Date May 10, 2024
Media Contact

The emperor’s new arm: Brown-RISD student reimagines art, monuments on campus

Senior Naya Lee Chang created five temporary public art installations that respond to existing works of art on Brown’s campus, including a monument of Caesar Augustus.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The bronze monument of Caesar Augustus rises victorious above the green, his right arm aloft in the “adlocutio” pose, the embodiment of control, power and leadership.

At least, that’s what Brunonians saw when the statue was first installed on Brown’s campus 118 years ago. These days, Augustus’ right arm is nowhere to be found; it was severed in a Category 3 hurricane that hit Rhode Island in 1938.

But in the past week, the Roman emperor’s arm was resurrected, albeit unconventionally, courtesy of Brown-RISD dual-degree student Naya Lee Chang, who will graduate later this month with bachelor’s degrees in furniture design (from RISD) and history (from Brown). As part of her senior thesis project, she created five temporary site-specific public artworks for which she is leading tours.

“I knew there was a statue at Brown that didn’t have an arm, and I just thought that there must be something really fun I could do there,” Chang said. 

Chang took a different approach to Augustus’ new arm: instead of pointing it upward in triumphant conquest, the floppy limb skews downward, pointing a finger at any viewer standing at the statue’s base. After a few days, she replaced it with a flailing inflatable tube, like the ones that are sometimes stationed outside of car dealerships and other businesses.

“I wanted to do a piece that referenced the history of the statue being treated irreverently but also subverted the question of what kind of power monuments can hold over us,” Chang said. “So I came up with the idea of replacing the arm, but making it antithetical to what the original art was.”

Chang will lead a public tour of the emperor’s new appendage and other site-specific artworks on Sunday, May 12, at 11 a.m. Starting at 79 Brown St. in Providence, Chang will lead the public across campus on a journey through her five installations that respond to existing structures on Brown’s campus.

From four whimsical, wavy and wandering columns on the porch of the Peter Green House — inspired by the building’s 2007 relocation — to a sidewalk crack filled with quahog shells — a recognition of Brown’s presence within the ancestral homelands of the Narragansett Indian Tribe — Chang’s work aims to appeal to a broad range of viewers.

“I embrace the reality that public art, for most people, is something that’s passed by very quickly,” she said. “Instead of bemoaning that, I want to give something to the people who are rushing to class or work. At the same time, I want my work to be well-researched and have a deep enough meaning that, if you’re an art enthusiast, you might spend some time with the piece and get something else out of it.”

And there’s a lot that goes into it. In addition to the actual design and fabrication of her artwork, Chang spent a significant amount of time coordinating with entities across campus — like Facilities Management and Brown’s Public Art Working Group — to secure the proper permissions required to install her pieces.

Similar to historical scholarship, where the point is to learn existing stories then try to make your intervention, I feel like I do that in my art.

Naya Lee Chang Brown-RISD Class of 2024
Naya sits on one of her chair sculptures

That’s in addition to the research she conducts before putting pen to paper. Chang said that historical methodology is central to her art practice, and when she starts a new project, she heads into the University’s archives and special collections to read everything she can about the topic at hand.

“Similar to historical scholarship, where the point is to learn existing stories then try to make your intervention, I feel like I do that in my art,” Chang said. “I’ve really come to believe that you can only make work for a place when you feel like you’ve gotten to know it. Otherwise, the work can feel really out of place and just not sincere.”

Whether it’s on College Hill, back home in California’s Bay Area or anywhere in the 3,000 miles between them, Chang revels in immersing herself in the history of her environment and hopes to follow that passion after graduation. 

She’s looking to pursue a career in public art, historical scholarship or, in a move that would combine both, museum exhibition development.

“I love seeing people looking closely at their surroundings and taking in that there’s actually a lot of interesting stuff happening everywhere if you stop to observe it,” Chang said.