LIKENING ARTISTS TO SUPER HEROES, Los Angeles-based artist Alison Saar offered an animated message of encouragement at the Maryland Institute of College of Art (MICA) undergraduate commencement on May 18.

“In our studios…our super hero persona emerges, determined to save the day, with the desire to make this world a better place through our creative practice, our social conscience and our unstoppable imaginations,” she said (video above). “Remember art is a powerful secret weapon. Please wield it wisely.”

Saar, who explores history and identity through sculpture and mixed-media works, is among a handful of Black artists invited to serve as commencement speakers this spring. Rick Lowe, founding director of Project Row Houses in Houston and a 2014 MacArthur Foundation fellow, addressed MICA’s graduate ceremony.

On May 15, Kenyan-born, Brooklyn-based Wangechi Mutu spoke at the Montserrat College of Art commencement in Beverly, Mass. Through mixed-media collage, installations and video, Mutu presents the female figure in transfixing environments that reference myth and fashion and probe race, gender and political issues. The evening before the ceremony, she gave a public lecture about her art and activism.

Sonya Clark, chair of the Department of Craft/Material Studies in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University, received an honorary doctorate degree at Amherst College, her alma mater, on May 24. During commencement weekend, the Richmond-based artist whose practice is defined by her use of hair to explore issues of race, history and culture, gave a talk entitled, “Hair to There and Back Again.”

2015 commencement speakers
Clockwise from top left, Adrian Piper, Sonya Clark, Wangechi Mutu, Alison Saar, and Rick Lowe.

Today, philosopher and conceptual artist Adrian Piper is imparting her wisdom on undergraduates at the Bard College Berlin commencement ceremony. Born in New York, Piper lives and works in Berlin where she founded the APRA (Adrian Piper Research Archive) Foundation Berlin. Earlier this month, she received the Golden Lion for the Best Artist in the International Exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

Graduation speeches are often rote recitations of lessons learned and advice for charting a successful path in the world. Few are delivered by someone the graduates revere, someone they can get excited about—someone like Mutu, Clark, Piper, Saar or Lowe, who implored MICA students to remain open to change and not to let the things they know or the things that they have accomplished hinder them from the things they have the potential to become.

Lowe’s remarks were incredibly optimistic. “This is a special time to be an artist, one of the most fascinating times to be an artist in the last 60, 70, 80 years,” he said.

“This is a special time to be an artist, one of the most fascinating times to be an artist in the last 60, 70, 80 years.” — Rick Lowe

MICA graduates have fared particularly well in terms of graduation speakers. This year Saar and Lowe addressed students. Last year, artist Fred Wilson was the commencement speaker. Wilson’s site-specific installations draw on museum archives re-contexualizing objects, challenging historical narratives and raising questions about erasure and exclusion.

This year, Kanye West’s recognition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), where he was awarded an honorary doctorate, attracted widespread media attention. But last year was the real headliner.

In 2014, SAIC students heard from one of the most innovative contemporary artists working today—Theaster Gates. A hard-to-define creative whose cultural development projects bridge art, social justice and urban planning, the success and unexpected direction of Gates’s practice exemplifies the sentiments expressed in the remarks of Lowe.

Citing the ever-expanding role of artists in society, Lowe told MICA graduates: “This is a great moment. Here we are in the 21st century facing problems that the business world cannot handle and it’s going to fall back on us, the world is looking at us—the creative class.” CT

TOP VIDEO: May 18, 2015: Alison Saar speaks at undergraduate commencement at Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore. Based in Los Angeles, Saar explores history and identity through sculpture and mixed-media works. (26:20-33:35)


May 18, 2015: Rick Lowe addresses graduate commencement at Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore. Lowe is founding director of Project Row Houses in Houston and a 2014 MacArthur Foundation fellow. (34:45-47:10)


May 12, 2014: Theaster Gates addresses the School of Art Institute of Chicago commencement, speaking to students about greatness and emphasizing that “artists should believe deeply in the things we make…that we should imagine ourselves as full citizens of the world.” Based in Chicago, Gates’s practice bridges art, social justice and urban planning.


May 19, 2014: Fred Wilson addresses MICA commencement and concludes by congratulating the students, telling them they have “chosen the best life imaginable.” Wilson’s site-specific installations draw on museum archives re-contexualizing objects, challenging historical narratives and raising questions about erasure and exclusion. (28:22- 42:25)

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