Tree of Knowledge

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Tree of Knowledge, Peal City, Boca Raton, Florida. Courtesy of Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Nature and nurture are the fundamental principles of the human condition. The debate about whether our biological disposition or our experiential knowledge defines us is an oversimplification. It isn’t one or the other, it is both. Our genetic structure embodies the evolutionary processes of prior populations. It provides the framework for cognition. Our flexibility to respond and develop in regards to our environment and nurturing stimuli, enables us to adapt and adjust to changes and be lifelong learners.

Before we developed large and crowded metropolises, we lived in communities among the trees, rocks and waterways, and many of us still do. Trees and mountains were the first skyscrapers, and they inspired civilization after civilization to develop cultural narratives about the world around them.

The Tree of Knowledge in Pearl City, Florida, is an example of the symbolic and pragmatic impact of nature and nurture within a longstanding community. The tree, a banyan, is the oldest living thing in Pearl City, a historic neighborhood in Boca Raton that was initially developed for working class Black laborers who worked at nearby farms.

Banyan trees are notable for their cluster of aerial prop roots, which are roots that exist above the ground and are able to spread out and anchor themselves wherever they touch the soil. The deep and widespread roots of the banyan tree could be seen as a metaphor for the rhizomatic learning processes that are integral within diverse communities like present day Pearl City.

Rhizomatic learning is a concept that was coined by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, to describe the organic nature of cultivating knowledge in a fast paced and multifaceted world. From a rhizomatic learning perspective, knowledge is negotiated via socialization under the premise that pedagogical goals are constantly in flux (Cormier, 2008). Therefore, learning requires constant contact and communication among diverse individuals, with emphasis that there is no one expert in a given field and perspectives and methodologies are liable to change and evolve over time. This viewpoint is similar to the philosophy of constructivist education theorists like John Dewey (we learn through sensory and social experiences) and Paulo Freire (who advocated a discursive learning environment where students are encouraged to actively solve problems using prior knowledge to form new frames of mind and being).

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

The rhizomatic learning process is indicative in Maren Hassinger’s monumental art installation Tree of Knowledge, which she created in dialogue with Pearl City and its oldest living resident of the name. The tree symbolizes a living link between Pearl City’s past and present. From the first residents to today’s population of citizens, Pearl City and its famous tree have been the catalyst for innovation, communal spirit and perseverance. The tree’s deeply implanted roots are expressive of generational social, emotional and experiential learning. Besides being an ideal place to get refuge from the sun’s glaring rays, the tree has been a sanctuary for the community to rally around, tell their narratives and relayed important cultural knowledge to one another. It has been a place where learning happens naturally and is not bound by one specific set of guidelines. This is where rhizomatic education is best practiced.

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Newspaper coils made in a collaboration with Maren Hassinger and the local community in Boca Raton. Courtesy of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Hassinger, who lives and works in New York, was moved by what she learned and experienced about the Tree of Knowledge, and its role in facilitating intergenerational relationships. During community-based story-telling sessions, Hassinger worked with diverse groups of the the public to roll newspapers that represent the aerial roots of the renowned banyan tree. The coiled newspapers were then hung from the ceiling of the Boca Raton Museum of Art, where they currently envelop the museum’s main gallery (on view through March 1st). The installation represents an additional outlet for generational confluence and communal learning. Community members of all ages had the opportunity to learn directly from Hassinger during workshops to create the newspaper roots. She scaffolded instruction and artistic processes to fit the participants’ developmental phases. For example, she realized that young children were having a hard time physically and conceptually realizing square knots, so the artist decided to utilize the more familiar and developmentally appropriate method of twisting the paper in a manner that alludes to vine-like structures (Uszerowicz, 2020).

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Installation view of Tree of Knowledge by Maren Hassinger. Courtesy of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

The intertwining of materials, backgrounds and experiences during the creative process is indicative of Pearl City’s communal curriculum of rhizomatic and non-hierarchical learning. Through gathering around the Tree of Knowledge (both the actual tree and the symbolic representation), stories and ideas about labor, the environment and identity are transferred and expanded upon in a democratic form of negotiation. The maintenance of our environment is dependent upon moments of equitable and mutual making, learning and growing.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Cormier, Dave. “Rhizomatic Education : Community as Curriculum.” Dave’s Educational Blog, 3 Jun. 2008. http://davecormier.com/edblog/2008/06/03/rhizomatic-education-community-as-curriculum/

Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix (1993). A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Uszerowicz, Monica. “A Maren Hassinger Installation Blossoms From a “Tree of Knowledge” Rooted in a Majority Black Florida Town.” Hyperallergic, 17 Feb. 2020. https://hyperallergic.com/542947/a-maren-hassinger-installation-blossoms-from-a-tree-of-knowledge-rooted-in-a-majority-black-florida-town/

Expressing our inner childlike nature…again

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Christina Freeman, digital film still from this is not a home movie, 2009-2020, film stills and audio. Courtesy of the artist.

“Do we possess an “inner child,” our supposed original or true self? Are we the same person we were as a child? Do we carry our child selves around with us, or is childhood left at the door upon entering the adult world? The work in this show contemplates aspects of youth, transformation and regression, exploring themes of the childish and childlike.”

Those are the essential questions that artist/curators Jenn Dierdorf and Robert Goldkind and a group of 11 additional artists would like us to consider as we experience the multidisciplinary works of art in the exhibition Regress at ABC No Rio’s Bullet Space/292 Gallery.

Growing up is a desirable trait, because it grants us a particular sense of autonomy, which we didn’t have while we were young children and adolescents. Being independent and developing self-confidence and awareness, is paramount to developing as a whole person. We learn a great deal via experience, so the more of it we have, the more knowledge we are likely gaining. We apply this knowledge to our multifaceted backgrounds/identities and other social, emotional and cognitive qualities, in order to build cultural understandings and exhibit expressive responses to the world around us. Experiential learning is a lifetime-based process that begins during our earliest stages of development. Unfortunately, one of the notable changes in our journey from youth to adulthood is the decline of playful learning and untutored creativity…and sometimes memory too.

I have written several prior posts (see: No Room to Play, If you’re bored, try living artfully and Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art) concerning the necessity of maintaining a playful attitude and approach to living and learning. I hope that through these posts, it has been made apparent that the arts are beneficial to our minds, bodies and spirits, as a result of unfettered exploration, discovery and play. In addition to play, memory is another important process that can be harnessed for artful production. Making art is a great way to recall our memories and express them to others. Good motivating questions to inspire the creative process include: “when was a time when you felt proud?” “when was there a moment that you felt strong?” “who would like to tell us about a time you helped someone in need,” and “what is one thing that you can’t live without?” These questions open the door for personalized reflections that are rooted in each student’s memory. The results will be empowering because recalling specific memories enables deep connections to be made in relation to the students lives (see more in an earlier Artfully Learning post: Expressing Memory Through Art – Experiential Living/Learning). This art pedagogical methodology is highly beneficial for people of all ages. For individuals with Alzheimer’s, artistic immersion (both viewing and creating art) has noted success in increasing mood and (in some cases) stimulating memory (see: Chancellor, Duncan and Chatterjee, 2014; and Neighmond, 2019).

Memory is a hot topic among artists in general. We often re-create and re-present imagery that has familiarity to us. Our understanding of pictorial and symbolic issues transform through time and personal artistic development, as we seek ways to present our experiences and background insights to others. As we get older, our recollection of the past, especially childhood/adolescence, becomes a reflective process that helps us understand our complex (and transformative) personalities.

One of the artists in Regress is Christina Freeman (previously featured on Artfully Learning in the post #$^& Censorship), whose project this is not a home movie addresses themes of childhood memories, and how certain events in our timeline are carefully curated through the lens of the camera (ex. home movies and snapshots in photo albums). Freeman, who often utilizes archives and repositories in her work, synthesized footage from her family’s home videos as a source to access and assess information about her childhood. this is not a home movie is concerned with documenting a familial experience via both a lineal and abstract relationship to memory. While the footage that is edited together is representative of Freeman between ages 2 and 7, she has conflated the original audio and video with contemporary audio, consisting of interviews of her parents who reflect upon their memories of her childhood, as well as their impressions of documenting that time period. The expressive way that Freeman splices and re-presents past documentary footage with current recollections from the documentarians, is indicative of the variability of our memory. Freeman shows us how the experience of an original event is transformed when re-examined years later. This is because we add layers and layers of new experiences and assign additional values and meaning to past events in order to continue relating them to our lives. A voice in one of the clips exclaims “you’re going to see this forever and ever,” but the real intriguing notion is how will our associations of this event (its imagery, meaning, social or emotional context) change over time?

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Ianthe Jackson, Wood Pile, 2019, sculpture. Courtesy of the artist.

Ianthe Jackson’s art also investigates childhood memory and her work in the exhibition, titled Wood Pile (2019), signifies her upbringing in Buffalo, New York. A pile of cut wood logs is a common thing to see outside and inside of houses up north, where the winters can be snow-filled, long and harsh. Many of the city’s historic houses are drafty, which means that heating them takes a lot of money and energy. Jackson recalls, “my family decided to heat our house with a wood stove to save money, and every year we would have these humongous wood deliveries on our lawn right in the city! We would invite friends over to haul and stack wood in trade for hot chocolate and it would often take 2 to 3 days to finish. It was such a strong memory and an experience that really shaped me.”

I asked Ianthe how her thoughts on childhood have shifted as an adult, and how she personally connects ideas about childhood in her artwork. She replied:  “I think a lot of my work relates to my childhood in various ways. There are so many ways we are conditioned as children and those aspects of who we are live on in our work and adult life and perspective. For me the shift of play and memory changes as we age. I think play for me is creating art and pursuing ideas. As children play they are creating an understanding of the world, synthesizing the senses of their body in the world and imagining things that could be. For many people this is seen as a period of childhood. I think artists and many other people hold on to these aspects and keep the creative mind moving. Some people however, not so much. School and expectations can really squash a person’s wonder.”

Jackson’s statement resonated with me, because a large portion of my childhood involved performing imaginary games with friends. These memories still influence my creative practice and my educator’s philosophy that play is essential for self discovery, socialization and building empathy. However, childhood isn’t all fun and games. There are many rules and structures that we are expected to learn as children, which are traditionally seen as being necessary in preparation for adulthood. Of course, some are and some aren’t. Traditions that are shattering include employing boy-girl formations (sitting or standing in boy-girl-boy-girl order), and reinforcing gender binarisms through ‘teaching’ gender roles. While schools are making an effort to embrace gender fluidity, this is sadly not a universal practice in the educational system.

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Rebecca Bird, Cohort 1 and Cohort 2. Photograph by Adam Zucker

The latter part of Jackson’s quote regarding societal expectations quashing a person’s sense of wonder, is confronted in Regress through two paintings by Rebecca Bird, titled Cohort 1 and Cohort 2. The paintings are from Bird’s Women series, featuring sociocultural scenes of groups of women and girls. In Cohort 1 and Cohort 2, the subjects are kindergarten aged girls in matching uniforms learning to stand in line. According to Bird, she has been contemplating “how we become what we are defined as in society and how such a broad category as ‘female’ describes or assigns a role to me.” An essential part of educating children, is building platforms where they are empowered to express their unique identities, and exhibit empathy for others.

Returning to the theme of play, artist Courtney Childress explores childlike activity as a participatory artwork. Her work in the exhibition, is an interactive combine (painting and sculpture hybrid) that gives viewers permission to add their own mark to the piece. The result is very similar to the scribbles and automatic mark-making of children’s art. How many of us felt the impulse as children to extend our scribbles off the page and onto the wall? Childress’ work invites this seemingly natural and universal behavior, which is refreshing in both an art environment and as a commentary on social, emotional and cognitive development.

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Courtney Childress’ interactive artwork. Courtesy of the artist.

Childress’ main medium of crayons is also very down-to-earth and reminiscent of youthful creative endeavors. I asked Courtney to recall some memories or moments from her childhood that influenced her current profession in the arts, and she replied: “One I’ve been told about my mom and aunt on a road trip with my grandmother from TX to CO in the summer of 1960. They left crayons in the backseat when they stopped for lunch. These melted into puddles in the back of the rental convertible. My mom laughs when she tells the part about throwing fistfuls of crayon out the window as they drove down the highway.”

About the influence of play in her current art practice, she stated:

“Play and playfulness have always been a part of what I make and the work I am drawn to from other artists. In my work, I amassed a great collection of crayons, that I peeled and melted down, layering colors into painted-desert inspired rock crayons. For this show I have given the audience space to draw and make marks with a hand-sized rock crayons and a large swath of canvas. Giving the viewer permission to do something ‘bad.’”

Through art, we all have the ability to address our uninhibited selves and communicate in a playful, yet poignant manner. The works in Regress suggest diverse viewpoints regarding our creative development, and make thought provoking statements about youth in general. They might even make you feel young again…


Regress is on view through February 23, 2020 at Bullet Space/292 Gallery, 92 East 3rd Street, New York, NY. Exhibited artists: Yasmeen Abdallah, Rebecca Bird, KS Brewer, Courtney Childress, Jenn Dierdorf, Christina Freeman, Robert Goldkind, Kamryn Harmeling, Ianthe Jackson, Will Kaplan, Mark Power, Sarah Schruft and Ashley Yang-Thompson.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Chancellor, Bree, Duncan, Angel and Chatterjee, Anjan. “Art Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementia.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Vol. 39, 2014.

Gray, Peter. “The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders.” Psychology Today, 26 Jan 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201001/the-decline-play-and-rise-in-childrens-mental-disorders

Neighmond, Patti. “Her Mom Was Lost In Dementia’s Fog. Singing Christmas Carols Brought Her Back.” NPR, 24 Dec. 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/12/24/790806366/her-mom-was-lost-in-dementias-fog-singing-christmas-carols-brought-her-back

 

Strengthening Cultures & Literacy through Art for the 21st Century

In a previous post titled Connecting Culture Through Experience and Education, I described contemporary artist Pablo Helguera’s use of the written word and storytelling as a means to explore language, immigration and identity. Through projects like The School of Panamerican Unresta four-month long road-trip across the Panamerican Highway that documented a myriad of indigenous spoken dialects, and Librería Donceles, a non-profit used bookstore for Spanish language literature and events; Helguera devotes a large part of his artistic practice to create multidisciplinary portraits and living archives of language and culture.

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Ceramic sculptures by Stephanie H. Shih. Photo by @brandicheyenneharper for @gasworksnyc. Courtesy of the artist.

I recently learned about Stephanie H. Shih‘s ceramic sculptures, which embody culinary items in Asian-American homes. Shih’s sculptures are social, emotional and cognitive reflections of Asian-American diasporic culture. They are representative of what it is like to immigrate to far away places and incorporate both new and traditional concepts that signify a unique cultural and communal identity. Shih makes connections with other members of the 20 million (and counting) diaspora through many overlapping culinary memories, which represent personal significance and collective experiences. The ceramic food replicas are vessels, enshrining heartfelt bonds between diverse individuals who share similar cultural heritage. In her artist’s statement Shih says:

“Through the lens of the Asian-American pantry, my ceramic sculptures explore how shared nostalgia can connect a diaspora. For first-generation Asian Americans, the finite collection of imported grocery brands from our youth has become shorthand for parallel childhoods raised by immigrant parents. To meet strangers who have memories of eating the same can of fried dace –a small fish preserved with salted black beans– is to discover a sense of belonging. Replicating these kitchen staples in clay immortalizes both the shared memories and the feeling of finding the nonexistent homeland of Asian America” (Shih, n.d.).

These are just two of the many examples of how contemporary art is created, presented and contextualized in a manner that reflects globalization and migration. Ideas, images and works of art travel far and wide, due to artistic discourse being spread more fluidly throughout the world. Advances in technology and the proliferation of museums, galleries, biennials and residency programs is making art more accessible to heterogeneous audiences. As a result of these aforementioned factors, artists (and other cultural producers) who are separated by borders are more easily able to collaborate and partake in collective art making (see: Representing Pittsburgh and Tehran and Transcending Boundaries).

Art has its own forms of language that facilitate the exchange of visual information and act as a liaison between individuals and groups from different cultural backgrounds. Visual art can also be a catalyst for developing speech and literacy skills that support multilingual learning in the educational system. This is especially beneficial for communities with large immigrant populations who can harness the expressive and dialectic values of visual art, in order to strengthen their social and cognitive skills in their native and emergent languages.

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CALTA21 Classroom. Courtesy of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

Some art institutions are embracing their role in teaching language and literacy skills to immigrant students through contemporary art. The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey is expanding its programming for English language learners, conducted in partnership with the Elizabeth Public School District. Their program, which has been implemented for 8th and 9th grade students, was created with help from Cultures & Literacies through Art for the 21st Century (CALTA21), a national initiative focused on creating a dynamic environment where museums provide authentic, meaningful and engaging learning experiences to immigrant communities. CALTA21 is rooted in professional development for English language teachers. Educators partnering with the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey are given training that helps them create literacy curricula in support of their diverse students who are learning English as their second (or third, fourth etc.) language. Through a dialogic method of participatory art-based discourse, students are empowered to share their narratives of immigration. Essential questions that are needed to effectuate and sustain this kind of pedagogy are: “how can art museums create space for the exploration of linguistic and cultural diversity and what role can they play in strengthening the immigrant voice?”

CALTA21 uses Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) as a methodology to encourage the development of  observation and speaking skills. There are many ways to scaffold learning by taking the time to carefully look at artworks in galleries. Embodied learning is one learning approach (see: Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant) where students physically engage with works of art in order to build personal and collective understandings about the work’s form, function and content. This type of participatory learning strengthens observational and communicative skills because it includes a critical discussion around what elements students can relate to within a work of art and how they might incorporate those elements into their own realm (Zucker, 2018). Developing an art vocabulary is important, not only in the discussion around works of art, but also for applying that language to other subjects and aspects of life experience. Talking about art is beneficial to building language skills, because observing art requires a command of descriptive words that support critical thinking and noticing deeply. As students develop their own evidence-based interpretations about art, they learn to trust their eyes and the value of their own opinions while building collective knowledge via gallery visits and artmaking exercises.

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CALTA21 participants discussing a mural by Kevin Blythe Sampson at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. Courtesy of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

Communicating thoughts and observations with others through CALTA21, has been proven to strengthen the literacy and critical thinking skills of participants. Anamaria Llanos, one of the lead Elizabeth School District teachers in the program, has seen firsthand how incorporating CALTA21 into her curriculum and lesson plans has increased student engagement and efficacy of language and literacy:

“CALT21 cultivates language and free thinking. It nurtures a dynamic environment where students are guided through thought provoking questions to engage prior knowledge and their imagination; develop and strengthen their voice; and promote language thought process. There is nothing more intimidating than talking about art, yet with CALTA21, a relaxed and non-judgmental atmosphere is created by the students themselves. Their eagerness and enthusiasm to participate and facilitate their own CALTA21 session at the museum is a teacher’s dream. The program encourages students to think outside of the box, be creative; and become more assertive in the way they look at the world” (Llanos, 2019, quoted in a press release from the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey).

Making art accessible to multilingual viewers should be at the top of every museum and cultural center’s mission. By incorporating CALTA21 in their programming, the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey –the state’s largest largest institution dedicated exclusively to  contemporary art– is providing a valuable opportunity for the 22.1 percent of the state’s immigrant population (as of 2015) to engage in viewing, making and learning through art. Other cultural institutions such as The Hudson River Museum have programs that support young docents who represent a spectrum of international backgrounds. Their junior docent program consists of students from each of the City of Yonkers’ public high schools, representing the city’s culturally, economically and socially diverse communities. Many of the docents are first generation Americans or recent immigrants to the United States. Participants in the program speak many different languages and have a variety of interests including art, science, dance, history and fashion. Having informational guides who speak multiple languages and have experiential knowledge about specific cultures, makes museums and their collections more accessible and relevant to more communities. Global Guides, Penn Museum’s docent program, employs refugees from the Middle East as gallery guides who lead visitors through thematic tours of the museum’s Middle Eastern collection of art and artifacts. Because these docents have lived in many of the regions where the art originated, they offer visitors unique insights and personal connections to the objects on display.

As people move from place to place to seek better opportunities or asylum, the incorporation of immigrant and refugee narratives into art and art education is necessary to reflect the diversity of our multicultural communities. Programs like CALTA21 and the aforementioned museum docent initiatives, give immigrants much needed authority to communicate and present their experiential knowledge in their own voices. What they have to say is also beneficial for developing empathetic understandings of the world at large.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

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/

Shih, Stephanie H. (n.d). “Artist’s Statement.” https://theartsandeducation.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/32dc1-cv_public.pdf

Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. “Visual Arts Center of NJ Receives IMLS Grant to Partner with Elizabeth Public Schools.” Visual Arts Center of N.J. Press Release, 20 Nov. 2019.

Zucker, Adam. “Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant.” Artfully Learning, 27 Apr. 2018. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/2018/04/27/embodied-learning-makes-the-classics-relevant/

Labor of love: art, activism, collaborative learning

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Sol Aramendi, Apple Eco Power. Courtesy of Eva Mayhabal Davis.

Creating art and reflecting on artwork is often a cooperative experience that supports empathic responses to lived experiences. Both the artist and the viewer put effort into formulating understandings of issues affecting the cultural environment. In this respect, art informs us about the lives of others and raises our consciousness regarding how we view ourselves and others within the culture at large.

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El Coop Mobile, Installation at Queens Museum. Courtesy of Eva Mayhabal Davis.

Making art is a labor of love that employs a combination of social, emotional and cognitive actions. Artists make art because they care about expressing themes that impact the human experience. Art is a wonderful methodology for experiential learning, because it allows the artist and viewer to engage in a cooperative dialogue. The artist makes the artwork around a theme of their interest, and then it is left to the viewer to find value within the work and make their own unique connections to it.

I advocate throughout this blog that art doesn’t have to be realized within the traditional ‘art world’ (see: Danto, 1964). I disagree with the idea that something is only defined as art if it is established by art academics, critics and institutional professionals. While not everyone who makes art is going to be recognized in the field of fine arts, everyone has the ability to live artfully. Living artfully means translating the studio habits of mind that we learn from the arts (see: Educating Through Art) into everyday actions. Contemporary artists like Sol Aramendi, are making an important contribution to both the institutional art world and the larger world outside of the creative sector.

Aramendi immigrated from Argentina 17 years ago and collaborates with local immigrant populations to realize socially engaged artworks. Her recent creative partnerships include the Workers’ Studio, an ongoing project with women day laborers who come from diverse backgrounds. The common thread between Aramendi and the women laborers is their advocacy for workers’ to reverse the exploitation of labor, which includes wage theft and unsafe working conditions. Under the auspices of the Workers’ Studio, art making is the vehicle for raising awareness in support of equal, equitable and justice driven labor systems.

Aramendi’s artistic initiative is a form of social sculpture (see: Everybody is an Artist), where the act of making art reflects social conditions such as immigration and the right to a living wage. The Workers’ Studio is nomadic, meaning that it can be successfully implemented in all sorts of environments. This element is important both functionally and symbolically for addressing themes of labor and immigration. Because the project can move from place to place, it is easily accessible to a wide group of participants, whose narratives signify a vibrant tapestry of experience and creativity. The artistic contributions, which are on display in an exhibition at the Queens Museum titled Workers’ Studio: El Co-op (curated by Eva Mayhabal Davis), come from women who have organized into co-op businesses, where each worker owns a share in the company. The co-ops who have artworks featured in the exhibition are: Love & Learn Childcare Cooperative, Apple Eco Cleaning, Brightly Port Richmond Cleaning Cooperative, and Mirror Beauty Cooperative. The work created by the workers of these co-ops include photographs, writings and mixed-media objects. There are several workshops and events throughout the course of the exhibition (on view until January 12, 2020) that support creative discourse and action around the issues of labor and worker organization.

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Materials and resources at the El Coop Mobile. Courtesy of Eva Mayhabal Davis.

One of the benefits of participatory art projects, is the collaborative/cooperative learning aspect that comes from sharing and relating experiences. Collaborative/cooperative learning expands our ability to understand and express ourselves through scaffolding and building upon each other’s skills and resources. In the educational realm, this pedagogical approach “promotes interaction among students and shared responsibility for academic achievement” (Stein and Hurd, 2000).  Similarly, the work created through the Workers’ Studio supports the reciprocity of ideas, resources and authority, in order to benefit all members of the collective. The personal stories that are expressed via the creative process inform us about the power of coming together and raise our consciousness towards advocating for worker’s rights, and human rights. You can see the labor of love within the imagery and materials on display.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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

Stein, Ruth Federman & Hurd, Sandra. Using Student Teams in the Classroom. Bolton MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc. 2000. admin.leeuniversity.edu/Media/Website%20Resources/pdf/cte/SteinHurd_UsingStudentTeams.pdf.

Process of Play: confronting systems of inequity through art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Representing Pittsburgh and Tehran

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Sohrab Kashani (left) and Jon Rubin (right), Blueroom (diptych) from the project The Other Apartment, 2019. Photos by Siavash Naghshbandi (Tehran)/Tom Little (Pittsburgh). Courtesy of Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is a great city, but not one that you might automatically think of when discussing global issues. However, the Steel City has been getting a lot of attention regarding global affairs lately. President Trump declared on June 1, 2017, when withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement that: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” As a counter to Trump’s unabashed and callous attitude on the climate crisis, Pittsburgh’s mayor Bill Peduto responded: “as the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy and future.”

Pittsburgh is once again in the cultural spotlight of an international dialogue with another global city via an artist initiated installation called The Other Apartment on view at the Mattress Factory. The Other Apartment, a collaboration between artists Jon Rubin, based in Pittsburgh, and Sohrab Kashani, based in Tehran, Iran, explores the beneficial impact that creative collaboration has on shifting the oft-negative narrative between the United States and Iran. It largely speaks to artists’ abilities to think outside of the box, embrace ambiguity and make social, emotional and cognitive connections with others (all studio habits of mind that the arts teach us).

This is such an important project that is taking place at a time when the United States is increasingly engaging in volatile diplomacy, and isolating itself from the global community. While it may seem insurmountable to bridge the gap between two very contentious nations, artworks such as The Other Apartment make connections when it may otherwise seem impossible to do so. Art communicates beyond social constructs like geographical boundaries and demarcated borders, and gives us access to intimate spaces and unique cultural insights that are typically marginalized and overshadowed by conflict and propaganda. Within Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory, Rubin and Kashani have created an exact replica of Kashani’s apartment in Tehran. They worked with fabricators to make duplicates of all the objects within Kashani’s flat. The fact that a likeness of Kashani’s space is on display within a public museum is fitting, because for the past eleven years he has opened up his Tehran home to the public as an exhibition space and artist residency.

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Sohrab Kashani (left) and Jon Rubin (right), Event Room Watching II (diptych) from the project The Other Apartment, 2019. Photos by Siavash Naghshbandi (Tehran)/Tom Little (Pittsburgh). Courtesy of Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

It is remarkable that Rubin and Kashani are fulfilling this collaboration without being in the same physical place due to Iranians being affected by Trump’s travel ban. Therefore, the artists had to work from detailed photographs and utilize telecommunication technology to transform the Mattress Factory’s gallery into Kashani’s apartment. Throughout the course of the exhibition, which runs through July 2020, the two artists will work in tandem to develop events, exhibitions, art objects and programming. Every happening that transpires in one space will be identically reproduced in the other space.

The Other Apartment could inspire classroom projects (The Other Classroom perhaps…) where students from two distant regions of the world connect and collaborate with each other, creating a communal classroom full of students who may never have the opportunity to meet in person. It is a great way to learn about other’s experiences and build empathy for one another. Students and educators could come up with a learning segment where each classroom has an opportunity to address a topic that they want to share with their cooperating class, and conduct a series of activities to be performed collectively that seek to realize common aims and objectives. The exchange of empirical cultural and social knowledge would be beneficial for a diverse body of students to foster both personal and professional relationships with one another.

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Sohrab Kashani (left) and Jon Rubin (right), Studio Opening (diptych) from the project The Other Apartment, 2019. Photos by Shirin Rezaee (Tehran)/Jon Rubin (Pittsburgh). Courtesy of Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

The Other Apartment is an example of how art can foster diplomacy and deep sociocultural understandings. Reflecting on creative endeavors like this, it is clear that migration has a profound effect on society at large; and it is imperative that we open our minds, borders and communities to others who are eager to share their culture, knowledge, creativity and passion with the world.

 

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