Find Your Way Back

In the era of 23andMe, Ancestry.com and other personal genomics and biotechnology companies, the age old question ‘where am I from?’ is basically being answered at the click of a button. Knowing the names and locations of our ancestors and contemporary relatives is just the tip of the iceberg, which is basically what these services provide. However, this basic information opens the door for more extensive research. Discovering the social and cultural backgrounds and personal experiences of our relatives, paints a more replete picture of the facets that make up our innate and learned behaviors and identity. Insights into our heritage can impact our outlook on the diversity of culture, ethnicity and race. It can foster a sense of self and communal value and prompt explorations into lineages, beliefs and customs that were previously foreign to us. So while personal genomics is the first step, it is the actual education and participation in cultural experiences that give us a greater and more fulfilling sense of where we are from and the sociocultural traits that have an influence on our development.

Having knowledge of our personal backgrounds includes understanding the ways in which our ancestors were both prosperous and persecuted. In addition to beneficial social, emotional, cultural and economic elements of cultural congruity, diasporic and migrant cultures face significant hardships that affect physical and mental health, due to the “loss of cultural norms, religious customs, and social support systems, adjustment to a new culture and changes in identity and concept of self” (See: Bhugra and Becker, 2005). My ancestors faced significant dilemmas and tragedies throughout the course of modern European history, from the expulsions and pogroms in Russia and the mass murder by the Nazis in Austria, Germany, Czech Republic and Poland. However, their spiritual and physical strength endured, and I am here today because they never lost sight of who they were individually and as part of a cultural community. Jewish culture and faith is something that was essential to my antecedents and has been something I have been rediscovering as I learn more about their experiences and traditions.  As I have moved to different Jewish populated neighborhoods (including my current enclave in Queens), I have experienced how Jewishness is not a one size fits all religion or culture. We are a diaspora that is strengthened as a result of ancient traditions meeting with contemporary trends. Jewish people are proud of their Judaism at large, while also practicing and honoring more acute and regional specific aspects of their Jewish identity.

Beyonce Knowles-Carter’s Black Is King is a conceptual film that celebrates individual and collective perspectives and creativity within the African diaspora. The film is rich with cross-cultural references to visual art, music, religion, math and science (all the STEAM subjects), and weaves these disciplines together in a colorful tapestry that is representative of distinctive ancient and modern identities. Mythology and oral lore are major parts of many African traditions, and Black Is King does a compelling job expressing the continuity of culture and ingenuity, using archetypal storytelling and signifiers (sights and sounds). The film draws from the story of the Lion King, a popular tale of a young lion named Simba whose life experiences, prior knowledge and ancestral guidance gives him the agency to exhibit empathetic understandings of cultural identity and community.

Depictions of Black men and women have a long history of being exploited, distorted and negatively portrayed via media outlets (see: Donaldson, 2015; and Jewell, 1993). In Black Is King, Black bodies are beautiful, powerful and diverse, as is the portrayal of language, experience and identity. There are both blatant and more subtle references to a myriad of visual and oral cultural histories. Through art, fashion, design, music and philosophy, the film makes connections to the spiritual, scientific and feminist centered societies of Africa and the African diaspora. Beyonce culls from her extensive vocabulary of visual art, dance and music to present a Black aesthetic that is typically underrepresented in art history. She collaborated with innovative artists throughout the African diaspora (i.e. Malian singer Oumou Sangaré and co-directors Blitz Bazawule and Jenn Nkiru) and showcases works of art by (or inspired by) Derrick Adams, Woodrow Nash, Carrie Mae Weems and David Hammons among others. Black Is King is a form of ‘entertainment justice’ (see: Education and Empowerment via Entertainment Justice) that prompts us to love ourselves, find personal and collective value in our humanity and come together to create and observe beautiful things.

The job of an artist is not to present a didactic overview of global history, politics or other governing frameworks. A successful work of art mines life’s social, emotional and cultural elements and presents them in ways that leave us yearning and excited to continue exploring, discovering and connecting. Beyonce has done just that within Black Is King. As music writer and editor, Timmhotep Aku assesses, the film is Beyonce’s “love letter to the African continent, its people, their origins and her own ancestors.” Aku asserts that “though this was a team effort it’s still the brainchild of an African American woman whose connection to the Motherland comes from self-education and discovery rather than immersion or upbringing — it is her African dream” (Aku, 2020).

There is a confluence of many African cultures represented in the film, which reflects the variance of Beyonce’s heritage and the identities of  millions of other Black individuals living all over the world. The content and context for the integration of sights, sounds and experiences from many different African countries, mirrors the mixture of African cultures that represent the African diaspora. As author Joi-Marie McKenzie reveals, watching the film was somewhat of a homecoming for her, as well as a welcome invitation to reflect on the complexities and breadth of her ancestry and Black identity (McKenzie, 2020). McKenzie cites Christer Petley’s book, White Fury: A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2018), which is about Simon Taylor, who was once the wealthiest slaveholder in the British empire. In the book, Petley describes a tactic that white slaveholders used to subdue the possibility of rebellion, which involved separating Black slaves on a plantation to ensure they were from different nations and tribes. The forceful and malevolent conflation of Africans from different communities led to the cultural amalgamation of “bits and pieces of lands we might never see but (are) beloved all the same” (Ibid, 2020).

In their respected reviews, McKenzie and writer/filmmaker, Kwesi Jones, analyze some of the prominent nations and tribes that are represented in Black Is King.  Homage to the astronomical and metaphysical knowledge of the Dogon people of Mali, is invoked via celestial imagery, such as the young baptized Simba shooting to Earth as a comet, the glimmering star-like effect from materials in some of Beyonce’s bodysuits and in the song Find Your Way Back (“Daddy used to tell me ‘look up at the stars.’ Been a long time but remember who you are”). The Dogon are astutely aware of their place within the universe, and their time-honored rituals and lore involve astronomical calculations and insights, which shape their everyday experiences. The Dogon have an intricate understanding of the location of Earth and other celestial bodies within the Milky Way Galaxy and their theory of how the universe was created in a giant cosmic expansion/explosion is similar to the concept of the Big Bang (see: Jones, 2020 and Farrell, 2018).

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Still from Hold Up showing Beyonce as Orisha Oshun.

Another cultural and spiritual reference frequently embraced by Beyonce is Orisha Oshun, a powerful river deity in the religion of the Yoruba people from southwestern Nigeria and Benin (see: Grady, 2020). Oshun portrays femininity, fertility, beauty and love, and is connected to destiny and divination (Monaghan, 2014). In artistic representations of Orisha Oshun, the goddess is typically wearing a flowing yellow dress. Beyonce embodies Oshun in both her 2016 conceptual album and accompanying film titled Lemonade and Black Is King. During the cinematic video for the song Hold Up from Lemonade, Beyonce exits a courthouse, powerfully emerging by parting a torrent of water in a yellow dress reminiscent of Oshun’s. This reference can be interpreted as a combination of themes from Western Abrahamic religions and the Yoruba Ifá religion. Throughout her work (in both Lemonade and Black Is King), Beyonce evokes the Old Testament story of Moses, who was sent down the Nile river in a basket in order to escape the Egyptian pharaoh’s persecution of Jewish born boys (see: Exodus 1:15–22, where Pharaoh proclaims that “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile”). The story of Exodus was important to abolitionists like Harriet Tubman. The narrative of Moses and the Jewish people seeking freedom were reclaimed in the lyrics of Black spirituals from the 19th century, in order to address and galvanize collective voices towards the abolition of slavery (most prominently: “Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land, tell old Pharaoh to let my people go”).  The combination of Moses and Oshun symbolizes liberation and rejuvenation. Both figures utilize water as a source of protection, life and transcendence from adversity.

The Yoruba and Dogon (and so many more) communities educate future generations on their extensive worldly and supernatural knowledge through works of art, oral storytelling, celebrations and rituals, such as mask making, song and dance. Through connecting spiritual and cultural traditions from diverse African nations, Beyonce is encouraging her viewers and listeners to find a way back to their ancestral heritage and be proud of were they come from and who they are today.

Perhaps the most essential takeaway from Beyonce’s Black Is King is the potential for African art and culture to be an agent of transformative social justice. Beyonce narrates during the film that we should “Be bigger than the picture they framed for us to see.” It would behoove educators and cultural producers to show and contextualize works of art that highlight the plurality of BIPOC identity, in order to shift the paradigm of racial stereotyping and systemic racism and erase the tokenism and colonialist overviews of African art within the Western canon of art historical presentation. Art has the ability to inspire us to think critically and make insightful connections between works of art and our own visions and experiences. It is important that we educate ourselves about our own unique backgrounds and the cultures of others, so that we understand that culture and people from geographical regions are not a monolith.

Regarding the impact and impetus that her film might have on our collective culture, Beyonce writes: “Black Is King” is a labor of love. It is my passion project that I have been filming, researching and editing day and night for the past year. I’ve given it my all and now it’s yours. It was originally filmed as a companion piece to “The Lion King: The Gift” soundtrack and meant to celebrate the breadth and beauty of Black ancestry. I could never have imagined that a year later, all the hard work that went into this production would serve a greater purpose. The events of 2020 have made the film’s vision and message even more relevant, as people across the world embark on a historic journey. … I believe that when Black people tell our own stories, we can shift the axis of the world and tell our REAL history of generational wealth and richness of soul that are not told in our history books.”


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Aku, Timmhotep. “Please, Appreciate “Black Is King” for What It Is.” Teen Vogue, 2 August 2020. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/beyonce-black-is-king-review-and-critique-of-criticisms

Bhugra, Dinesh and Becker, Matthew A . “Migration, cultural bereavement and cultural identity.” World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) vol. 4,1 (2005): 18-24. Accessed 5 August 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1414713/

Donaldson, Leigh. “When the media misrepresents black men, the effects are felt in the real world.” The Guardian, 12 August 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/12/media-misrepresents-black-men-effects-felt-real-world

Farrell, Tish. “How The Universe Began ~ The Dogon View.” tishfarrell.com, 18 April 2018. https://tishfarrell.com/2018/04/16/how-the-universe-began-the-dogon-view/

Grady, Constance. “Meet the African goddess at the center of Beyoncé’s Black Is King.” Vox, 31 July 2020. https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/7/31/21349403/beyonce-black-is-king-oshun-osun-yoruba-goddess

Jewell, K. Sue. From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond : Cultural Images and the Shaping of Us Social Policy. London: Routledge, 1993.

Jones, Kwesi. “The African Epistemologies of Beyoncé’s ‘Black is King’.” Medium, 1 August 2020. https://medium.com/@kwesijones429/the-african-philosophy-of-beyonces-black-is-king-530015a42551

Knowles-Carter, Beyonce. @Beyonce ““Black Is King” is a labor of love. It is my passion project that I have been filming, researching and editing day and night for the past year….” Instagram, 28 June 2020. https://www.instagram.com/p/CCAMxfrHjAL/

McKenzie, Joi-Marie. “Beyonce’s ‘Black is King’ Asks the Question We Hate to Answer.” Essence, 3 August 2020. https://www.essence.com/feature/beyonces-black-is-king-review/

Monaghan, Patricia. Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines. San Francisco: New World Library, 2014. p. 15.

Creating Refuge by Living, Loving and Learning Artfully

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A painting entitled It’s Not in the Ghetto by Dority Weiser, painted in Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia. Courtesy of Yad Vashem.

Pandemics, social and political upheaval and climate change have all poignantly shown us how unpredictable life is. The lack of communal empathy and not taking responsibility for our past and present mistakes, is a major reason for the continual degradation of our moral compass and the rise of despots, oppressive forces and loss of our natural resources. In the midst of a seemingly endless cycle of tragic events and egregious displays of corruption, art is as essential as ever. The arts are one of the key social and cultural disciplines, known as the humanities, which help us develop sensory, emotional and cognitive skills that can utilized to cope and respond to significant moments in our individual and collective lives. Art has exceptional pedagogical and psychological benefits that strengthen how we understand and communicate complex emotions and make profound connections between our own experiences and the experiences of others.

Art is effectual in both building empathy (see:Exhibiting Empathy) and turning mistakes into solutions (see: Artfully Failing). Public arts administrator and curator, Micaela Martegani, writes that  “empathy is a good place to start as a strategy for human connection: it works to break down the barriers between us and the perceived “other,” and identification moves us towards kindness and social care. This is how we can start to collectively heal” (Martegani, 2020). As Bob Ross, Sister Corita Kent (see: Rule #6 on her 10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life), Franz Cižek and many other influential educators have stated: “There are no real mistakes in art, just happy accidents” (a mantra that can be found in the form of a poster in many art classrooms). Unfortunately, the world is a mixture of happy accidents and malevolently negligent actions, so we need art to expose both the positive and negative aspects of the human condition. Art’s intrinsic response to the human experience, explicitly and subtly expresses ideas and actions that can spur social, cultural and political change. In the words of Humanist artist and educator, William Kelly, “Art can’t stop a bullet, but it can stop a bullet from being fired.” In my previous post, Education and Empowerment via Entertainment Justice, I discuss the social practice of ‘entertainment justice,’ and how artists and artworks (in this case songs and performances) are encouraging unity and advancing social action towards environmental, economic and racial justice.

Even in the bleakest environments, such as internment and refugee camps, art has had significant impact on the well-being and social and emotional development of displaced and marginalized groups. Examples include Austrian artist and educator, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who packed a suitcase with art supplies and taught art to hundreds of traumatized children in the Theresienstadt ghetto, a hybrid Nazi concentration camp and Jewish ghetto in the Czech Republic. Realizing that making art affected her own outlook and fortitude, Dicker-Brandeis selflessly shared artistic materials and her creative passion and knowledge, in order to help children cope with the unsettling and uncertain reality of the Holocaust. Instead of focusing on the elements of art and principles of design, Dicker-Brandeis prompted her young students to utilize their imaginations. Her compassionate coaching gave students the means to create artwork that expressed hope, joy and an overall emotional transcendence from the miserable realities of life inside Theresienstadt. Regarding Dicker-Brandeis’ approach, which combined art pedagogy and therapy, a former student named Eva Dorian recalled, “I believe that what she wanted from us was not directly linked to drawing, but rather to the expression of different feelings, to the liberation from our fears…these were not normal lessons, but lessons in emancipated meditation” (Wix, 2009).

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Young artists from the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement stand in front of a mural they painted to symbolize peace and diplomacy between cultures throughout the world. Courtesy of Bidibidi Artolution.

Decades later, Joel Bergner (aka Joel Artista) is bringing art supplies and art-centered activities to displaced people around the world, such as the Syrian refugees living in Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp. Starting in 2013, Bergner and a team of resident Syrian artists developed a series of art education workshops and public art projects for the children of Za’atari. Young artists paint murals on buildings and objects like kites and wheelbarrows that reminded them of home and celebrate their vibrant cultural identities. They also utilize art making to address social and environmental issues that are important in the camp, such as access to clean water and hygiene. The wide range of artistic subjects liven up the oft-bleak reality of their current situation and the collaborative nature of these artful projects strengthens the community at large. From the look on the children’s faces (see the photos on Bergner’s website), it is evident that they are proud of the work they have made. Inspiring communities to take collective agency for their work and cultural experiences is the basis of Bergner’s artistic advocacy. Through his nonprofit organization, Artolution (in partnership with The United Nations Children’s Fund), Joel and a collective of artists continue to design and teach art making workshops and placemaking activities for children and families living in refugee settlements in Bangladesh, Uganda and Jordan. Each Artolution location is managed by refugee artists and educators within the community.

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Krzysztof Wodiczko, Loro (Them), a 2019 multimedia performance in Milan, Italy. Courtesy of More Art and Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Current physical and geographically imposed borders can be transcended by artwork, such as ongoing projects by Krzysztof Wodiczko and Tanya Aguiñiga. For decades, Wodiczko has been presenting video projections that express a plurality of voices from marginalized populations. Ustedes (Them) and Loro (Them) are anthropomorphized drone performances that project the experiences of a diverse group of immigrants. Only the eyes of the participants are visible, which is deliberate to protect their identities. The mobile nature of the drones and the remote and adaptable aspects of digital media, make this project easier to implement for the public, while adhering to physical distancing regulations in response to COVID-19. As More Art founder, Micaela Martegani mentions in a recent op-ed, Wodiczko’s project takes on a heightened meaning as a result of the pandemic.

“With the pandemic raging, many of those unsung immigrants we have been talking to are the very people now on the front line—they are the essential workers who have risked their lives to keep our city clean, delivering packages and food to people sheltering at home, they are the ones working at grocery stores, post offices, hospitals. They are the ones who have kept the city alive, but they are also the ones who continue to be laid off or furloughed en masse, who are food insecure, who get sick in higher numbers. We can’t wait to tell their stories.” (Martegani, 2020)

When Aguiñiga, an artist and designer from Tijuana, Mexico, was in grade school, she traveled several hours each day across the San Ysidro border into California to go to school and became well accustomed to life between and along the Mexican-American border. Aguiñiga works in a variety of media, but generally with textiles and techniques that combine traditional craft-making with contemporary design. Her work is largely rooted in intersectionality of identity, which examines social and emotional connections through the act of “Performance Crafting,” where two or more individuals engage in a creative activity together. The results are dependent upon strong communication and empathy for each other. Seeing art as a means to overcome the ambiguity and conflict emerging from political borders, Aguiñiga founded AMBOS (Art Made Between Opposite Sides), an art and activist project that focuses on interconnections between people in border regions. Many times, people who live in these areas feel a great sense of belonging to both the United States and Mexico. Whether they cross the border for work or to visit their families, it is an essential part of their daily lives. Through creative processes like weaving, individuals on either side of the border partake in a profound placemaking experience. They are transcending the physical boundary that separates them by engaging in the collaborative realization of an artwork and documenting how their lives are affected by imposed separation.

In an effort to present views on how humane messages via the arts are a global zeitgeist, William Kelly embarked on a discursive journey to find out what more than 30 prominent international artists, activists and cultural producers think about art’s role in cultivating social and environmental justice. The project culminated into a recently released documentary called Can Art Stop a Bullet? William Kelly’s Big Picture.

It is indeed possible for art to stop the initiation or continuation of violence, as well as the oppression and marginalization of diverse individuals and groups. By incorporating the lessons and skills that the arts teach us, such as thinking outside the box, collaboration and placemaking, making cross-cultural connections and developing empathetic understandings; we can become creatively adept at handling the nasty curve balls life throws at us and expressively advocate for social, cultural, economic and environmental justice for all.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Elsby, Liz. “Coping through Art – Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the children of Theresienstadt.” The International School for Holocaust Studies, 6 June 2016. https://www.yadvashem.org/articles/general/coping-through-art-brandeis-theresienstadt.html

Martegani, Micaela. 2020. More Art in the Public Eye. Durham: Duke University Press.

Margegani, Micaela. 2020. “Artists Are Finding Inspiring Ways to Adapt Their Work to a World in Crisis. Arts Organizations Must Do the Same.” artnet news, 29 July 2020. https://news.artnet.com/opinion/micaela-martegani-op-ed-1897492?fbclid=IwAR3yJX_hb9FjVncYLP1xg9QcDqvn3-Up2AGG1lAeZKrtU1zNpcJM-jzMGUc

Wix, Linney. “Aesthetic Empathy in Teaching Art to Children: The Work of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis in Terezin.” Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 26(4), 2009. pp. 152-158

Education and Empowerment via Entertainment Justice

Generations of human beings have taught and learned valuable lessons from songs that are created within the community and are immersed in our collective cultural identity. Popular forms of music have developed within every known culture and religion (see: Wallin, Brown and Merker, 2001). The history and practice of music, like all other forms of art, is an experiential process, determined by a culture’s social structure, everyday experiences, geographical location, access to materials, development of technology and whatever spiritual and ritual customs are observed.

During periods of discord, songs uplift collective souls and are an impetus for driving social change. Hymns and spirituals have foundations as pedagogical and political resources, which inspire marginalized voices to amplify themselves above their oppressors (Lawrence-McIntyre, 1987).  Many of the spirituals and hymns initially sung by enslaved Africans are embedded with religious symbolism that diverted the attention of their white persecutors, while spreading inside knowledge and enduring understandings that spurred resistance and rebellion. Religious overtones in Black music has carried on through the present day, and as Katy Khan (2010) describes, has “offered a veiled critique of the capitalist system that forcibly brought blacks to America.” Spiritual messages with social, cultural and political intent can be heard in the musical stylings of such dynamic artists as Ella Fitzgerald (I Shall Not Be Moved), Nina Simone (Sinnerman), Paul Robeson (We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder), William Onyeabor (Good Name), Lupe Fiasco (Muhammad Walks), Nissim Black (Motherland Bounce) and Kanye West (Jesus Walks).

These aforementioned songs express overcoming oppression and finding redemption by embracing community and feeling proud of our personal and collective identities. Music is one of the most fluid art forms because of the ease in which it can be passed down and appropriated. Many of the aforementioned spirituals have roots in Black culture during slavery and Jim Crow (the 18th through 20th centuries), when they were sung to raise communal spirits and encourage action against the injustices they faced. Therefore, music is arguably the most populist form of art. It has the ability to both entertain and enlighten without being pedantic. Everyone can become one nation under a groove.

Songs have continued to be a key component of peaceful protest marches, where they are utilized for spreading messages of social justice in a joyful and spirited manner. These types of musical incantations are at once entertaining, educational and empowering, which is why a diverse genre of music that seeks to move listeners to take action towards environmental and racial justice, has been given the name ‘entertainment justice’ (see: Fazeli, 2020) by Detroit-based musician and activist, Bryce Detroit (aka Bryce Anderson-Small).  Detroit and other artists are composing songs that have become anthems for the oppressed, giving a large portion of the population the means to sing out against the predatory and corrupt practices of local government officials and public figures. Some potent examples come from the artist Will See, whose songs include Water Power and Take Tha House Back. Water Power addresses the ongoing devastating public health crisis caused by contaminants within public water supplies; while Take Tha House Back exposes the predatory lending practices of banking institutions, which have displaced many longtime residents, especially low-income working class families. Documentary filmmaker, Kate Levy, created videos for each song. Water Power can be watched here and Take Tha House Back is featured above this paragraph. The songs and the accompanying videos present a diverse BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of color) population, coming together in unison to call attention to these serious issues.

Musical entertainment has also driven the socially engaged art-centered work of Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir, the Resistance Revival Chorus and the global phenomenon of Complaints Choirs. The Resistance Revival Chorus (see their performance of Hallelujah above) is a collective of women and non-binary artists and activists who sing protest music in the spirit of joy and resistance. Their performances invoke the words of important Civil-Rights leaders and groups throughout history, and continue the legacy of educating and uplifting generations through song.

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The Reverend Billy leading an anti-Starbucks protest in Austin, Texas in 2007. Photograph by Mason Wendell

The Reverend Billy (an artist named William Talen) and his choir of activists, engage in guerrilla theater style civil disobedience through performing gospel-style songs that have messages in support of labor rights, access to quality public health and the anti-consumerist movement. Similar to Will See, The Church of Stop Shopping’s lyrics take on large institutions whose predatory practices disenfranchise their own workforce and have negative social and cultural influences on government, the environment and the quality of life for the general public. They often perform inside the lobby of banks or corporate headquarters, in order to disrupt and subvert corporate messaging and promote progressive critiques, which favor shifting social, cultural, political and economic paradigms away from plutocracies.

Complaints Choirs offer cathartic relief and camaraderie through a musical airing of grievances. Songs are composed with crowdsourced lyrics that address topics pertinent to the everyday life of a specific society. The community art project was initiated by Finland-based artists Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, and the first choir performance took place in Birmingham, United Kingdom in 2005. There are Complaints Choirs on nearly every continent (and they are constantly growing), which speaks to its unifying structure for cultural expression. While not everyone may agree on an issue, they can find common ground in this form of social activity centered on a passion for singing.

As evident in the aforementioned examples, the prowess of entertainment justice is embedded in the collaborative nature of musical performance. Educational frameworks such as teach-ins and problem-posing models are replete in choirs and call and response musical performances. These types of teaching and learning make the transmission of knowledge more open-ended and democratic (see: Freire, 1970/2007) because they emphasize critical thinking and pluralism for the purpose of liberation and social equity. These are the songs that never end.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Fazeli, Taraneh. “In Detroit, Artists Pursue Afrofuturist Visions of Justice and Afropessimist Strategies of Withdrawal.” Art in America, 9 July 2020. https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/detroit-artists-afrofuturism-afropessimism-1202693878/

Freire, Paulo (2007). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Khan, Katy.Religion, music and the question of social justice in selected African American singers.” Muziki, 5:2, 2008. pps. 179-187, DOI: 10.1080/18125980902796866

Nature’s Classroom

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Mark Dion, installation view of Neukom Vivarium, 2006. Photo by Vmenkov

Forest schools are a popular pedagogical method and physical educational environment throughout Scandinavian countries. Beginning in Sweden and Denmark during the 1950s, Forest Schools provide students and teachers with the means and experiences to develop strong bonds between themselves and nature. The typical forest school curriculum involves a series of outdoor instruction where students learn how to interact with nature and sustainably become independent and holistic providers for themselves and others. They build knowledge around different types of ecosystems, which is simultaneously incorporated into multidisciplinary learning situations (i.e. learning math, science and language arts from natural phenomena). When I was in eight grade, my class took a trip to Nature’s Classroom, a remote outdoor school where we transcended the traditional classroom setting and worked collaboratively as students and teachers to foster a greater awareness for nature and the role we have in sustaining, preserving and improving our unique world. Hands on inquiry-based experiences supporting food sovereignty, communal living and orienteering, have had an enduring impact on my love and devotion for the great outdoors. To this day, I consider myself to be a lifelong learner outside of traditional classroom walls.

While there are ample opportunities to engage all students and communities through outdoor enrichment, inequity is at the crux of the issue. Sadly, the use of public space and natural environments feels like a privileged discussion to have, due to the fact that so many communities are excluded from utilizing safe outdoor spaces. Browsing maps of urban settings reveals the disparity between availability to public space and socioeconomic class systems. Furthermore, simply having access to parks nearby doesn’t address the fact that there’s implicit and explicit bias around the use and understandings of ecosystems. We need to find a way to make this a human right. Incorporating forest schools as a collaboration between public parks (or community nonprofit green spaces) and public schools is a real possibility if education at large would get the funding it deserves.

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Ana Mendieta, Tree of Life, 1974, color photograph. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, L.L.C. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York and Paris and Alison Jacques Gallery, London.

In regions of the world that face serious consequences with regards to resuming in-person learning, forest schools present one viable option that can uphold physical distancing and promote better health and wellness. Being outdoors has proven to be a more effective and safer environment for mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Besides the health benefits, forest schools have enormous impact on scaffolding students’ appreciation for themselves, each other and the natural world at large. Educating present and future generations to respect, love and care for natural resources is vital in the face of accelerated climate change and habitat loss cause by human’s political, economic and social behavior.

Outdoor learning is replete with STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics) benefits, which are important for preparing students to become innovators and critical thinkers both professionally and personally. STEAM is recognized because these disciplines work well concurrently. In the wilderness, natural objects provide myriad ways to explore, discover and make insights that support STEAM subjects. As this blog has consistently argued (see: previous STEAM themed posts), the ‘A’ in STEAM is the binder that holds the other subjects together. Art is everywhere in a world that rewards sensory qualities and social engagement. Art is at once tangible and conceptual. It encompasses both abstract concepts like formalism (the way art is made in terms that are purely visual and/or material) and social and cultural experiences (the artistic process). Nature is full of aesthetic and contextual properties and occurrences that coincide with theories and methodologies in visual art.  Art allows for personal expression and the envelopment of processes that reveal the humanitarian nature within science, technology, math and engineering.

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Susan Hoenig, Red Oak Leaf Sculpture, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

I have frequently written about artists who make work that coexists with ecology, while also seeking to educate others about the beauty, as well as the social, emotional and cognitive benefits of understanding the natural world. These artists include Susan Hoenig (see: The Artful Environmentalist), Maren Hassinger (see: Tree of Knowledge), Michael Wang, Alan Sonfist (see: Back to Nature: Learning about ecosystems of the past and building future ecological awareness), Agnes Denes, Joseph Beuys, Mel Chin (see: Activating Art and Education for Activism), Mark Dion (see: Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art) and Ana Mendieta (see: Chutes and Scaffolds). Each of the aforementioned artists represent practical and expressive ways of re-imagining and heightening our senses to issues concerning the global environment. Beuys (7000 Oaks), Chin (Revival Field), Denes (The Living Pyramid), Dion (Neukom Vivarium), Sonfist (Time Landscape) and Wang (Extinct in New York) each created works of art that seek to recuperate and re-imagine contemporary (largely urban) landscapes in a manner that reflects thriving wildernesses of the past. Hassinger (Pink Trash), Mendieta (Tree of Life) and Hoenig (Ecological Leaf Sculptures) collaborate with existing natural structures by including their own aesthetic flair. In Mendieta’s case it is her own body and in Hassinger and Hoenig’s practices, it is a light manipulation or transformation of found objects to create site-specific installations that bring awareness to the prowess and complexity of natural forms.

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Mary Mattingly, Core, 2020, living sculpture. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Artful explorations towards addressing issues like climate change, deforestation and pollution, result in insights that have ramifications on multidisciplinary learning (the STEM subjects). When Mel Chin collaborated with Dr. Rufus Chaney, USDA’s senior research agronomist, they discovered a breakthrough in the practice of soil remediation. When Mary Mattingly created Swale and Core (see: Down to Earth: Extraordinary STEAM Learning), she utilized techniques and principles from engineering, mathematics and science to address food sovereignty and soil and water safety. Education via the outdoors is a way for individuals to acquire a multitude of social and professional skills, while partaking in embodied experiences that help shape their perception about themselves, their peers and their environment. We all are subjected to the effects of climate change, which include the rise in pandemics. It would behoove educational policy makers, school boards and administrators to consider safe alternatives to physical school environments, especially by advocating for scenarios that involve collaborative opportunities where students can achieve positive outdoor experiences. The outdoor environment should be seen as a place that encourages, motivates, engages and inspires playful and serious learning, relationships and insights. We should all have opportunities to safely enjoy the fruits of natural knowledge that blossoms in nature’s classroom.

Maintenance Art: Ecology, Civility and Empathy through Artful Learning

With the pandemic still looming large throughout the world, especially here in the United States, it is important that we all do our part to stay safe. This means being cognizant of our actions, and taking the necessary logical and compassionate steps to help ensure that the every community has equal and equitable resources to support the health and well-being of individuals. Staying at a physically appropriate distance (6 feet or more) from others while in public, as well as wearing a mask, have proven to be effective ways of mitigating the public health risks related to COVID-19 . These are simple, but essential actions that every citizen should be driven to apply to their everyday lives.

While many of us have been staying home and keeping physically distant as best as possible, there has been a workforce of individuals known as ‘essential workers’ keeping our culture thriving. These laborers provide invaluable services like healthcare, transportation, education, safety and access to nutrition. They are doctors, nurses, EMTs, fire fighters, pharmacists, grocery store workers, delivery persons, sanitation workers, bus drivers and train conductors, janitors and construction workers to name just a few. Essential labor has kept us safer, healthier and more fulfilled at a point in time when spirits can be low.

Several contemporary art endeavors have integrated elements and themes of essential labor and communicated the experiences of essential workers. One mode of contemporary art, called social practice, is an aesthetic movement, a social revolution and an experiential learning process all at once. It is is an art medium focusing on engagement through human interaction and social discourse (see: Helguera, 2012). Social practice is a broad artistic discipline and can include more traditional means for making art (i.e. painting, sculpture, photography or performance), as well as art that is devoid of traditional materials and solely based on experiences. Social practice artworks often combine both of these elements to support a variety of personalities who learn, participate and experience things through different lenses. Often times, social practice is rooted in progressive pedagogical frameworks like constructivism, which acknowledges that understanding and knowledge is constructed in accordance with learners’ prior backgrounds and experiences.

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Eric Mathews at Socrates Sculpture Park. Courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park.

Eric Mathews is a Queens, New York based social practitioner whose professional and personal expertise combines horticulture, art and youth education. In his very prolific standing within the community, Mathews works as an educator, arts administrator and gardener. He’s the co-founder and executive director of a non-profit called  The Minor Miracles Foundation, as well as the Director of Grounds & Horticulture at Socrates Sculpture Park. In both of these roles, Mathews designs and facilitates experiences for people to benefit from urban ecology and participate in outdoor art viewing and community cultural events. Within Minor Miracles, Mathews’ role as an educator has inspired the growth and artistic development of children living in Astoria Houses, which is one of New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) public housing developments. Prior to engaging in programing through Minor Miracles, many of these children did not have the access to equal and equitable cultural experiences that are afforded to their neighbors living in the gentrified and affluent areas of Long Island City and Astoria.  Another mission of Minor Miracles is to promote youth fitness and whole body wellness. They fulfill this through group play and activities that encourage socialization and critical thinking among diverse groups of participants.

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Youth from the community at Socrates Sculpture Park during the annual ‘Day of Play.’ Courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park.

Minor Miracles has worked in collaboration with Socrates Sculpture Park since 2011. Since 2012, their annual ‘Day of Play’ event has incorporated the ‘Days of Heroes’ series, which presents interactive workshops and activities to give teenagers perspectives on different civic career paths that they might embark on after high school. Students gain insights on various professional roles that give back to the community, and get hands on experience regarding what it entails to become essential workers in the near future. In addition to learning technical skills that will help them at future jobs, the participants build conceptual and critical skills that strengthen their social and emotional understandings about the world around them. Artist, Shaun Leonardo, works with the teenagers to define and assess what being a ‘superhero’ means. They talk about their own extraordinary qualities and any additional characteristics they aspire to develop, in order to make their collective environment a better place. This form of experiential learning gives these students a head start in determining their paths to success and formulating lifelong missions to graciously support their fellow citizens.

As public parks are considered essential, they have been open throughout the course of the City-wide shelter-in-place order. Although his work is always essential, Mathews’ maintenance of public spaces for all members of the community to coexist, enjoy and learn together is an invaluable resource for our resilient city. While many of the administrative staff is working remotely, Mathews has been onsite to maintain the park’s grounds, which includes a variety of native flora and cutting edge contemporary art, while always greeting visitors from a safe distance.

Mathews’ work at Socrates Sculpture Park and throughout the Astoria community, helps a wide range of individuals become absorbed in a creative and collaborative process, while gaining firsthand understandings about a social, cultural and environmental issues. Through becoming producers of valuable shared experiences, these individuals will likely be motivated to continue shaping and maintaining the world they want to live in. This is important especially for the youth, who will blossom into essential planners, leaders and activists working towards creative solutions to a myriad of societal issues.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Helguera, Pablo (2012). Education for Socially Engaged Art. New York: Jorge Pinto Books. p. 22.

Chutes and Scaffolds

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Ana Mendieta, Parachute, 1973, 1/2-inch reel-to-reel videotape transferred to digital media, black and white, sound edition of 8 + 3AP. Courtesy of the Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC and Galerie Lelong & Co.

In 1973, contemporary artist and elementary school art teacher, Ana Mendieta, created a performative work of art called Parachute, in collaboration with Henry Sabin Elementary School Students in Iowa City, Iowa. During the 7 minute black-and-white video of the performance, we observe Mendieta’s young students working together to make a large parachute billow, forming a dome that ultimately envelopes them. The soundtrack is the children’s laughter and overdubbed dialogue of Mendieta prompting her students to ponder about what constitutes a human’s soul, which they do in a manner that encapsulates the wonderment of childlike imagination. Regarding the artistic and conceptual process, Mendieta reflected:

“Time passing and change are undeniable aspects of the world around us. For the artist of our day, time has an increasingly higher dignity. Often artistic creation results in the production of art objects. However, when a concern for time is primary, an experience not an object may result… Though the participants are young, the art ideas were not diluted.”

In her short, but prolific career, Mendieta made art to explore social, emotional and cognitive issues that connect humans to one another and the natural environment. While she is known largely for her contributions to the modes of conceptual and feminist art; her devotion to education had a profound impact on the development of interdisciplinary art-centered learning and the application of pedagogy as an art form. In both her solo art practice and her career as an educator, Mendieta utilized art making as a means to benefit the whole body and inspire a thirst for inquiry and understandings of other people’s feelings and perspectives. By creating artwork with students, Mendieta and her young collaborators investigated how time, place and identity are experienced through an intergenerational lens.

Parachute is an example of several types of progressive educational methodologies coinciding within a work of contemporary art: experiential learning, learning through play, embodied learning and social and emotional learning. As Mendieta communicated in the quote above, a major aim for her as an artist was to be consciously present throughout the time it took to perceive a work of art. In this approach to creativity, every work of art is an experiment that cannot be predetermined, and is valued through the act of making rather than a tangible art object. This is akin to how learning and development occurs in phases. Educators scaffold instruction by combining their students’ prior knowledge with the new information they are teaching them; and bolster both of these understandings with examples from the contemporary culture their students experience inside and outside of the classroom. The process of learning from experience, play and socialization was intrinsic to Parachute‘s success because students had to invent their own rules and make judgements as in situ, to keep the parachute and each other in sync.

Social anthropologist, Tim Ingold, asserts that we ‘think through making’ (Ingold, 2015), which is why art is a great way of learning about ourselves and the world around us. Through improvisation with materials and/or conceptual ideas, we web together a series of experiences that lead to mindfulness by focusing our awareness on the present moment, while also acknowledging and welcoming our feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. When the act of experiential learning through making is supported by play and socialization, it benefits the group in a holistic manner (see: whole body learning). Mendieta’s students in Parachute work together to have fun, contemplate big ideas and learn from one another. Using the parachute as an art form and educational resource, they were refining their motor skills, cognition and dialectic language abilities.

Integrating contemporary art practices within educational environments and having contemporary artists work together with kids is a mutually beneficial experience. Mendieta’s seminal aesthetic explorations of gender identity were seemingly influenced by her understanding of childhood development and early childhood education. This is notable in Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants) (1972), which consists of photographic documentation of the artist wearing an absurdly large fake mustache while admiring herself in the mirror. The work was relevantly exhibited at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art in a 2017 exhibition titled Ana Mendieta: Thinking About Children’s Thinking. The show’s curator, Amy Rosenblum Martín, chose to install a mirror next to the work of art (both of which were hung at a child’s eye level), so that the children viewing Mendieta’s work could participate in a similar process of self reflection and expression. Rosenblum Martín offered context for the relationship between Mendieta’s sophisticated work and the way children learn, noting that “This serious expression that Mendieta has while she’s trying on a kind of a silly mustache is very reflective of the real way that children play. They’re playing at identity, they’re playing at power dynamics” (Gotthardt, 2017). Children have a lot of worthwhile things to say about the world they are growing up in and the arts afford them a serious platform to express and reflect these things on their terms.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Gotthardt, Alexxa. “How Children Helped Ana Mendieta Make Her Radical Art.” Artsy, 26 Oct. 2017. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-children-helped-ana-mendieta-radical-art

Herzberg, Julia P., “Ana Mendieta, the Iowa Years: A Critical Study, 1969 through 1977” (1998). CUNY Academic Works. Accessed 6 July 2020. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/gc_etds/1431

Ingold, Tim. 2015.Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. United Kingdom: Routledge.

Howard Oransky, Howard, Joseph Laura Wertheim et al. 2015. Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta. Berkeley: UC Press.

Swindall, Emily; McGee, Katherine; and Leyden, Jessie M., “Whole Body Learning in the Classroom” (2014). Georgia Association for Positive Behavior Support Conference. 21. https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/gapbs/2014/2014/21

The Educators, Volume 1

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The Educators is an ongoing illustrated compendium of individuals who have made contributions to the field of education, especially regarding the intersection of contemporary art and pedagogy. Many of these figures have been mentioned several times throughout this blog. To keep my creative juices flowing during these ‘Quarantimes,’ I have been making mixed media portraits of influential educators and juxtaposing the works of art with inspirational/pedagogically minded quotes and biographical narratives. Here is an example of a page within the publication:

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I am excited to offer the first volume of The Educators as an exclusive digital publication. Get your copy by making a $5 contribution to support Artfully Learning via PayPal or Venmo. Publications will be emailed to you as soon as your order is received.

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My current Patreon patrons (aka Artful Learners) will automatically get sent the digital publication. You can become a patron on Patreon with an automatic monthly contribution (each tier comes with its own benefits).

Other great reasons to become an Artful Learner on Patreon include:

  • Unique content including lesson plans and teaching resources.
  • Email Q + A’s where I’ll answer questions of your choice.
  • Become an Artful Learner at the Phase 3 level and receive a 1 on 1 studio visit and/or consultation (via email, live chat or phone) to help conceptualize, advance and promote your work as an artist!
  • Your support helps sustain my work via Artfully Learning!

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‘Funktional’ Art Education

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Xenobia Bailey, Funktional Vibrations, 2014, glass mosaic. Courtesy of  the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York.

I’m not a religiously observant Jew, but my Jewishness is a large part of who I am today. My realization and embracing of my Jewish identity came at a very early age, thanks largely to my extended family introducing me to a wide range of cultural, historical and social narratives around Judaism and the Jewish diaspora. I learned about the joys and sorrows of my ancestors through literature, songs, plays and arts and crafts. Balancing the good times and the bad times and feeling a communal sense of pride for overcoming obstacles is something that I discovered through observing and experiencing Jewish folk lore, community gatherings (both religious and cultural) and current events. My Jewish identity is a large part of my whole self, and has influenced everything from domestic skills (ask those who have tried my Hanukkah latkes and borscht!) to social and professional developments.

One of the most important principles that I attribute to my Jewish upbringing is the idea that we are simultaneously unique and interconnected as a human race. It is painful to see the fission existing within our culture at large, which pits people of similar and different religious, ethnic, physical, social and emotional experiences against one another. While I have experienced a fair amount of antisemitism, my white skin tone provides me with many privileges that are blatantly not afforded to my Black and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) brothers and sisters. Judaism has taught me several lessons involving going beyond tolerance and finding insightful and pragmatic ways to bolster empathy and build bridges between seemingly desperate faiths and cultures. It has also taught me something that along with (and similar to) contemporary art has shaped my pedagogical philosophy: we are not final products, we are works in progress and learning is our greatest asset to fostering personal and collective value, empathy and progress. Lifelong learning through experience, observation and active listening are all elements of a good art education. And as I’ve been expressing throughout this blog, art education is essential for inspiring much needed ingenuity, empathy and critical thinking.

I recently had the chance to learn from interdisciplinary artist Xenobia Bailey, which led me to reflect and assess my own experiences and education regarding intersectional identity, self-purpose and communal value. Bailey was presenting via Black Lunch Table‘s Instagram live event on June 7th, and through the course of her non-linear discussion she shared incredible insights about her interests and experiential knowledge of art, design, Black history, education, nutrition and the supernatural. Her message of advocating for Black children to have an all encompassing childhood and become both interdependent and independent under a contemporary Black aesthetic, is central to the tenets of ‘whole body learning.’ In order to repletely impact one’s desire to learn; physical, emotional and mental engagement should scaffold and inform how students’ and educators collaborate via the learning cycle (see: Swindall, McGee and Leyden, 2014). The contemporary Black aesthetic Bailey was referring to is constantly in flux just like our constantly expanding notions of culture, identity and epistemology. It is an art form, philosophy and pedagogy that incorporates extensive cultural narratives and promotes physical and emotional well-being in tandem with the African diaspora and the plurality of all Black individuals. She mentioned the importance of play, lullabies and folktales centered around Black experiences (both real and fantasized) in order to foster imagination and ingenuity. Bailey explained that reprising and creating folktales, lullabies and games uniquely centered on uplifting Black experiences will inspire young generations to shape their present and future through an equal, equitable and justice driven lens. A Black aesthetic includes examples of art, literature, fashion, design, music, healing and spirituality that rhizomatically connects ancestral Africa to contemporary Black life (see: Tree of Knowledge).

Black culture at large, is linked to polyphonic thinking. The history of Black civilization and Africa involves transdisciplinary approaches to living and learning. The utilization of mathematics in Ancient and present day Africa is intrinsic to daily life. The oldest games inspired by numerical and logical systems were developed by Sub-Saharan civilizations, and mathematical insights continually envelop many different aspects of culture throughout the continent. Rhythms from music and dance, colors from art and clothing and healing properties from food, are all connected to holistic Earthly and other phenomena that is observed and experienced (see: Bangura, 2011 and Wright, n.d.).

Bailey’s art-centered pedagogy supports developing domestic skills and industrious mindsets to strengthen social and emotional well-being. One of the aims for a contemporary Black aesthetic is to build a world for future Black generations that is largely devoid of racism and inequity. Through exploring, discovering and sharing insights around Black experiences and African diasporic cultures, Bailey hopes that individuals have the chance to live their best lives and feel pride in expressing themselves. She mentioned that under a contemporary Black aesthetic education life skills would be learned through play and imagination. Fables, fairy tales, lullabies and works of art will have Black protagonists, inspirational themes and celebrate Afrocentric perspectives in an open-ended manner (see: Abraha, 2020 and Grady, 2020). There will be a fusion of traditional and contemporary Black craft making, holistic healing practices and nutrition, which will enable people to realize their creative ambitions and autonomous financial goals while feeling efficacious about themselves and others.

Bailey’s personal creative oeuvre is influenced by functional and esoteric African-American and Pan-African aesthetics. She calls her utilitarian practice ‘Funktional’ because she marries the vibrant, groovy and syncopated styles associated with Funk, with time honored African American industrial arts (i.e. weaving, quilting, embroidery and wood carving). In 2014, Bailey was commissioned by the socially engaged public arts organization, Creative Time, to participate in an exhibition called Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn. The exhibition featured four community-based installations that were accessible by walking through Brooklyn’s historic Weeksville neighborhood.

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Funktional Design Vanity Table created by students at Boys & Girls High School and fabricated at Weeksville Heritage Center for Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn. Photo: Xenobia Bailey. Courtesy of the artist and A Blade of Grass.

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Student, designing furniture from found cardboard boxes at Boys & Girls High School as part of Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn. Photo: Xenobia Bailey. Courtesy of the artist and A Blade of Grass.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Bailey collaborated with sixty students from Boys & Girls High School in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn to design and fabricate furniture to decorate one of Weeksville’s Historic Hunterfly Road Houses. The prompt that inspired Bailey and the young artists was to envision three pieces of furniture made using recycled materials, for an imaginary couple moving into an apartment in modern day Bed-Stuy. She explained that she “asked these juniors and seniors to draw from familiar designs — ones that were in their own homes — to outfit one of the historic Hunterfly houses. My goal was to cultivate their innate design aptitudes through visualization, play and fabrication. Our tools and materials were nothing but X-Acto blades, glue and recycled cardboard boxes” (see: Bailey, 2014). During her Instagram live talk, Bailey mentioned how inspirational it was to work with and learn from the students. She described how each student incorporated their own personal styles to the creative process, which were based on their cultural backgrounds, interests and life experiences. The amalgamation of the students’ uniqueness formed cohesive furniture design concepts that expressed the plurality and profundity of contemporary Black aesthetics.

Towards the end of her talk, Bailey mentioned something that I’ve also been contemplating a lot lately, which is how we will seize this current moment and turn challenges into something mutually beneficial that will continue to resonate throughout the course of human history.  She used the notation systems BC (Before Coronavirus) and AC (After Coronavirus) to riff on the the year-numbering system used by the Gregorian calendar to record moments in time; and implored us to consider how we will utilize our time to improvise on a better world, one that is transcendent from the glaring social and cultural problems of present day life. While we acknowledge that Black Lives Matter and act to dismantle systemic racism, we need to simultaneously work towards uplifting Black voices, Black experiences and Black aesthetics. Bailey’s own words, repeated in the captions of her recent Instagram posts, signify the perfect mantra for our collective consciousness: “We all have Super Powers, Learn Them•Practice reciprocity with the Earth•You Must Tap Out To Tap In•Operate In Love, (not fear) Love Wins. No Fear” (Bailey, 2020). 

This is a chance
To dance your way
Out of your constrictions
(Tell suckah!)
Here’s a chance to dance our way
Out of our constrictions
Gonna be freakin’
Up and down
Hang-up alley way
With the groove our only guide
We shall all be moved
Ready or not here we come
Gettin’ down on
The one which we believe in
One nation under a groove

From One Nation Under a Groove (1978) by Funkadelic


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Abraha, Magdalene. “Publishing has ignored and pigeonholed black authors for too long.” The Guardian, 9 June 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2020/jun/09/publishing-has-ignored-and-pigeonholed-black-authors-for-too-long

Bailey, Xenobia. “Teaching Brooklyn Kids ‘Funktional’ Furniture Design.” Marthastewart.com, 24 September 2014. https://www.marthastewart.com/1084922/teaching-brooklyn-high-school-kids-sustainable-funktional-furniture-design

Bailey, Xenobia. (@xenba_xenba). “(Exposing) “False Evidence Appearing Real•We all have Super Powers, Learn Them•Practice reciprocity with the Earth•You Must Tap Out To Tap In•Operate In Love, (not fear) Love Wins. No Fear” (…or Foolishness)Instagram, 27 June 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/CB7t3sAl7U3/.

Bangura, Abdul Karim. African Mathematics: From Bones to Computers. University Press of America, 2011.

Gerdas, Paulus. “On Mathematics in the History of Sub-Saharan Africa.” Historia Mathematica. Volume 21, Issue 3, August 1994, Pages 345–376. Accessed 26 June 2020 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0315086084710299

Grady, Constance. “The need to read black literature that’s not just about black struggle.” Vox, 20 June 2020. https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/6/20/21295761/black-literature-black-struggle-racism-pride-book-link-roundup

Swindall, Emily; McGee, Katherine; and Leyden, Jessie M., “Whole Body Learning in the Classroom” (2014). Georgia Association for Positive Behavior Support Conference. 21. https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/gapbs/2014/2014/21

Wright, Calli. “13 Interesting Facts About Math in Ancient Africa.” MIND Research Institute Blog, n.d. Accessed 26 June 2020 https://blog.mindresearch.org/blog/math-facts-ancient-africa

 

W.E.B. Du Bois’ Visual Lessons About the Black Experience in Academic, Professional and Everyday Life

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W.E.B. Du Bois, Negro business men in the United States, c. 1900, ink and watercolor on board. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Infographics are aesthetic visual representations of data, which present quantitative and qualitative information in a concise and accessible manner. Infographics have the potential to impact our social, emotional and cognitive development by artfully arranging graphic imagery in a format that enables us to come up with connections, notice patterns and make astute observations about sociocultural and environmental issues. While infographics have become increasingly popular in today’s digital age, they have been an effective way of expressing information throughout civilization (see: Thompson, 2016). You have likely heard the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” which is why infographics are a good resource for delivering ideas, knowledge and data that can be expeditiously understood by large and diverse audiences.

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Photograph of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black America installation at the Paris Exposition/World’s Fair of 1900. Courtesy of UMass Amherst Libraries’ Department of Special Collections and University Archives

At the turn of the 20th century, sociologist and civil rights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois, enlisted the help of his students at Atlanta University, to create a series of infographics representing the trials and tribulations of Black individuals during the years following the emancipation of enslaved African Americans through the present era. The project was a major contribution to the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, where it was displayed at the Palace of Social Economy and Congress. Du Bois’ information graphics were conceived thematically with extensively researched topics related to “the history of the American Negro,” “his present condition,” “his education” and “his literature.” He depicted his field research via intricately rendered ink wash and watercolor paintings combining the language of art with sociological perspectives (see: Robertson, 1987). In addition to the paintings, Du Bois exhibited ephemera and photographs that related to the aforementioned subject matter.

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W.E.B. Du Bois, [The Georgia Negro] Assessed value of household and kitchen furniture owned by Georgia Negroes, c. 1900, ink and wash on board. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Du Bois was ahead of his time in many regards. From an aesthetic standpoint, his semi-abstract compositions utilize a geometric and lyrical sensibility that predates modernist abstraction by several years (Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky are considered the pioneers of abstract painting in Western art. Klint’s 1906 paintings are recognized as being the first examples of the genre). Du Bois’ compositions from 1900, blend the elements of art and principles of design with a conceptual framework that visualizes the ways that society influences the attitudes, behaviors and opportunities afforded to Black individuals and communities in the United States of America. His mastery in mixing media (i.e. juxtaposing photography and painting) anticipated postmodern methodologies of utilizing archives, field research and ephemeral documentation in works of art.

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W.E.B. Du Bois, [The Georgia Negro] Assessed valuation of of all taxable property owned by Georgia Negroes, c.1900, ink and watercolor on board. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

The integration of aesthetics and sociology helps make research and data more appealing by transforming contextual information into a visual narrative that can be observed, analyzed and valued on both social-emotional and cognitive levels. We are able to assign feelings and build empathy in response to the quantitative and qualitative information due to the elements of art and design at play in these compositions. The use of color, shape, line, balance and scale heightens our awareness to details by drawing our eyes and minds to poignant statistics about race and how it affects the day-to-day experiences of Black Americans.

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W.E.B. Du Bois, Religion of American Negroes, c.1900, ink and watercolor on board. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

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W.E.B. Du Bois, [African American men, women and children outside of church], c.1899-1900, gelatin silver print, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c03393

While statistical data is an efficient way for scientists, historians and policy makers to organize and keep track of content specific knowledge, it is not always the best method for developing enduring understandings about the human condition. We learn through a combination of observation, action, socialization and the connections we make between ourselves and the world around us. Using visual imagery to express our humanity in a decipherable manner enables us to see and feel things that might otherwise be foreign to our own backgrounds. This is especially important when dealing with systemic issues like racism and inequity, which are both implicitly and explicitly prevalent throughout our collective culture. W.E.B. Du Bois’ visual graphics make concise and clear statements about Black lives, which prompts us to reflect and assess how we see and discuss race in both academic, professional and everyday terms.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Bridgers, Jeff. “Du Bois’s American Negro Exhibit for the 1900 Paris Exposition.” Library of Congress Blogs: Picture This, 28 February 2014. https://blogs.loc.gov/picturethis/2014/02/du-boiss-american-negro-exhibit-for-the-1900-paris-exposition/

Du Bois, W.E.B. (2016). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications, Incorporated; Unabridged edition.

Du Bois, W.E.B., et al (2019). Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition. London: Redstone Press.

Du Bois, W.E.B., et al (2018). W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Popova, Maria. “W.E.B. Du Bois’s Little-Known, Arresting Modernist Data Visualizations of Black Life for the World’s Fair of 1900.” Brainpickings, 9 October 2017. https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/10/09/w-e-b-du-bois-diagrams/

Robertson, Ian (1987). Sociology. 3rd Edition. New York: Worth Publishers.

Smiciklas, Mark (2012). The Power of Infographics: Using Pictures to Communicate and Connect with Your Audiences. Indianapolis: Que Publishing.

Thompson, Clive. “The Surprising History of the Infographic.” Smithsonian Magazine, July 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/surprising-history-infographic-180959563/

Artfully Dismantling Systemic Racism

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Dread Scott, from the Wanted series. Courtesy of the artist.

Racism is the longest uninterrupted epidemic within our collective American culture. It is a gaping wound and festering infection intrinsic with the founding of the United States. Although there have been strides to dismantle racist structures and work towards a society of equality, equity and social justice for all, we have a long way to go before any substantial victory can be declared. Racism and racial injustice have been amplified throughout an angry and divided populace, and our local and national leaders are perfectly content with throwing fuel on the fire. The nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations are a result of centuries of authoritative abuse on Black individuals and communities. 401 years to be precise. Protests against oppressive forces are beneficial to spur a multiplicity of dialogues that are necessary to create tangible social change.

There is never a good time for complacency in the face of adversity. There is no option to go back to ‘normal’ times. That simply won’t suffice. If you feel differently, ask yourself what it means to go ‘back to normal.’ The desire for normalcy involves ignoring problematic cultural, economic and political frameworks, which got us to this volatile moment, just to have some semblance of our conditioned social routines once again. This idea of being nostalgic for the comfort and convenience of daily life is a privileged outlook that is largely divided based upon race and class. An example of this division is the data within the latest jobs report, showing a decrease in unemployment. The results showed that while some Americans are returning to work after nationwide quarantines, the number of Black individuals on unemployment actually went up (see: Thomson-DeVeaux, Amelia, Paine, Neil and Wolfe, Julia, 2020). Furthermore, black individuals are disproportionately affected by occupational hazards related to the COVID-19 pandemic than other races. “According to research from the Current Populations Survey, black workers were more likely to be employed in essential services than white workers, with 37.7% of black workers employed in these industries compared with 26.9% of white workers” (see: Hawkins, 2020). Returning to ‘normal’ means being content living with the ills of society, while continuing on a path under the illusion of progress.

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Martin Puryear. Ladder for Booker T. Washington, detail, 1996. Installation view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 2 episode, “Time,” 2003. Photo © Art21, Inc. 2003.

Contemporary artist, Martin Puryear, describes the symbolism of his monumental sculpture Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996) –a title that alludes to the influential 19th century activist and educator Booker T. Washington – as “the kind of gradual, illusory notion of upward progress that Washington encouraged blacks to adopt in the nineteenth century against an overwhelming set of obstacles to our advancement” (Powell, 2007). We are still climbing “Booker T’s Ladderin our society’s struggle overcoming systemic racism (see: Still Climbing Booker T. Washington’s Ladder), but educators and their students have the opportunity to set foundations for long lasting social change.

What can we do within our art and art education practices to address and dismantle systemic racism? Meaningful responses will require both pragmatic and creative thinking, communication, teamwork and action. All of the above are indicative of the lessons we learn via the arts (see: Educating Through Art).

Artistic immersion is a great catalyst for an individual to formulate enduring understandings about culture and their place within the human experience, while also providing them with agency to express themselves and communicate the issues of their time. In the arts there are no definitively right or wrong ways to approach a problem. Art educator, Elliot Eisner, stated that the process of thinking artfully addresses moments in life that cannot be approached using formulas and rules. Exploring, discovering and making insights about art helps us apply flexible and critical thinking in our everyday lives. In uncertain times, art lifts up our spirits, liberates our minds and gives us a vibrant voice to communicate with the culture at large. It is a discipline that affords us agency to express ourselves humanely and teaches us to consider multiple perspectives, make judgements in the absence of rules and exhibit empathy. These are essential lessons for taking on uncertainty and fear and working towards fostering a more reflective, equitable and justice driven society.

Some of the best resources we each have to offer towards the dissolution of racism is our empathy and willingness to grow and learn. Employing active listening to understand the experiences of others, closely observing and looking out for signs of abuse and discrimination, speaking out against racist rhetoric and behaviors and addressing our own implicit and explicit forms of bias; are key to shifting the paradigm towards an equitable and justice centered environment. Other resources we can provide as educators, artists and cultural producers include raising awareness around pluralism in our fields and supporting the voices, ideas and labor of BIPOC (Black Indigenous Persons of Color) individuals.  Below are a few examples* of artists, art historians and art educators who are doing critical aesthetic and pedagogical work that implores us to reflect on systemic racial and social inequality, inequity and injustice, and build strong and united communities as a response.

*This section is a work in progress that will be updated and eventually archived*

Black Lunch Table – Artists Heather Hart and Jina Valentine address issues of intersectionality and pluralism through their Black Lunch Table initiative. The project, combines oral history, formal conversation, art making and viewing and community building around experiences related to the African diaspora. Black Lunch Table has been creating an archive, as well as performing art-centered initiatives aimed to fill in gaps around pedagogy that is focused on Black contemporary culture. (See prior Artfully Learning posts about Black Lunch Table)

The Black School – Founded by contemporary artists Shani Peters and Joseph Cuillier III, The Black School’s objective is to “extend the legacy of art in Black radical histories by providing innovative education alternatives centered in Black love.” The pedagogical philosophy driving the Black School’s contemporary practice reflects  historical contributions that artists and educators like Augusta Savage, Jacob Lawrence and John T. Biggers made to socially engaged Black art education. The Black School is also influenced by community schools such as The Harlem Community Art Center, The Civil Rights era Freedom Schools and The Black Panther Party’s Liberation Schools. Guided by revolutionary Black educators and progressive Black pedagogical theory, The Black School designs and implements experiential learning opportunities as a means to scaffold a lifelong thirst for social justice and activism among the BIPOC students and non-Black allies that they teach. Through art making workshops, The Black School seeks to empower individuals to become lifelong learners and community activists.

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Conversation between the robot Bina48 and artist Stephanie Dinkins.

Stephanie Dinkins – One of the most problematic consequences of AI is its predisposition to exhibit discriminatory bias against marginalized communities. Science journalist Daniel Cossins (2018) writes about five algorithms that exposed AI’s racial, gender and economic prejudice towards non-white men. This information is deeply troubling because AI is used by advertisers, job recruiters and the criminal justice system.

Stephanie Dinkins’ transdisciplinary artwork, Conversations with Bina48 (2014-ongoing), reveals how AI conflates and struggles with issues of gender, class and race in its attempt to exhibit humane behavior. The big question that is explored within Dinkins’ work is whether it is possible to teach a robot the habits of mind that will inspire an environment of hope, love, humility and trust, and enable humans and intelligent machines to be empathetic and virtuous collaborators. (Text has been edited from a previously published Artfully Learning post)

Kimberly Drew – Drew is an art historian and curator, whose influential work via social media, in museums and the community, helps us to develop knowledge of Black contemporary art through critical dialogues about black artists and black representation in the artworld. In 2011, she started a Tumblr blog called Black Contemporary Art, which archived images and information pertaining to black artists, in order to raise engagement and viewership of their work within social media realms.

Drew’s recently published book, This Is What I Know About Art (New York: Penguin Workshop, 2020), is an educational journey centered around experiential lessons that Drew has learned from immersing herself in art and activism. The book is geared for adolescents, but is a great read for any age group, and is an inspirational take on how art can benefit our everyday lives, and help us to feel efficacious about ourselves and the work we do.

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Nona Faustine, “Untitled (Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.)” ©Nona Faustine (2016)

Nona Faustine – Faustine’s conceptual photography reveals the oft-untold history of slavery, imperialism and the continuation of systemic racism. Her work continues to open my eyes and mind and leads me to make further inquiries into past and present forms of racial injustice on micro and macro scales. Faustine’s powerful White Shoes series makes us starkly aware of sites where atrocities related to the social, cultural and economic elements of slavery occurred. Many of these sites had been unforgivably forgotten through time and were not marked or memorialized with historical plaques. Faustine further personalizes these photographs by including herself in the composition, wearing only a pair of white high heeled shoes, a poignant allusion to the affects of colonialism and capitalism on the bodies of Black women. White Shoes goes beyond paying homage to Black women from prior generations, it is an unflinching statement that the wrongdoings of the past are inseparable from the current state of affairs.

Faustine’s My Country series is an artistic examination of iconic and contested monuments in America. She uses abstraction to shift our perspective and question who and what these monuments serve. Through Faustine’s photographic imagery, the history of Black suffering and sacrifice is being reclaimed. Educators can use her powerful images to ask important questions about historical bias, collective memory and identity, such as:  “What is history, who records it and what might be some reasons why certain people and events are left out?” “What is a memorial? Who decides what to memorialize and how does that affect and reflect social ideologies?” “How might our collective memory change as a result of opening up more inclusive dialogues and learning about the stories of historically marginalized people?” (See prior Artfully Learning posts about Faustine’s art)

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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.

Chantal Feitosa – Feitosa makes art to communicate aspects of nature and nurture. Through a playful re-imagining of her experiences in social and educational settings, she confronts long-standing traditions of marginalization and the trauma that various forms of bias have on a person’s development. Pedagogy is a major medium in her artistic practice, and she employs modes and archetypes from 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.

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. (Text has been edited from a previously published post)

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Maren Hassinger alongside children from Pearl City, during a workshop for the Tree of Knowledge. Courtesy of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Maren Hassinger- Hassinger’s art addresses our humane and intrinsic interaction with the natural environment. Her materials-based practice makes use of everyday objects to create oft-large scale installations and performances, which explore themes of identity and interwoven narratives between the past and present. She is currently focusing on making work that investigates issues of equality. Hassinger’s blending of natural and industrial materials makes a strong statement that art is all around us and can be both a critical and holistic experience. (See prior Artfully Learning posts about Maren Hassinger’s art)

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Titus Kaphar, Shifting the Gaze, 2017, oil on canvas, 83 × 1031/4 in. (210.8 × 262.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, William K. Jacobs Jr., Fund, 2017.34. © Titus Kaphar. (Photo: Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery)

Titus Kaphar- While taking an art history survey course in college, Titus Kaphar realized that the course content had been whitewashed to reflect Eurocentric ideals and images of affluent white male figures. Noticing that art made by artists of African descent was only a short segment within a larger textbook, and the reaction of indifference from his professor when he asked why the class had skipped over those topics, prompted Kaphar to look closely at the ways that black figures have been treated within historical works of art. These insights have led to his seminal artworks re-examining of Western civilization, which revivify and highlight the African American subjects who have been marginalized throughout art history.

Kaphar’s painting, Shifting the Gaze, is a repainting of Frans Hals’ Family Group in a Landscape (c.1648), a 17th century portrait of a wealthy Dutch family standing in front of a lush forest near the shore. While the family is portrayed distinctively so that we know they are of a particularly noble status, Hals mysteriously included a black boy in dark clothing, sandwiched between the mother and daughter. His positioning seemingly several inches behind the family, gives the perspective of his being nearly invisible. If not for his white collar he’d hardly be seen at all. His brown skin and tunic blend into the dark green and brown tones of the trees in the background. He actually becomes more of a background formal element than a contextual figure within the painting. In the object description by the head curator of Old Master painting from the museum where the work is held, the dog next to the daughter –ironically rendered nearly as invisible as the boy– is mentioned and analyzed, while there is no acknowledgment of the boy’s presence whatsoever. (Text has been edited from a previously published post)

The Laundromat Project – For 15 years and counting, The Laundromat Project has been championing communities of color and supporting social change, through fostering collaborative learning, dialogue and creative endeavors between artists and their neighbors. The organization has made a sustainable economic and sociocultural commitment to building pluralist communities, where neighbors embody and portray multigenerational, multiracial and multidisciplinary identities and experiences through making art together.

The Laundromat Project amplifies the voices of BIPOC artists in their own communities, and reflects the importance of art-centered community building by stating that “When artists and communities collaborate toward collective goals, we create meaningful transformation and wellbeing. Making art and culture in community and fostering new leadership helps shape a world in which members feel truly connected and have the ability to influence and shape their communities in creative and effective ways.”

I Can’t Breathe, a Public-participatory Workshop and Performance from S&DRF on Vimeo.

Sean Leonardo – Leonardo’s performance artwork critically addresses and dismantles traditional notions of gender and race. An overarching theme in his art is a grappling with the idea of manhood. He scrutinizes popular ideas of hyper-masculinity and how stereotypical cultural obsessions with idealized male identities affect the social, emotional and cognitive development of men. Subjects that inspire his performances include professional sports, comic book superheros and BIPOC popular culture.

When Eric Garner was killed by an NYPD’s officers illegal choke hold, Leonardo responded with I Can’t Breath, a series of performances through which he teaches self-defense and de-escalation methods to the public. During the performance, Leonardo coaches his participants through four physical maneuvers:

1) How to break an arm hold.
2) How to reestablish distance if someone grabs your shirt.
3) How to block a punch.
4) And lastly, how to apply the very same choke hold, that took Eric Garner’s life.

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Steve Locke, Installation view of A Partial List of Unarmed African-Americans who were Killed by Police of Who Died in Police Custody During my Sabbatical from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 2014-2015, 2016. Photograph by Melissa Blackall Photography.

Steve Locke – Locke is a multidisciplinary contemporary artist with a long and accomplished history in education and community art-centered activism. His art envisions ways of memorializing and raising a collective consciousness for marginalized individuals and communities affected by racist ideologies and actions. By poignantly addressing systemic racism and implicit bias within the community at large, Locke’s work exemplifies some of the ways we can empower the voices of those who had their voices violently silenced.

A Partial List of Unarmed African-Americans who were Killed By Police or Who Died in Police Custody During My Sabbatical from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 2014-2015 (2016), is a monumental installation that displays the names of 262 people killed by police brutality. Locke’s stark memorial, which provides details regarding each person (i.e. age and gender) and the way they were killed (i.e. date, location and weapons/tactics used), covered an entire wall inside the Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts as a part of the exhibition . Locke’s list reflects the ongoing movement to #SayTheirName, which is a public campaign that encourages publications and social media users to focus on the individual humanity of each victim and use their names in the discourse around systemic racism.

Project Row Houses – Project Row Houses is a contemporary community building model, supporting cultural diversity within the Third Ward through art-centered placemaking. Founded in 1993 by Rick Lowe, a contemporary artist from Alabama, Project Row Houses supports the local community by offering creative solutions to social, economic and educational issues within the Third Ward. When Lowe developed the idea for Project Row Houses –in collaboration with artists James Bettison (1958-1997), Bert Long, Jr. (1940-2013), Jesse Lott, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples and George Smith)– he incorporated several specific projects that would uniquely address the needs of Third Ward residents. Project Row Houses provides local artists with studios; safe and affordable housing for those in the community; support for young single mothers; an incubator for small independent businesses and tutoring/mentoring services for students.

In light of ongoing gentrification in many diverse working class and low-income neighborhoods, the need for affordable housing, job training, student-centered education and economical workspace is at an all-time high. Lowe realized that providing creative space could be a catalyst for other socially engaged projects that incorporate studio habits of mind in order to create much needed social, economic and educational improvements. (See prior Artfully Learning posts about Project Row Houses)

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Still from Dread Scott’s performance On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, 2014, produced by More Art. Courtesy of More Art.

Dread Scott – Scott’s alias pays homage to the 19th century activist Dred Scott, notable for suing for his freedom. His art intends to make us uncomfortably aware that the United States of America was founded on racism and genocide. In his performance On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide (October 7, 2014), Scott referenced the 1963 civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama, where city officials used water cannons in an attempt to suppress activists who were organizing against the city’s racist segregation policies. In a feat of physical endurance, Scott attempted to cross from one side of a public plaza to the other while being bombarded by a powerful stream of water shot from a fire hose.

Scott recently staged a reenactment of the German Coast Uprising of 1811, which was a slave rebellion in Louisiana. By and large, Scott’s revolutionary inspired artworks re-present history by illuminating marginalized and underrepresented sociocultural events that we all should be aware of. Other projects like Wanted, make us painfully aware of our implicit and explicit bias, and critique racist methodologies that are frequently involved in the policing of black communities. In this body of work, Scott uses the familiar imagery of police sketches used on ‘wanted posters’ to expose the harsh reality of racial stereotypes and systemic racism. Each poster contains a sketch of a black individual, drawn by artist and former Newark (New Jersey) police sketch artist, Kevin Blythe Sampson, along with a description of the subject. An example of one of the posters reads: “On Saturday May 17, 2014, at approximately 12:30 AM, a male black, 16-24 years of age was wearing a black waist length jacket and dark pants. The male was observed engaging in conversation with other males. The police allege that the suspect moved suspiciously when officers approached…”

Although the concepts and imagery in Scott’s artworks are resolute, they leave ample space for us to reflect on the collective trauma around systemic racism and find insightful ways in which we can propel history forward. (See prior Artfully Learning posts about Dread Scott’s art)

Clarissa Sligh – Less than 65 years ago, there were separate schools for children based upon the color of their skin. When the contemporary artist Clarissa Sligh was growing up in Virginia county, she wasn’t initially allowed to attend schools with white children. In fact, when she was fifteen (in 1956), she was a part of a school desegregation case (Clarissa Thompson et. al. vs. Arlington County School Board). However, Sligh’s practice as an artist focuses on transcending the traditional binary structures of race, gender, sexual orientation and class. She is continually interested in exploring these themes through an intersectional lens, which means that the aforementioned aspects of humanity are not isolated from each other, and exist through a complex, but relational network.

Major issues in Sligh’s art involve explorations into transformation and change. She is interested in the constructs of gender and sexual orientation, which is evident in works such as the Masculinity Project (1996-1999) and Jake (1996-2000). She also addresses race and social injustice in bodies of work like The Witness Project and It Wasn’t Little Rock, Revisited, Romanesque (2012). A common stylistic strategy she employs in her work is the juxtaposition of images with text to create a multidisciplinary narrative around the subject she’s depicting. Through her artistic explorations and experiences conversing with black men, women and transgender people, Sligh poignantly portrays how a person’s identity goes beyond identifiers such as their race, age, social status, weight or gender. She also expresses how discrimination and injustice impacts interwoven forms of social stratification (such as the aforementioned identifiers). Sligh’s ongoing collaborative project Transforming Hateis a multi-disciplinary and collaborative artwork, which seeks to create an open-ended framework for expressing collective intersectional identities. (See prior Artfully Learning posts about Clarissa Sligh’s art)

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Afflict the comfortable/Comfort the afflicted on view in Cauleen Smith’s solo show Give It or Leave It at the Frye Museum, Seattle. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Cauleen Smith – Smith’s work as a visual artist and filmmaker delves into intergenerational issues that Black women experience. She is best known for her feature length film, Drylongso, which is about a young Black woman named Pica, who is on a mission to document the trials and tribulations that Black men in Oakland, California face. The film speaks to the systemic racism that disenfranchises Black communities throughout the country. Pica’s inspiration behind photographing the men in her community is to create a record of an ‘endangered species’ as she believes they might one day become extinct due to the violent and dystopic conditions that threatens them on a consistent basis.

Smith’s other multimedia artworks seamlessly connect themes such as non-Western spirituality and cosmology, science fiction, feminism and narratives from the African diaspora. Her experimental films and installations such as Sojourner and Pilgrim weave together key figures, ideologies, events and places within the timeline of Black mysticism, healing and cultural history. Through connecting Black women from different periods in time, Smith creates a non-linear narrative that celebrates the ingenuity of the human spirit and inspires liberal thinking around building unity and pride in the face of adversity.

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Duneska Suannette, installation detail from How Was School, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Duneska Suannette – How Was School? (2018) by Duneska Suannette was a site-specific installation (at the JCC in Harlem in an exhibition on American education organized by Art in Flux) of an elementary school classroom environment for the viewer to carefully explore. On the door leading into the room, a sign cautioned viewers to “tread lightly.” This was not an understatement, because Suannette installed bungee “trip wires” in a web-like formation several inches above the floor. This classroom-cum-obstacle course, while reminiscent of the laser maze in Mission Impossible or Oceans Twelve, signifies a poignant metaphor for the trials and tribulations that BIPOC students experience in public schools. Wallpaper decorating the classroom was crafted from colorful letter jumbles overlaid with black letters, which spelled out statistics regarding the lack of equality, equity and justice for students of color in the education system. While viewers navigated through the classroom, a looped video was projected onto a wall playing news stories and footage from scenes school board meetings where the uneven treatment of lower-income students in schools was a heated topic of debate.

While I was gaining insight from the poignant classroom messages, I was greeted by Suannette, who asked me how my day was. We engaged in a conversation about equal, equitable and justice driven education, and what it means to give all students a safe, positive and creative learning environment. I then focused my attention on the many empowering elements within the installation. For example, the classroom was made up of stations, including a reading area containing a treasure trove of children’s books about intersectionality of identity and multiculturalism, a play area with black dolls and other uplifting objects and materials representative of a diverse student body. It is more important than anything else for all students to feel acknowledged and valued in their schools. Examples of literature, toys and imagery that express pluralism are great ways to inspire empathy, mindfulness and positive interactions within a heterogeneous educational setting. (Text has been edited from a previously published post)

Sugar Hill Museum – Based in New York City’s Sugar Hill section of Harlem, the Sugar Hill Museum utilizes contemporary art, historical artifacts, archives and storytelling to create community and inspire some of the youngest members of society to become lifelong lovers of learning. Many of the families who visit the museum are affected by generational poverty and lack of equitable housing, health and educational resources. The goal of the museum is to provide a sanctuary space for an intergenerational dialogue that will spark playful ingenuity and give children agency to express themselves through observing and talking about art, as well as creating their own narratives through making art in response to their social, emotional and cognitive experiences.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center has compiled a list of 95 publications for their essential Black Liberation Reading List.

Blakemore, Erin. “How Dolls Helped Win Brown vs. Board of Education.” History. 27 Mar. 2018. https://www.history.com/news/brown-v-board-of-education-doll-experiment

Cossins, Daniel. “Discriminating algorithms: 5 times AI showed prejudice.” New Scientist.  27 Apr. 2018. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2166207-discriminating-algorithms-5-times-ai-showed-prejudice/

Drew, Kimberly. This is What I Know About Art. New York : Penguin Workshop, 2020.

Hawkins, Devan. “The coronavirus burden is falling heavily on black Americans. Why?” The Guardian, 16 April 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/16/black-workers-coronavirus-covid-19

Du Bois, W.E.B. (2016). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications, Incorporated; Unabridged edition.

Du Bois, W.E.B., et al (2019). Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition. London: Redstone Press.

Du Bois, W.E.B., et al (2018). W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Leong, Kristin. “Black Teachers Matter. Black Students Matter. Black Lives Matter.” EdSurge, 3 June 2020. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-06-03-black-teachers-matter-black-students-matter-black-lives-matter

Powell, Richard J. “A Conversation with Martin Puryear,” in the exhibition catalogue Martin Puryear by John Elderfield, Richard J. Powell, et al, Fort Worth: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007.

Scarbrough, Elizabeth. “Burying the Dead Monuments.” Aesthetics for Birds, 18 June 2020. https://aestheticsforbirds.com/2020/06/18/burying-the-dead-monuments/

Scott, Dread. “America God Damn.” The Art Newspaper, 5 June 2020. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/dread-scott-america-god-damn

Thomson-DeVeaux, Amelia, Paine, Neil and Wolfe, Julia. “May’s Jobs Report Brought Good News – But Not For Everyone.” Fivethirtyeight, 5 June 2020. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/mays-jobs-report-brought-good-news-but-not-for-everyone/