Process of Play: confronting systems of inequity through art

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Chantal Feitosa, English Lessons (2017), performance still. Courtesy of the artist.

What are some of the most poignant memories from your childhood? I am sure that if we each assessed our past social and educational experiences, we would be able to come up with several times that we felt marginalized, ignored or misrepresented. In fact, we may still carry the trauma of that exclusion with us. When was a time you felt unsafe, and conversely, when was a time when you felt like you had the support of your family, peers, teachers, guardians and/or mentors? These are some essential questions to keep in mind when thinking about how our experience and education shapes the way we view the world. Where we were born, who our ancestors are and the way we were raised becomes the fabric for how we perceive ourselves and others.

We all deserve to feel empowered to participate in social, cultural and pedagogical settings. In the perfect setting, we would learn from each other’s experiences and build new knowledge and experiences collectively. This progressive ideology has been advocated by educational philosophers such as John Dewey and Paulo Freire, and it is the aim of many contemporary curricula and social justice initiatives. Creating equitable and justice-driven learning spaces should be a priority within any educational setting. However, obtaining the aforementioned environment is difficult in reality.

Schools can be a sanctuary for us to connect and explore with our peers and teachers. . However, schools can also stifle our individuality and make us feel insignificant and embarrassed for being ‘different.’ Either way, these experiences will have great impact on how we engage with the culture at large. The rigors of testing and assessments, as well as curricula that still espouses colonial histories, negatively influences our ability to express ourselves. Furthermore, there are too few moments of incorporating play into school days when the focus is uniform benchmark standards for proficiency (I have addressed many of these topics in prior posts). These issues make it harder for the school to function as a community where students can grow and feel valued.

Chantal Feitosa makes art that communicates cognitive, emotional and social aspects of nature and nurture. Pedagogy is a major medium in her artistic practice, and she employs modes and archetypes of early childhood education and communal learning to address systemic social structures that affect equitable educational and societal experiences. Feitosa’s experience growing up between two cultures (Brazil and the United States) has had an impact on her development as both an artist and a citizen.  She utilizes her multidisciplinary-based art to gain insight into how multiculturalism and immigration affects the way we communicate themes of racial bias, body image and belonging.

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Chantal Feitosa, detail of two dolls from Happy Mulattos: Collectors Edition, 2018, human hair, polymer clay, hand-stitched assorted fabrics, polyester fiberfill. Courtesy of the artist.

In Happy Mulattos: Collector’s Edition (2018), Feitosa handcrafted a group of dolls with features representative of mixed-race individuals (a Mulatto is a derogatory term that has been used to describe a person of mixed white and black ancestry), which were then introduced to ‘focus groups’ of nursery school-aged children through a series of organized ‘playdates’ (see: Happy Multattos: Playdates, 2018). The children’s responses to each doll’s physical features expressed playful ingenuity, but also showed that at their early stages of social and cognitive development, they had already established specific notions about race, gender and beauty standards.

Growing up in a multicultural household has many benefits on one’s development. For example, being bilingual gives a person more opportunities to communicate in this globalized world, and they are exposed to a wealth of culture that extends beyond the oft-binary narrative of race and ethnicity. However, mixed-race and multi-ethnic individuals are generally viewed through a stereotypical lens and both their physical appearance and ancestral background(s) become points of contention. This is evident in both communal and educational settings, and reflected consistently within Feitosa’s art.

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Chantal Feitosa, Ela vai dar trabalho, 2018, Collage, fabric, polyester fiberfill, beads, yarn, bathing suit, human hair, acrylic, and Cantu Edge Control Gel on watercolor paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Ela vai dar trabalho (2018), was inspired by a memory of a social interaction Feitosa had when she was a child. In her own words, the mixed-media collage refers to a time:

When I was younger, my mother often brought me to social gatherings with other adult Brazilians. People would always remark on my appearance, followed-up by the same statement:

“Ela vai dar trabalho” | “She’s gonna be trouble”

I laughed, not fully getting the joke or not realizing that there was no joke to be made in the first place. 

Her vibrant collage makes allusions to plushy ornaments that might adorn a child’s room, but the message is far from playful. It represents a moment when Feitosa was objectified. The statement ‘she’s going to be trouble’ relates to negative visualizations and narratives of the femme fatale and fetishization of ‘the other.’ It reinforces the hierarchy of the male gaze within many cultural settings, which is visualized in the exaggerated and explicit image of a woman in a seductive pose with ‘exotic’ physical features. This work of art speaks to the idea that nature and nurture can have a defining impact on self-perception.

English Lessons (2017) is a performative artwork exploring the physical and psychological implications of language acquisition in educational environments. The performance stems from Feitosa’s experiences attending school in Brazil and the United States. As a bilingual student, she was already fluent in English when her 2nd grade teacher made her class repeat the same English words and phrases. There was no differentiation between the students who were bilingual and second-language acquirers.

The lack of student-centered learning reinforces the didactic instructional atmosphere that Feitosa recreates in her performance. She created large pink cue-cards, akin to the smaller versions many of us are familiar with seeing as flashcards. Holding up the flashcards she recreates a classroom scene where a teacher has students follow very specific and rigid instructions to repeat the phrase ‘that girl is thick.’ In the second part of the performance, Feitosa revisits her experience in 9th grade (in a public New York City school) where her English teacher made the students  say ‘thank you’ when they were called on to speak. Students who forgot to give thanks for being asked to contribute were censored. This led to an anxious environment, where Feitosa felt that any agency to express herself was stifled by the hierarchical leverage her teacher had over the students. She recalls, “It became a privilege to express my voice and ideas. I slowly stopped speaking out of fear.”

English Lessons resembles the format of a Fluxus piece, which can be recreated by individuals other than Feitosa, simply by following the artist’s written instructions.

The effectiveness of Chantal Feitosa’s art is in her ability to combine many methodologies, materials and subjects into her creative practice. She uses humor coupled with archetypal cultural narratives and educational modules to symbolically communicate  complex issues. Through a playful re-imagining of her experiences in social and educational settings, she confronts a long-standing tradition of marginalization and the trauma that various forms of bias have on development. Assessing the messages in her work, we can also reflect on our own experiences with bias and how we can be more understanding about the way we might use language and actions to empower others.

 

 

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