Student's art exhibit uses data to help illustrate racial health disparities
As of Feb. 14, COVID-19 has claimed 918,000 lives in the United States, particularly within Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black people are hospitalized because of COVID-19 at 2.5 times the rate of white people and are 1.7 times more likely to die of COVID-19.
In "COVID-19 As Social Murder: An Investigation of Racialized Bodies in America,” a new data-driven art exhibition at the Armory, the audience will journey through the racial inequalities that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the social conditions which have caused them.
“At first glance, it feels like an art show,” explained the artist, Mariam Hasan. “Then, you start to get into it, and you think, ‘Wait… this is actually data.’”
Artistic data visualizations, videos, and text are interwoven in a linear flow to tell a story in the data. By incorporating imagery and activist voices from the Black Lives Matter protests, Hasan illustrates the true underlying social conditions that have caused the disparities.
“This relates back to the Black Lives Matter protests, and so there's a lot of strong imagery that is really, really powerful and emotive,” said Hasan. “That [imagery] gives [the show] more of a personable feel than just numbers and text. I'm integrating both news coverage and powerful imagery from the protests as well as a lot of passionate protesters who I really admire.”
Hasan is a senior at Virginia Tech studying biomedical engineering. She’s also a researcher, designer, artist, and activist. As a biomedical engineering major, Hasan has learned about various types of diseases and their demographics.
“But we don’t really learn why,” she said. “We just learn how to solve the problems, [and] not really look into the reasons why those disparities are there.”
When higher incidences of COVID-19 started to rise among racialized minorities, particularly Black Americans, Hasan said everyone seemed shocked by the data. But she wasn’t.
“Everything was pointing toward this happening, so why didn't we have measures to prevent this from happening in the first place?” Hasan said. “When you say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ it doesn't just mean police brutality. … It's also [about] health, and the ways that [minority] communities are literally dying because of structural barriers to health.”
That’s when Hasan started doing her own research into environmental health, structural racism, and social murder.
“When you say, ‘social murder,’ you think of a gun. But, it's something that transcends that. It's death in a way that we don't really see as a very obvious thing, but it's still a big problem,” she said.
Researching these issues and analyzing this kind of data was defeating at times for Hasan. How do you begin addressing all of these complex problems?
Still, she wanted to make an impact and address these issues in her work. As a student in Virginia Tech's Honors College, Hasan focuses her experiences on creativity and innovation, doing undergraduate research at the intersection of medicine, social justice, engineering, design, and art.
“The idea is to combine design, engineering, and this complex problem of solving racial health disparities,” Hasan explained. “I’m sure this [show] will be a starting point in many ways.”
Hasan hopes her exhibition will ignite the same energy and passion people had when the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction over the summer in 2020.
“My goal is to use this kind of data-based art as a gateway into getting people interested in this information and be constantly engaged with it, like I am.” Hasan said.
See Hasan’s exhibition "COVID-19 As Social Murder: An Investigation of Racialized Bodies in America” at the Armory. The show will be available until Feb. 18.
This exhibition was funded and made possible by the Virginia Tech Honors College, VT Engage, Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, and the Virginia Tech Office of Undergraduate Research. Hasan said she had support from Nikki Lewis, Zach Duer, LaDale Winling, Deb Sim, and Dongsoo Choi.