one positive is when people tell her that she’s inspired them. A negative is when some men react with disparaging comments toward her art series. But she said this is the result of her art “disrupting their reality,” adding that it’s a necessary part of activism to shake things up.

“I am an activist because I’m actively doing something about an issue that I’m passionate about,” she said. “I think that’s all it takes to be an activist. You need to do something. ‘Stop Telling Women to Smile’ is me doing something.”

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