Columbia Grad Student Creates a Painting at the Obama Foundation Democracy Forum

The work "focused on these abstract, yet intertwined ideas of diaspora, common experience, and democracy,” said MFA candidate Aristotle Forrester.

Eve Glasberg
November 21, 2022

On November 17, the Obama Foundation hosted its first Democracy Forum at the Javits Center in Manhattan, in partnership with Columbia University and the University of Chicago. As part of the event, the foundation, working with School of the Arts Dean Carol Becker, put out an open call to students in the school’s Visual Arts Program to respond to the content of the conference by creating a live art piece. This would entail attending the daylong forum, and then producing the work during the evening reception. As noted in the request for submissions, the art installation was intended to express the concept of fostering cultural pluralism through art, and interpret what it means to “strengthen and expand democracy.”

The Obama Foundation selected artist Aristotle Forrester from the proposals that were submitted. Forrester will receive his MFA degree in 2024, and, fittingly, is a Chicago native from Hyde Park on the city’s South Side, where the Obama Presidential Foundation is being built.

Forrester, who is an abstract expressionist oil painter, created his painting, a large, nonrepresentational work, on the spot at the Javits Center, and it was removed after the forum concluded.

Columbia University MFA student Aristotle Forrester with the Obama Foundation work in his studio

“Cultural pluralism is encompassed in much of my work,” Forrester said. “The piece I created captured the converging energy of various cultures within the event space, providing an integral experience. Abstraction allows for the opening of cultural barriers and dialogue, and is the perfect tool for creating shared ground.”

One of Forrester’s recent works, Harbor of Diaspora, exemplifies this theme of cultural pluralism. The painting represents the journey of immigrants in transit to a new land, and the landscape they face upon arrival. “As a multiracial individual, I aim to tell the stories of the people who make up both sides of me,” he said. His goal was to bring that perspective to the painting he created at the Obama Forum by “giving each and every person there a collaborative viewing experience, and a new way to see themselves within our multicultural abstract landscape,” he added.

“By exploring these concepts through physical landscape, we are reminded of the shared journey we take, facilitating a conversation about democracy and its importance in making a space where we all are represented,” Forrester said. “The painting I created for the event focused on these abstract, yet intertwined ideas of diaspora, common experience, and democracy.”

Forrester said that he was honored to be selected for this project. "As an African American from the South Side of Chicago, I have been inspired by Barack Obama and his dedication to his community since my childhood, when I used to skateboard by his house on my way to school. I aim to be a role model and to inspire younger generations from similar backgrounds to my own. Being a part of the Democracy Forum helped me gain insights into ways I can engage civically to further the goal of making impact through my art. I think it's critical to showcase traditional mediums through a multicultural perspective.”