Transforming Tradition: Understanding Our Complex Identities through Art

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

Major themes in Sligh’s work include transformation and change. She is interested in the constructs of gender and sexual orientation, which is evident in works such as the Masculinity Project (1996-1999) and Jake (1996-2000). Many times, she’ll combine images with text to create a narrative, which is often related directly through the subject she’s depicting. Through her artistic explorations and experiences conversing with black men, women, and transgender people, Sligh poignantly portrays how a person’s identity goes beyond their race and gender, and that discrimination is also not limited to race, gender, sexual orientation, or social status. Her ongoing collaborative project Transforming Hateis a multi-disciplinary artwork, which seeks to create an open ended framework for constructing our collective identities.

Another contemporary artist whose work focuses on the plurality of identity is Glenn Ligon. Ligon’s text based work is inspired by his personal experiences as a gay African-American male living in contemporary America. He appropriates text from well known fiction and non-fiction writers in a way that causes us to question preconceived notions of historical identity and human aspects like gender and race. Through his work, we are confronted with the harsh reality that Civil Rights era hate and discrimination still exists in a more complex way than our history books might have portrayed it. As a society we need to recognize this dire flaw within the human condition.

In Runaways (1993), Ligon recreated historical runaway slave broadsides by asking friends to describe him. Ligon constructed those descriptions into witty but poignant ‘self-portraits’ that made pertinent statements on identity politics. Berwick (2011) gives examples of these works: “Ran away, a man named Glenn. He has almost no hair. He has cat-eye glasses, medium-dark skin, cute eyebrows. . . . He talks out of the side of his mouth and looks at you sideways. Sometimes he has a loud laugh, and lately I’ve noticed he refers to himself as ‘mother;’” and “Ran away, Glenn, a black male, 5’8”, very short hair cut, nearly completely shaved, stocky build, 155-165 lbs., medium complexion (not “light skinned,” not “dark skinned,” slightly orange). Wearing faded blue jeans, short sleeve button-down 50’s style shirt, nice glasses (small, oval shaped), no socks. Very articulate, seemingly well-educated, does not look at you straight in the eye when talking to you. He is socially very adept, yet paradoxically, he’s somewhat of a loner.”

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Runaways (detail), 1993, 10 lithographs, 16 by 12 inches each. Whitney Museum of American Art. Image from Berwick, Carly, “Stranger in America.” Art in America, 23 Apr. 2011.

Through art we can really get a strong picture, which tells us that an individuals’ identity is more complex than simple dualities (black and white, rich or poor, trans or cis, etc). Our identities are made up of many facets, which include (but are not limited to) the color of our skin; the religion of our ancestors; the faith we practice; the gender or sexual orientation we identify as; our political affiliation; our hobbies; our physical and mental health; education; and social class.

Creating an “identity web/map” is a great exercise in the classroom that can support students’ understanding of each other. In an identity web/map, a student will fill out a personal chart filled with both the things that they feel identifies them and the labels they believe that society places upon them. Next, they will share these aspects with the rest of the class by posting their map around the classroom. Students will walk around with post-it notes in hand, and place their name next to aspects they see on their classmates maps that also resonate with their own personal identity. Finally, they will discuss what they’ve discovered as a whole class.

This would be a great time to introduce the work of contemporary artists like Sligh and  Ligon, and have a discussion where students can analyze work by these artists and point out which identity related issues these artists are commenting on and why. Lastly, a visual art project can be introduced where students will transform how they identify themselves (using their identity maps as reference) into a self-portrait. These self-portraits will make use of found and sourced material along with traditional art techniques to depict an image of themselves that includes but also goes beyond their physical description.

First, they’ll arrange the descriptions they jotted down on their web/maps about themselves into a short narrative sentence (could be in the form of a poem, an advertisement, a meme, or short biography). Then they’ll be prompted to use magazines, old history books, and the internet, to mine for reference imagery and text (or images and text that they can appropriate) that they feel is representative of their personal and collective identities, and construct a visual image that signifies these aspects of their humanity.

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Transforming Tradition: Understanding Our Complex Identities through Art

Social and Emotional Learning – Our Public Space, our Personal Experience Pt. II

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Krzysztof Wodiczko, Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection 2012, Union Square, New York, NY. Courtesy of More Art

Krzystof Wodiczko’s artistic practice transforms public spaces into sites of collective memory and historical memorialization. He has worked with diverse populations including the homeless, war veterans, and victims of global atrocities such as Hiroshima. Wodiczko’s work is often temporal and doesn’t physically alter the space. Rather, he creates a metaphysical alteration of our perception of events and public spaces by projecting poignant imagery and narratives directly on well known buildings, statues, or other iconic structures in urban environments. His installations are largely politically charged and powerfully engage the viewers to reflect on their own trauma and relationship to both past and current events.

For example, Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, comprised of videos of fourteen U.S. Veterans talking about the effects that going to war has had on them. Wodiczko projected the video on the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Union Square so that each participant’s image embodied the form of the sixteenth President.

Wodiczko’s work presents a great opportunity for educators to discuss the personal ramifications of historical events and iconic sites. Public art works such as Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection supports social and emotional learning (SEL) because it shapes social awareness, self awareness, and relationship skills by bringing a diverse population together inside the park to share in a moment of empathy. In making these poignant projects, Wodiczko relies on a strong collaborative relationship built on trust and engagement from both the subjects of his work and the viewers. Another major aspect of Wodiczko’s work is bringing an awareness and contemplation of the social and emotional connections we have to public spaces. In conjunction with Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, More Art developed a curriculum for middle school classrooms that explored the historical and contemporary functions of Union Square and the role of public spaces within the community at large.

Social and Emotional Learning – Our Public Space, our Personal Experience Pt. II

Social and Emotional Learning – Our Public Space, our Personal Experience Pt. I

Freire (1970) called for an educational model where we learn by participating in social and political events. To him, education and politics are inseparable and the student is as equally responsible in the creation of knowledge as the teacher is. There are many examples from contemporary art that vividly depict these ideas. This ongoing examination will take a look at socially engaged works of art within the public space that are made in collaboration with diverse populations.

Ofri Cnaani’s Moon Guardians (2013), was a video installation (produced by More Art), which the artist projected on a historic building in Gansevoort Plaza. The site-specific project examined the socio-historical context of New York City’s Meatpacking District, which has undergone significant changes throughout its storied history. In realizing this project, Cnaani worked with local public High School students who interviewed several longtime residents from the neighborhood. Many of these residents, including a butcher, a drag queen, an art gallerist, and an elderly couple, could no longer afford to live there. By reflecting on their memories of the neighborhood before it became the fashionable hub it is today, they portrayed a vibrant narrative of its diverse history. Cnaani filmed them in a style that is distinctly haunting. Each of these characters appeared every night, lit up from a vista on the building, and performed moments from their lives when they lived there. The result was a powerful juxtaposition of old and new New York.

Moon Guardians symbolically details the relationship between the oppressor (gentrification) and the oppressed (displaced longtime members of the community) by conflating the two groups together. We are invited into the past, but cannot fully escape reality because we are aware that the people we’re viewing are essentially spectres that appear from within an unfamiliar frontier. The working class, small business person, and loft dwelling artist have vanished in favor of high-end products, chic-boutiques, and luxury apartments. The contradictions between the gentrifiers and the gentrified and the realization of the inequity between the two groups is exemplary of what Friere coined the ‘critical conscious.’

Ofri Cnaani speaks about Moon Guardians (2013) from More Art on Vimeo.


Notes:

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

Social and Emotional Learning – Our Public Space, our Personal Experience Pt. I

STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art pt.1 – Art and Ecology

Brandon Ballengée’s Love Motel for Insects is a great example of how contemporary art has the ability to enhance a K-12 curriculum that focuses on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) learning. Love Motel for Insects is an ongoing public art installation raising awareness about local ecosystems by connecting humans and nocturnal anthropods.

The nocturnal insects are attracted by UV lights, creating a performative scene when the sun goes down. These ‘social sculptures’ bring humans and insects together in an intimate setting and offers a unique opportunity to witness tiny and often elusive organisms in action. Ballengée accompanies these installations with talks and workshops. Love Motel for Insects is a great example of how we can use art in a non-intrusive manner to create something that gives us insight into the natural world.

STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art pt.1 – Art and Ecology

Everybody is an Artist

Joseph Beuys’ concept of social sculpture is perhaps one of the most important ideas that unite the fields of art and education.  He advocated that through art, human beings can make a greater contribution to society. A social sculptor is anyone who creates a structure –literally or figuratively– within their community using actions, thoughts, social interactions, and objects.

Artistic learning might very well be the most vital piece of an individual’s understanding of the world and their place within the human experience. In art (unlike math, applied sciences, language, and grammar) there are no right or wrong ways to approach a problem. Art teachers set up circumstances that will allow students to formulate an aesthetic, social, and emotional understanding about how to shape their own ideas. Eisner (2002) said that this way of thinking artfully addresses moments in life that cannot be approached using formulas and rules.

Art Education is important because it enables certain ‘habits of mind’ such as (to name a few) listening and empathy, flexible purposing (a John Dewey term that describes how thinking enables shifting directions and finding many outcomes or new avenues of insight), making judgements in the absence of rules, and resisting closure (not to be complacent with one method or solution).

Even though there is no proof that art has a direct correlation to test scores and assessment of other core subjects, the arts develop students into well-rounded individuals. Art allows for a visual understanding of our environment. Student artists learn to think critically and creatively, which can lead to a more comprehensive observation of their surroundings as well as a more empathetic understanding of culture.

In summery, artistic learning gives students the confidence and ability to become active learners; empathetic and expressive communicators; and advanced problem solvers beyond the scope of pragmatism. Not everyone will or should become professional artists, however, they can employ art in their daily lives to succeed in many circumstances.


Notes:

Cufarro, H (1995). Experience: Variety and Continuity. In Experimenting with the World (pp. 55-67). New York, NY: TC Press.

Eisner, E. (2002, September) What the Arts Do for the Young, SchoolArts, (pp. 16-17).

Eisner, E. (2002). What the arts teach and how it shows. In The arts and the creation of mind (pp. 70-92). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Everybody is an Artist

Howard Schwartzberg and Reality Art

Brooklyn based artist and educator Howard Schwartzberg realizes the potential that art can have in everyday life. Schwartzberg’s curriculum is called Reality Art, an embodiment of social and emotional learning, where the students’ learning experience is centered on gaining skills necessary to achieve positive goals, feel empathy for others, and build positive relationships. This is structured through experiential learning and art making that is inspired by everyday life.

Schwartzberg believes that incorporating art –and thinking artistically– within other disciplines facilitates student’s learning more fluidly. Schwartzberg encourages students to enter what he coined the “freespace for expression and observation.” This conceptual space centers around a collaborative learning experience involving interpreting, analyzing, and making art about the world outside of the classroom. It is akin to the idea of “Social sculpture,” Joseph Beuys’ concept of individuals utilizing artistic practices in the community for socially engaged purposes. Schwartzberg also developed a curriculum for non-art teachers to bring the benefits of artistic learning into their classrooms. The concept maps for his curriculum can be viewed here.

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Howard Schwartzberg’s Scaffolding (2017) is a painting that rises from the floor to high up onto the wall. It is comprised of sewn together student paintings (left behind by former students), which have been flipped around so that they’re viewed from the verso. The piece reflects on Schwartzberg’s own artistic process working with materials that investigate the objectivity of painting, combined with his experience teaching in Public Schools. Scaffolding refers to instructional techniques teachers use to guide them toward both mastery and independence in the learning process. The role that the teacher plays should be more along the lines of ‘coaching’ rather than directing. Art is the perfect discipline for this type of learning, because art making involves a combination of personal experience and depiction strategies that are best achieved through experiential learning.

This painting is part of his “Left Behind (Student Work)” series, which was created in response to the detrimental shift from public education to for-profit schools. Other works in the series have titles that also refer to experiential educational strategies such as Collaborative Learning, and Think Pair Share.

Howard Schwartzberg and Reality Art

Tim Rollins and Visual Literacy

Tim Rollins is an artist and arts educator based in New York City. While Rollins was teaching middle school art in the Bronx, he became an after school mentor to students, providing a safe space for them to discuss, analyze, and create collaborative works of art. In 1982, he formed the Art and Knowledge Workshop with a group of students called Kids of Survival (K.O.S). Rollins and K.O.S have exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide.

Understanding art as being an interdisciplinary practice, Rollins and his students interpreted well-known works of literature. Through sharing their ideas about the text, the students identified key themes that they felt related to their personal experiences, their community, and socio-cultural spectrum at large (as they experienced it). In doing so, they have appropriated “the classics” to make powerful comments on events from everyday life. I find the students’ responses to be incredibly enlightening:

Tim Rollins and Visual Literacy