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.

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.

 

Still Climbing Booker T. Washington’s Ladder

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Martin Puryear. Ladder for Booker T. Washington, detail, 1996. Installation view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 2 episode, “Time,” 2003. Photo © Art21, Inc. 2003.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puryear contributes to the contextual analysis of his sculpture as “the kind of gradual, illusory notion of upward progress that Washington encouraged blacks to adopt in the nineteenth century against an overwhelming set of obstacles to our advancement” (Powell, 2007).

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


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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

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

Powell, Richard J. “A Conversation with Martin Puryear,” in the exhibition catalogue Martin Puryear by John Elderfield, Richard J. Powell, et al, Fort Worth: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007.

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

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

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.

 

 

Pedagogy of Empowerment

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Cheryl Pope, Community Is Built On Empathy, 2016, installation at Kenyon College Athletic Center, Gambier, Ohio. Courtesy of the artist.

Cheryl Pope has a background in fashion design and boxing, a unique combination of skills and interests that has informed her career as a contemporary artist. Pope’s multidisciplinary artworks fuse elements of her multifaceted identity together through a materials based process that addresses social and emotional themes and issues. Her work also embodies principles and methods of collaborative learning, where diverse groups of people cooperate in activities that broaden their sense of self, communal and civic relationships.

A major topic within Pope’s work is the role of the individual and the collective within communities. She often works with young artists and students across Chicago, Illinois to explore, discover and express how race, gender, class, history, power and place affect the identity of a community at large.

Pope portrays communities as being an amalgamation of identities, with a foundation of unique multicultural perspectives that reveal strength through diversity. Her work has poignant and positive sociocultural overtones, which emphasize the importance of exhibiting empathy towards one another. One of Pope’s large scale installations that profoundly addresses this is Community Is Built On Empathy (2016), which was initially installed in the gymnasium at the Kenyon College Athletic Center in Gambier, Ohio. The installation consists of several banners –such as the ones you would see in a school gym or sporting arena to announce specific performance accolades– adorned with personal declarations. Hanging above and around the gymnasium floor, these banners are reminders of what it means to display value for yourself and others. The banners were created during the spring 2016 Semester at Kenyon College when Pope collaborated with two social science professors and their classes.  The students in the two professor’s classes prompted anonymous personal statements from Kenyon college students and alongside Pope, they selected twenty of them to be made into banners.

Examples of specific texts include “I’m not good at being vulnerable,” “I am learning,” and “I wish I did more.” These phrases signify largely archetypal ideas about self perception. They are statements that have likely crossed our minds at one time or another. Whether we are open about these thoughts or not, these private and intimate notions shape the way we perceive ourselves and others. Sometimes we feel good about ourselves, while other times we have low self-esteem and feel largely negative about the condition of things. If we all want to live our best lives, we need to establish a strong sense of community by showing that we are aware and engaged in strengthening and embracing our personal and collective self-worth. That is the crux of Pope’s installation.

The fact that Pope’s artwork, Community Is Built On Empathy, was both realized and exhibited within an educational setting is a testament to the idea schools should create and maintain an environment that supports equity, equality, social justice and good well-being. Schools are communities made up of diverse groups of students and faculty members, each with their own unique experiences and backgrounds. As a result, it is a school’s fundamental duty to champion, recognize and reflect the diversity and uniqueness that is both implied and explicit within the school community.

Schools should enable and empower students’ and educators’ best traits, while prompting them to be understanding, compassionate and patient with others. No one should feel disempowered or ashamed of who they are. The systemic perpetration of self-deception is a dangerous and dehumanizing practice, which leads to self and interpersonal discord. The whole framework of passing and failing within systems of education needs to be refocused in order to allow for students to make bold and positive discoveries about themselves and the world around them. Collectively addressing our vulnerability, weaknesses and self-worth, as well as celebrating our strengths and diversity, is the scaffolding and the pulse of a vibrant and liberated community.

#$^& Censorship

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Lets talk about censorship.
Time and time again, censorship rears its ugly head within the the arts, film, literature and education. Censorship is the cause and condition of passionate debates among a diverse group of individuals that generally results in a work of art being removed from an exhibition, a film and/or book being banned, or a topic/subject being taken out of the curriculum (these are just a few examples within the cultural realm).

The last post, Art and education as a spiritual awakening, mentioned an infamous example of the religious right trying to censor Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) when it was exhibited in 1989. Former Senator Jessie Helms (R, North Carolina), was outraged that the work of Serrano (see image above of an iconoclast’s reaction to Serrano’s Piss Christ) and his contemporary Robert Mapplethorpe, received funding by the National Endowment for the Arts, and led a furious public campaign to try and dissociate government support for the arts. The fight ultimately focused on the issue that the religious right and conservative politicians felt that elements such as nudity, graven images of Christ and homosexuality within art were taboo and blasphemous. A nun and art historian by the name of Sister Wendy Mary Beckett (see previous post) put the kibosh on the matter with her compelling defense of Serrano’s work, stating that she understood Piss Christ to be representative of suffering in light of widespread spiritual degradation within contemporary society. Serrano, a Catholic, intended for the work to be an homage to Jesus’ sacrifice is being taken for granted. As Beckett said: “this is what we are doing to Christ, we are not treating him with reverence. His great sacrifice is not used. We live very vulgar lives. We put Christ in a bottle of urine – in practice” (Moyers & Beckett, 2000).

Robert Mapplethorpe’s art work, which prominently features LGBT subject matter, clearly made Helms and other puritanical individuals uncomfortable. They felt it was necessary to demean both the LGBT community and Mapplethorpe’s art. Their verbal attacks and threats on both Serrano and Mapplethorpe was devastating to the psyche of the artists’ and the art world.

The “culture wars” that affected Serrano and Mapplethorpe were revisited in 2010, when threats from religious right and conservative Republicans threats to de-fund art intimidated G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, into removing a version of David Wojnarowicz’s film A Fire in My Belly (1986-87) from the exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Jonathan Ned Katz, historian and co-curator of the show in question, reflects:

“In 1989 Senator Jesse Helms demonized Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexuality, and by extension, his art, and with little effort pulled a cowering art world to its knees. His weapon was threatening to disrupt the already pitiful federal support for the arts, and once again, that same weapon is being brandished, and once again we cower.”

I wonder if Helms et al might have expressed the same outrage if they were alive during the time when Hieronymus Bosch painted his surreal and grotesque depictions of the gospels and other fantastical paintings inspired by his Catholic faith; or when Michelangelo painted the figures in his renowned Sistine Chapel fresco, The Last Judgement (1565), stark naked. The latter actually caused an uproar and a call by some members of the Catholic clergy to censor it. In fact, after Michelangelo had passed away, his former apprentice added clothes to cover up the nudity in the painting.

Censorship in the arts dates back centuries. For example, the remains of ancient Hindu temples with statues of deities that have had their faces smashed in due to the rise of Islamic empires, illustrate how dominant cultures have had overarching influence on the types of imagery allowed to be absorbed. When iconoclasts see it fit to defame, alter, or destroy visual elements from other (conquered, past, oppressed, etc.) cultures, they are performing a drastic and severe form of censorship.

Some more recent examples of censorship (and wannabe iconoclasts) include ex-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s outspoken threat and public tantrum to cut funding to the Brooklyn Museum over their display of Chris Ofili’s painting, The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), in 1999. The painting, which is a portrait of a black Madonna, was created with a variety of materials including varnished elephant dung. The dung made associations to one of the Virgin’s bared breasts, while two other pieces of elephant excrement provided a support system for the canvas to be displayed on the floor. Ofili’s epic painting evokes the essence of the Virgin Mary as a powerful and confident woman. She represents fertility, compassion and divine nurture.

By re-presenting her as a black woman, The Holy Virgin Mary pays homage to the fertile crescent, where civilization was originally cultivated, and the African Diaspora, which spread significant cultural ideas throughout the world. Ofili’s connection of ancient cultures and the African Diaspora is presented in an entirely new light within the painting. He considers the piece to be a ‘hip hop’ version of the many variations and depictions of the Virgin Mary throughout time. Ultimately, the Brooklyn museum refused to take the work off of display and ex-Mayor Giuliani (also a litigator) lost a court case that was intended to cut off funding for the museum.

Schools have also faced censorship and threats of censorship from various political and social groups. Censorship in schools affects student’s access to materials, and (like we have seen in the arts) is determined largely by the opinions of outside sources who  reside outside of classroom environments. Foerstel (2002) says that censorship (he refers to books in his work) comes from two opposing factors, the conservative and liberal wings of society. While the conservative organizations typically seek to censor works that express issues they feel are vulgar or antithetical to their mission (such as homosexuality, revolutionary empowerment of oppressed groups, religious criticism and more); liberal groups also have called for the censorship of creative works that contain racial epitaphs or violence. Both instances of censorship have major implications for children’s growth and development.

Within the school environment, the arts are some of the most common subjects ripe for censorship. This is because literature, music and visual art present potent forms of human expression. They may express moments or ideas in time that were largely unpopular within the status quo, or symbolize themes that are heavily critical of systemic operations. The arts also have a direct correlation with history, which is another subject that faces prejudice and strict revision from authoritative policy makers and other influential individuals and groups.

Because censoring groups have varying subjective ideas about what is and is not acceptable to be presented in schools, a significant malady of censorship is the ills affects it has on free and liberated expression. How can we dictate what is suitable for children to learn, when our collective culture is full of divisive and contentious opinions? Wouldn’t it be beneficial to allow for an inquiry based process of learning wherein students can formulate their own opinions on issues that personally affect them and their peers? An open-minded educator can provide a level of discretion and guidance in coaching students to have healthy discourses, and develop deeper understandings for issues that are seemingly problematic. In today’s era, negative and positive aspects are so seamlessly conflated within the culture at large, that declaring things dualistically and in a partisan nature, is disingenuous and ineffective. There is always a grey area, which needs to be examined and given insightful critiques so that we can better understand how we can achieve a civil and more common ground, while still being respectful of differing lifestyles. Therefore, it is important that we don’t shelter our children from the complexities and various realities of the world.

Freedman & Hernandez (1998) stated that the view a society has regarding the arts tells us a lot about its overall nature. Art education has usually thrived within a liberal society with open borders to the ‘outside world’. A society’s willingness to encourage multiple concepts of belief, culture and experience, can lead to its continual success. The viewpoint on the arts in this aforementioned environment is typically positive, as evident during the times of Ancient Athens, the European Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. However, in an isolated and insular society, art forms, especially those that express individuality, are repressed through systems of control. This is documented throughout various periods such as in Ancient Sparta, Nazi Germany and in contemporary autocracies like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In these societies, a strong military focus overrides the concept of individualism by asserting that citizens must maintain a uniformity of allegiance to their government.

There are major facets that dictate the course of local and national curricula, which have continued to hold influence from Ancient Greece to today. They are, as Elfand (1990) explains: patronage, education and censorship. In the United States of America, these facets greatly impact our sociocultural environment. Patronage, education and censorship, are generally directed by those holding power and wealth. Because of this, their bias and self interests often shape what is deemed relevant and necessary to learn, see, or do. Additionally, the idea from some influential policy makers that the arts should produce attractive objects, but don’t have a utilitarian value beyond its aesthetic qualities, is evident of our society throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The value of art has suffered devastating mainstream blows from politicians like Helms, Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani who denounced funding for the arts (largely due to hard line religious and political ideologies). Furthermore, Barrack Obama remarked that art history isn’t a practical area of education and suggested that other disciplines be taken more seriously in schools (Zucker, 2017). The devaluation and apathy towards art has made it an easy target for de-funding efforts across the cultural and educational spheres.

The arts validate freedom of expression, give us agency to develop and exhibit empathy and strengthen our skills for thinking critically and realizing that the information around us is not always what it may seem. Curricula with a focus on art history and visual culture can help students become more aware of how special interest groups and corporations often manipulate and use images as a form of propaganda.

It has been a long standing and popular practice for modern advertisements to feature works of art or to appropriate an artist’s style, in order to promote a consumer product or a brand ideology (Berger, 1972; Iqbal, 2016). Discerning between actual works of art and advertisements is ever so important in world filled with pop-up banners, website ads, internet forums and memes that disseminate biased information. Furthermore, Lister (2017) posits “fake news and the value we place on the arts are on a see-saw together, as one goes down the other goes up, they are inextricably linked. By devaluing the arts, we are allowing fake news to rule our world which is a terrifying prospect.”

So the problem within our culture, is twofold, the arts are being demystified by mass media, as well as special interests groups; and they are under steady threat from censoring agents who also have specific political, social, religious and/or cultural biases. A similar thesis can be put forth to synthesize how the educational system is being negatively affected by standardization, teaching to the test, as well as censorship and banning/removing certain materials and information from textbooks and scholarly discourse.

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Christina Freeman, UltraViolet Archive. Installation photograph at the Queens Museum, 2018. Photo by Adam Zucker

Issues surrounding censorship are prominently scrutinized via Christina Freeman’s, UltraViolet Archive (2018-), an ongoing (currently on view at the Queens Museum), nomadic and participatory based art project that includes many different cross-referential elements. It is at once, a psychical archive, digital database, library and cinematic environment, which re-presents works of visual art, literature, film, as well as other narratives, histories and ideologies, that were deemed ‘problematic’ at some point in time by authoritative figures. Freeman explains:

“In the UltraViolet Archive, I hope to provide a complex perspective on how censorship influences creative works, by presenting a wide range of works in various media, across time periods, along with the different contexts for each challenge. I would like to show the full spectrum, from works suppressed by state censorship or bias to those challenged by individuals or special interest groups to artists censoring themselves.”

Viewers can interact with the archive by suggesting additional works that are not yet included and offer thoughts on how they define censorship. Additionally, the banned and censored works are displayed in order for these works to be circulated, re-assessed and better understood through new and diverse perspectives.

In the art room, where it is essential to emphasize, encourage and empower student’s personal expression, censoring their work can be shattering. Henley (1997) sheds light on two vocabulary words, censorship and ‘disturbation.’ ‘Disturbation,’ is a term coined in 1986, by art critic Arthur C. Danto, which means any work of art that is provocative and intends to disrupt the status quo. This is true for artists of all ages, and something anyone who has taught in primary, secondary or higher education settings has surely encountered throughout their tenure. Hanley says that these terms are essential for educators to understand in order to build a classroom environment based on freedom of expression and social responsibility. According to Hanley, it would behoove art educators to provide instructional scaffolding to develop provocative student work into conscious and thoughtful statements of intention. Doing so would give a more mature awareness to the topic(s) or issue(s) they are reacting to and symbolizing.

Overall, student artists should feel uninhibited to create work that exemplifies their unique understanding and experiences in the world. They should also have access to the breadth of imagery, issues and topics that are depicted through works of art. The art room should be a sanctuary and open-minded environment, where students and educators can collectively discuss and create all types of art that inspire mindfulness, independent thinking and socially conscious action.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

Danto, Artur C. 1986. The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art. New York: Columbia University Press.

Efland, Arthur. 1990. A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts. New York: Teachers College Press.

Foerstel, Herbert N. 2002. Banned in the U.S.A: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Frank, Priscilla. “A Brief History Of Art Censorship From 1508 To 2014.” Huffington Post. 6 Dec. 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/16/art-censorship_n_6465010.html

Freedman, Kerry and Hernandez, Fernando, editors. (1998), Curriculum, Culture and Art Education: Comparative Perspective. New York: State University of New York Press.

Ha, Thu-Houng, “People have been trying to get rid of the National Endowment for the Arts for 36 years.” Quartz. 27 Jan. 2017. https://qz.com/895438/the-national-endowment-of-the-arts-nea-has-been-under-fire-from-republicans-for-36-years/

Henley, David. “Art of Disturbation: Provocation and Censorship in Art Education.” Art Education. Vol. 50, No. 4, Literacy, Media, and Meaning (Jul., 1997), pp. 39-45. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3193652?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Iqbal, Uzair. “Ways of Seeing Online: And analysis of John Berger’s Ideas in a Digital Age.” Medium. 22 Aug. 2016. https://medium.com/dodesign-iit-guwahati/ways-of-seeing-online-an-analysis-of-john-bergers-ideas-in-the-digital-age-1f6c980c62b0

Lister, Josephine. “Is The Devaluation Of The Arts Responsible for the Rise of Fake News?” hundrED. 21 Aug. 2017. https://hundred.org/en/articles/is-the-devaluation-of-the-arts-responsible-for-the-rise-of-fake-news

Sister Wendy in Conversation with Bill Moyers. Sister Wendy Beckett and Bill Moyers. Wgbh / Pbs, 2000.

Artful Learning Through Active Listening

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Catherine Schwalbe, #FreeListening, 2018. Photo Credit: Pate Conaway.

Active listening is one of the most valuable skills that an educator can bring into the classroom in order to create a successful student/teacher relationship. Active listening means that the teacher is fully engaged and focused on the conversation they are having with a student. There should be no other distractions. The teacher should maintain eye contact with the student, take account of the student’s tone and body language (their expressive nature through which they’re speaking), and be genuinely interested in the discussion that is taking place. It is important for educators to show that they’re truly listening by asking appropriate follow up questions, while being mindful not to interrupt the student or come across as didactic.

Active listening is a strategy that teachers should use to motivate students to become more socially and emotionally present in school. When educators really take the time to listen, they learn a great deal about what their students are passionate about and how they learn. More than anything else, it is important for teachers to get to know their students and to show them that they are respected for what they have to say. Active listening builds a much needed trust between teachers and students, which inspires collaborative learning environments and educational experiences that promote a thirst for inquiry and life-long learning.

So how does this concept relate to the arts? Listening is an important aspect of the artistic process too, in fact, it is an art form in itself. Artists don’t live in a bubble, they rely on the feedback of others in order to help them along with their process and the realization of ambitious projects. This is why formal and informal critiques and/or studio visits are so essential to an artist’s practice. It is helpful for the artist to be able to ask their peers questions in order to gauge how their work is being perceived and whether it is executed well. Listening is an especially helpful technique and skill for the artist whose work is socially engaged and relies on the participation of one or more individuals. This was the case for Mel Chin when he listened to the concerns of community members from Flint, Michigan before initiating Flint Fit. Artists such as Catherine Schwalbe,  Pablo Helguera (whose work with oral traditions and storytelling have been written about in a previous post), and Summer Zickefoose, have each incorporated active listening into their work in a way that allows for a genuine communication and artful expression between the speaker and the listener(s). Their work utilizes playfulness, creativity, open-endedness, responsive understanding, and reflection, in order to facilitate meaningful moments of social interaction.

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Summer Zickefoose, Visiting (Belfast), Antrim Road, 2010. Photo Credit: Simon Mills

In her Visiting series (initiated in 2009), Summer Zickefoose invites individuals to join her in a friendly conversation over tea. In 2010, Zickefoose performed the project in Belfast, Ireland –Visiting (Belfast)– on various main streets throughout the city. Zickefoose set up a mobile tea-cart along the street and asked a passerby to join her for a cup of tea. Once the invitation had been accepted, the two individuals sat down, and Zickefoose would ask them how they took their tea. Over tea, they shared an intimate conversation. This face to face interaction afforded the participant, who was a member of the community, with a platform to talk about their day and anything else of significance that they wanted to share. The tea service, a common daily activity in Ireland, as well as Zickefoose’s role as both “hostess” and active listener, offered a sense of comfort and a mutual respect between the two individuals. The invitees were given the chance to express their personal experiences and self-identity, and Zickefoose had the distinct opportunity to obtain a greater understanding of the Belfast community and the uniqueness of its citizens. After each conversation, Zickefoose recorded from memory, the name of the participant, how they took their tea, and what they spoke about onto a tea napkin. To this date, the project has had three different iterations including Visiting (Belfast).

Catherine Schwalbe transforms the actions of listening and being heard into a collaborative art project called #FreeListening (2018-). The ongoing project, which launched at the Annual Chicago Fluxfest over Memorial Day Weekend, gives participants a platform to be heard and/or hone their active listening skills. During a #FreeListening session, Schwalbe provides her undivided attention and listens intently to whatever the person who wants to be heard has to say. At the end of the session, Schwalbe presents the participant with a hand lettered proclamation and tips about ways to enhance their own listening skills. This experience turns listening and being heard into an artful experience where actively sharing and receiving strong social and emotional feelings bestows a sense of catharsis for both individuals. It is truly beneficial for the speaker to be able to express candid thoughts and for the listener to be an advocate for the speaker’s voice to be heard. Schwalbe’s #FreeListening project asks us to reflect on how we can not only be necessarily heard, but how we can become better listeners and understanders too.

In the art classroom, active listening integrated with creative exercises can be a great way to develop strong social and emotional connections between students. This is a great way to encourage students to socialize with each other and develop a mutual trust and respect for one another. To begin, students should be grouped into pairs with someone they don’t normally speak with on a daily basis. Students will take turns talking about an issue that is important to them (the teacher should provide a few motivating questions such as “what was/is the most challenging moment in your life?”), while their partner maintains good active listening techniques. After each student has engaged in both speaking and listening, they will independently fill out a worksheet that assesses how well they listened to their partner (questions will prompt students to relay/restate the information their partner told them). Once they’ve finished their assessments, the students will get back into their pairs and create a work of art that visualizes or symbolically represents the information they’ve learned from listening to each other. For example, students can create a drawing, painting, or collage that re-presents what they remembered about their conversation, or a poem, or a script, which they can perform for the class.

Another idea is to have students set up a site-specific environment within the school (a listening station) where they can conduct one-on-one listening sessions with their peers. Students will create an artist statement describing the intent of the project and simple directions (such as sit comfortably, face each other, maintain eye contact, notice body language, respond only if asked, restate significant moments in the dialogue when necessary for emphasis and understanding) that will initiate the exercise. These listening sessions would require the student whose listening to focus their full attention to what their classmate is saying and only offering a response if the conversation warrants it (or they need to ask for something to be restated). In other words, the listening student engages solely in active listening. The students will switch roles so that each student experiences being an active listener. After they have completed this exercise, students will record what they remembered from the conversation as a listener. These recordings can be assembled and displayed on an aesthetic “listening wall” within the school.

Supporting student’s active listening skills through memorable and creative activities can have positive long-lasting results on their school, home, work, and recreational relationships. In an age where we are largely occupied by interacting through screens and artificial intelligence, it is important to develop interpersonal skills and habits of mind that can build and strengthen our real-world relationships. Active listening and face-to-face socialization without any distractions from gadgets, allows us to be completely in the moment and engaged, while developing empathy, and value for each other. When we become active listeners, we live, learn, and love artfully.