Michelle Kang '13 Will Lead Photography Workshops and Multimedia Projects with South African Youth

April 8, 2013

Michelle (“Mische”) Kang ’13 has been awarded a 2013 Davis Project for Peace grant, a $10,000 fellowship to “promote peace and address the root causes of conflict,” according to the Davis Project website. Kang will use the funds to lead photography workshops and conduct collaborative multimedia projects with township youth in South Africa.

The Davis Projects for Peace are the brainchild of international philanthropist and Wellesley alum Kathryn W. Davis ’28. On her 100th birthday in 2007, Davis began giving $1 million each year to grassroots projects promoting world peace. Students from the 90-plus colleges and universities who are partner schools with the Davis United World College Scholars program are eligible to apply. Winning projects receive a $10,000 stipend.

Kang first traveled to Mamelodi Township in June 2012 on a service trip with a Christian student ministry. Mamelodi, which means “mother of melodies,” is part of the larger Tshwane municipality near Pretoria. It is among the largest townships in South Africa, and is a largely underdeveloped urban area with high rates of unemployment, violence, and HIV/AIDS. Students (known as “learners”) face serious poverty-related challenges: According to the Mamelodi Initiative, only one in three will pass the university matriculation exam. Despite these challenges, Mamelodi boasts a vibrant culture and engaging community whose young people seek better futures.

Kang joined a South African university student to co-teach a classroom of lively grade 8 learners as part of an educational enrichment program during the school vacation. She noticed how interested her learners were in photography, a particular passion of Kang’s. “As an artist, I process a lot through what I find to be beautiful and worthwhile in this world through visual images,” she says.

Kang found disposable cameras and offered a week of photography tutorials to the young enthusiasts. The learners took their cameras—and Kang—throughout the township, documenting their everyday experiences. At the end of the program, she organized an exhibit of their work called “Mamelodi Through Their Eyes.”

She describes her time in the township as life-changing. “The people really affected me, and I realized this was not the last time I would see them, especially my students. The place, the conditions, everything that my new friends came from...  I just have an overwhelming curiosity and desire to understand but also be an active part of the community.”

For her Davis Project, Kang will return to Mamelodi during the summer to create a collaborative youth art program in partnership with the Mamelodi Initiative, the University of Pretoria, and the U.S. Embassy. The program will involve more photography workshops (this time with higher-quality cameras) and film-making of various creative modes including poetry, dance, and drama. The goal is to create shareable works of art within the community while emphasizing youth mentorship and empowerment.

“The project is very connected to what I’ve studied at Wellesley,” Kang says, who majors in environmental studies with a minor in Africana studies. Outside the classroom she serves as the president and co-dance captain of Yanvalou, Wellesley’s own drum-and-dance ensemble that specializes in folkloric performance traditions of the African diaspora. “Environmental studies has really given me a holistic view of how people are affected by their environment and how they affect the environment. That’s something I’m constantly looking at, wherever I go. My involvement with Yanvalou has given me a global perspective, and my involvement in photography here has given me the tools to process my world through a medium that I feel really comfortable with.”

After returning from Mamelodi, Kang took an interdisciplinary seminar called Experimental Ethnography: At the Boundaries of Art and Anthropology, team-taught by Assistant Professor of Anthropology Deborah Matzner and Assistant Professor of Art David Kelley. The class focused on innovative, analytical practices of documenting cultural and personal identities.

“Mische is committed and experimental in her approach to creative projects,” said Kelley. “In the Experimental Ethnography class, Mische consistently teased out the cultural idiosyncrasies of new media like Skype® and Google Translate® to produce intelligent and critical artwork. I’m looking forward to seeing how she puts her skills and interests to work during her residency in a South African township.”

Kang has a busy six months ahead of her: In May, she will walk across a stage on the Academic Quad to receive her diploma at Commencement; in June, she departs for South Africa; and in the fall, she will begin a year of campus ministry (“hopefully in Boston”) with Cru, the same organization that brought her to Mamelodi.

“I’m so excited about everything,” she said. “I’m excited because I see the challenge but also the excitement of cross-cultural communication, about being uncomfortable, but growing from that, and making friends in all ages, in all walks of life, in a place that I would otherwise not have the opportunity to go.”

—Gabrielle Linnell ’13

photo: Mische Kang '13