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Ode to the Snite: Celebrating her life

| Monday, May 10, 2021

One of my favorite things to do when I’m walking around on campus with someone I want to get to know better is to smile and gauge their interest in an impromptu Snite visit. Sometimes people feel they have to justify their preparation to be underwhelmed. I hear a lot of, “You know, I went with my class once and there’s actually some really cool stuff…” or “I really don’t know much about art.” Listen, you don’t have to sweet talk the Snite for my benefit, and you certainly don’t need to “know anything” about art to enjoy it. Believe me: While there’s nothing worse than being forced to go to the art museum for a class, there’s nothing better than exploring one by yourself, with a new friend or with someone you love. 

I actually met one of my best friends through an impromptu Snite trip. By the end of an hour of waddling through the museum like curious penguins and — I’m embarrassed to say — making memes about some of the art, I was confident this was someone I wanted to spend more time with. 

But my favorite Snite buddy is my little brother, Danny. My brother is a nine-year-old technology whiz. He can talk spaceship mechanics for hours, explain how routers work, or tell you the historical evolution of cell phone models from 1995 to the present — all with ease. He is the precocious boy who wakes up at 4 a.m. to watch rocket launches livestreamed on YouTube. It’s hard to convince him to take an engrossed interest in anything else. But the Snite Museum of Art holds such wondrous mystery to him. Dropping in has become a brother-sister tradition for us. My brother and I were drawn in by Chao Shao-an’s poetic ink and watercolor depictions of nature. Another time, we went to Dimensions of Power, an exhibit on African art. Danny whisper-read aloud the captions and learned history by seeing. By asking questions, moving around freely, exploring the exhibits with a person he felt comfortable with, his world expanded in a way that the classroom could not facilitate. I asked him if he wanted to leave a note in the visitor’s book at the Snite’s door when we left. Danny’s note simply, but accurately, just said, “Nice!” 

(While my brother doesn’t yet share my undying enthusiasm for the written word, he fully meant what he said!)

The Snite has brought me hours of peace and contemplation. It has inspired me, amazed me, shocked me and made me laugh much too loudly to be appropriate in a museum. I’ve been moved to tears by photographs by Alen MacWeeney, which I saw as part of an event on Notre Dame’s exhibit on Irish art, Looking at the Stars.” MacWeeney’s poignant black-and-white photographs were meant to resonate with” certain poems by the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats. My friends and I became closer as we sat in the circle of event participants that cold winter night, reading aloud the beautiful poems (provided in paper form by the Snite) and explicating on the photographs we saw with some complete strangers. 

The first time I ever went to the Snite for fun was when those doors in O’Shag were open one winter day in 2018. It was blusteringly cold and dark outside, and there was a colorful painting right beyond the glass doors, warm yellow light flooding out. That yellow painting that first introduced me to the Snite was from Solidary and Solitary: The Joyner and Giuffrida collection. This exhibit featured abstract art by African and African American artists from 1940 to present. The exhibit explored the complex subject of individual identity (solitary) within a larger community (solidary). For these artists, abstraction provided a means to create art outside of dominant social narratives — it allowed for authentic expression. Seeing this yellow painting was my wardrobe-to-Narnia moment. I entered the Snite and saw things I could not forget. Besides the gorgeous yellow painting by Norman Lewis, called “Afternoon,” the image that sticks in my heart most from that first Snite foray is this large sculptural piece by Leonardo Drew. 

How should one conduct oneself in an art museum? I have never learned. The path of my steps must resemble the loops of a bumblebee’s flight. I pass from one painting, to the one to its right, to the thing in the middle, to — oh! There’s something in the other room I missed — to that conspicuously long inscription on the wall, to the shiny green glass thing that says its from Syria — to something that glitters, to something that is dull. There’s stuff hanging from the ceiling and it moves! How could you possibly be orderly when there’s so much to see in every corner? 

A well-organized art museum is a place to collect knowledge like fruits from trees. As you walk, you interact with the pieces, mentally taking them apart, putting them back together, stepping close and stepping far away. A well-curated art museum feels alive. You feel you are on a secret pathway through someone else’s past, present and future. A good art museum feels like time travel. And, my friends, we have a good art museum. As we continue to build the Raclin Murphy Museum of Art, I pray it provides future students the opportunities for joy, wonder, reflection and discovery that its predecessor did for me and my Notre Dame family. 

Renee Yaseen is a junior who majors in economics with minors in theology and the philosophy, politics, & economics (PPE) program. In her free time, she writes poems, hangs out with loved ones, and works on her software startup. She can be reached via the chat on a shared Google Doc at 3 a.m., on Twitter @ReneeYaseen or at [email protected] by email.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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