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The Art of Ekphrasis

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story Harini V

The Art of Ekphrasis
Ekphrasis students engaging in a class discussion. (Pareen Chaudhari)

The word ‘ekphrasis’ can be traced back to its Greek roots ‘ek’ and ‘phrasis’, which mean ‘out’ and ‘speak’, respectively. Ekphrasis incorporates two different mediums of art, where the artist crafts a written response to visual art. This semester, Ekphrasis: Creative Writing in Dialogue with Visual Art is also the name of a two modular credit (2 MC) course offered by Professor Robin Hemley, Director of the Writing Program at Yale-NUS College.

Ekphrasis’s focus on both creative writing and visual art was a key attraction for interested students. Ritika Biswas ’18 explained, “Art and writing have been very integral parts of my life. I have always explored these two aspects separately, but the thought of combining the two was very novel to me.”

In class, students analyze and discuss a wide spectrum of ekphrasis, written by poets, fiction writers, and essayists. They also write short in-class responses to visual art, which are critiqued by their peers. Some pieces are direct responses to the artwork, while others view the art pieces as a source of inspiration for their writing.

Students have different approaches to writing their pieces. Inspired by Claude Monet’s Woman with a Parasol facing left, Baoyun Cheo ’17 explored the painter’s relationship with his muse through the woman’s voice. Unlike Cheo, Biswas prefers writing personal responses to the artwork in the form of prose poetry.

Ekphrasis has also influenced Biswas to apply for a Travel Fellowship under the Centre for International and Professional Experience (CIPE). Titled ‘The Spirit of Nature: Singapore to Iceland’, the fellowship proposes to study natural landscapes across Singapore and Iceland and how they influence art and society.

Cheo, who will be majoring in Arts and Humanities, is currently enrolled in two courses at the National University of Singapore (NUS): Voice Studies and Production and Introduction to Playwriting. While these courses have provided her with a solid theoretical background, Cheo admitted that she still lacks the practical experience of producing art. Ekphrasis, however, “draws connections between the theoretical and practical components of art,” Cheo said.

Students appreciate that Ekphrasis only counts for two modular credits. Cheo said that unlike her hectic 4 MC playwriting course at NUS, 2 MC writing courses are ideal. She explained, “I find the quality of creative writing is best when inspired. With a hectic workload, I sometimes submit an assignment for a grade or to meet a deadline rather than for the joy of writing. Taking the Ekphrasis course as a 2 MC allows me to explore different types of writing without it taking a toll on me.” Students meet for three hours of class every week, which is the same for a 5 MC course. This 2 MC course, however, only lasts for half of a semester.

Biswas shared that 2 MC courses like Ekphrasis allow students to explore and experiment without needing to take a course overload. On what makes Ekphrasis unique, she said, “I think [Ekphrasis] encapsulates the spirit of a liberal arts education as it is a novel attempt to merge different mediums of art to find a commonality between the two.”

Ekphrasis classes end before the mid-semester break. Students will be presenting their work in an exhibition after this break. The date of the exhibition is yet to be confirmed.

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