English professor hosts ‘Socially Engaged Art Workshop’


Mansoor explores the art of queer and trans people of color.

Frankie Kavalir, Allegheny Campus Staff

To be honest, any event that has free pizza has already caught my attention with no problem. But making me rethink each one of my preconceived notions of art, teaching methods and social justice, along with the intersections of all three concepts, is certainly a bonus. 

On Nov. 6, theater director and educator Adil Mansoor held a workshop exploring the art of queer and trans people of color, sponsored by CCAC Honors Program and Student Life. The 90 minute session delved deeply into conversation about socially engaged art, but the setting certainly began informally and comfortably.

Angela Gaito-Lagnese, Honors General Literature professor, started off the workshop with a brief introduction of Adil.

“He can even make me cry when people are acting like chickens,” Gaito-Lagnese said. “Adil is honestly one of the best humans I know.”

Then Mansoor humbly stepped up to say, “Well, let’s see if I live up to any of that.” Mansoor’s resume is certainly nothing too humble in itself though; he both directs and creates original plays and projects, was the Programs and Artistic Director for the LGBTQA+ youth arts organization Dreams of Hope and is now working working towards his MFA at Carnegie Mellon University.

None of these accolades, however, raised his ego too high to prevent him from quickly hopping up to sit cross-legged on the classroom’s front desk and to begin a group-centered conversation by asking for everyone’s names, favorite TV shows and preferred pronouns. Mansoor’s partner also teaches at CCAC, so he himself is quite comfortable in the space and sought to make the group of about 15 attendees feel just as at ease.

“I really appreciate the time that I get to spend here,” Mansoor said. “I’ve learned the hard way not to start with a theater game.”

He then led the whole group in an activity in which people paired up and had to have conversations beginning each sentence with “I could tell you about. . .” Students around me seemingly enjoyed this bit, one describing it as “educational and awkward,” a summary Mansoor certainly liked.

“That sums me up quite well,” he said.

Then, feeling quite at home among this group of mostly strangers already, we began the actual conversation about art by Mansoor first requesting descriptive words for what art actually is from the classroom, rather than just listing off definitions himself.

“There’s more than one way to find art—otherwise I wouldn’t do it.”

We then looked at an art piece from the Art Institute of Chicago called “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The installation features a 175 pound of candy stacked into a corner, representing the weight of the artist’s partner before he died of AIDS-related illness in 1991.

The art piece alone was striking to say the least, but the way in which Mansoor presented it allowed for more interesting interpretation. He began by letting us all take in the image and give our own ideas without any prior explanation. Some of us seemed nearly nervous to sound silly in describing it more literally (“like duh, it’s a pile of candy”), but Mansoor encouraged everything from the obvious state to the subtle intricacies.

“I love the question what do you see because it comes from such an honest and real thing. . . you can’t be wrong.”

He leaned into each student’s comment, saying “please say more about that” and “I love that perspective,” even snapping to one student’s description of the piece as “bittersweet.” 

We continued the workshop by watching a clip from United in Anger, a documentary about the AIDS crisis, and looking at another art piece, but I unfortunately had to leave the presentation a bit early for class. Mansoor took no offense to my leaving early, only thanking me for my presence and imploring me to grab more pizza to go.

The art itself was fantastic (and right up my Mattress Factory-obsessed alley), but the way in which we completed the workshop refreshed my perspective on the modern learning environment. Mixing the concepts of lecture and discussion to maximize engagement in experiencing art are not new concepts, but rarely does anyone perfect it like Mansoor did. I would certainly recommend any future CCAC events of this sort (and the pizza is certainly a bonus).