Rebelling against the whitewashing of history

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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.

Contemporary artist Dread Scott uses history as a medium to scrutinize ongoing systems of racial injustice. His work is largely performative and involves revisiting horrific moments in American history to shed light on racism and sociocultural injustice. In his performance On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide (October 7, 2014, produced by More Art), Scott referenced the 1963 civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama, where city agents used water cannons in an attempt to suppress activists who were organizing against the city’s racist segregation laws. In a feat of physical endurance and emotional fortitude, Scott attempted to cross from one side of a public plaza in Brooklyn to the other while being bombarded by a powerful stream of water shot from a fire hose.

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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.

In attendance, was a group of high school students from Brooklyn (Gotham Professional Arts Academy in Bedford-Stuyvesant), who wrote eloquent, powerful and passionate responses to On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, and highlighted the myriad of social justice issues affecting their local community. Some of the students’ responses were published on More Art’s blog. Scott also visited the school and engaged in a discourse with the students in a “town hall” style meeting to address the epidemic of racial tension, police brutality and social inequity in New York City. In their classroom meetings, students discussed ways they could activate positive change within their communities. They created informative fliers and zines to display and handout in their school, and organized a student union, in order to speak out against the new Jim Crow (see: Alexander, 2010) and other issues affecting equality, equity and justice. The students’ involvement in civic engagement is a hopeful sign that current and future generations of youth are discerning the roles they have in reversing the whitewashed narrative of Western culture.

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Dread Scott, Slave Rebellion Reenactment, 2019. Photograph by Micaela Martegani. Courtesy of More Art.

Dread Scott’s latest project, Slave Rebellion Reenactment, which he presented in New Orleans on November 8th and 9th, was a reenactment of a slave rebellion in Louisiana called the German Coast Uprising of 1811. The German Coast, a 100 mile curvilinear stretch of high-yielding land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, was settled by colonists in the 18th century and became the location of many plantations owned by planters and slave owners like Manuel Andry. The cash crop of the region was sugarcane, and its high demand resulted in very harsh and demoralizing conditions for the enslaved black individuals who were forced to cultivate it.

On January 8th of 1811, around 25 slaves from plantations along the German Coast rose up against their owners. In the dead of night, the group of slaves led by Charles Deslondes, killed Andry’s son Gilbert and chased a wounded Andry off his plantation. As Deslondes and his faction moved along the German Coast, the number of revolutionaries increased tenfold (although the exact number is debated among historians). Ultimately, the lack of combat training and tactical skills on behalf of Deslondes and his militia led to their defeat after just two days. The rebels caused severe damage to the plantations, but suffered far more casualties than their adversaries. In the aftermath of the event, the white majority used their wealth of resources and position of political power to further dehumanize and oppress the black population.

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Dread Scott, Slave Rebellion Reenactment, 2019. Photograph by Micaela Martegani. Courtesy of More Art.

The German Coast Uprising of 1811 was the largest slave rebellion in United States History, yet it is largely forgotten today apart from local culture (see: Oliver, 2019). While many U.S. history textbooks mention Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, which happened 20 years later in Virginia, Charles Deslondes and his valiant uprising has received far less historical attention. Princeton professor and historian, Rhae Lynn Barnes, hypothesizes that the lack of knowledge around the German Coast Uprising might be due to the fact that Louisiana was a recent addition to the United States (via the Louisiana Purchase in 1803) and “therefore still seen as untamed territory where violence and lawlessness could be anticipated” (Barnes, 2015). Another explanation is that some states are still struggling to come to terms with their white supremacist legacy and efforts to gloss over and cover up these narratives satisfies their cultural narrative far better than reconciling with centuries of gross racial injustice.

The idea of a slave rebellion reenactment had been a long-term artistic goal for Dread Scott. However, when planning the theme and other elements of such a project, Scott was initially unaware of the German Coast Uprising of 1811. Prior to learning about the uprising, he had planned to enact a conceptualized slave rebellion, featuring seminal revolutionaries like Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser (Smith, 2019). Since Scott’s artistic practice is rooted in historical analysis and research, he eventually came across accounts of the largest slave rebellion in the United States. Like a scholar of history, Dread scrutinized primary sources via archives and public records, as well as secondary sources from modern historians. While going through the process to plan the performance, he paid careful attention to details such as the costumes, weapons and logistical routes relating to the fateful 48+ hours of rebellion along the German Coast 208 years ago. Scott immersed himself within the local New Orleans communities where his performance took place. Part of the organizational planning included talks with local historians and students at local colleges. Scott wanted to make sure that he was representing the spirit of Charles Deslondes and his brave cohort of revolutionary minded individuals.  Due to the fact that the rebellion isn’t in many history books and that the written history coming from primary sources is murky (because records of the rebellion where kept by the same authority figures who sought to suppress it), Scott relied on educated hypotheses from local historians Leon Waters and Malcolm Suber. Although he wanted to present the event as authentically as possible, one alteration that Scott purposefully made to the historical account is the ending. Scott wanted to end the performance on an uplifting note and therefore he had the rebels force their oppressors to retreat. Scott’s utilization of artistic license does the narrative justice because it inspires hope and creates an open-ended dialogue regarding contemporary forms of social engagement.

Artworks like On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide and Slave Rebellion Reenactment, re-present history by illuminating marginalized and underrepresented sociocultural events that we all should be aware of. Although it is undeniably a part of our history, the topic of slavery and its legacy is still a contentious subject among factions of the United States population. Some states and white authority figures have taken issue with acknowledging their predecessor’s roles in the slavery and genocide of African-Americans. Most recently, communities in the South were divided by the movement to remove monuments of Civil War era figures who were influential in the spreading of the Confederate agenda. In an effort to revise the heroic treatment bestowed upon racist and treasonous figures of the Confederacy, statues of Confederate leaders have been removed from public spaces. Opponents say that the removal of statues negates the cultural heritage of the South. The issue with that statement is that displaying the likeness of these figures reinforces ideals and practices of white supremacy. The Confederate monuments were realized in correlation with the Jim Crow laws (1877-1964), which were meant to intimidate and repress black citizens’ access to equal, equitable and social justice rights. The argument that removing these nefariously realized monuments would eradicate Southern culture is ethically devoid. As Eleanor Harvey, a senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum specializing in Civil-War era culture states: “If white nationalists and Neo-Nazis are now claiming this as part of their heritage, they have essentially co-opted those images and those statues beyond any capacity to neutralize them again” (Brown, 2017).

What about the erasure of African-Americans whose contributions and narratives were never acknowledged? What about the fact that sacred land, such as their burial grounds, have been buried under concrete and steel elements of modern urban architecture? If celebrating Southern culture is of deep concern, then statues of Charles Deslondes, Gabriel Prosser or Nat Turner would be better options to be displayed in Southern parks, plazas and civic buildings, than the white Confederate generals who fought to uphold slavery and genocide.

The artistic interventions of Dread Scott are the history lessons we all need. Their beneficial impact is in the pedagogical framework of re-presenting history in a non-white and non-colonialist manner. We are granted with the experiences and voices of the oppressed and marginalized, which revokes the traditional practice of historical accounting in service of the victors. The artful visualization of the performers symbolizing the audacity and struggles of the rebel slaves, inspires empathy and understanding for those who were and are currently affected by racial injustice. Although the rebellions of Deslondes, Turner and Prosser were physically thwarted, the social and emotional impact of their actions could not be erased by white supremacy.

With a generation of students, such as those at Gotham Professional Arts Academy, who are learning to be acutely aware and actively attentive to important facts and issues surrounding racial and social justice, it is hopeful that near future societies will continue to foster empathetic solutions to whatever social problems arise. When that happens, the history books and lessons will reflect the valiance of the marginalized and the oppressed rebels, while admonishing the systemic oppression of racial, ethnic and religious groups that has been the status quo of American society since its colonial foundation.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Barnes, Rhae Lynn. “America’s Largest Slave Revolt.” US History Scene, 10 Apr. 2015. ushistoryscene.com/article/german-coast-uprising/.

Brown, Rachel. “Why the U.S. Capitol Still Hosts Confederate Monuments,” news.nationalgeographic.com, 17 Aug. 2017. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/08/charlottesville-confederate-memorials-civil-war-racism-history.

Laughland, Oliver. “First slavery, then a chemical plant and cancer deaths: one town’s brutal history,” The Guardian, 6 May 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/06/cancertown-louisiana-reserve-history-slavery

Smith, Melissa. “Here’s How the Artist Dread Scott Pulled Off an Epic Reenactment of the Largest Slave Rebellion in American History,” artnetnews, 21 Nov. 2019. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/dread-scotts-epic-reenactment-rebellion-1700433?fbclid=IwAR19DLG6JwO-81nENl_VmXNRb7EbJUwJEJUxBoFoKthvB_s2vpwdAX5IaV4

Still Climbing Booker T. Washington’s Ladder

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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.

One of Martin Puryear’s most iconic artworks is titled Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996), which is a reference to the influential 19th century activist and educator, Booker T. Washington.

Puryear is known for creating large scale sculptures out of wood and other materials that challenge our modes of perception. In Ladder for Booker T. Washington, Puryear represents forced perspective, which is an illusion that makes something look farther away than it actually is. The thirty-six foot sculpture ascends up to the very high ceiling in the gallery where it is displayed (at the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, Texas). The sculpture is a stylized ladder, which curves and gets narrower at the top. While the bottom rungs are similar in size to conventional ladders, they narrow to a surreal 1 1/4 inches at the top. The ladder is lifted several inches off the ground, which gives it the feeling of being suspended in air. Its organic form (the naturally curved side rails were created from a golden ash sapling) and ethereal installation portray a spiritual essence. 

Puryear acknowledges that the title of the artwork was realized after the sculpture was finished (Art21, 2011). The conceptual nature of Puryear’s sculpture and the title leave ample room for interpretation. Although Puryear considers the work to be abstract (meaning that there is no intended narrative element), the sculpture’s physical form and perspective might allude to Booker T. Washington’s point of view and influence on African-American culture during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era.

Washington was highly successful in facilitating the development and success of black businesses and educational institutes in an era where African-Americans were denied equal and equitable access to many economic, social and cultural opportunities. However, Washington was also viewed in a controversial manner by some of his activist peers, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, because of his reluctance to advocate for immediate nationwide equality and equity for African-Americans. While Washington’s activism provided black individuals with black-centered institutional and business benefits (such as Tuskegee University and the National Negro Business League), he struck deals with prominent white politicians to gain support for these organizations. One particular deal, known as the Atlanta compromise, was made in exchange for the political submission to white policies, such as segregation. Although Washington’s contributions made significant headway for African-Americans, his reliance and advocacy for blacks assimilating to white policies upheld the status quo.

Puryear describes Washington as “someone who made enormous contacts with people in power and had enormous influence, but he was what you would call a gradualist” (Art21, 2011). While the sculpture is asserted to largely confront aesthetic issues, it also addresses ongoing social conditions. The idea of initiating, maintaining and eventually achieving a goal is symbolically represented via the use of forced perspective. The essential question Ladder for Booker T. Washington asks is: where are we in the progression of equality, equity and social justice? The abstracted organic form, asymmetry and scale of the artwork suggests that the path to obtaining these goals is uncertain and difficult. The floating nature of the sculpture might also allude to the spiritual motif of the ladder (i.e. Jacob’s Ladder/God’s promise of the promised land) and its symbolism during slavery as a means to resist oppression and gain freedom and salvation. We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder is a spiritual hymn slaves sang to express the hope that they will one day climb to God and defeat their slave-owners. Each rung of the ladder (Ev’ry round goes higher higher) signifies tests of spiritual strength that will get them closer to God and deliverance from slavery.

The exquisite handmade craftsmanship of Puryear’s sculpture reflects Washington’s educational philosophy regarding the importance of work to be viewed as dignified and beautiful. In his 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, Washington favors a form of education that teaches students to see “not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity.”

Washington advised African-Americans to value industrial labor in an intellectual and personal manner. He supported this ideology by writing: “when the student is through with his course of training he goes out feeling that it is just as honorable to labor with the hand as with the head” (Washington, 1900). This tenet was a major component of the curriculum at Tuskegee University, because Washington believed that developing professional labor skills and industrious knowledge would lead to self-preservation. The idea of building self-worth through one’s work and the need for industrial and mechanical knowledge is fundamentally sound. The argument that schools are not preparing students for the ‘real-world,’ is still a common critique in educational discourse. It would behoove all schools to provide pragmatic skills and knowledge such as agricultural management and other forms of highly skilled technical labor.

By urging his contemporaries to temporarily accept systemic discrimination in order to concentrate on elevating themselves economically through hard work, Washington’s policies ignored the affect that trauma and oppression have on educational, social and economic development. Despite Washington’s aspirations that systemic conditions would gradually change, unequal and inequitable situations still persist. Some educational environments remain segregated (Meatto, 2019) and there are less opportunities for black and brown individuals to advance economically than their white counterparts.

Puryear contributes to the contextual analysis of his sculpture 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).

Over a century later, society is still attempting to climb Booker T. Washington’s ladder…


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Art21 and Puryear, Martin. “Abstraction and ‘Ladder for Booker T. Washington,'” Art21, Nov. 2011. https://art21.org/read/martin-puryear-abstraction-and-ladder-for-booker-t-washington/

Meatto, Keith. “Still Separate, Still Unequal:Teaching about School Segregation and Educational Inequality,” New York Times, 2 May 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/02/learning/lesson-plans/still-separate-still-unequal-teaching-about-school-segregation-and-educational-inequality.html

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.

Washington, Booker T. “Signs of Progress Among the Negroes,” Century Magazine, 59 (1900), pps 472-478. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/washington/signs-of-progress.txt

Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery: An Autobiography, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1901.

Mondo Museum: A Sim that encourages decolonization and experiential learning

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Screenshot from Mondo Museum. Courtesy of Viewport Games and Kitfox Games.

Imagination is one of our greatest and most humanizing characteristics, and playing games is beneficial for shaping our imaginative instincts. When I was growing up, I witnessed the evolution of video games from 8-bit side-scrolling forms of gameplay to expansive environments where players could explore the gaming environment at their own pace. This transformation also changed the narrative structure of games from typically binary themes (i.e. go through levels and beat the bad guys) to more player-centered experiences. Coming from a background where free-play and imagination were valued and rewarded, I enthusiastically gravitated towards the latter type of video games. Computer games like Sim City, Dino Park Tycoon, Sim Hospital and The Sims, are some of my all-time favorites, because they gave me agency to make creative, logical or absurd choices. There was flexibility in the gameplay that made me feel like I was truly responsible for the frame to frame progression of the game. Every action had a reaction and there were so many different ways a scenario could play out. I had my share of triumphs and disasters in each game.

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Screenshot from Mondo Museum. Courtesy of Viewport Games and Kitfox Games.

I haven’t played a video game in several years, but when I heard about the upcoming release of Mondo Museum (sometime in 2020), a museum themed management sim, I became very excited. This game combines both my adolescent and current interests and passions. A museum simulator is a curator and video game aficionado’s dream come true. There are several benefits to playing management sim video games, and they relate to many of the studio habits of mind that we learn via the arts. In order to be successful in the game, players need to brace themselves for ambiguity, be flexible in their actions and reactions to change, establish cross-disciplinary connections and make assessments as to what went well and how their process of play can be improved.  The game enables us to realize how consciously arranging cultural objects, which span time and place, provides historical and contemporary context. By researching objects from the collection (or on loan from another simulated institution) and curating them into gallery spaces, the player creates compelling narratives and gives their viewers ample opportunities to make cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary discoveries.

Mondo Museum’s gameplay is also intended to build empathy (another artistic habit of mind) because you see what others are going through as they move throughout your museum. The viewer experience inspires and influences the player to make equitable decisions that enhance their engagement with the museum. Furthermore, you advance in the game by curating exhibitions that make relevant connections between the museum objects and their aesthetic, cultural and historical context. For example, a player can gain ‘combo’ points by creating a thematic exhibition that displays works of art that address the topic from multiple cultural perspectives. Organizing shows thematically and showing the heterogeneity of sociocultural concepts, is one way that real-life museums are shifting the gaze from the Western Canon to a global and intersectional representation of culture.

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Screenshot from Mondo Museum. Courtesy of Viewport Games and Kitfox Games.

Mondo Museum supports the proper contextualization of culture through ethical cross-cultural partnerships with other museums. The provenance of works of art and artifacts are represented by the region and culture they were created in. You build your exhibitions by participating in a discourse with curators and directors from museums around the world, in order to gain knowledge about the intent and function the object had/has for the people who made it.

While the game is still in development, the idea of having the gameplay reflect contemporary issues around equitable access to museums and decolonization, is something that drives the game’s designer, Michel McBride-Charpentier. He intends for the game to address and raise awareness around a major issue affecting museums and cultural institutions throughout the world: the colonialist practices of collections acquisitions. In other words, major museums have established collections of cultural objects through unethical means like looting and nefariously brokered deals. McBride-Charpentier states, “the way that [museums] have built their collections in the West is mostly based on colonial looting…Instead of representing that, this game is showing a more utopian version of what museums should be like” (Jackson, 2019).

While Mondo Museum will present a stylized version of a museum, the ethical principles behind decolonization are very realistic goals that would behoove museums around the world to make right. Elisa Shoenberger writes, “the decolonizing project will have starts and stops as each museum, cultural worker and audiences have difficult conversations and reflections about the meaning of museums and who the institutions are intended to serve” (Shoenberger, 2019). One obvious way of decolonizing a museum, is to return the objects of historical importance to the contemporary cultures where they hold significance. There are so many examples of objects in museums that were acquired during colonial and imperial eras and have since been requested by the people in the region they originated from. Returning the objects to their cultures of origin (known as repatriation) would ensure that current and future generations have access to primary resources regarding their cultural heritage.

Another objective is to create a dialogue through partnerships with cultural organizations and individuals from nations that have their objects in foreign museums. In a recent post (see: Exhibiting Empathy), I describe how the Seattle Museum of Art is collaborating with African artists whose experience and background provide relevant insight about the works in the museum’s African art collection.  By having advisors who are a part of the society where the art is from, the museum ensures that the narrative is both properly presented and connected to the contemporary life of its originating place. Too often, works from African nations are presented in Western museums as ethnographic mementos, which ignores the fact that there is a continuity of the specific culture (the same can be said about art by North American, South American and Australian indigenous peoples).

Penn Museum in Philadelphia, has a renowned collection of art and artifacts from the Middle East dating back to 4,500 years ago. Although the museum states that 95 percent of their Middle Eastern collection “was excavated by Penn archaeologists” in partnership with local governments, it still raises issues about ethical acquisitions. Art critic Olivia Jia questions the idea of an ethical excavation, “given the fact that many of these excavations occurred against a backdrop of strife-ridden fallout from British colonial rule, and were co-sponsored by the British Museum” (Jia, 2019). Furthermore, the museum has presented their Middle Eastern objects through the lens of the archeologists, which gives Western narratives precedence over the stories that are intrinsic to the region where the artifacts and art objects were collected. To shift the narrative towards a more local and decolonized perspective, the museum established an innovative program called Global Guides, where they hire refugees from the Middle East as docents who lead visitors through thematic tours of the permanent collection. The docents provide unique insights and personal connections to the work. Analyzing exit surveys for the Global Guides program, Jia was amazed to discover that many participants never had an actual interpersonal connection with an individual from the Middle East until then. The presence of docents like Moumena Saradar, a Syrian refugee and only one of two Muslim staff members at the museum, has an empathetic impact on both visitors and museum staff (Jia, 2019).

Mondo Museum is only a simulated game, however its mission to reject colonial narratives reflects a very real issue that is at the forefront of artistic and institutional practices. Furthermore, Mondo Museum’s experience and equity driven platform is similar to the operational missions at brick and mortar institutions, where the viewer’s experience and participation are given elevated attention. Many museums no longer serve as ‘banking models’ (see: Freire, 2008) where visitors are presented with didactic displays of objects and text. Instead, they are being transformed into environments that enable viewers to curate their own experiences in dialogue with the museum’s collection and architectural space (Zucker, 2019).

Museum scholar and critic Seph Rodney explains that today’s museums are incorporating distinct factors that are in-line with visitor’s needs, such as “social interaction, spiritual sustenance, emotional connection, intellectual challenge, or consumerist indulgence” (Rodney, 2016). From the preview and demo of Mondo Museum, it appears that all of these elements will be integral to the management sim’s gameplay. These undertakings provide experiences that support experiential learning, collaboration, socialization and the democratization of cultural spaces. Museums that acknowledge their visitors’ unique personalities and treat them as participants, are likely to retain them. In Mondo Museum, that retainership leads to winning the game. It is McBride-Charpentier’s hope that players of the game will become more engaged and active participants at their local museums. He says “I would love it if people play this and then were inspired to go out to the real museums that might be nearby” (Jackson, 2019).


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Freire, Paulo. “The “Banking” Concept of Education.” Ways of Reading. 8th ed. Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford- St. Martin’s, 2008. 242-254. Print.

Jackson, Gita. “Upcoming Museum Sim Lets Players Combine Artifacts to Tell Cool Stories.” Kotaku, 11 Oct. 2019. https://kotaku.com/upcoming-museum-sim-lets-players-combine-artifacts-to-t-1838977490

Jia, Olivia. “Refugees Connect Their Personal Stories with a Museum’s Ancient Artifacts.” Hyperallergic, 19 Feb. 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/484835/global-guides-program-penn-museum/

Rodney, Seph. 2019. The Personalization of the Museum Visit, Abingdon: Routledge.

Rodney, Seph. “The Evolution of the Museum Visit, from Privilege to Personalized Experience.” Hyperallergic, 22 Jan. 2016. https://hyperallergic.com/267096/the-evolution-of-the-museum-visit-from-privilege-to-personalized-experience/

Shoenberger, Elisa. “What does it mean to decolonize a museum?” MuseumNext, 7 Feb. 2019. https://www.museumnext.com/article/what-does-it-mean-to-decolonize-a-museum/

Zucker, Adam. “Summer Reading.” Artfully Learning, 10 June 2019. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/2019/06/10/summer-reading-list-2/

 

Back to Nature: Learning about ecosystems of the past and building future ecological awareness

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Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some people call New York City a ‘concrete jungle.’ This metaphor refers in part to the city’s lack of greenery and the plethora of large concrete and glass structures in its stead. However, New York City was once a lush natural environment and our urbanization of the land has displaced generations of natural growth. The large swaths of commuters, tourists and residents that hustle and bustle across the metropolis probably don’t often think of a pre-colonial Manhattan and the diverse island ecosystem that existed.

We can learn a lot from artworks that re-present the lost ecosystem of the city. Michael Wang and Alan Sonfist both incorporate scientific processes into their artistic practice. Their work aims to raise our awareness about how post-industrial human beings have transformed, molded and largely stripped the land of its natural essence. Through bringing the results of their scientific research into cultural spaces, their work invites us to view an ecosystem that once did not have to be nurtured by an artist. Our consumer-driven interactions with the world around us have made these artworks necessary in order to experience the landscapes of the past.

Artists throughout history have become awestruck by nature and portray it in all its glory and lushness. The paintings of the Hudson River School artists depict nearly pristine views of America’s landscape right as the industrial revolution transformed forests and valleys into sprawling towns and large cities. These artists were rebelling against what they saw as a grave danger to humanity: our sociocultural and economic influence on the environment. Wang’s Extinct in New York (2019-ongoing) and Sonfist’s Time Landscape (1965-present) attempt to revive the actual ecological features of New York City that have been erased by urbanization and consumerism.

Wang and Sonfist use natural resources as their art materials. Their work begins with analysis of quantitative data, historical accounts and archival imagery.  Thanks to the careful documentation by both artists and scientists, Sonfist and Wang were able to fulfill their objectives to re-present New York City’s lost and disappearing fauna.

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Michael Wang, Extinct in New York. Installation photograph at LMCC’s Arts Center at Governors Island. Courtesy of LMCC and Sacks & Co.

Extinct in New York, which was just recently on display at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s (LMCC) Arts Center on Governors Island, creates a space where viewers can observe live specimens of specific native plants, algae and lichen that have vanished from New York City’s ecosystem. Wang’s extensive research accompanies the live specimens in a publication detailing the name of each plant, algae or lichen, and the last time it was found in its natural setting. The installation of these specimens resembles a greenhouse laboratory and, sure enough, it requires nurturing care from gallery staff, local students and volunteers. When the project is de-installed, the goal is to re-introduce the plants, algae and lichen to the land where they once grew unrestrained. The irony is that now they will require the care of human beings in managed spaces like urban community gardens and public parks. Alongside the live materials, Wang displays photographs and botanical drawings that document and express the traces of nature and its ephemerality.

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Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1965-present, site-specific land art. Courtesy of the artist.

Time Landscape recreates a pre-colonial natural forest, which would have provided sustenance, shelter and community to the indigenous peoples of what is now the five boroughs. Sonfist designed a plot of land, which is located at the northeast corner of La Guardia Place and West Houston Street in downtown Manhattan, to resemble the likeness of a natural forest that would have been observed prior to European interference. The initial planting process depicted the three phases of natural forest growth: seeds to saplings to grown trees and mature plants. Now, the land artwork is ripe with old growth and is even susceptible to post-colonial species of fauna (which are periodically weeded out by Parks Department workers). Time Landscape is a living sculpture, which could also be considered as a memorial to a past ecological epoch. It raises our social, emotional and cognitive awareness to the prowess and fragility of our natural world.

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Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1965-present. Courtesy of the artist.

In the Anthropocene era, it is important that our educational settings provide real-world and hands-on learning scenarios for students to explore, discover and make insightful responses to the environment. In order to do this, teachers will likely require support from their administration and professional development to learn ways that they can incorporate environmental issues into their curriculum.

Brooklyn College’s Graduate Art Education program has implemented a Summer course called Human Tracks in the Urban Landscape, which focuses on inquiry-based pedagogical frameworks that current and future art and science educators can use in their classrooms. Using Prospect Park as both a case study and experiential site, the course combines classroom discussions where educators learn the natural history of New York’s ecology, with on-site and studio based explorations, such as projects, installations and performances. At the end of the course, educators produce multi-disciplinary projects that combine artistic and scientific processes and address a specific ecological topic of interest.

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Shauna Woods Gonzalez, Bill Vaughn, Adam Zucker, Pick-up Picnic, 2017, London Plane bark, litter, edible native and invasive plants gathered and foraged from Prospect Park.

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Shauna Woods Gonzalez, Bill Vaughn, Adam Zucker, detail of Pick-up Picnic, 2017, London Plane bark, litter, edible native and invasive plants gathered and foraged from Prospect Park.

When I took this course in its inaugural year (2017), my team (consisting of three art educators including myself) researched the history of foraging in New York City parks and came up with a list of edible plants that thrived in Prospect Park. We focused on native and invasive species that could be foraged and utilized by local communities as nutritional sources of food, as well as ways to sustainably interact with the park’s natural resources. We created a temporary site-specific installation and performance, where we juxtaposed the park’s useful natural elements with the abundance of consumer-based refuse (fast food wrappers, plastic bottles and junk food scraps) that were littered throughout the landscape. The result was a ‘picnic’ of foraged plants and trash. The idea for this installation started with an adverse reaction to being in the park. I could not enjoy myself because I was preoccupied with the amount of litter strewn across the natural space. The trash was distracting me from the abundant paths that surrounded us. I tried to move forward, but I kept thinking ‘how could we let our natural oasis get this way?’ As an artist, my concerns are visualizing and documenting experiences that focus on our accountability to our surroundings.

 

My strong reaction to the amount of garbage in Prospect Park led me to wonder why there isn’t a campaign to promote the clean and sustainable use of the park as a natural resource within the urban ecology. There are lots of plants for anyone in the city to enjoy for medicinal, culinary or other purposes (like creating fabrics and dyes). Ultimately, we need to take in knowledge about the natural scenery and take out the litter that threatens our local resources. We can promote a healthy relationship by thinking about what we consume and how it affects the environment. Learning to forage is one of the best things that I have learned, especially because mushrooms in particular are quite pricey in city markets! I hope more people will trust what is available around them in nature versus what is pre-packaged and mass-consumed. Perhaps through the incorporation of art and ecology curricula within our city’s schools, generations of students will gain expertise regarding the use of natural resources and become stewards to the ecosystems that exist within the urban landscape.

Exhibiting Empathy

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Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at the Seattle Art Museum. © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Do you suffer from a lack of empathy? Is it getting harder to find meaningful connections between your life and the lives of those who are socially, economically and culturally different than you? On any given day, we see horrible images of violence, famine, floods, habitat and environmental loss on the news or social media, and moments later, we switch the channel to South Park and “like” a photo of a poodle wearing a tuxedo on Instagram. With a myriad of responsibilities and distractions, it is hard for some of us to take a moment to see things through the lens of another person.

Empathy is the ability to foster an understanding of each other’s lived experiences by going outside our perceived reality and into the reality of another person. Empathy is being able to consciously feel what others are going through and expressing. As psychologist Douglas LaBier describes:

“empathy is what you feel only when you can step outside of yourself and enter the internal world of the other person. There, without abandoning or losing your own perspective, you can experience the other’s emotions, conflicts, or aspirations from within the vantage point of that person’s world. That’s not telepathy; it’s a hard-wired capacity in all of us…”

It has been theorized that in today’s climate, we are afflicted by what is known as Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD) (LaBier, 2010). Lack of empathy can affect equity, because if we are unable to grasp the experiences and realities of others then we don’t truly develop a respect for their social, emotional and cognitive perspective. As discussed in the two previous posts about making art more equitable, realizing differences and adapting to include variability in our sociocultural conversations is important in shifting canonical systems of social stratification to a balanced and multifaceted social climate.

One of the ways that we can become more empathetic and equitable is by utilizing creativity to envision environments that are inclusive and receptive to social and cultural diversity. Art can function as a resource that inspires and challenges us to think about local and global perspectives and the importance of experiencing other cultures from a vantage point within their world. The essential question within our current global framework is how can we coexist in such fragmented and perilous times? One way is by learning to make space within ourselves for other people’s self expression. Doing so means going beyond just listening to their words or seeing their imagery. It means being able to identify and comprehend what they feel.

The Seattle Art Museum makes empathy and equity an active learning experience by offering cultural and experiential education alongside the objects in their galleries. The museum has a substantial collection of art from many African nations, and its presentation shifts our gaze from colonialism to community. One way of doing this is by activating the objects in the space so that they reference and illuminate cultural traditions in an authentic manner. Masks are presented over the faces of mannequins rather than on the wall or in display cases, so we get a sense of how these objects would actually function within the cultural context of the region. The museum is also very conscious in getting advice and feedback from contemporary artists and citizens of African nations. These individuals and groups are given precedence over anthropological and patrimonial discourse that is often too common in regards to the presentation and interpretation of artworks created throughout the continent.

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Okumpka Masquerade Players (1950-2007). Installation view of Chukwu Okoro Masks at the Seattle Art Museum, 2016, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

The museum’s display of Okumpka Masquerade Players (1950-2007), incorporates the contextual knowledge and experience of individuals who are primary participants with the objects on view. The installation features Afikpo Igbo masks created by Chukwu Okoro, a renowned Nigerian carver from Mgbom Villege, Afikpo. Okoro’s masks characterize spirits, and are utilized in Afikpo masquerades called Okumpka plays, which enable performers to purge themselves of embarrassment and embrace their playful and vulnerable nature. The installation on view presents mannequins donning masks and costumes that are part of the oft-humorous Okumpka plays, popular among Igbo Afikpo tribes in Nigeria. In front of them is a pot, which is a vessel for the masked players to announce their injudicious actions and compete for the honor of being the most foolish. Additionally, performers have the agency to challenge authority and through humor and satire, expose problematic elements of society. Those who stand accused of misdeeds are “obliged to listen without retaliating.” The idea is that airing grievances and listening to the feelings of those who have been wronged will encourage those who have done the wrongdoing to understand how their actions affect the feelings of others.

The costume elements were assembled by Sam Irem, a former president of the Afikpo Association of America, while Eze Anamelechi, an Igbo artist and native, was invited to the museum in order to supervise the fabrication. The insight gained through having these individuals partake in the work’s display is meaningful because it allows us to view and interpret it as it is culturally relevant.

Regarding the museum’s display of the Afikpo Masquerade Players, contemporary Igbo sound artist Emeka Ogboh, exclaimed: “This is one of the best places I’ve seen masks installed because normally they would hang it on the wall. But doing it this way, with the costumes and everything, also gives it character because these masks were not really meant to be hanging on the wall like that” (Ogboh, 2018). The masquerade players became the foundation and inspiration for him to create artwork for the 2015 group exhibition Disguise. About the work he made for Disguise, Ogboh says “I try to make that connection with what was existing here already, which was trying to work with sounds that could go with this whole situation of masquerading and find a way to give it a contemporary feel for the installation for the exhibition” (ibid).

In Disguise, works by contemporary artists are juxtaposed with traditional objects, themes and practices, illustrating how tradition is both maintained and transformed through generations. This methodology is central to the Seattle Art Museum’s pedagogical approach of presenting their collection and organizing exhibitions in ways that express empathy and equity.

The Afikpo Masquerade Players are currently part of a conceptual exhibition titled Lessons from the Institute of Empathy. The premise of the exhibition is that:

“Three Empathics have moved into the Seattle Art Museum and established a virtual space where you can step outside your normal, routine self and improve your ability to understand others…..Here, the Empathics display their trademarked process for transformation—absorbing vapors that spread digitally on the walls and floor. Surrounding this showroom is art the Empathics selected because they felt it could awaken empathy in the viewer.” – Wall text courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum.

A conceptual commonality in the presentation of these artworks, is the envisioning of a near-future civilization, where we are unified by the web of identities that each of us employ; and our ability to express empathy for each other’s unique experiences.

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Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at the Seattle Art Museum. © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

At the crux of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, is Saya Woolfalk’s ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space (2015), an immersive multi-disciplinary installation that explores a futuristic society where we have transcended our traditional form of humanity for a hybrid type of post-human existence. In this scenario, we have transformed out of our human bodies to form interpersonal connections with other races, ethnicity, genders and biological forms such as plants and animals. The work incorporates physical objects such as Sowei-inspired helmet masks –traditional versions of these masks, made by the Mende Culture in Sierra Leone, are on view nearby with explanations from a Sowei student who describes their importance in regards to female initiation rituals– and digital animation as a means to tell stories that reflect both the physical and metaphysical space. Through the amalgamation of media and narratives, we can enter the environment and feel a sense of transformation within ourselves. The idea is that we should remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle of our consumer based lifestyle and enter a reflective space where we are absorbed by the sights, sounds and feelings of nature and spiritual transcendence.

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Installation view of Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness at the Seattle Art Museum, 2019, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

In addition to the re-presentation of the Seattle Art Museum’s African art collection, a current exhibition by Zanele Muholi titled Somnyama Ngonyama (Zulu for Hail the Dark Lioness) questions prior cultural narratives around African identity. Muholi’s politically charged black and white self-portrait photographs, express intersectional facets of black identity, through an exploration of how black bodies are stereotyped into ethnographic archetypes. In these self-portraits, Muholi portrays the identity of other black bodies, like the Afro-Japanese, who have been marginalized and tokenized for exploitative purposes. Muholi utilizes props made from found materials like rubber gloves and plastic to critique the message of colonialism’s influence on the way black bodies are misrepresented and compartmentalized in Western narratives. The series is a powerful rebuttal of black beauty ideals and standards, which typically have violent and oppressive origins.

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Zanele Muholi, South African, b. 1972, Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016. ©️ Zanele Muholi, Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.

Viewing these portraits, may enable us to feel a connection to the subject as Muholi states, “with this work people would see that it is possible, that the gallery is meant to be for everybody.” Even if we don’t personally identify with the figures in the photographs, we can learn a lot about other people’s social, emotional and cognitive experiences through viewing them. We come to the realization that we are part of a system that oppresses and ignores others for political and economic gain. Western culture has a tradition of fetishisizing and making a commodity out of the human body in a manner that ignores and/or negates intersectional identities.

Muholi’s art behooves us to re-frame our thinking about beauty and body image in a manner that promotes unity and interconnection between seemingly diverse groups of people. Upon the aforementioned works at the Seattle Art Museum, we enter other people’s social, emotional and cognitive space from the vantage point of their world.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Joy, Charlotte, “African art in Western museums: it’s patrimony not heritage,” Aeon, 20 Feb. 2019. https://aeon.co/ideas/african-art-in-western-museums-its-patrimony-not-heritage

LaBier, Douglas. “Are You Suffering From Empathy Deficit Disorder?” Psychology Today. 12 Apr. 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-new-resilience/201004/are-you-suffering-empathy-deficit-disorder

Muholi, Zanele and Seattle Art Museum. “Zanele Muholi on “Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness” at Seattle Art Museum,” YouTube, 20 Sept. 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=180&v=fppJn5N2-Ks

Ogboh, Emeka and Seattle Art Museum. “My Favorite Things: Artist Emeka Ogboh on Chukwu Okoro masks,” YouTube, 11 Aug. 2015. https://youtu.be/OtGJCTRilVE

 

 

Loud Halls, Silent Rooms

There is a really vibrant debate going on regarding the content and context of a Great Depression-era fresco within San Francisco’s George Washington High School. The painting by Victor Arnautoff, titled Life of Washington, depicts the life-cycle of George Washington, portraying him through a web of identities including a war hero, political leader, colonizer of indigenous land and a callous slave owner. The imagery of the latter two facets is quite blatantly expressed, which is why some advocates for the fresco’s removal have decried the painting to be racist and unnecessarily violent. They assert that these images can cause trauma to students of color for whom racial and cultural bias is a very contemporary issue.

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One of the panels from Victor Arnautoff’s Life of Washington fresco (1934), depicting slave labor, which Washington and other founding fathers were beneficiaries of. © Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association.

This isn’t the first time that this fresco has been largely scrutinized and critiqued. Arnautoff’s painting initially caused a school-wide stir in the late 1960s, when African American students addressed several problematic aspects of the work. The Black Student Union wanted the fresco be removed because they felt it represented a binary view of African Americans during the colonial era. While they agreed that the painting accurately depicted the brutality of slavery and genocide, the students objected to the lack of positive imagery regarding contributions made by black individuals, as well as the depiction of the enslaved as passive victims instead of revolutionaries and fighters. A compromise was made, and a mural was painted in another hallway by artist and activist Dewey Crumpler, who studied mural painting with some of the seminal Mexican Modernists and painted in a similar emotive and monumental style. Crumpler’s mural consists of three panels featuring several historical and contemporary revolutionaries and metaphorical imagery that symbolizes the vitality and cultural influence of Latinx, black American, Asian American and indigenous peoples. For the next five decades, Arnautoff’s fresco and Crumpler’s mural coincided without controversy. Crumpler has weighed in on the current debate and is in favor of preserving Arnautoff’s painting.

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Dewey Crumpler’s Multi-Ethnic Heritage mural (1974). © Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association.

The current disagreement between people who want the mural removed and those who want it to stay, illuminate a division in how we look at, understand and critique art. This is not shocking, since art is a visual experience that is informed by our cultural backgrounds (prior experiences and knowledge), research and appreciation of art and art history (education) and a degree of subjectivity (personal taste and/or emotional responses to artworks). While it is perfectly reasonable to like or not like a work of art, we should be able to articulate why, using compelling arguments that are both content specific and rooted in our social and cultural framework. In critiquing works of art we should anticipate a variance of interpretations and responses. A good critique empowers us to communicate empathically and find helpful ways to support and understand each other’s lived experiences.

Opponents of the mural would prefer that the unpleasant imagery be gone for good and replaced with more uplifting images. And that is what will eventually happen. The school board has voted in favor of covering the fresco with panels that illustrate the triumphs of marginalized people. By doing this, they won’t physically destroy the fresco’s form, they will just censor its imagery. Proponents of the painting suggest that it should remain intact and be utilized as a teachable resource, because it confronts us with an unpleasant history that needs to affect us deeply and make us uncomfortable if we are truly going to reconcile injustice, inequality and inequity. An essential question here is whether we need a 1930s painting by a white male artist to ‘teach us’ these things? Jennifer Wilson (2019) argues that the very real and recurring trauma still induced by racial injustice is impactful enough. She says “to hang that argument exclusively on the notion that marginalized people will forget their own history without visual cues falls into a pattern of paternalism that lends merit to the accusations of racism being levied at the mural’s defenders.”

Since all art is created in a time that is contemporary to the artist, it is important to understand the context of that period, while also scrutinizing it through a more current lens. In the previous post, I mentioned the new AP Art History curriculum and one major component of the course, which is to have students formulate their own original thesis on why art is made, how art changes meaning over time and how historians might address bias within traditional meanings and interpretations. Arnautoff ‘s mural was created at a time when public art was being sponsored by the government –through the Federal Art Project– to lift the American spirit and promote a pride for civic duty and labor. This was done in varying degrees of aesthetic execution by a range of artists, many of whom leaned to the left of the political spectrum. Arnautoff was a member of the Communist Party and studied painting with Diego Rivera in 1929. He believed that art needs to exist as a critique of society. However, that critique and the way it is presented can change over time. The artists of the Federal Art Project weren’t without fault, and several of the highly stylized murals from that era idealized the working class to be uniform and soulless as Laura Hapke (2008) mentions. What can be gained from critiquing their art is significance for the way they expressed the zeitgeist of “the era of labor insurgency, anti-fascism, and anti-eviction campaigns” (Kelley, 2019). Arnautoff’s fresco is not wrong in its depiction of Washington, however, the painting could benefit from updated contextualization in light of contemporary non-binary sociocultural experiences. As Titus Kaphar states and exemplifies in his own paintings (see: What does an equitable art education look like?), it is more poignant to “try to make these “amendments”—not to remove those monuments, not to take them down, but in the same way as we do to the constitution, when we change the laws we add an amendment” (Blondiau, 2016).

The students at George Washington High School should have agency in what they have to encounter in the halls of their school on a daily basis. If they decide the fresco should remain then perhaps there are ways to amend it so that it is acceptable to the student body at large. A problem-posing pedagogical model (see: Freire, 1970), that allows students, teachers and administrators alike, to develop a collaborative environment, rooted in equitable ideas and multiple perspectives is needed. A successful active learning setting should manifest creative responses to thinking critically about such a complex issue.

An interdisciplinary project where students turn the fresco into a memorial as suggested by art critic Zachary Small (2019) is one possibility. This would entail significant research and collaboration between the students, educators and possibly even experts in the fields of art, history and social justice. The names and narratives of enslaved individuals, black abolitionists and indigenous leaders, could be incorporated around the work of art to humanize the victims of slavery, colonialism and genocide. Small suggests giving students the opportunity to amend the painting’s purpose and “preserve the mural as both an art historical tool and a critical lesson on the politics of representation.” It is important that any solution is representative of those affected, and circling back to Wilson’s argument, groups and individuals who have been traumatized by racial inequality do not need artistic imagery to remind them of this truth. Preserving this challenging painting and being sympathetic to students’ social and emotional experiences is a slippery slope that will require a very creative solution that hasn’t yet been realized.

While the George Washington High School community hasn’t shied away from having a passionate discourse and critique of art that narrates issues of race and identity, you can almost hear a pin drop within some higher art educational settings when it comes to discussing these themes. The silent treatment during formal critiques was a profound and poignant experience for the students who formed the Black Artists and Designers (B.A.A.D.) collective at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In predominantly white private art schools, there can be a discrepancy in the pedagogical framework, due to the aversion to having discussions about race and identity. This avoidance further marginalizes a minority group of artists who are using art as a means for communicating their experiences enduring racial bias.

The Room of Silence, is a metaphor for the lack of equitable discussion within art school critiques. B.A.A.D., commissioned filmmaker and artist Eloise Sherrid to create a short documentary exposing the racial inequity that students of color and mixed-race encountered during classroom studio critiques. Students describe the silence that occurs when works that address intersectionality are presented. As the students reflect, whenever feedback about their work was given –either by peers or professors– it was almost always about the formal qualities of their artwork rather than the context.

Whether it is because their predominantly white peers and professors are uncomfortable discussing these issues or don’t want to come off as offensive for critiquing work about race; the lack of contextual discourse and feedback given to students of color in these instances is indicative of implicit bias and the insufficiency of their peers’ and teachers’ ability to exhibit empathy or make connections to the work on a humanizing level. This is unfortunate, because exhibiting empathy and making connections are two studio habits of mind that the arts teach us, yet they are evidently not being applied in certain higher education settings. Fortunately, through the initiative of B.A.A.D., the bias within art school programs can become a teachable moment for making formal critiques and art historical curricula more equitable within classroom environments. The short film has been screened at both national and international colleges and universities. The accounts of the students speak for themselves and can be viewed below.

The Room of Silence from Eloise Sherrid on Vimeo.

 


References, Notes and Suggested Reading:

Blondiau, Eloise. “Amending American History with Titus Kaphar.” Interview, 19 Dec. 2016. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/titus-kaphar

Hapke, Laura. 2008. Labor’s Canvas: American Working Class History and the WPA Art of the 1930s. United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Kelley, Robin D.G. “We’re Getting These Murals All Wrong.” The Nation, 10 Sept. 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/arnautoff-mural-life-washington/

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

Small, Zachary. “A Controversial WPA Mural Is a Litmus Test for the Longevity of Public Art.” Hyperallergic, 8 Jul. 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/507802/the-life-of-george-washington/

Wilson, Jennifer. “Black People Don’t Need Murals To Remember Injustice.” The Nation, 9 Jul. 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/san-francisco-school-mural/

What does an equitable art education look like?

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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)

Curricula is always in flux, yet sometimes we get too comfortable or complacent with what we know, or perceive to be worth knowing. The common core, core knowledge, and other curricula seek to find ‘universal’ set of standards, goals and information that would enable a collective society to have a similar understanding. These types of systems form a canonical framework for education, much like the way art history has been presented and understood through the canon; a set of self-evident principles and rules that govern a conventional model for teaching what is believed to be worth seeing and knowing. The issue is that those who design the aforementioned curricula or who write art history as a linear and prescribed narrative, are often at odds with presenting an equal and equitable reality of the human experience.

This post will critique the canonical framework for the study of art history, and how contemporary curricula, such as the new AP Art History course and pluralistic cross-cultural exhibitions in museums have shifted the canon away from traditional Eurocentric and binary modes of analyzing, researching and discussing art.

An essential question, that is worth contemplating is how the artworks we are most familiar with and deem most valuable get that way? How did the halls and galleries of museums get established and the narrative of art history become the basis for idealizations of beauty and symbols of wealth, power and knowledge?

An enduring understanding, is that art history is a discipline based on both an account of the stylistic and conceptual stages of art, as well as the bias or personal taste of the people who record and present it. There are factors that contribute to this scenario including: patronage, colonialism and academic or institutional status. For example, art historians have had a role in propagating the masterpieces of classic civilizations like Greece and Rome, as works of art symbolize beauty, balance and an ideal democratic ideology, while describing work outside of this classical tradition as ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ (see: Breukal, 2011). They have elevated the works of certain artists, styles and cultures who adhere to their standards of what makes for good form, content and context. They also dictate what is art and what is not, such as when, in the 18th century, Johann Joachim Winkelmann defined art by its aesthetic nature –to categorize the form, content, and context of Ancient Greco-Roman art– or when centuries later, Arthur C. Danto (using Hegel’s thesis “end of art” as an influence) argued that art isn’t as much about aesthetics as it is about its concept and intent. The media that was used, the style of the art, or who the artist is that made the work is not as important as the physically embodied meaning. In this day and age, artworks don’t have to fit into prior art historical categories to be considered a part of the artistic narrative. In fact, Danto argues that art hasn’t had a linear progression since the end of the Modernist era (c.1960s-70s).

Because Danto’s argument shatters the preexisting model of how art is defined, it re-posits the age old question of ‘what is art?’ and who gets to define art.  To answer that philosophical question, Danto formed the foundation for an institutional theory of art in his seminal text ‘The Artworld.’ In Danto’s definition of the ‘artworld,’ something is art if those who have erudite and/or content specific knowledge about art deem it to be art. The ‘artworld’ is more than a philosophical space, it shapes the very fabric of our culture and how we value objects and essentially each other.

It is evident that the art historian, critic and patron have nearly as much influence on our perception of art as the artist or artwork itself. Flip through any survey textbook and take note of how many of the same images of artworks you see. How many of these works are by artists who are white? How many are male? How many come from European or colonial American backgrounds? The same goes for museum collections. Both these textbooks and museum collections have been shaped by generations of canonical reinforcement. While art history and the institutional art field is concerned with presenting narratives that give context to people, places and events throughout civilization; specific people, places and events become marginalized via their methodology.

Art historian Robert S. Nelson (1997) warns, “As a discipline, art history acquired and has been accorded the ability to reject people and objects, and to teach and thus transmit values to others…If these structures are seldom noticed, much less studied, they are always present. They are revived and replicated whenever a student attends an introductory class, reads a survey book, or follows a prescribed curriculum….” Fortunately, some people within the artworld are noticing this, and finding engaging ways to address this problem.

Taking an art history survey course in college and realizing that the course content had been whitewashed in favor of Eurocentric ideals, led Titus Kaphar to become one of today’s foremost contemporary artists.  A combination of 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 it, prompted Kaphar to look closely at the ways that black figures have been treated within historical works of art.

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Frans Hals, Family Group in a Landscape, 1645-1648, oil on canvas, 79 1/2 x 112 in. Collection of Museo Nacional Thyseen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

His 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.

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Description of Frans Hals’ Family Group in a Landscape by curator Dr. Mar Borobia from the website of the Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

The perplexing inclusion of this figure and the absence of any proper identification or biographical information, is consistent with the way Kaphar noticed black individuals being portrayed within traditional European and American paintings. In order to shift our gaze to this unequal and inequitable issue, Kaphar took a large brush, dipped it in white paint and essentially covered up the Dutch family so that our attention is solely drawn to the black boy, thereby amending the form, function and context of the original Dutch portrait. Eventually the translucent quality of the paint he used to mask the Europeans will lightly fade over time (but still masked), creating a portrait where everyone is represented more equitably.

The new AP Art History curriculum and art history courses on the college level can do a great service to amending past art historical bias and omission. Through focusing more on art made throughout the world and presenting it in a manner that supports active learning, the new AP Art History course is designed to give students agency to think critically and outside of the box. By narrowing the content down to 250 required works, teachers can supplement these works with other examples that broaden students’ skills to closely observe works of art, make formal, contextual and sociocultural connections between works of art –with a heightened awareness for connecting works spanning time and place– and critically question and examine problematic narratives (or lack of specific narratives) previously attributed to works of art, styles and geographical locations. These are all important habits of mind that build students’ skills to develop empathy for the world around them, find patterns within the human condition and poignantly address ambiguity about questionable historical analysis and bias.

By using works both within and outside the required 250, teachers can prompt students to research specific works of art that have complex sociocultural context and critique degrees of interpretations from reputable sources. The goal is not to feed them didactic knowledge about each work, but enable them to formulate their own original thesis on why art is made, how art changes meaning over time (essential questions within the curriculum) and how historians might address bias within traditional meanings and interpretations.

For example, each of the painting sets below feature a work from the 250 paired with a contemporary example of a work that offers an amendment to tradition. Students can take close look at each of these works, compare and contrast the content and context and make inferences about what each artist on the right of each image set is expressing in rebuttal to the artists on the left.

Enduring Understanding: The male gaze, portrayal of the ‘other’, ideals of beauty, power, and seduction are ripe motifs throughout the Western art historical canon.

Essential Question(s): How has the form, function, content and context changed from the painting on the left to the painting on the right? How has the traditional portrayal of these 19th century paintings been amended by 21st century contemporary artists? What issues are being addressed in the contemporary works of art?

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Dr. Robert Glass writes: “Art historians ponder and debate how to reconcile the discipline’s European intellectual origins and its problematic colonialist legacy with contemporary multiculturalism and how to write art history in a global era.”

The study of art history in primary, secondary and higher education, should give students agency to make significant and critical inferences by making art meaningful to their lives. This can be done through active learning and also by making the content more relatable and equitable to a wider and more diverse student body. There is still a major equity and equality problem both within academic art and institutional art environments. There is no easy solution that will rectify present and past injustice. However, if the study of art becomes more pluralistic and relevant to students’ lived experiences, perhaps schools will see an increase in the diversity among students who are studying art history. Perhaps these students will go on to shatter the canon once and for all…

 


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Breukel, Claire. “WTF…Is Primitive Art vs Tribal Art.” Hyperallergic, 14 Sept. 2011. https://hyperallergic.com/35460/primitive-art-vs-tribal-art/

Danto, Arthur C. “The Artworld” (1964) Journal of Philosophy LXI, 571-584.

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