2016 VSA International Artists Honored in ED Exhibit Opening

Uriel Levitt and Sibtain Junejo come from two very different realities. While Levitt, 20, is from Silver Spring, Maryland, Junejo, 15, was born over 7,000 miles away in Karachi, Singh, Pakistan.

Now these two artists have something that unifies them: Their artwork is at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in Washington, D.C., along with that of other peers from Egypt, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and elsewhere in the U.S.

On Thursday, Nov. 17, VSA artists and their families, ED staff, representatives from VSA and the Kennedy Center, and arts educators and arts education advocates came together to celebrate the opening of ED’s 12th annual VSA Art Exhibit, titled Yo Soy…Je Suis…I Am…the World. The exhibit advances VSA’s mission to “provide arts and education opportunities for people with disabilities and increase access to the arts for all.”

Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, the founder of VSA 40 years ago, was present to experience the significance of the students’ work and the excitement at the opening.

Sibtain Junejo, left, and Uriel Levitt, center, cut the ribbon to open the VSA art exhibit as Jean Kennedy Smith, right (in blue), encourages them.

Sibtain Junejo, left, and Uriel Levitt, center, cut the ribbon to open the VSA art exhibit as Jean Kennedy Smith, right (in blue), encourages them.

The celebration kicked off with a program enabling many voices to share their perspectives on the importance of the arts. Among them was Sue Swenson, acting assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, who invited attendees to visit the exhibit and “not only just see it with your eyes, but see it with your heart.” The “heart” of the matter for Swenson is grounded in our Declaration of Independence, whose principles showed up in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “All human beings are … equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”  Swenson posited that “our artists here today and those who have also contributed to this exhibit have communicated with us in the spirit of brotherhood.”  She ended by asking the audience to “keep in mind what is at stake” and that is “peace in the world.”

More voices were heard in a panel discussion, “Changing Lives Through Arts Education,” comprising Levitt, Junejo, Levitt’s mom, Dina Levitt, Levitt’s art teacher, Katherine Johnson French, Junejo’s sister, Sindhiya Junejo, and Tarik Davis, a local hip hop artist and educator.

Mario Rossero moderates a panel discussion of artists, family members, and art educators: (from left to right) Sibtain Junejo, Sindhiya Junejo, Dina Levitt, Uriel Levitt, Katherine Johnson French, and Tarik Davis.

Mario Rossero moderates a panel discussion of artists, family members, and art educators: (from left to right) Sibtain Junejo, Sindhiya Junejo, Dina Levitt, Uriel Levitt, Katherine Johnson French, and Tarik Davis.

Each of the panelists shared his or her belief in the significance of art in educating a person. For Davis, art “builds a sense of confidence and a sense of sureness.” For Johnson French, art “speaks a transcendental language” that enables her students to show her who they are. For Dina Levitt, art gives her son the opportunity to be seen as an equal.

The moderator of the panel and senior vice president of education for the Kennedy Center, Mario R. Rossero, acknowledged the importance of art in the context of the show’s theme.

“With ‘Yo Soy, Je Suis, I Am,’ it’s all about the individual perspective but also being a member of the global community and of the world,” he said. Rossero described the power of the arts in our lives that he heard from the panelists: It is the expression of “identity, voice, collaboration and relationships, imagination, confidence, and no boundaries,” all of which connect us.

This opportunity for connection is special to the artists themselves, many of whom have never had their artwork displayed anywhere other than in their schools and homes.

Uriel Levitt, left, stands next to his artwork with his teacher, Katie Johnson French.

Uriel Levitt, left, stands next to his artwork with his teacher, Katie Johnson French.

“I am so happy to see people enjoying a masterpiece, my masterpiece,” said Uriel Levitt, whose piece, “Whole Family and My Museum,” is a mixed media work, a sort of self-portrait complete with fake teeth, a mask, Legos, string, a green pepper, pictures of him and his family, and other objects dear to him.

Though Junejo is nonverbal, his sister expressed her family’s appreciation to have a platform to make his voice heard. “We are thankful that you are showing the world that this art exists,” said Sindhiya Junejo. “Everyone has special needs, theirs are just more visible.”

Sibtain Junejo admires his artwork, “The Bright Boy,” drawn with colored pencils on paper.

Sibtain Junejo admires his artwork, “The Bright Boy,” drawn with colored pencils on paper.

The VSA exhibit will remain on display in the Department’s lobby until the end of December, reminding all who see it of the beauty of human connection and the meanings of Yo Soy… Je Suis…I Am…The World.

Amanda Cary was a fall intern from the University of Colorado at Boulder in the Office of Communications and Outreach at ED.

All photos here are by Paul Wood. More photos from the event may be viewed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/departmentofed/albums/72157676628939656.

The Department’s Student Art Exhibit Program provides students and teachers an opportunity to display creative work from the classroom in a highly public space that honors their work as an effective path to learning and knowledge for all. To visit the exhibits or for information about exhibiting, contact Jackye Zimmermann.