Voyages: Chapter 5 Sneak Peek with Featured Artist Schaun Champion

Voyages: Chapter 5 featured artist Schaun Champion hopes her art helps guests experience the interconnectedness of the web of life.

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As a young girl, Schaun Champion's visits to the National Aquarium ignited a love for sea creatures. These core childhood memories, combined with a feeling of being called to water, recently led her back to the National Aquarium.

Black and White Self-Portrait of Schaun Champion's Hand Posed in the Reflection of an Ornate Mirror Above a Small Table
© Schaun Champion; courtesy the artist. Untitled, 2020

Lens-based artist and instructor Schaun Champion is the featured artist for the National Aquarium's Voyages: Chapter 5 event on July 18. Her art will highlight interconnectedness and humanity's relationship to the web of life over time to look for guidance toward our collective future.

To unpack humanity's place in the web of life, Schaun looked to the natural world.

"When thinking about this project, I started paying closer attention to patterns and the ways animals seem to be trying to communicate with us," Schaun said. "The way humans move around in the world affects every other living being, which then affects us. This is interconnectedness."

As part of her residency, Schaun first met with Aquarium experts who pointed her toward Mallows Bay, nestled in the Potomac River. General Curator Jack Cover and Conservation Policy Manager Maggie Ostdahl said Schaun could witness interconnectedness in the once-abandoned, now cherished, Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay.

After World War I, the U.S. government dumped over 100 unused ships into Mallows Bay. People in surrounding areas then stripped the ships of scrap metal, and today, nature has reclaimed the ship's skeletons by growing with and around them to create reefs for wildlife. In 2019, the area was named a National Marine Sanctuary, guaranteeing its protection and recognizing its important role in both human history and as a wildlife habitat.

"The ships stick out of the water like bones, and they're saying, 'There's history here. There's a story here. This is a sacred place worth protecting,'" Schaun explained. "We never get to the place of progress and protection if we don't understand what happened before."

Exploring Conservation

During her research, Schaun also met Angelo Villagomez, a senior fellow at American Progress and this chapter's featured scientist. Angelo was born on the island of Saipan in the Mariana Islands, located in the western Pacific Ocean. His work focuses on Indigenous-led conservation, utilizing both Western scientific methods and Indigenous knowledge and values.

As part of his work, Angelo also seeks to redefine successful ocean conservation. Instead of measuring success based on the number of protected square kilometers in the ocean, Angelo argues that officials should take a more holistic approach to protect this deeply interconnected ecosystem. Schaun and Angelo also discussed the lack of diversity in the voices speaking out for environmental change and justice and the need for more people to have access to the places where decisions are made.

"Humans somehow think that we're not a part of the planet in the same way as every other complex being living here. Maybe we see ourselves as stewards, but not truly a part of it," Schaun expressed. "We do this thing that only humans do where we assign beings or inanimate objects feelings that humans would feel, while simultaneously assuming non-humans don't have feelings, rituals, patterns and lessons they teach their young. This is where learning to see interconnection can help us."

Developing an Exhibition

Guided by conversations with experts, Schaun ventured outside, looking to the water for inspiration. As an environmental photographer, Schaun's work develops organically, drawing from natural elements and landscapes. For this project, she also drew inspiration from mythology and ancient practices, seeing mythology as a tool humans used to make sense of the world and their place in the web of life. Using photography and sculpture, Schaun will transform the Aquarium and transport guests into a natural playground.

Weeping Willow Trees Hanging Over a Stream and Lush Grass Near a Bridge Captured by Schaun Champion Voyages: Chapter 5 Artist
© Schaun Champion; courtesy the artist. Elusive, Venice, 2022

"I'm concerned that humans are collectively ignoring their connection to nature, so what we must do to get us to care about the planet again is find our place and see how we are all in this together, the great and the small," Schaun explained. "And once we spot the interconnectedness, we must ask ourselves how to encourage it and help it grow."

Projectors, lighting and soundscape curated by Schaun throughout the Aquarium will complete her exhibition by further immersing guests and activating multiple senses at the same time.

Playful elements like hopscotch areas throughout the event will invite guests to enjoy the space in a new way. The event will also feature a scavenger hunt with metaphysical and philosophical prompts asking guests to engage in a sensory experience, with support from Baltimore's WombWork Productions. The after-party will feature Brandon Woody and UPENDO, whose lively jazz music will facilitate guests' reflection on the exhibition.

"Jazz is a great way to come off of the show's visuals because of how abstract, free-flowing and emotional it is," Schaun explained.

Down the Rabbit Hole

After months of research and creating, Schaun is excited to invite guests to fall down the rabbit hole into the whimsical web of interconnectedness. She wants guests to be open to reexamining their place in the world with childlike wonder and curiosity.

"As we age, we develop a 'callous' or a hard exterior around our minds that stops our curiosity and desire to learn, and I want my work to break through it. This will be a safe place for guests to crack open and let the world come in," Schaun explained.

Most of all, Schaun hopes her art makes guests curious and inspired to learn more about our connection to the planet. She wants guests to feel safe to explore with the same freedom they had as children.

"I want adults to walk into this exhibition and feel childlike again," Schaun explained. "I want them to play."

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