The promise of “The best four years of your life” is in every college’s admissions book. College is construed as a place of opportunity; Haverford and its peer small liberal arts institutions (LACs) also offer a life in a green, “natural” retreat, a suburban paradise withdrawn from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. Responding to these promises, Gasira Timir “19 has produced a fascinating exploration of the American dream as manifest in Northeastern LACs, often described as “Little Ivies.” In exploring the utopian and ephemeral as themes that inhabit a college’s campus, Timir grounds her work in the ways the mythological and the “traditional” can be experienced (although most of her shots show people, several focus entirely on the built environment). She displays, in succession, a look out onto a turbulent body of water, a view of a stoic Magill library, and lines of trees in a sprawling field looming over an individual turned away from the camera. Allusions to the Romantics—both visual artists and poets—are constantly and tastefully evoked by a lens that inhabits spaces but vanishes into their peaceful grandeur. Romanticism, and its decentering of the human vis-á-vis the natural, is thus inextricably linked to a residential college’s explicitly limited duration within one individual’s life, a time-span and place (campus) defined by the promise of future—these are the best years of your life.
Timir’s lens does not run away from the dark, exclusionary history of these institutions and the environments that they built to house themselves. A photograph of a white man reading a book and resting his head on a skateboard is juxtaposed with one of a black man next to a fence—a boundary, a wall—staring directly at the camera in challenge. Thus, Timir explodes the “myth of Eden” to expose the collegiate campus and institution as classist, racist, and patriarchal. By showing femmes in athletic garb holding, weaponizing lacrosse sticks, the marginalization of women’s sports from collegiate athletics is thematized, the feminine becomes contestatary, combative, and resistant. Her work critiques the “detached” perspective of romanticism, which is revealed as fundamentally exclusionary and privileges the “struggle” of white cis men to whom the American Dream has always been available and accessible and for whom these institutions were built.
Timir’s reading destabilizes the utopia of the college experience within which the American Dream is inscribed, presenting people of color inhabiting spaces historically constructed to exclude them and which do so even today. The tension between the exclusiveness that defined these institutions and the resistance, ambition, and hopefulness that marginalized (invisibilized) identities bring to them redefine the collegiate utopia as non-white, non-male, non-wealthy. The presence of the marginalized is not caricaturesque; their lived experience is artfully displayed, laughter, tears, and fears included. Thus, “Little Ivy” coalesces the romantic and the sublime, finding Eden in contesting its discriminatory roots. The ecstasy of laying in the grass littered with Fall’s detritus is visible, while this bliss’ grounding in ultimately exclusionary and racist structures of power is unveiled.
Walking past these small photos, laid out linearly in beautifully rendered black-and-white within larger white frames, in the VCAM Create Space, I am stopped by a piercing gaze, a protest, a silent scream. In Timir’s photographs, it seems the rapturous, the peaceful, the fragile, and the contestatary coexist in euphoric harmony. I cannot but recommend this wonderful show. Its power lies in its skillful deployment of the Romantic canon, and a profound understanding of the power of acknowledging the subaltern to contest and destabilize the hegemonic.
Written by Federico Perelmuter ’21. Edited by Eleanor Morgan ’20.
Photos by Sarah Jennings ’21.