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U-M Arts Initiative's 'Mapping Without Boundaries' event kicks off Yo-Yo Ma artist residency

By Jennifer Quartararo

Scythian Media

Themes of home, hope and connection were the focus of a virtual event that kicked off a 6 month-long University of Michigan residency with renowned global performance artist Yo-Yo Ma on Thursday night.

The U-M Arts Initiative hosted the event in collaboration with the University Musical Society, where they launched the “Mapping Without Boundaries” project and introduced audiences to the recently named project collaborators, composed of regional artists and students from U-M’s Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses.

The event, which was hosted by Flint-based performing artist Tunde Olaniran, included synchronous and asynchronous elements, a participatory prompt for event attendees, student-created videos and a collaborative live performance between Ma and Ann Arbor-based interdisciplinary artist Avery Williamson. 

Christina Olsen, Arts Initiative co-chair and U-M Museum of Art director, opened the event by speaking to the existential experience of the past year and how the idea came about that what our COVID-dispersed community might need is a map, something to underscore the humanity behind the numbers we all saw plotted out everyday on screens. 

Yo-Yo Ma and Tunde Olaniran talk during the residency kickoff event on Thursday night.

“The purpose of the Arts Initiative is to bring to life exciting and ambitious explorations of what the arts can accomplish at the University of Michigan,” Olsen said. “How do they help us think more sharply? How do they help us imagine the world differently? Do they help us  take a deeper account of one another or heal from a trauma such as a global pandemic?”

According to Olsen, the event marked the first large-scale expression of the U-M Arts Initiative, which was announced in October 2019 and is currently in the second of a three-year-long pilot and planning phase.

U-M President Mark Schlissel also participated. Before introducing Ma, he spoke to his feelings about the importance of the arts rising to meet this historic moment, offering us all a way to reckon with what we’ve experienced the past year. 

“The arts help us conceptualize new possibilities born of the ruptures of the last year and how we can carry our community forward to create a better, more inclusive world together,” he said. “The arts adapt and through the arts we adapt ourselves.”  

Schlissel then turned the event over to Ma, who spoke about an idea the committee has been reflecting on as part of their planning leading up to the launch—heart maps.

“By talking and thinking of what the heart map looks like, we are actually joining the head and the heart together,” Ma said. “Many places talk a lot about how we need to further develop our analytical thinking and our critical thinking but without the emotional bulwark of narrative, where do we come from and where are we going?” 

Through live discussions with project committee members Olaniran and Williamson, and a pre-recorded discussion with Detroit-based interdisciplinary artist and Nour Ballout, who was unable to attend, the group posed a question to audience members, asking them how their idea of “home” changed over the past year.

Attendees were able to provide their answers in real time as Ma talked with three student project collaborators, Alyssa Maria Melani, U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance student; Ashwin Soorya, U-M College of Engineering student; and Audrey Banks, art and design student at UM-Flint. They discussed the things that they have been “longing for” throughout the pandemic, with answers ranging from mental peace to physical touch, taste and smell. 

As much as the project will ask participants to look back at what they learned over the last year, it will also look at how we move forward into a new future. At one point, Ma asked the students what it will feel like as life goes back to normal.

“Every experience from here on out will feel like the beginning of something new,” Melani said. “And that’s something I want to incorporate into this experience.”

The night ended with artist Avery Williamson sharing a short clip of her first attempt at making a heart map with paint and paper, while Ma provided live cello accompaniment.  

The group emphasized the collaborative, collective nature of the project and expressed their hopes for community participation and feedback. They encouraged attendees and other community members to get involved in the first steps of the project, which will help to inform the outcome:

  • Fill out an online form with a response to the question, “How has your idea of home changed over the last year?” 
  • Call 734-212-2008 and leave a voicemail with a response to the question: “If you could leave a message for yourself one year ago, what would that message be? 

Yo-Yo Ma’s residency will culminate with a project that builds off of the ideas in the “Mapping without Boundaries” kick-off and another event in September 2021. 


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