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Arts & Culture

Student Art Evokes Frustration, Sorrow and Hope in a Nation of Guns

Seven Works Honored in Sadat Art for Justice and Peace Competition

By Maggie Haslam

bullet casings arranged in shape of United States

“Neverending,” a depiction of the 321 people shot each day in the United States, took first prize in the wall-hanging category in the 2023 Sadat Art for Justice and Peace competition.

Photos by John T. Consoli

A mass of 321 bullet casings tightly arranged in the shape of the United States—representing the average number of people shot each day in this country—was among the winning entries in this year’s University of Maryland Sadat Art for Justice and Peace Competition.

“Neverending,” by art major Mary Mena ’24, was recognized Friday alongside student works of smudged acrylic, etched steel and digital art depicting the toll of gun violence.

"This year's theme, ‘Victims of Gun Violence,’ is one that haunts our entire nation and has been prioritized by our university,” said Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development and founding director of the program. “We already address this issue in our research and in our ongoing public opinion polling, but artists speak powerfully about issues of social justice through their visual representation.”

[120 Initiative Presents Pathway to Fewer Gun Deaths]

Hosted jointly since 1998 by the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development and the Department of Art, the competition challenges students from UMD’s Department of Art to conceive two- and three-dimensional pieces that evoke peace and reconciliation around a contemporary theme. The competition is now held in coordination with the university’s Arts for All Initiative, which develops new and reimagined curricular and experiential offerings that nurture different ways of thinking to spark dialogue, understanding, problem-solving and action.

In past years, student artists have offered powerful statements around Islamophobia, the Black Lives Matter movement, 9/11 and the refugee crisis, with winning artworks presented to Sadat lecturers including Nelson Mandela, Kofi Anan and the Dalai Lama.

The 2023 jury included Telhami; Sylvia Pines, wife of university president Darryll J. Pines; Katherine Wilkens Van Hollen, wife of U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland; Annette Aburdene and Suava Salameh, sponsors of the Sadat Art for Peace Program; Department of Art Chair Brandon Morse; art Professor Cy Keener; and Dana Priest, John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Public Affairs.

Below are this year’s winners:

bell cast from melted bullet casings

Stephanie Mercedes, “Be What a Bullet Can’t Be”
First Place, Three-Dimensional
A bell cast from melted bullet casings transforms weapons of death into a symbol of remembrance, the MFA student said in their artist statement. “Like gun violence, which ripples through a community, a bell’s vibrations can ripple but also heal,” said Mercedes. “I hope to transform the materiality of violence into its opposite: peace.”

ukulele filled with shell casings and flowers

Mary Mena, “Tainted”
Second Place, Three-Dimensional
This mixed-media transformation of a ukulele, its belly filled with shell casings and flowers, symbolizes the death of Mena’s cousin—who loved to make music—by gunfire. “Change needs to happen, not just for my cousin's sake, but for all our loved ones.”

honeycomb-colored wood box

Lynn Nguyen, “Recess”
Honorable Mention, Three-Dimensional
Nguyen’s honeycomb-colored wood box contrasts with its contents—two resin guns—to emulate the contrast between the “rigidity of systems perpetuating gun violence and the potential for healing,” questioning how compassion and peace can rid the world of violence. “By connecting with our inner selves and committing to change, we can work toward a safer and more nurturing future for everyone,” said Nguyen.

bullet casings in the shape of the United States

Mary Mena, “Neverending”
First Place, Wall-hanging Art
“Neverending” is a commentary on the normalization and propensity of gun violence and how it overshadows the promise of the American dream. “We hear about a number of mass shootings and school shootings,” said Mena. “We go on with our day as if nothing has happened.”

framed images of student hiding under desk and newspapers with gun violence headlines

Maya Lee, “No Child Left”
Second Place, Wall-hanging Art
Lee’s digital representation of the contemporary American classroom, where desks and bookshelves are repurposed as shields, expresses the frustration of a generation numbed to the horrors of school shootings. “Gun violence turns a classroom from sanctuary to battlefield,” said Lee. “It turns desks from apparatuses of intrigue and creativity into fortresses.”

A nervous system made of gun components on a field of bullet-riddled steel

Hartley Carlson, “The Weight of an Empty Gun”
Third Place, Wall-hanging Art
A nervous system made of gun components traces the movement of cortisol—the body's stress hormone—on a field of bullet-riddled, battered steel, emulating the visible and invisible affronts of gun violence. “This work serves as a visceral reminder that gun violence is not just a problem for its direct victims, but for all who live with the fear and uncertainty it brings,” said the artist.

red textured painting

Maryam Ali, “( قدموں کے نشان ) ( رد پا ) Footprints”
Honorable Mention, Wall-hanging Art
Ali’s piece memorializes the violent 2022 government crackdowns in Iran, known as “Bloody Friday,” and imagines the chaotic and bloody hospital floor encountered by family members searching for their loved ones. “The painting is a somber reminder of the pain and loss we must strive to prevent,” said Ali.

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