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Psychologist's work with blind artist featured in Spanish Biennale

Esref Armagan, the blind artist whose work has revolutionized the way we think about perception

For UTSC perception psychologist and University Professor John Kennedy, the idea that blind people can draw and recognize raised pictures with their fingertips has been a wellspring of intellectual inspiration for more than four decades. This month, his scientific obsession became a source of artistic inspiration for tens of thousands of modern art-lovers in Spain.

Kennedy’s groundbreaking work with the Turkish artist Esref Armagan, a blind man whose drawings challenge traditional views on how we sense space, was featured in a major exhibit at the 2010/2011 Manifesta 8 Biennale, which just wrapped up in Murcia, Spain. Manifesta is one of the world’s preeminent showcases for innovative contemporary art.

“I have come at this from a science and psychology point of view,” says Kennedy, who has published several peer-reviewed papers testifying to Armagan’s surprising abilities. “I am delighted that this research is now being recognized by the art world.”

What makes Kennedy’s work with Armagan so incredible, and so relevant to the art community, is that through their collaboration, they have demonstrated that blind people can incorporate perspective into their art.

For years, perspective was thought to be limited to sighted people. In a now-famous experiment—a video of which has since gone viral on YouTube—Armagan was able to sketch a picture of the renowned Baptistry in Florence, a building he had touched but had never seen or drawn before, with the appropriate geometries of perspective worked into the image. For perception psychologists and art historians alike, this video is a revolution.

"Esref has no eyes but he makes pictures,” writes Kennedy in the text accompanying the Manifesta 8 exhibit. “A new psychology of pictures springs from a mysterious discovery: an outline of a thing makes sense to touch and vision…. To understand Esref, I will need to reconstruct art history, to bring to your mind assumptions you did not know you had, and to show you where those assumptions came from.”

The exhibit incorporates video, Esref’s drawings and many of his imaginative paintings of pastoral scenes such as windmills, bridges, people and animals. Many of the drawings on display are courtesy of Kennedy’s personal research archive. And while it is professionally thrilling to have his research broadcast to an entirely new audience, Kennedy still maintains the most thrilling part is the science behind the art.

“Pictures were invented by cave artists fifty thousand years ago,” he says. “Those people had made a huge discovery: that we had this capacity found nowhere else in nature, this capacity to draw pictures. We’ve always thought pictures were for the eye. And with this new discovery, we are realizing they might actually be for touch. It makes us think twice about what perception really is.”

Malcolm Campbell, vice-principal  of research at UTSC, highlights the value of Kennedy’s work as a vital link between traditionally separate disciplines. "Professor Kennedy has done a wonderful job of bridging top-tier science with the arts,” says Campbell. “It is fitting that one of UTSC's fantastic psychologists should be providing insights into the generation of art using the tools of science. The exhibition arising from this excellent research is sure to stimulate all regions of the mind.”

Kennedy and Armagan have already been approached by curators from Poland and the Middle East for similar exhibits. They fully expect Manifesta 8 to be just the beginning of Armagan’s emergence into the art world’s consciousness. And for Kennedy, ever the professor, there is one other aspect to this story that might be just as important as a revolution in art theory.

“UTSC students should feel great about this,” he says. “They should feel, wow! This work has gained an international reputation, and it was done right here on my campus! This is a real feather in our cap.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough