Iman Djouini & Jonathan Taube: Getting the Elephant Out of the Room Through Art

After Iman Djouini ’09 and Jonathan Taube ’10 graduated from MICA, the couple then left for New Orleans to obtain their master’s degrees in printmaking and architecture, respectively. But, the city where they met did not keep them away for long. In 2016, they returned to Baltimore and jumped straight into the local art scene as artists-in-residence for the Coldstream Homestead Montebello (CHM) neighborhood under Light City 2017’s Neighborhood Lights program.

“We wanted to interact with Baltimore again in a meaningful way,” says the couple, who maintain a research-based practice. Their latest collaboration, “Light Elephant,” which centers on the metaphorical idiom “the elephant in the room,” is their way of engaging with the city at the ground level.

The multidimensional program’s main cast is a 16-foot inflatable elephant that has appeared at various locations across Baltimore in the run-up to the week-long festival. The roaming sculpture will make its final stop on the waters of Lake Montebello for the neighborhood-hosted Light City Lakeside Dance Party. A workshop titled “Shed Light on Litter” will involve participants in creating whimsical elephant lanterns for a festive procession during the Neighborhood Lights festivities.

Their departure point is the playful interaction of language and perception, specifically that of ‘getting the elephant out of the room’ into new spaces for new ideas to come forward. “An elephant could mean so many different things to different people,” says Djouini, who is passionate about art and education, and employs language and design as tools to shape perception in her work. “We hope it stimulates and challenges community memories, strengths and relationships in CHM and wider Baltimore,” she adds. The duo does not intend to point out where the elephant is, but instead ask the neighborhood and the city to look for it in their own spaces. And Djouini will be documenting the sculpture along its travels, subsequently distributing them through print and social media.

Djouini and Taube are no strangers to large-scale community projects. In 2008, Taube directed a large-scale civic action called the “Baltimore Sweep Action Parade” in partnership with The Walters Art Museum and MICA. The practicing architect says he and Djouini are fascinated by places with rich content and context for art, and that he has been able to combine his architectural training with his interdisciplinary sculpture practice. “For ‘Light Elephant,’ we worked with community stakeholders to strategically select public and private spaces that could draw deep meaning,” explains Taube. They include buildings, such as homes and schools, as well as public institutions and business corridors.

The pair attributes their foray into large-scale socially-engaged art to MICA’s Exhibition Development Seminar, developed in 1997 by renowned curator, George Ciscle, and co-taught by fellow Light City artist and MICA professor, Jann Rosen-Queralt.

“The course really prepared us well for large-scale projects like ‘Light Elephant.’ It taught us everything from budgeting to logistics, longevity of plans to managing multiple interests, and above all, the fundamental importance of communication.”

Reflecting on their involvement in Light City, Djouini and Taube agreed that the grounding they received at MICA, combined with their educational and architectural practices, have helped them to land ambitious projects like “Light Elephant.”