Art Here, There, and Everywhere

Graduating M.F.A. students show off their work in a wide-ranging exhibition on the Medford/Somerville campus

Niki Li with a cutout of herself at her art installation

Tufts celebrates the provocative work of forty-two graduating M.F.A. students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts with a multi-dimensional exhibition May 14-20 spanning sculpture, photography, ceramics, painting, interactive video installations, and performance art.

Dina Deitsch, director and chief curator of Tufts University Art Galleries, said the show “caps two years of working closely with SMFA faculty to develop artistic visions that will shape careers.”

It’s also a kind of a homecoming. For the past several years, only large gallery spaces in Boston could accommodate the thesis exhibition’s sheer scale; this year, exhibition organizers at the school and the Tufts Art Galleries found a different solution to the space problem. Art from the exhibition will spill over from Aidekman Art Gallery on the Medford/Somerville campus into the Academic Quad and to two academic buildings, Eaton Hall and Lane Hall, which will be reimagined as gallery spaces. 

“It’s a really interesting way to think about hosting a show,” said Deitsch. “We wanted to have a festive, dynamic atmosphere, and we think people will enjoy moving throughout the show, seeing the range of works, and how well they are adapted to spaces not traditionally associated with art.”

The show also achieves a wider university objective: to bring visibility to the Boston-based SMFA, acquired by Tufts just two years ago, and now an integral part of the School of Arts and Sciences. In that regard, co-organizer Jeannie Simms, director of graduate studies and the SMFA Master of Fine Arts Program, said the show is “both a celebration and a milestone. By incorporating and anchoring art in the university community, we dovetail this important show with the larger Tufts mission: to be deeply engaged in the arts,” she said.

Samual Belise, “Life Is Beautiful,” oil on cardboard, 2017. Samual Belise, “Life Is Beautiful,” oil on cardboard, 2017.
The show, which begins Monday, May 14 and runs through Sunday, May 20, is expected to draw alumni visiting campus for Alumni Weekend events as well as parents arriving for graduation on May 20. On Friday, May 18, the public is invited to a reception starting at 7:30 p.m. Student guides will be on hand to move visitors throughout the campus venues. 

The students, who organized the show, titled it (T)HERE to show how they are synthesizing the concept of here and there—a view that essentially blends global and personal themes to “encourage viewers to rethink notions about what art is and its context in contemporary society,” Simms said.

One such artist is Yanni "Niki" Li. She is transforming the entrance of the Aidekman Art Gallery into the “No. 1 Best Chinese Tattoo Shop,” which incorporates her thoughts about cultural appropriation. The “shop” will display a series of tattoos using original fonts and graphics that Li designed and that she, in a performance art role as shopkeeper, will seek to sell to visitors. Some tattoos that she designed combine highly stylized English letters with the aesthetics of Chinese brush strokes to resemble Chinese characters.

Yanni "Niki" Li, Ugly tattoo, from her “No. 1 Best Chinese Tattoo Shop.” Yanni "Niki" Li, Ugly tattoo, from her “No. 1 Best Chinese Tattoo Shop.”
A fashion designer and graphic artist from Shanghai, Li is intrigued by the “exotic charm” that Chinese characters tattoos exert on Westerners who often get their skin inked “without actually knowing the cultural context they carry, and sometimes even the actual meaning of the words,” she said, calling that trend “fraught with misinterpretation and ignorance.”

“I hope people will have fun,” she said. “Maybe they will get one of my tattoos and when they try to read it, they might not at first be able to decipher it. But then, by looking closer, they’ll realize: Oh, this Chinese tattoo is actually in English! And it means something! And then they may realize that all Chinese characters also have meaning.”

Si Chen and Hui Huang take a break from installing their collaborative project on the Academic Quad near Eaton Hall. Chen designed the dome sculpture onto which Huang’s video will be projected. Photo: Alonso NicholsSi Chen and Hui Huang take a break from installing their collaborative project on the Academic Quad near Eaton Hall. Chen designed the dome sculpture onto which Huang’s video will be projected. Photo: Alonso Nichols
The experience of art as a kind of portal into thinking about social issues also plays out in a geodesic dome installation on the Academic Quad. Si Chen, in collaboration with video artist Hui Huang, seeks to underscore the threats of severe air pollution. A native of Beijing, Chen said the idea for making the outdoor structure—by hand, from scratch—grew from her own experience simply struggling to breathe. “I always cough in the winter in Beijing; the sky is always gray,” she said. “I never wanted to want to go outside in the winter. I was like living in a cage.”She hopes that visitors, who will see the sharp contrast between the outside of the dome and the inside, which is made opaque by its plastic covering, will not “take clear sky for granted.”

Laurence Cuelenaere, “This is Not a Box,” photograph, 2018.Laurence Cuelenaere, “This is Not a Box,” photograph, 2018.
When Laurence Cuelenaere was an anthropology Ph.D. student doing fieldwork in Bolivia, she first became interested in photography as a means to highlight, among other ideas, the dangers of living a world seen increasingly through digitized and “oppressive capitalist” filters—emails, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Academia, and online shopping sites. We are, she said, at risk of becoming highly controlled “digital voyeurs” accustomed and seduced by “ready-made images” that potentially dull our own capacity to see the world afresh.

Viewers will see how she expresses those ideas as she maximizes her assigned space in Eaton Hall: a pillar between two windows. With her eighteen-foot-high canvas of stacked images, her purpose, she said, is to “expand the imagination, and to bring out the element of surprise and joy. I hope that in the moment of seeing it, you will say: Aha! I never thought of that before.”  

The Master's Thesis Exhibition will be held at Aidekman Arts Center, 40 Talbot Avenue, Somerville; Eaton Hall; Lane Hall; and Tufts Academic Green, May 14–20. Hours: 11 a.m.–7 p.m., May 20: 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Opening reception at Aidekman: May 18, 7:30–10 p.m.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at

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