The Art of Nursing

A new installation at the Rory Meyers College of Nursing honors the critical role of nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the World Went Still features works by NYU Meyers students, alumni, and faculty. When New York City became the US epicenter of the pandemic, businesses, schools, and cultural institutions shut their doors to stem the spread of the virus. The city quieted, aside from the sounds of ambulance sirens and the 7:00 p.m. cheers for essential workers, including nurses—the largest healthcare workforce responding to COVID-19.

A black-and-white drawing of several healthcare workers around a hospital bed with machinery in the background. They are dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE), including surgical masks and face shields, and are tending to an unseen patient on the bed that they surround and block from view

“Team Spirit” by Katherine Moon (MEYERS ’16)

When the World Went Still features paintings, drawings, photographs, poetry, a time capsule, and a handmade quilt. The works are displayed across five floors in the College of Nursing, and were curated by Ching-wen Janet Chuang, a master’s student in NYU Steinhardt’s Visual Arts Administration program. Nurse Katherine Moon (MEYERS ’16) has two pieces in the installation, including a self-portrait that depicts her putting on a mask to get ready for work in a New York City intensive care unit at the height of the pandemic’s first wave. “I remember those days as ones filled with dread; the fear of getting COVID and dying was always in my mind,” she recalls. “What got me through those dark times were my coworkers, my family and friends, and the belief that one day it would be over.”

A Groundbreaking Theater’s Revival

NYU’s newest theater space sits on the footprint of the seminal African Grove Theatre, and will soon become a living memorial to the Black theater history that transformed American arts and culture. When the new 181 Mercer Street building opens in the spring, it will honor the African Grove Theatre—the first Black theater in the country that made history in the heart of Washington Square in 1821.

The venue will be named the African Grove Theatre and will be used for the Tisch School of the Arts’ Graduate Acting and Design for Stage and Film programs. The space will offer ongoing theatrical performance, historical displays, educational programming, and teaching and learning opportunities to promote the groundbreaking legacy of the original African Grove Theatre as a beacon for Black artists and performers.

Widely considered the first Black theater in the country, the African Grove got its start when William Alexander Brown, a retired steamship steward, started hosting poetry readings, musical performances, and short plays for Black New Yorkers in his backyard at 38 Thomas Street in 1816. The “tea garden” was the only space in New York where Black patrons were allowed to enjoy leisure entertainment. In 1821, the African Grove was expanded into a 300-seat theater on the corner of Mercer and Bleecker Streets. The company was known for staging Shakespearean classics performed by Black actors, ballets, and comedies, drawing sizable audiences and creating a radical alternative to other American theaters of its time. 

A painting of a Black man with a mustache and small hoop earrings, seated and looking off to the side while wearing green robes, a red cape draped over his shoulders, and a gold necklace

Ira Aldridge as Othello (ca. 1830). Aldridge, who began his career with the African Grove Theatre, was the first American actor to achieve European renown. (Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

“From the very beginning, African Grove productions served as a forum for positive and revolutionary images depicting Black and Indigenous life in America,” says theater historian Michael Dinwiddie, a Gallatin associate professor and co-chair of the Committee to Commemorate the African Grove. “Despite the pressures of a White mob which closed the theater after only two seasons, the African Grove Theatre and its performers transformed American arts and culture, making an indelible mark on the contemporary musical theater landscape, and raised pertinent questions about audience expectations of Black art that are still relevant today.”

A photo from one of the student projects, which shows a virtual landscape with a red sky and very large stone castle looming in the background, with metal ships flying in front of it.

The Edge of Reality

Interactive media arts students at NYU Shanghai collaborated with students from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts to create interactive and immersive virtual landscapes that explore their interpretations of the tensions between what is real and virtual, urban and rural, artificial and natural, and past and future. Through a series of workshops titled “Singularity,” students honed their skills in media installation design, creative coding with realtime engines, particle systems and shaders, and sensing interfaces and physical computing.

“Singularity suggests a forthcoming era of extended technological growth,” says organizer and associate arts professor of IMA Stavros Didakis, who is planning exhibitions of the students’ work. “It asks us to reconsider the boundaries and possibilities of computational and communication systems such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, the internet of things, edge computing, and virtual reality. Through this process, one can envision scenarios that span from utopias of societal harmony and prosperity to dystopian futures of highly controlled and programmed social structures and living beings.”

A photo from one of the student projects, which shows a virtual landscape with a large tree with tubes wrapped around it and clear pods hanging from its branches with people suspended inside the pods.

Among the interactive works created by the students is “Pregnant” (above), in which the viewer enters a world where humans have mastered the technology to create nature and life, with a greenhouse landscape that shows people born from fruit-like plants. In the center is the Tree of Life, where fruits dangle from branches with humans dormant inside them. In this virtual world, the viewer’s actions affect the environment—sitting prompts the enclosure to slowly move and causes a flow of light to surge in the tree roots, while knocking on the walls of the greenhouse causes faint water waves to appear. In another project, titled “Cocoon,” students built a warm bedroom environment to metaphorize the comfortable feeling that our collective online information cocoon brings us. Every time the viewer closes their eyes, the computer recognizes it through a camera and reveals the artificial reality of the cocoon.

Biggest Brewery This Side of the Nile

Think about the history of beer, and Bavarians in lederhosen swilling from steins might spring to mind. But thousands of years before the advent of Oktoberfest, beer played a central role in ancient Egypt. That fact was recently underscored when archaeologists unearthed the ruins of a massive brewery, dating from about 3000 BCE, at the site of the ancient city of Abydos. The discovery is the first proof that inhabitants of the Nile Valley brewed quantities comparable to modern commercial operations. “This was really industrial-scale production on a level that wasn’t happening anywhere else in the world,” says Matthew Adams, senior research scholar at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts and director of the Abydos project. The findings demonstrate that Egyptian kings of that era had “an ability to marshal labor and mobilize resources, as well as serious administrative, organizational, and logistical capacity,” says Adams, “and that is what allowed them to build the pyramids just a couple of centuries later.”

An illustration depicting three Ancient Egyptian figures, stylized in hieroglyphic art form, drinking bottles of beer from a sarcophagus that is being used as a refrigerator for the beer.

(Illustration by Davide Bonazzi)

For ancient Egyptians, drinking beer was about more than just a good time. “Beer was an absolute staple and part of their basic subsistence,” says Adams. “Wages were paid first and foremost in foodstuffs, and the most basic ones were bread and beer.” And home brewing wasn’t only for hipsters: “Every family made their own beer, on a household level.”

Though not the oldest, the Abydos brewery is by far the largest. “The scale of production is staggering. We’re talking about more than 20,000 liters of beer per batch, which equates to around 40,000 pints,” says Adams. “That’s enough to give a pint of beer to every person in a professional sports stadium. And they could probably do a batch every week, adding up to more than a million liters per year.”

So who was guzzling all that booze? Possibly no one. Abydos was home to the tombs and funerary temples of Egypt’s first kings, and evidence suggests the beer was used in ceremonies dedicated to those deceased rulers, who were considered gods. “Worshipping meant presenting the dead with offerings, which they believed the person would come and partake of to sustain them in the next world,” says Adams. “Offering food or beer was the most fundamental aspect of religious performance.”

Like some modern varieties, the beer produced at Abydos was made from fermented wheat, but it would have tasted quite different from ours. “The Egyptians didn’t have hops, which are almost universal in beer today and provide that characteristic crisp, bitter flavor,” says Adams. “In comparison, Egyptian beer would have seemed almost sweet and, because the Egyptians didn’t have the filtration technology we have, it would have been very cloudy, with a certain amount of particulate content. That also gave it a higher nutritive value.”

The team plans to return to Abydos, aided by specialists. “A paleobotanist will be doing detailed analysis of the beer residues to try to work out its composition and chemistry, and we’re collaborating with beer scientists from the Technical University of Munich,” says Adams. “The project brings archaeology solidly into the hard sciences—biology, biochemistry, DNA analysis—and represents a high level of global collaboration. Almost everyone can identify with beer, so if we’re successful in everything we want to do, the end results will make a big splash.”

This story originally appeared in NYU’s research magazine, Scope.

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