When I hear the word “riot,” a fairly standard definition comes to my mind for what that means. Maybe you’re similar? News media will show images of riots that are characterized by unwieldy masses, angry voices, fire, violence, and destruction. These dramatic photos and video clips draw the attention of viewers and incite the audience’s emotions. Such representations come to define gatherings or activities labeled with the word “riots” and the wash of these kinds of images presented year after year becomes the way many of us will think about such events.

Each spring, the library sponsors a purchase of student art to add to our collection, most often drawn from the annual Senior Art Show held in the Neidorff Gallery. In May 2020, we added three new pieces by students Alexus Jimenez and Raquel Belden. We are thrilled to preserve and highlight the works and ideas of these inspiring artists.

But in recent weeks, it is a different student artwork currently located on the library’s second floor that stays with me, in my thoughts and my thinking forward. When I first saw the piece it wasn’t yet displayed on the wall for the senior exhibition. It was sitting on the floor, in a corner, waiting to be placed. I didn’t know its title. But a colleague and I were so riveted by it. We knew we had to add it to the library’s collections.

Black Lives Matter: Riots by Anna LaflinThen and now, when I look at Anna Laflin’s “Black Lives Matter: Riots” my eye is given a new perspective on what these words mean. Three figures are drawn out of context and into a new space, so that the viewer can see and feel these different experiences occurring in the same place, time, and situation. Anna’s work informs my thinking and feeling. It interrupts my mind from drawing immediate associations with these words, associations taught to me by years of news footage and Google News thumbnails.

I won’t tell you what I see here when I look at Anna’s art. That would really matter only to me, but I will ask you to look and think about what YOU see. How does this image inform you in a way that no news photo can?

In as unbiased a fashion as I can possibly manage, considering all of the amazing (and expensive) works of art displayed across our campus, I find myself most educated, most changed, and most distracted (in the best way possible) by the student art works held in the Coates Library. “Black Lives Matter: Riots” has a resonance for me today that I couldn’t have anticipated last year. I know for sure that I will learn something from it with each new viewing. Maybe you will, as well.

Benjamin Harris
Professor, Head of Instruction Services

“Black Lives Matter: Riots” is located in the second floor Reading Room area of the Coates Library.  Student artwork is on permanent display across all four floors of the building.