If you’ve noticed blank billboards popping up around Pomona College’s campus, then stay on the lookout, because starting Oct. 8, Wardell Milan’s “5 Indices on a Tortured Body” exhibition will be on full display in five locations around campus. The billboards will stay up until April 2.
Each billboard features a collage of one of five marginalized bodies that Milan identified, including the Black body, the female body, the trans body, the migrant body and the quarantine body. Milan initially showcased his series at the Bronx Museum, and he reimagined “5 Indices on a Tortured Body” in the context of Pomona’s campus.
The billboards are located in front of Frank Dining Hall, behind Bridges Auditorium, next to Pomona’s gates, on Walker Beach and south of Carnegie Hall.
Milan has been working with Pomona’s Benton Museum of Art to make this exhibition a reality for two years, a process that began after Museum Director Victoria Sancho Lobis approached Milan about doing an outdoor art installation.
“She proposed to do a billboard project, and it was up to my discretion as to what I wanted the topic to be about,” Milan said. “And, at the time, I was really working a lot on this project, ‘5 Indices on a Tortured Body,’ and wanted to continue thinking about that body of work and these ideas in this project, so [I] really [began] to reimagine what’s happening in the studio … and reimagine how that could exist in a billboard form.”
Originally, he wanted to create the exhibition to show the ways in which the five body types are both accepted and rejected by mainstream society.
“The inspiration is really to think and create work that dealt with all the different complicated issues — both the fraught issues and also the beautiful issues and complications that these individual communities have — and creating public art pieces that celebrated all of those different complicated conversations,” Milan said.
Milan drew inspiration from his friends when choosing the five different bodies to display, specifically the trans body and female body.
“My good friend Zee is in the trans body billboard, so [I] talk[ed] with her [about] what it feel[s] like and the struggles of being a trans female,” Milan said. “I have amazing female friends and [had] conversations [with them]. Black females and white females — there’s common shared stories about just being a particular gender and dealing with men and dealing with the idea of constantly having to prove yourself or dealing with having certain privacy rights taken away.”
To make his ideas into a reality, Milan relied on help from the Benton in deciding where certain pieces should be, the ways in which they would be installed and the construction of the physical billboards. Now that these logistical aspects are complete, the Benton is working on informing the community about the installation.
According to Benton communications assistant Caroline Eastburn, the museum is taking several avenues to spread the word to students at the colleges, including via email, social media posts and on-campus posters. The Benton is also informing professors and on-campus groups about the exhibition in hopes that they will let students know about the installation as well.
According to Eastburn, the exhibit will develop programming over the first six months of the exhibition. However, she believes that to some extent students will also learn about billboards naturally.
“One of the more exciting things about a public art project is that it takes on a life of its own, and so [that’s] what we’re hoping for,” Eastburn said, “…and we’re hoping for programming to come out of that.”
Like Eastburn, Milan thinks that the billboards will reach a lot of students simply because of the medium it is in, which, he said, also will allow for the pieces to engage with the viewer in a new way.
“The art is meeting the viewer, and the audience engage[s] with the work as they are moving through this instance, moving through the campus, moving through the space of the campus, so I like that the way in which viewership and audience participation is a lot different from from someone coming into a gallery space,” Milan said.
From Eastburn’s perspective, the exhibition’s purpose is to force its viewers to address and engage with a difficult topic.
“It’s really bringing those conversations to the forefront through visual means, and it really is to make visible these marginalized groups that are often invisible to the community,” Eastburn said. “So it’s to celebrate those groups and to also spark some conversation.”
Milan agrees and hopes that the billboards can have an impact on their viewers, both on a small and large scale.
“The small goal would be that the images would cause a conversation and have people be conscious about how they’re dealing with marginalized individuals and, hopefully, have people look at marginalized groups or persons with a different level of respect or a greater level of understanding or, at least, empathy,” Milan said. “The largest hope would be that it causes someone to become an advocate in some sort of way.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Caroline Eastburn is developing programming at Pomona College’s Benton Museum of Art. It has been updated to reflect that Eastburn’s responsibilities do not include programming but instead pertain to communications with press is. TSL regrets this error.