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.
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 Ladder” in 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.
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.
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)
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)
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)
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.
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)
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 Hate, is 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)
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.
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).
Du Bois, W.E.B., et al (2018).
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/