Sherley Arias-Pimentel, '23

July 15, 2022
Senior celebrates Ghanaian culture through her photography

Sherley Arias-Pimentel '23, an anthropology and global studies double major, embodies the spirit of civic engagement and convening people together for good. "I have always felt that my general purpose in life is to serve others,” Arias-Pimentel said.

In the summer of 2021, through the University of Richmond's Humanities Fellowship, Arias-Pimentel completed ethnographic research on the effects of COVID-19 on the education of elementary school students in Newark, New Jersey, with the support of Dr. Sylvia Gale, executive director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, and Dr. Patricia Herrera, associate professor of theatre.

Seeking ways to continue her research and an opportunity to study abroad after a year of COVID-19 quarantine, Arias-Pimentel enrolled in a program with the School for International Training, which focuses on experiential learning.

In the fall of 2021, she traveled to Ghana to study globalization, cultural legacies, and the afro-chic. Arias-Pimentel spent a month in the capital, Accra, orienting herself to the culture and learning from special lecturers.

One of her favorite lectures was given by a United States expatriate who had been wrongfully convicted of a crime. He was eventually proven innocent, but relocated to Ghana after his experience in the U.S. The speaker referenced the importance of Ubuntu, an African philosophy which can be understood as "I am because we are." The concept of "we" instead of the individual was a strong value that is evident throughout Ghanaian culture. People look out for each other and believe in the power of community and empathy.

Arias-Pimentel referenced this speaker's lesson as a lightbulb moment. "I just knew immediately that was what I wanted to pursue during my independent study period,” Arias-Pimentel said. "I could already see a collage in my head of scenes I wanted to capture to illustrate this 'language' of unity found in Ghana."

The School of International Training's curriculum included a month-long internship or independent study based on students' interests. Arias-Pimentel was able to travel independently to three different cities in Ghana: Tamale, Kumasi, and Cape Coast. During her time in each city, she studied a variety of topics including fishing traditions, female market merchants, shea butter collectives, and more. She documented her experience through photographs and continued to imagine a way to bring her experience back to campus after the completion of her experience.

When Arias-Pimentel arrived back on campus, she connected with Dr. Gale and reached out to one of her classmates from high school, Will Dowler, to help her envision what story her photographs could tell. Arias-Pimentel smiled as she reflected on how the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement staff took her original concept from a small photo stand to a full-scale robust art exhibition on campus. She also received a grant from the Student Engagement Fund for the exhibition costs.

For her completed art exhibition, Arias-Pimentel transformed a room in the Tyler Haynes Commons to reflect the communities she grew to know and love in Ghana. One corner was filled with fishing net and mechanical fish, another with a miniature market scene, and the last with a hand-made wooden hut made from chicken wire and thatched roofing - all exhibiting photos of Ghanian communities taken by Arias-Pimentel. The exhibition was also complimented by food catered from Africanne on Main, a local restaurant in downtown Richmond serving African, diaspora, Caribbean, and southern cuisines. Arias-Pimentel even connected the background music playlist to a Ghanian radio station that many cab drivers played in their cars throughout her study away experience.

When asked about what Arias-Pimentel hoped individuals took away from her art exhibition, she said "I wanted the photographs to serve as the beginnings of a new 'language' on campus: a language of love, care, and compassion. In Ghana, there are communities who understand and value the importance of community and unity. Community is a necessity to move forward in life." Arias-Pimentel also shared that the characteristics of Ubuntu are often not the first attitudes that come to mind when people reflect on Africa, "I wanted to bring light to a part of the world that is often used for poverty propaganda. I used lots of laughter, color, and light. I wanted to show a story that is not usually told."

Arias-Pimentel, who dreams of working with National Geographic as an explorer after college, said, "I want my photography to be used as a vessel which elevates voices, empowers communities, and opens up discourse on topics which reimagine our way of living, our perceptions, and challenge our comfort zones."