Knowing How We Live

Sullivan Faculty Fellow Pradip Malde uses art to inform and to transform his students and the world

Pradip Malde is an artist, professor, and world traveler. His photography is held in collections at the Museum of the Art Institute in Chicago, Princeton University Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Yale University Museum, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, among others.

But, for Malde, art is about more than creating beautiful objects. It is inextricably linked to social action.

“I believe that art-making stands to put into a shared place our most personal attitudes and most enduring concerns, and in doing so, is essentially a social practice,” he says. “It follows then, that I am less concerned by art as a self-expressive practice and more interested by the way it helps create bonds and connections.”

That socially conscious artistic approach brought Malde, who is a professor of art at Sewanee, to be selected as one of the Sullivan Faculty Fellows for 2016-2017. He is using his fellowship to design a program of study that includes courses in documentary photography and environmental studies.

“Students begin to consider how an understanding of environmental and social relationships can lead to resilient and innovative communities, and from there to community-based action,” says Malde. “The course requires students to spend a majority of the time outside of traditional classroom spaces, with extensive field trips and home visits.”

A course in engagement

Students in the program, which is now fully planned and is beginning enrollment, will spend three weeks in Haiti and three in rural Grundy County, Tennessee, which is adjacent to Sewanee and has a poverty rate well above the national average.

As Malde puts it in the course’s description, “students will understand the significance of the day-to-day in relation to larger environmental issues, and vice versa, and learn to glean concerns that persist and are shared by communities as different as those in Haiti and Tennessee.”

Malde specializes in documentary photography, and much of the work he and his students do is about contextualizing communities, particularly those in need or suffering a loss. Photography, he believes, is especially capable of doing that contextualizing work.

“Photography is a widely accepted and highly readable expression,” says Malde. “Its ‘language’ is easy to access. It stands as evidence of events and establishes histories. Not to be confused with truth, but certainly aligned with authenticity, the use of photography by communities can establish pathways for social action.”

An art born out of loss

That loss is a constant theme of Malde’s work likely comes, he thinks, from where he started in life. His family was forced to flee his hometown of Arusha, Tanzania, on short notice as political turmoil took hold there in the 1970s. While they were never homeless or starving, he recalls the feeling of having lost everything his parents had worked for and not knowing what the future held.

“The story has a happy outcome, of course, but experiences like that leave deep imprints,” says Malde. “Vulnerability, not belonging anywhere, being afloat with no control over one’s fate—these feelings help me engage as much as I can with wherever I am. Photography is about full engagement, and has always been in my life.”

The happy outcome he mentions is, of course, a long and prolific career as a professional artist, many opportunities to teach—he’s been at Sewanee for 27 years now—and a host of awards and fellowships.

Turning experience into knowledge

The Sullivan Faculty Fellowship, which he received in August of 2016, is a distinction Malde is honored by. Most important, though, is the opportunity it has afforded him to have an impact on art students who wish to actively engage with the communities they document.

While the details are important, Malde sums up his hopes for his students in the broadest, most hopeful terms.

“I want students to know how we live,” he says, “and why things may be the way they are, and where small changes in our lives may lead to larger transformations.”

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