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DU Students Converse with Ancient Mesoamerican Art in Davis Gallery Exhibit

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Susan Dugan


Profile  • News  •
Sydney Barofsky-curated exhibit

Photo by Nicole Rayas Gonzalez

When Sydney Barofsky (MA ’23) saw the call for exhibition proposals by DU’s newly opened Davis Gallery last winter, they seized the opportunity to share their passion for Mesoamerican ceramics. 

“I thought, if artists back then and there could talk, what would they say?” Barofsky, who uses they/them pronouns, explained. “And if American art students could talk back by creating an artistic response, what would they say?”

The Davis Gallery exhibit “Back to the Present: A Curatorial Collaboration,” currently running through Feb. 17, strives to answer those questions by “fostering a creative conversation between artists of the past and present by placing their works in dialogue.”

Sydney Barofsky-curated exhibit
Sydney Barofsky (MA'23) 
Photo by Nicole Rayas Gonzalez

Barofsky, who received a DU art history travel grant to study artistic traditions in Western Mesoamerica, curated the exhibit that features 1,700-2,000-year-old ceramic art objects mostly from the Western coast of Mexico. The artwork was generously loaned from Denver’s Museo de las Americas, an institution and collection with which Barofsky was already intimate. They interned there five years ago while taking a gap year before earning an undergraduate degree in art history from Metropolitan State University.

“I fell in love with those pieces from the Museo’s collection and in some ways have been in conversation with them in my head ever since,” said Barofsky, who is studying art history with a concentration in museum studies.

To elicit student artwork for the exhibit, Barofsky sent out a call for artists to the School of Art & Art History (SAAH), explaining that they were looking for authentic artistic responses that spoke to the exhibit's theme of communicating with the past. 

Barofsky also found a few interested participants when Professor Deborah Howard brought her students to the Davis Gallery for a brief informational workshop about the project.

Contributions enabled Barofsky to experience the loaned objects with fresh eyes.

“As the work started coming in at the time of installation it was amazing to see the different artist’s interpretations of these pieces that I’d been looking at for years,” they said.

To broaden the dialogue between present and past and include the greater university community, Barofsky decided to offer visitors an opportunity to artistically respond to the works.

“I set up a space where people could sit down at a drawing desk and provided drawing paper that I hand tore to give it a more artistic appearance,” Barofsky said, noting they continue to collect and display responses.

Tying Curation to a Theme and a Mission

Individual curators and museums have different philosophies about what goes into curating an exhibit, Barofsky explained, addressing the question of what it means to curate an exhibit. The Davis Gallery, in particular, emphasizes collaboration.

“For me that meant making connections with members of DU and the community to form a cohesive exhibition around the theme of conversations through time,” they said.

Instead of displaying objects around styles of curation that organize around size or color, for example, Barofsky built the layout to clearly emphasize the conversation between the ancient and contemporary art.

Throughout the curation process Barofsky bounced ideas off Annabeth Headrick, their graduate advisor and an associate professor of Art History and Director of SAAH.

“She’s an amazing scholar and it’s been a great opportunity for me to get feedback from her as a fellow Mesoamericanist. I counted on her to give me the input I needed,” Barofsky said.

Headrick has nothing but praise for Barofsky’s “thoughtful approach to using ancient American artworks in an exhibition.”

This took not only consideration of their careful handling but negotiating with various museum institutions about their display policies,” Headrick said. “Sydney has developed incredible professional skills through this process.”

Foreseeing a Future in University Museum Curation

Barofsky, who has been accepted into a PhD program in art history at the University of Illinois beginning in the fall, plans ultimately to pursue a career in curation for university collections.

“Top universities like DU have these expansive art collections and I can foresee myself in a position where I teach and manage a university’s art collection.”

Barofsky didn’t hesitate when asked to name the most important thing they’ve learned about curating from this exhibit.

“It’s fitting that in a gallery geared toward collaboration my main takeaway is how incredibly important collaboration is,” they said. “It takes so many people to make an exhibit like this — the Museo, student artists, professors, other curators, gallery staff members — within the timeframe and with a high level of professionalism.”

They hope the exhibit offers visitors a sense of how artistic expression transcends the confines of time and place.

“During my undergraduate education I learned to ‘hand build’ ceramics by lining up coils of clay and pressing them together to make a form,” they explained.

“When you look at ceramics in the show, you can see the same sort of artistic techniques. Even though we are from vastly different cultures, time periods and historical contexts, you can see a ceramic figure with a human face where the ceramicist clearly poked the eyes in the same way we might do it today. By pairing DU art students’ work with ceramics from Mesoamerica you can see how those little traces — from brushstrokes to fingertips — seem to follow us.”

“Back to the Present: A Curatorial Collaboration” is on display through Feb. 17 at the Davis Gallery. Upcoming exhibits at the Davis Gallery include:

“Belonging and Coexistence — Photography and Community,” Feb. 27-March 24, featuring work by the Canadian animal photojournalist Jo Anne McArthur and curated by DU Professor of Photography Roddy MacInnes. The show, which coincides with Denver's biannual Month of Photography, will be paired with a community project featuring artwork by seven DU alumni in the lobby of the Shwayder Art Building.

“Defining Our Voices: Evolving into the Artists We Want to Be,” April 3-May 7, featuring art by young alumni curated by Clare Link-Oberstar and Linneya Gardner.

“Annual Student Exhibition,” May 18-June 10, featuring capstone art projects by graduating SAAH seniors.