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'How do you measure a life?' Carrie Mae Weems and SVA Commencement 2016

Although May 18, 2016 dawned gray and cloudy in New York City, a little inclement weather couldn’t dim the excitement of over 1,000 students poised to walk across the stage at Radio City Music Hall and receive their diplomas at SVA’s 41st formal commencement ceremony. As Provost Jeff Nesin said in his welcoming remarks, graduation is perhaps “the oldest continually observed secular ceremony in the western world,” and both reverence and joy were on display today in abundance.

The program opened with an address from BFA Computer Art, Computer Animation, and Visual Effects student Christina Faraj, who reminded everyone gathered in the audience that, despite the many personal struggles they all faced, “We all did it—and we did it together!”

A Brooklyn native, Faraj worked three jobs in high school in order to enroll in SVA’s Pre-College Program. A brief few years later, she won a coveted Pixar Studio’s summer internship and after graduation, she will move to California to take a full time position with their studio. Although that is for many the dream job, Faraj made it clear that today is only the beginning for each and every graduate in attendance. “Continuously ask yourself,” she beamed at the audience “what’s next?”

Next up at the podium was MFA Photography, Video and Related Media student Yi Yi Lily Chan. Like so many of the incredible students at SVA, Chan’s life had already taken her around the world—from Hong Kong to Toronto to England to New York—before she enrolled at SVA to fulfill her dream of being an artist “who responds pertinently to herself and her times.” In this “incredibly bombastic” moment, she encouraged her fellow graduates to “treat the world like ambient music; to listen with our unique sensibilities; to judge less and be a sponge; to take in a sea of notions” and, just when they think they know it all, “to question it and keep learning.”

The star commencement speaker of the morning was an artist who has spent her life doing exactly that, photographer and MacArthur Fellow Carrie Mae Weems. In introducing her, Walter Rivera, a member of the SVA Board of Directors, called Weems “truly exceptional” for her willingness to both “speak truth to power” and “teach others to find their voices as well.” Weems has been a dancer, photographer, folklorist, mother, union organizer and—throughout it all—a documenter of what it means (or can mean) to be a black woman artist in America today.

In her moving, lyrical speech, Weems showed herself to be both poet and performer as well. Her voice rose and fell musically as she asked the graduates, “ How do you measure a life? By yesterday or today? By the dreams imagined or the hopes dashed? By the monuments built or the walls scaled?”

These were not, she emphasized, purely rhetorical questions. As artists, she said, some in the audience will find phenomenal commercial success, while others may work in relative obscurity. Often, Weems pointed out, this has nothing to do with inherent quality of their art. Women and people of color (and those artists, like Weems, who are both) “have a little bit of extra work to do.” After all, she said, it was only in 2014 that the Guggenheim put up its first solo show by an African-American—Weems herself. Thus, Weems emphasized, part of the work of being an artist is determining individually what success means; what one wants in life, and what you are willing to give or give up.

“Stand for something,” she reminded the graduating class in conclusion. “Commit to something, and let it be said that when you look back over the course of your life, you had no regrets.”

In all, SVA President David Rhodes conferred BFA, MA, MAT, MFA and MPS degrees to close to 1,100 degree candidates in SVA's 2016 graduating class at the ceremony. Amid the laughter and tears in Radio City Musical Hall today, many emotions—from love to hope to joy to fear —were on display, but regret was not among them. And by the end of the ceremony the sun had come out.

An auditorium full of graduates and families. The graduates are wearing red caps and gowns.
Photograph by Joe Sinnott.
Child graduating school and celebrating with joy.
Photograph by Joe Sinnott.
All these 4 people got their bachelor degree
Photograph by Joe Sinnott.
Graduating to the big stage in life.
Photograph by Joe Sinnott.
"graduation ceremony"
Photograph by Joe Sinnott.
Girl in red Gown.
Photograph by Joe Sinnott.
college graduate
Photograph by Joe Sinnott.
red gowns graduating
Photograph by Joe Sinnott.
Two guys graduating
Photograph by Joe Sinnott.
A photograph of a graduate in red, smiling.
Photograph by Joe Sinnott.
Female graduate is congratulated on stage by professors.
Photograph by Joe Sinnott.

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