Underground Education

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Lee Brozgol, The Greenwich Village Murals: Providers (left panel), 1993, ceramic and mosaic.

The subway seems like one of the least likely places to be inspired in all of New York City, especially with apparently endless service delays, cuts and overcrowded conditions. However, if you allow yourself to look past the bureaucratic incompetence and exercise  a flair for discovery, you will notice that the subway system is a living museum where New York City’s youth have had a major role in creatively communicating their place within the urban environment.

One of the aspects that keeps the subway system from feeling like a dystopia is its abundance of public art in stations throughout the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. There is work by some of the most influential Modern and Contemporary artists like Sam Gilliam, Nancy Spero, Elizabeth Murray, Eric Fischl , Faith Ringgold and William Wegman (who recently contributed mosaics of Weimaraners in human clothes). There is a concise Subway Art Guide, where you can view images and find out the locations of art within New York City’s subway stations.

While all of these great works by well known artists might inspire joy and contemplation during the hectic commute, it is the art of the city’s children that arguably provide the greatest sense of hope and inspiration. The city’s transit system is full of artwork that was realized by the imaginative and insightful nature of kids, both working on their own and collaborating with working artists. A previous Artfully Learning post, Collaborating with Kids: Problem-posing Models for Profound Works of Art, describes how the ‘Four Cs’ of 21st century learning: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration and Communication, are strengthened when contemporary artists and kids collaborate on projects. These social, emotional and cognitive skills are highly visible in the following examples of youth-centered artwork.

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Lee Brozgol, The Greenwich Village Murals (providers panels), 1993, ceramic and mosaic.

The Greenwich Village Murals by Lee Brozgol, located on the platform of the Christopher St.-Sheridan Square subway station (serviced by the 1 train), is an example of how, with the guidance and expertise of an artist, children learned to break down and synthesize complex ideas into symbolic images. Nine students in the 5th and 6th grade from P.S. 41 were selected to partake in this project with Brozgol. The students were prompted to make composite drawings that addressed the topic of identity by illustrating subjects that reflect iconography and actions that shaped the West Village.

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Lee Brozgol, The Greenwich Village Murals: Bohemians (center panel), 1993, ceramic and mosaic.

Choosing who to depict was a challenge. The history of such a vibrant community is a vast and multifaceted topic, therefore the figures depicted in the mural are diverse, spanning time, cultural backgrounds and ideologies. The murals are organized by themes, in which each of the figures are assigned. There are the ‘founders’ who include a member of the Lenape people and the 17th-century Dutch land developer Wouter Van Twiller, which considers the Village’s indigenous and colonial habitation. The ‘providers’ include Mary Simkhovitch, an early 20th century social worker, city planner and  co-founder of Greenwich House, which was initially developed to provide services to help the influx of immigrants adapt to life in the City. The ‘bohemians’ feature cultural icons like Mabel Dodge, a noted art patron who hosted a renowned weekly salon in her apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue. Lastly, there is the ‘rebels’ mural, featuring Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, a political pamphlet that fueled America’s War of Independence. Paine lived at what is now 309 Bleecker Street.

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Ceramic tile from Westside Views by Nitza Tufiño and 17 adolescents. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Another large underground display of student-centered art can be seen if you take the 1 train uptown to 86th Street. There you will find a station-wide collaborative art installation titled Westside Views (1989), by Nitza Tufiño and 17 young New Yorker’s, mostly from the Grosvenor Neighborhood House‘s school equivalency and educational program (The Grosvenor Neighborhood House was a local organization that began serving the community as a settlement house in 1916). The installation consists of 40 ceramic glazed tiles, each depicting an adolescent artist’s visual perspective of the Upper West Side. The tiles feature vibrant neighborhood scenes that celebrate diversity and community spirit. They portray prominent landmarks like the Hayden Planetarium (at the nearby Museum of Natural History), and intimate scenes such as two fathers strolling with their babies, three generations of women sharing food on a bench and children playing on the playground. Westside Views weaves together the colorful myriad of people, places and things that make a neighborhood flourish.

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Installation view of Beautifying Briarwood in the Briarwood/Van Wyck Boulevard station,  2006. Photo by Brian Weinberg on www.nycsubway.org. (c) Brian Weinberg, 2006.

In Queens, students from Briarwood schools made statements on the theme of identity, through a series of mural paintings collectively titled Beautifying Briarwood (displayed at the Briarwood-Van Wyck Boulevard station, serviced by the F train). One of the most unique aspects about this project was that the murals represented the different phases of K-12 artistic development (see: Louis, 2005) because students of Archbishop Molloy High School, M.S. 217Q (middle school) and P.S.117Q (elementary school) all contributed to the paintings. Unfortunately the paintings were removed during station renovation in 2014, although some are archived through installation photographs. From the documentary photographs, it is apparent that these student realized works of art brightened up the dimly lit and monotonous corridors of the station. It also must have been efficacious for students to see their work in such a public setting and to share their symbolic works of art with the community.

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Jimmy James Greene, Children’s Cathedral, 1996, ceramic mosaic. Courtesy of MTA Arts & Design NYCT Percent for Art.

“They were the soloists, I was the orchestra leader,” Jimmy James Greene says about his monumental monumental mosaic mural Children’s Cathedral (1996) in the Utica Avenue station (Brooklyn, A train). The mosaic was created through a discourse that Greene had with local students regarding their modes of playing, learning, faith and cultural celebrations. Then Greene prompted the students to draw pictures based on the dialogue they had. The result is a whimsical and inspiring range of imagery including a mother nurturing her children, a teacher in class, and a large variety of activities performed by children (jumping rope, singing in choir, reading and more). Greene arranged and used the children’s drawings to create his final composition, which adorns the passageways leading to the train platforms.

Besides being great works of art for straphangers to enjoy, these aforementioned artworks reveal the benefits of artists collaborating with young people. The creative process involves many important habits of mind and skills such as making connections between art and daily life, interdependent learning and socialization. These habits of mind (see: Educating Through Art and Costa and Kallick, 1996) have lifelong benefits for developing creative and critical thinking. All of these projects required a cooperative and non-hierarchical structure that fosters teamwork and empowers young people to realize their abilities to communicate symbolically. Their visions provide both a respite for weary travelers and a way to express their place within the City they are a part of shaping and progressing.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Bloodworth, Sandra, Ayers, William. 2014. New York’s Underground Art Museum: MTA Arts & Design. New York: The Monacelli Press.

Costa, Arthur L. and Kallick, Bena. Habits of Mind: A Developmental Series, Victoria: Hawker Brownlow Education Pty Ltd, 2004.

Landrum, Susan. “Subway Station Art: The 1 Train’s 86th Street Station,” Finding NYC, 29 May 2017. https://findingnyc.com/2017/05/29/subway-station-art-20/

Louis, Linda L. “What Children Have in Mind: A Study of Early Representational Development in Paint.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 46, no. 4, 2005, pp. 339–355. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25475761.

National Education Association. An Educator’s Guide to the “Four Cs.” http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/A-Guide-to-Four-Cs.pdf

 

Creating a paradise

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Carla Herrera-Prats, Prep Materials, 2008, Digital prints from 4×5 negatives, digital prints from scan material, slide projection (40 slides), charcoal, vinyl lettering, duotone printed matter (edition of 1000 issues).

What is an appropriate assessment of what makes good educators and good artists? Can the idea of being ‘good’ be quantified by esteemed awards or test results? To some people in both the institutional worlds of art and education, that is probably the key standard for determining successful performance and achievement. Qualitative assessments of what makes educators and artists stand out are far more complex, but it is arguably the more impactful way to recognize the influence that they have within their fields and the culture at large.

Good artists and good educators enable their viewers and students (respectively) to construct additional and experiential knowledge around the material that they present. This means that educators and artists develop a personal understanding of their community and scaffold their work to ensure that they are relating to more than just a controlled group of like-minded individuals. Education and art are transformative disciplines that reflect the contemporary condition and inspire us all to be more human. A good education as well as a good work of art encourages the formation of collaborative empathetic responses to critical humanist issues facing our collective culture. Artists and educators should make space for dialogic relationships that affirm other people’s narratives and ideas towards their work. This is the crux of critical and problem-posing pedagogy (see: Freire, 1970), which suggests that an equitable and liberated education arises through discourse and cooperative construction of knowledge and understanding.

When art and education are explored as acts and expressions of love, they empower  socially engaged interactions (see: Freire, 1997). Obtaining a problem-posing pedagogical framework, based on acts and expressions of love is hard to quantify with data. On the other hand, standardized testing and personal achievement is easier to measure with statistics. Our current social structure typifies success with data. It utilizes data to reward and elevate those who score well on tests or accrue significant economic gain. This model doesn’t signify the equal, equitable and justice inspired ideology of our political and educational systems, but it is the reality of our purported ‘democratic’ institutions.

Carla Herrera-Prats addresses this fallacy in her multidisciplinary artwork, which makes humanist inquiries into the purpose of education, labor, politics and economics. Her work can be described as what Pablo Helguera (2011) defines as “transpedagogy.” According to Helguera, this term refers to artistic endeavors that “blend educational processes and art-making in works that offer an experience that is clearly different from conventional art academies or formal art education.”

Within Herrera-Prats’ work, she juxtaposes texts and images, often culminated via archival research, in order to make the underpinnings of institutional oppression visible, and elevate the voices of progressive historians, educators, artists and archivists. In Prep Materials (2008), she addresses the enduring question of what influence quantitative assessments have on both education and politics. Como un Cerillo (2008) depicts an alternative narrative to the oft-negative perspective of one of Mexico City’s neighborhoods, Tepito. Official Stories (2005-2006) reveals the way that the Mexican government has appropriated pre-colonial culture as agitprop to support nationalist interests, and how that contrasts with the way diversity and pre-Hispanic narratives are presented in the public school curriculum.

Prep Materials makes connections between the formation and evolution of ‘efficient’ technology to score the SATs, developed by IBM, Educational Test Service (ETS), and the Measurement Research Center. The same technology created for scoring SATs was utilized for the invention of the ballot machine as well as contemporary desktop scanners. Prep Materials displays photographs, text, a slideshow and drawings that refer to the archives of the aforementioned institutions. The saying ‘everything measured is everything done,’ which when installed (in both Los Angeles and New York) was affixed to the lower half of a gallery wall via vinyl letters; is indicative of society’s reliance on quantitative analysis to inform and motivate the way productivity is rewarded. It paraphrases a familiar quote (origins unknown), which is ‘what gets measured gets done.’ Herrera-Prats is clearly not suggesting that this is the most effective way of defining productivity and success within our standards of living. As she states: “moving beyond the common criticism against standardization and its supposed translation into better education, this exhibition focuses on the fallacy of relying on “efficient” technologies in order to realize the principles of democracy.”

How does one measure happiness and the selflessness of serving one’s community? Many altruistic efforts go unnoticed. Herrera-Prats’ work at large investigates the confluence of what is measured and what isn’t measured, in order to show the paradox of measuring data, and how quality of life rejects data driven narratives.

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Carla Herrera-Prats, Como un Cerillo, 2008, black and white photocopies, plastic boxes, vinyl and painted lettering and 10 min. audio loop.

Como un Cerillo is an audio/visual archival presentation based on the work of Alfonso Hernández, a longtime resident of Tepito, who has been creating a living archive of the neighborhood that is free and open to the public. Hernández’s magnum opus has been working to archive and present materials that celebrate the rich history of Tepito and inspire communal spirit among his neighbors. Alongside some examples of Hernández’s archive, are songs that have a cultural impact on the community. They represent music that was imported from South American countries via the neighborhood’s black market. This type of music, which includes cumbias and other tropical rhythms, are played by DJs at night markets. They provide a respite from the hectic urban environment. The fusion of Hernández’s archive and the lively music, present an alternative to the negative perspective the neighborhood receives in the mainstream media.

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Carla Herrera-Prats, Official Stories, 2005-2006, 100 catalogues, 4 textbooks, 2 videos, chalk, vinyl lettering.

Official Stories displays materials from exhibition catalogues that were sponsored by the Mexican government. These catalogues supplemented major exhibitions that toured the world, promoting the rich history and diversity of Mexico from its Mesoamerican roots to its present day melting pot of indigenous peoples, people of Hispanic decent and immigrants from all over the world. In Mexico, cultural artifacts and art are protected under strict laws. They are not allowed to be sold for profit, but have been used to increase tourism, which is why these exhibitions are held in such high regard and promoted far and wide. In contrast, the textbooks from public schools have seen a decrease in cultural diversity. The images and narratives have experienced a transformation signifying a highly selective pedagogy of pre-Hispanic and indigenous culture. While there used to be images celebrating indigenous and proletariat themes, more recent textbooks have gradually replaced these images with photographs (such as an aerial view of the landscape) that are devoid of sociopolitical context. Juxtaposing materials from exhibition catalogues and textbooks published between the 1950s and 2008, the installation forms patterns and makes connections between the rise of national identity, which celebrates diversity, and the decline of multicultural education. As Herrera-Prats (2008) explains:

“This project was not and is not about forming conclusions regarding how much children today are actually learning about their pre-Hispanic past. The most that we can say, by looking at the chalk indexes, is that they are certainly less exposed to it now than they were in 1959. Rather than measuring their learning itself, my methodology allowed for the display of a paradox in which the Mexican government and its cultural institutions has become entangled. In their efforts to carve a niche in the global scene, they have promoted abroad the very image whose effacement conditions progressive identity, namely: the diversity of pre-Hispanic cultural inheritance”

Archives and historical documents are used as a teaching resource to allow viewers of Herrera-Prats’ installations to spend time with primary and secondary sources, and formulate their own enduring understandings of what they see/read with their prior knowledge and cultural understandings. It is a way of opening a dialogic relationship between the past and the present culture. It is an important and profound experience that enables us to understand how history is used and manipulated for specific ideological interests. Secondary sources and critical/institutional interpretations of archives can establish a narrative that is both implicit and explicitly bias. It takes a discerning and liberated mind to critically examine these literary and visual documents. Prats’ presents her sources, asks us to consider multiple perspectives and leaves the role of making value judgements to us.

Going back to the essential question of what makes good art and good education, one enduring understanding is that both disciplines empower us to think radically within traditional mainstream cultural environments. While employing curricula that focuses on comprehension skills is fine, it needs to be supplemented with the development of liberal knowledge. Traditional methods of ‘reading for comprehension’ can have a devastating affect on marginalized individuals particularly, because they are being asked to read and digest ‘required’ texts in a formulaic manner, without a deeper understanding and a critical discourse around its cultural implications. In other words, the sole purpose is to develop didactic reading skills without much discussion and focus on themes and content that relates to more diverse social and culture issues (see: Wexler, 2019). Good artists and educators know this and provide ample moments for student/viewer reflection. They welcome discourse and take pride in the fact that learning and understanding is a communal act, supported by expressions of empathy and cooperation.

As bell hooks (1994) says, “the academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created.” The act of learning can manifest wherever people come together in collaboration to support and uplift each other’s voices and create informed responses to contextual information. Education and art are labors of love (see: Labor of love: art, activism, collaborative learning) and their impact cannot be neatly managed or maintained. They are both rhizomatic practices in nature and their success relies on the manner in which they inspire collaborative social action and democratic dialogue. While the aforementioned projects were created through Herrera-Prats’ solo practice, she had devoted her creative and socially engaged output in collaboration with artist Anthony Graves and the Camel Collective from 2008 until her recent untimely death. May her memory be a blessing and may her work continue to inspire artful learning and critical pedagogy.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Heart, New York: Continuum, 1997.

Helguera, Pablo. Education for Socially Engaged Art, New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Herrera-Prats, Carla. “Official Stories,” Invisible Culture, Issue 12: The Archive of the Future / The Future of the Archive, May 2008. Accessed 13 Dec. 2019 https://www.rochester.edu/in_visible_culture/Issue_12/herrara-prats/herreraprats.pdf

Ubanell, Rosana. “Tepito, the Mexico slum where one day you’re alive and the next you’re dead,” efe.com, 2 March 2019. Accessed 14 Dec. 2019 https://www.efe.com/efe/english/life/tepito-the-mexico-slum-where-one-day-you-re-alive-and-next-dead/50000263-3913882

Wexler, Natalie. The Knowledge Gap: The hidden cause of America’s broken education system – and how to fix it. New York: Avery, 2019.

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.

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

The Fourth Grade Project

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Installation view of archival pigment prints from The Fourth Grade Project by Judy Gelles, in the exhibition Overlap: Life Tapestries on view at Pen + Brush, New York. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Students from around the world are the subjects and co-collaborators of an ongoing participatory artwork and educational experience titled The Fourth Grade Project. The project was initiated by Judy Gelles, a contemporary artist who works as a photographer. Gelles travels internationally to visit with students in their schools, and have a dialogue about their life experiences. The students are only a decade old but they have incredible insight about the world around them. Gelles photographs the students in rear perspective view, so that they remain anonymous. The final prints include verbatim text juxtaposed with each student’s portrait. The text tells their personal narratives, which were prompted by three questions: Who do you live with? What do you wish for? What do you worry about?

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Judy Gelles, Lived Closer: USA California Private School, archival pigment print. Photograph by Adam Zucker

The eloquent responses to these questions reflect the students’ sociocultural understandings. Each student has a unique perspective regarding how they see themselves in the scope of the human condition. While there is diversity in their responses due to the different geographical regions they represent, the stories they share signify several commonalities. They worry about themselves and their family; feel stressed about their performance in school and/or in social and athletic settings; and contemplate the future. They also express their aspirations for happiness and success. All children deserve to feel safe and valued in their schools, families and communities. The Fourth Grade Project makes it clear that this is not the case for all school aged children around the world. Too many students are worried about violence and sociocultural woes affecting them, their classmates and their families. An essential question for us to collectively address is how to bridge the social, cultural and economic gaps that create inequitable situations within society?

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Judy Gelles, Be Murdered, South Africa: Public School, archival pigment print. Photograph by Adam Zucker

The Fourth Grade Project is being utilized as a way for students across the globe to feel empowered expressing themselves and learning about one another. In doing so, they will make connections between their own stories and those of other students. Gelles is working with educators and administrators in Philadelphia to create a curriculum that can be implemented in schools throughout the world. What Gelles and the classroom teachers have noticed, is that giving students the agency to express themselves via the three aforementioned queries, benefits their participation and involvement in school. Students were struggling to make connections between their lives and the required reading, which impacted the development of their literary and writing skills. By making stories relatable to their social, emotional and cultural experiences, students were passionate about reading and writing. As a result of participating in the project, both quantitative and qualitative assessments of the students’ work supported their individual growth in English Language Arts (ELA). Furthermore, by reading the students’ stories, teachers and administrators gain significant insight into the myriad of social issues affecting their students. Due to overcrowded schools and large class sizes, it is often difficult for educators to spend enough time with each student to have dialogues about their lives outside of school. This project enables teachers to learn more about what personal concerns might be affecting a student’s performance in class. In addition to this dialogue being beneficial for educators to gain greater understandings about their students, classmates also gain insight into their peers’ innermost feelings. These compassionate responses build a more empathetic environment where everyone in the school works together and is supportive of each other’s physical and emotional space.

Understanding one another and being able to show empathy for what others are enduring is a major lesson that the arts can teach us (see: Exhibiting Empathy and Educating Through Art). Through social and emotional learning and reflections on personal and collective experiences, The Fourth Grade Project has the potential to help students grow academically and personally.

 

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.

 

 

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.