Medical school might seem to be a far cry from art school, but Nientara Anderson has spent her academic career arguing otherwise. While completing medical school, Nientara has incorporated her personal story and background into several activist initiatives on Yale’s campus. She uses her artistic training to help others see the culture of Yale’s School of Medicine in a new light. Nientara and I sat down to discuss art, institutionalized racism, and student activism.
Allison Chu: Tell me a little about yourself, your background, how did you get to Yale?
Nientara Anderson: The story of how I got to Yale is pretty long. I grew up in Sri Lanka. I was born in 1984 and grew up during the Sri Lankan civil war. I identify as Tamil—my dad is Tamil and my mom is Sinhalese, so they’re from the two different ethnicities that were engaged in the civil war. My parents sent me to the United States when I was 13. I stayed with another Sri Lankan family and went to public high school in Connecticut, outside of Hartford. I then went to Cooper Union for art school for a couple years. I loved my time there but I realized I wanted a broader education, so I transferred to Yale, where I was an art major but also took classes in other things. After Yale, I became the arts editor for the Jackson Free Press, in Jackson, Mississippi, I also helped run an organic farm while I was down there, and I was directing a non-profit that I started as an undergrad called Bridge2Peace. I founded it with my family after the 2004 tsunami hit Sri Lanka. While being the director of that non-profit, I became more and more interested in medicine, and in particular, in psychiatry and psychology, because it became clear to me that after a tsunami, during and after a civil war, working with people all over Sri Lanka, one of the hardest things to address was mental health. People would come to the hospital seeking medical help, but it was hard to get people help for mental health issues. Over the course of many years of directing the non-profit in Sri Lanka, actually going to sites and overseeing medical outreach and the building of schools, I became more and more interested in how mental health intersected with racial inequalities, gender violence, and the history of colonization in Sri Lanka.
So after a while, I decided to go to medical school. I was much older, I was a “non-traditional” candidate. I did a post-bac in New York City at Hunter College, and worked at an HIV clinic there. That’s how I ended up here at the Yale School of Medicine, in the fall of 2015, almost ten years after I graduated from undergrad. And while I was in med school, I took a year off to get a Masters of Health Science, with a concentration on the History of Science and Medicine.
AC: What is it about archives that grabbed your attention and how have they influenced your research?
NA: I think about archives, especially archives at predominantly white institutions, as including museums, university libraries, the portraits hanging in the [Yale] Law School or Medical School, and I would even include which biographies are preserved in alumni magazines, and which are not. Many archives at historically white institutions were founded and formed during the era of European colonization and slavery, and these archives were therefore informed by the ideologies that underpin colonization and slavery. Those ideologies have lived on in the archives. I explore how the ideologies of white supremacy, European colonization, and racial hierarchies live on in these various archives and how they influence the way we think of the world today.
AC: What are you working on right now?
NA: One of the things I do at the Med School is called “Making the Invisible Visible: Art Identities and Hierarchies of Power.” It is an “art tour,” mandatory for all incoming medical students at the Yale School of Medicine. It was developed by a former classmate of mine named Robert Rock, and he brought me on to help co-lead the project with him. We’ve refined and advanced the project since then. We take medical students to three paintings at the Yale University Art Gallery and the Center for British Art, and we replicate the process of examination and diagnosis that you would do with a patient: observation, interpretation, information-gathering, then a two-step version of drawing a conclusion.
When we take students on the art tour we’re trying to show them how effortlessly they interpret the paintings “correctly”—i.e. understand the paintings the way that they’re “supposed” to be read. We’re also trying to show them that there’s a scrim that sits between each of these stages, between observation and interpretation, between interpretation and designation of intent. The scrim is the values and ideologies and lens of white supremacy, misogyny, colonialism, anti-blackness, and heteronormativity, and this scrim is what helps them interpret the paintings “correctly.” Once they draw their conclusions, we share with them the more modern post-colonial, black feminist, disabilities studies, and critical race studies perspectives on these artworks. We show them that most of the ways that we look at the world, most of the ways that the archive is presented to us in the museum, in medical textbooks, in culture, all of that is cultivating this scrim, this filter, that helps you draw conclusions and interpret what’s going on around you in line with white supremacist heteronormative principles. We’re trying to make them aware of it, because the same thing happens in the clinic. We can’t change that in one three-hour session, but we at least try to make them aware that the history of Western colonization and slavery informs the “objective” observations that medicine and science really fetishizes.
AC: What do you see as the future of this project, and where do you think this project will take you?
NA: This year, before COVID, we had developed a “Making the Invisible Visible” 2.0 tour that was going to be mandatory for all of the graduating seniors. This art tour comes after medical school. We want to ask, “What did you notice? What do you need to be aware of going forward?” Something we’d also like to do is help other institutions develop their own versions of this course, based on whatever museums or archives they have there.
Another thing we’ve been doing has been looking at the archive that is presented in terms of the portraits that are up in the medical school. If you go to the Yale School of Medicine, from the minute you walk in, it’s just old portraits of white men. I think of institutional portraiture as a kind of archive that’s especially important, because these archives are on display. I worked with another medical student, and we published a paper about how the Yale medical students feel about the portraiture. We found a lot of people at Yale who think that the portraits are great and that they represent history, but they didn’t know how people of color and underrepresented minorities received these portraits. It was clear in our paper that people of color felt that these portraits articulated the underlying values of the institution that the institution is too scared to say out loud, that they value white people over people of color, that they value men over women, and that they’re not willing to divest from this sort of history of racism and colonization that underpins the institution. We now have a Committee on Art in Public Spaces that’s working on commissioning new portraits, including some of famous black alumni of the Med School, figuring out what to do with the existing portraits, and crucially, to figure out who it is in these portraits because nobody knew who they were! It took a group of students of color to protest, to form a commission, to hire a Chief Diversity Officer, to finally figure out who on earth these old white guys on the wall even are. I’ll be staying at Yale for residency for psychiatry, so I hope to continue working on both of these projects.
The third thing would be my own research. I’m currently in the middle of finishing my MD thesis for medical school. I was involved in a lot of student activism at the medical school, and I observed differences in institutional responses to activism by people of color and people who are underrepresented in medicine versus activism by white students. Based on my experiences, I’ve been looking at the historiography and the media coverage of student activism. White students are more often treated as and thought of as students, whereas “student” status is downplayed when we talk about student activism by black students, not just in the present moment but also historically. My thesis is about how this dynamic played out in the 1960s and 1970s. The student movement of the 60s and 70s was written about and perceived as a white movement, whereas black student activism was not looked at culturally as a student movement outside of the black community. The thesis is that this idea of denying a title like “student” to young black people is not unique to how we think about activism, but is actually a very old idea that goes back to racialized ideas of childhood innocence and childhood slavery. I’m using the 1970 May Day rally at Yale as a central historic anchor for writing about this.
AC: The last question I have is a fun question: do you have any outside hobbies that have come to bear on your work in a surprising way? Something that someone getting to know you wouldn’t expect?
NA: I’m the last person who would have expected that I would be in medical school, so I’m honestly surprised by the whole thing. The two things that I think that have become relevant to my work in medicine are: one, my background in art. I did not think that was going to be such a big part of my medical school life, and two, not so much a hobby, but more of a background thing—I grew up in a formerly colonized nation, and a huge part of growing up for me was thinking, “We got our sovereignty back. But we’re not really liberated until we get the European colonizers to go back.” It was a very literal way of understanding what being decolonized means. I think that lens has actually informed the way I look at the United States. I see it as an actively colonized country, an active European colony, and especially since I’ve become invested in how race operates in this country, I think that lens that I grew up with has been an asset. We can’t allow white people to promulgate this myth that they are somehow native to this country, which is what they are trying to do. We have to be very careful about how we, as immigrants and people of color, can become complicit in their agenda. So this personal, biographical perspective has been unexpectedly relevant. It has definitely helped me be more critical of these racist, white supremacist organizing principles, as I move through the United States.