Creating Refuge by Living, Loving and Learning Artfully

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A painting entitled It’s Not in the Ghetto by Dority Weiser, painted in Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia. Courtesy of Yad Vashem.

Pandemics, social and political upheaval and climate change have all poignantly shown us how unpredictable life is. The lack of communal empathy and not taking responsibility for our past and present mistakes, is a major reason for the continual degradation of our moral compass and the rise of despots, oppressive forces and loss of our natural resources. In the midst of a seemingly endless cycle of tragic events and egregious displays of corruption, art is as essential as ever. The arts are one of the key social and cultural disciplines, known as the humanities, which help us develop sensory, emotional and cognitive skills that can utilized to cope and respond to significant moments in our individual and collective lives. Art has exceptional pedagogical and psychological benefits that strengthen how we understand and communicate complex emotions and make profound connections between our own experiences and the experiences of others.

Art is effectual in both building empathy (see:Exhibiting Empathy) and turning mistakes into solutions (see: Artfully Failing). Public arts administrator and curator, Micaela Martegani, writes that  “empathy is a good place to start as a strategy for human connection: it works to break down the barriers between us and the perceived “other,” and identification moves us towards kindness and social care. This is how we can start to collectively heal” (Martegani, 2020). As Bob Ross, Sister Corita Kent (see: Rule #6 on her 10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life), Franz Cižek and many other influential educators have stated: “There are no real mistakes in art, just happy accidents” (a mantra that can be found in the form of a poster in many art classrooms). Unfortunately, the world is a mixture of happy accidents and malevolently negligent actions, so we need art to expose both the positive and negative aspects of the human condition. Art’s intrinsic response to the human experience, explicitly and subtly expresses ideas and actions that can spur social, cultural and political change. In the words of Humanist artist and educator, William Kelly, “Art can’t stop a bullet, but it can stop a bullet from being fired.” In my previous post, Education and Empowerment via Entertainment Justice, I discuss the social practice of ‘entertainment justice,’ and how artists and artworks (in this case songs and performances) are encouraging unity and advancing social action towards environmental, economic and racial justice.

Even in the bleakest environments, such as internment and refugee camps, art has had significant impact on the well-being and social and emotional development of displaced and marginalized groups. Examples include Austrian artist and educator, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who packed a suitcase with art supplies and taught art to hundreds of traumatized children in the Theresienstadt ghetto, a hybrid Nazi concentration camp and Jewish ghetto in the Czech Republic. Realizing that making art affected her own outlook and fortitude, Dicker-Brandeis selflessly shared artistic materials and her creative passion and knowledge, in order to help children cope with the unsettling and uncertain reality of the Holocaust. Instead of focusing on the elements of art and principles of design, Dicker-Brandeis prompted her young students to utilize their imaginations. Her compassionate coaching gave students the means to create artwork that expressed hope, joy and an overall emotional transcendence from the miserable realities of life inside Theresienstadt. Regarding Dicker-Brandeis’ approach, which combined art pedagogy and therapy, a former student named Eva Dorian recalled, “I believe that what she wanted from us was not directly linked to drawing, but rather to the expression of different feelings, to the liberation from our fears…these were not normal lessons, but lessons in emancipated meditation” (Wix, 2009).

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Young artists from the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement stand in front of a mural they painted to symbolize peace and diplomacy between cultures throughout the world. Courtesy of Bidibidi Artolution.

Decades later, Joel Bergner (aka Joel Artista) is bringing art supplies and art-centered activities to displaced people around the world, such as the Syrian refugees living in Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp. Starting in 2013, Bergner and a team of resident Syrian artists developed a series of art education workshops and public art projects for the children of Za’atari. Young artists paint murals on buildings and objects like kites and wheelbarrows that reminded them of home and celebrate their vibrant cultural identities. They also utilize art making to address social and environmental issues that are important in the camp, such as access to clean water and hygiene. The wide range of artistic subjects liven up the oft-bleak reality of their current situation and the collaborative nature of these artful projects strengthens the community at large. From the look on the children’s faces (see the photos on Bergner’s website), it is evident that they are proud of the work they have made. Inspiring communities to take collective agency for their work and cultural experiences is the basis of Bergner’s artistic advocacy. Through his nonprofit organization, Artolution (in partnership with The United Nations Children’s Fund), Joel and a collective of artists continue to design and teach art making workshops and placemaking activities for children and families living in refugee settlements in Bangladesh, Uganda and Jordan. Each Artolution location is managed by refugee artists and educators within the community.

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Krzysztof Wodiczko, Loro (Them), a 2019 multimedia performance in Milan, Italy. Courtesy of More Art and Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Current physical and geographically imposed borders can be transcended by artwork, such as ongoing projects by Krzysztof Wodiczko and Tanya Aguiñiga. For decades, Wodiczko has been presenting video projections that express a plurality of voices from marginalized populations. Ustedes (Them) and Loro (Them) are anthropomorphized drone performances that project the experiences of a diverse group of immigrants. Only the eyes of the participants are visible, which is deliberate to protect their identities. The mobile nature of the drones and the remote and adaptable aspects of digital media, make this project easier to implement for the public, while adhering to physical distancing regulations in response to COVID-19. As More Art founder, Micaela Martegani mentions in a recent op-ed, Wodiczko’s project takes on a heightened meaning as a result of the pandemic.

“With the pandemic raging, many of those unsung immigrants we have been talking to are the very people now on the front line—they are the essential workers who have risked their lives to keep our city clean, delivering packages and food to people sheltering at home, they are the ones working at grocery stores, post offices, hospitals. They are the ones who have kept the city alive, but they are also the ones who continue to be laid off or furloughed en masse, who are food insecure, who get sick in higher numbers. We can’t wait to tell their stories.” (Martegani, 2020)

When Aguiñiga, an artist and designer from Tijuana, Mexico, was in grade school, she traveled several hours each day across the San Ysidro border into California to go to school and became well accustomed to life between and along the Mexican-American border. Aguiñiga works in a variety of media, but generally with textiles and techniques that combine traditional craft-making with contemporary design. Her work is largely rooted in intersectionality of identity, which examines social and emotional connections through the act of “Performance Crafting,” where two or more individuals engage in a creative activity together. The results are dependent upon strong communication and empathy for each other. Seeing art as a means to overcome the ambiguity and conflict emerging from political borders, Aguiñiga founded AMBOS (Art Made Between Opposite Sides), an art and activist project that focuses on interconnections between people in border regions. Many times, people who live in these areas feel a great sense of belonging to both the United States and Mexico. Whether they cross the border for work or to visit their families, it is an essential part of their daily lives. Through creative processes like weaving, individuals on either side of the border partake in a profound placemaking experience. They are transcending the physical boundary that separates them by engaging in the collaborative realization of an artwork and documenting how their lives are affected by imposed separation.

In an effort to present views on how humane messages via the arts are a global zeitgeist, William Kelly embarked on a discursive journey to find out what more than 30 prominent international artists, activists and cultural producers think about art’s role in cultivating social and environmental justice. The project culminated into a recently released documentary called Can Art Stop a Bullet? William Kelly’s Big Picture.

It is indeed possible for art to stop the initiation or continuation of violence, as well as the oppression and marginalization of diverse individuals and groups. By incorporating the lessons and skills that the arts teach us, such as thinking outside the box, collaboration and placemaking, making cross-cultural connections and developing empathetic understandings; we can become creatively adept at handling the nasty curve balls life throws at us and expressively advocate for social, cultural, economic and environmental justice for all.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Elsby, Liz. “Coping through Art – Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the children of Theresienstadt.” The International School for Holocaust Studies, 6 June 2016. https://www.yadvashem.org/articles/general/coping-through-art-brandeis-theresienstadt.html

Martegani, Micaela. 2020. More Art in the Public Eye. Durham: Duke University Press.

Margegani, Micaela. 2020. “Artists Are Finding Inspiring Ways to Adapt Their Work to a World in Crisis. Arts Organizations Must Do the Same.” artnet news, 29 July 2020. https://news.artnet.com/opinion/micaela-martegani-op-ed-1897492?fbclid=IwAR3yJX_hb9FjVncYLP1xg9QcDqvn3-Up2AGG1lAeZKrtU1zNpcJM-jzMGUc

Wix, Linney. “Aesthetic Empathy in Teaching Art to Children: The Work of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis in Terezin.” Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 26(4), 2009. pp. 152-158

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.

 

Exhibiting Empathy

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Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at the Seattle Art Museum. © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

On any given day, we see horrible images of violence, famine, floods, habitat and environmental loss on the news or social media, and moments later, we switch the channel to South Park and “like” a photo of a poodle wearing a tuxedo on Instagram. With a myriad of responsibilities and distractions, it is hard for some of us to take a moment to see things through the lens of another person.

Empathy is the ability to foster an understanding of each other’s lived experiences by going outside our perceived reality and into the reality of another person. Empathy is being able to consciously feel what others are going through and expressing. As psychologist Douglas LaBier describes:

“Empathy is what you feel only when you can step outside of yourself and enter the internal world of the other person. There, without abandoning or losing your own perspective, you can experience the other’s emotions, conflicts, or aspirations from within the vantage point of that person’s world. That’s not telepathy; it’s a hard-wired capacity in all of us…”

It has been theorized that in today’s climate, we are afflicted by what is known as Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD) (LaBier, 2010). Lack of empathy can affect equity, because if we are unable to grasp the experiences and realities of others then we don’t truly develop a respect for their social, emotional and cognitive perspective. As discussed in the two previous posts about making art more equitable, realizing differences and adapting to include variability in our sociocultural conversations is important in shifting canonical systems of social stratification to a balanced and multifaceted social climate.

One of the ways that we can become more empathetic and equitable is by utilizing creativity to envision environments that are inclusive and receptive to social and cultural diversity. Art can function as a resource that inspires and challenges us to think about local and global perspectives and the importance of experiencing other cultures from a vantage point within their world. The essential question within our current global framework is how can we coexist in such fragmented and perilous times? One way is by learning to make space within ourselves for other people’s self expression. Doing so means going beyond just listening to their words or seeing their imagery. It means being able to identify and comprehend what they feel.

The Seattle Art Museum makes empathy and equity an active learning experience by offering cultural and experiential education alongside the objects in their galleries. The museum has a substantial collection of art from many African nations, and its presentation shifts our gaze from colonialism to community. One way of doing this is by activating the objects in the space so that they reference and illuminate cultural traditions in an authentic manner. Masks are presented over the faces of mannequins rather than on the wall or in display cases, so we get a sense of how these objects would actually function within the cultural context of the region. The museum is also very conscious in getting advice and feedback from contemporary artists and citizens of African nations. These individuals and groups are given precedence over the anthropological and patrimonial discourse that is often too common in regards to the presentation and interpretation of artworks created throughout the continent.

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Okumpka Masquerade Players (1950-2007). Installation view of Chukwu Okoro Masks at the Seattle Art Museum, 2016, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

The museum’s display of Okumpka Masquerade Players (1950-2007), incorporates the contextual knowledge and experience of individuals who are the primary participants with the objects on view. The installation features Afikpo Igbo masks created by Chukwu Okoro, a renowned Nigerian carver from Mgbom Villege, Afikpo. Okoro’s masks characterize spirits, and are utilized in Afikpo masquerades called Okumpka plays, which enable performers to purge themselves of embarrassment and embrace their playful and vulnerable nature. The installation on view presents mannequins donning masks and costumes that are part of the oft-humorous Okumpka plays, popular among Igbo Afikpo tribes in Nigeria. In front of them is a pot, which is a vessel for the masked players to announce their injudicious actions and compete for the honor of being the most foolish. Additionally, performers have the agency to challenge authority and through humor and satire, expose problematic elements of society. Those who stand accused of misdeeds are “obliged to listen without retaliating.” The idea is that airing grievances and listening to the feelings of those who have been wronged will encourage those who have done the wrongdoing to understand how their actions affect the feelings of others.

The costume elements were assembled by Sam Irem, a former president of the Afikpo Association of America, while Eze Anamelechi, an Igbo artist and native, was invited to the museum in order to supervise the fabrication. The insight gained through having these individuals partake in the work’s display allows us to view and interpret it in a culturally relevant context.

Regarding the museum’s display of the Afikpo Masquerade Players, contemporary Igbo sound artist Emeka Ogboh, exclaimed: “This is one of the best places I’ve seen masks installed because normally they would hang it on the wall. But doing it this way, with the costumes and everything, also gives it character because these masks were not really meant to be hanging on the wall like that” (Ogboh, 2018). The masquerade players became the foundation and inspiration for him to create artwork for the 2015 group exhibition Disguise. About the work he made for Disguise, Ogboh says “I try to make that connection with what was existing here already, which was trying to work with sounds that could go with this whole situation of masquerading and find a way to give it a contemporary feel for the installation for the exhibition” (ibid).

In Disguise, works by contemporary artists are juxtaposed with traditional objects, themes and practices, illustrating how tradition is both maintained and transformed through generations. This methodology is central to the Seattle Art Museum’s pedagogical approach of presenting their collection and organizing exhibitions in ways that express empathy and equity.

The Afikpo Masquerade Players are currently part of a conceptual exhibition titled Lessons from the Institute of Empathy. The premise of the exhibition is that:

“Three Empathics have moved into the Seattle Art Museum and established a virtual space where you can step outside your normal, routine self and improve your ability to understand others…..Here, the Empathics display their trademarked process for transformation—absorbing vapors that spread digitally on the walls and floor. Surrounding this showroom is art the Empathics selected because they felt it could awaken empathy in the viewer.” – Wall text courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum.

A conceptual commonality in the presentation of these artworks, is the envisioning of a near-future civilization, where we are unified by the web of identities that each of us employ; and our ability to express empathy for each other’s unique experiences.

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Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at the Seattle Art Museum. © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

At the crux of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, is Saya Woolfalk’s ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space (2015), an immersive multi-disciplinary installation that explores a futuristic society where we have transcended our traditional form of humanity for a hybrid type of post-human existence. In this scenario, we have transformed out of our human bodies to form interpersonal connections with other races, ethnicity, genders and biological forms such as plants and animals. The work incorporates physical objects such as Sowei-inspired helmet masks –traditional versions of these masks, made by the Mende Culture in Sierra Leone, are on view nearby with explanations from a Sowei student who describes their importance in regards to female initiation rituals– and digital animation as a means to tell stories that reflect both the physical and metaphysical space. Through the amalgamation of media and narratives, we can enter the environment and feel a sense of transformation within ourselves. The idea is that we should remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle of our consumer based lifestyle and enter a reflective space where we are absorbed by the sights, sounds and feelings of nature and spiritual transcendence.

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Installation view of Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness at the Seattle Art Museum, 2019, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

In addition to the re-presentation of the Seattle Art Museum’s African art collection, a current exhibition by Zanele Muholi titled Somnyama Ngonyama (Zulu for Hail the Dark Lioness) questions prior cultural narratives around African identity. Muholi’s politically charged black and white self-portrait photographs express intersectional facets of black identity, through an exploration of how black bodies are stereotyped into ethnographic archetypes. In these self-portraits, Muholi portrays the identity of other black bodies, like the Afro-Japanese, who have been marginalized and tokenized for exploitative purposes. Muholi utilizes props made from found materials like rubber gloves and plastic to critique the message of colonialism’s influence on the way black bodies are misrepresented and compartmentalized in Western narratives. The series is a powerful rebuttal of black beauty ideals and standards, which typically have violent and oppressive origins.

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Zanele Muholi, South African, b. 1972, Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016. ©️ Zanele Muholi, Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.

Viewing these portraits, may enable us to feel a connection to the subject as Muholi states, “with this work people would see that it is possible, that the gallery is meant to be for everybody.” Even if we don’t personally identify with the figures in the photographs, we can learn a lot about other people’s social, emotional and cognitive experiences through viewing them. We come to the realization that we are part of a system that oppresses and ignores others for political and economic gain. Western culture has a tradition of fetishisizing and making a commodity out of the human body in a manner that ignores and/or negates intersectional identities.

Muholi’s art behooves us to re-frame our thinking about beauty and body image in a manner that promotes unity and interconnection between seemingly diverse groups of people. Upon the aforementioned works at the Seattle Art Museum, we enter other people’s social, emotional and cognitive space from the vantage point of their world.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Joy, Charlotte, “African art in Western museums: it’s patrimony not heritage,” Aeon, 20 Feb. 2019. https://aeon.co/ideas/african-art-in-western-museums-its-patrimony-not-heritage

LaBier, Douglas. “Are You Suffering From Empathy Deficit Disorder?” Psychology Today. 12 Apr. 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-new-resilience/201004/are-you-suffering-empathy-deficit-disorder

Muholi, Zanele and Seattle Art Museum. “Zanele Muholi on “Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness” at Seattle Art Museum,” YouTube, 20 Sept. 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=180&v=fppJn5N2-Ks

Ogboh, Emeka and Seattle Art Museum. “My Favorite Things: Artist Emeka Ogboh on Chukwu Okoro masks,” YouTube, 11 Aug. 2015. https://youtu.be/OtGJCTRilVE

 

 

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.

Artful Assessment: Depicting the Problem, Visualizing the Solutions

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Duneska Suannette, How Was School?, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Education is intrinsically an art form in practice. There is no single way to instruct, teach, or learn. As discussed in the previous post, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to the way students learn and the way educators should teach and instruct in the classroom. Traditionally, schools have focused on quantitative analysis of the student body to structure curriculums and plan lessons that will ensure students meet the educational requirements determined by a governing authority such as the state or federal government. This highly impersonal method of assessment relies on standardized tests, which treats students more like research subjects than actual human beings. “Teaching to the test” limits students’ autonomy to ask big questions and explore a wide range of relevant topics. Instead, students are subjected to repetition of pre-determined information and isolated skills, which limits their ability to think outside of the box and develop creative problem solving abilities. In short, the amount of student choice and personal relevance within the subject matter being taught is far more important than the amount of students who can pass a uniform test.

Measurable data such as the number of students from a particular socio-cultural or background is important in determining what resources might be needed in the classroom and school in order to provide an equal and equitable learning environment. For example, the number of black students living in New York City that are enrolled in Pre-K (which is free) is negatively disproportionate to the amount of Caucasian students. Another alarming quantitative statistic is that beginning in pre-school, black and hispanic students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students (almost three times more likely…). This is true even when the punishable infraction is the same. These aforementioned quantitative statistics are certainly helpful for encouraging educational activists to resolve the blatant equality and equity gap in schools and ensure that all students have the right to schools with excellent facilities and are treated the same regardless of their ethnic, racial, and economic background. However, when it comes to learning, teaching, and classroom management, it is the qualitative factors such as creativity and mindfulness that should take precedence throughout the educational environment.

Learning is most successful when it is practiced and assessed on a personal level, focused on differentiated instruction, in order for students to develop holistically and for everyone in the classroom (students AND teachers) to be passionate about learning. Of course, this qualitative form of assessment alludes the neat, cookie-cutter evaluations that standardize tests provide. However, just because something is harder to account for statistically doesn’t mean that it isn’t a better method of measuring and assessing students’ learning. When creativity and personalization are key components of teaching, students are better prepared to take on the world at large. Art-centered education provides enormous opportunities to measure students’ personal development and their ability to connect experience and education in a way that promotes life-long learning. The arts teach us to frame the world in the context of our personal and collective experiences. The arts promote empathy, positivity, diversity, and mindfulness among other progressive things. Education isn’t meant to be contained and compartmentalized just as what is considered art is entirely open ended. Creativity teaches us to embrace ambiguity and that is an essential mindset for students to carry with them throughout their lives.

An example of an artwork that combines both quantitative and qualitative assessment in a powerful, thought provoking manner, is How Was School? (2018) by Duneska Suannette. In this installation (currently on view at the JCC in Harlem in an exhibition on American education organized by Art in Flux) of an imagined elementary school classroom, we are initially confronted with the expression “tread lightly” on the door. Upon entering the classroom, the symbolism of this phrase is blatant. Suannette has constructed a both a real and surreal classroom environment for the viewer to carefully explore and engage. The word carefully is not to be taken lightly because the artist has installed bungee “trip wires” in a weblike construct several inches above the floor. This obstacle course, while reminiscent of the laser maze in Mission Impossible or Oceans Twelveis a poignant metaphor for the trials and tribulations that marginalized students (primarily students of color) experience in public schools. The installation features wallpaper made from colorful letter jumbles overlaid with black letters, which spell out stark statistics about the lack of equality and equity for students of color in the education system. While viewers are navigating through the classroom, a looped video is projected onto a wall featuring news stories and behind the scenes school board meetings discussing and debating the uneven treatment of lower-income students in schools.

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Duneska Suannette, How Was School?, 2018.

While I was taking in the poignant messages, I was greeted by Suannette, who asked me how my day was. We engaged in a conversation about equal and equitable education and what it means to give all students a safe, positive, and creative learning environment. I then focused my attention on the many empowering elements within the installation. For example, the classroom was made up of stations such as a reading area containing a treasure trove of children’s books about intersectionality of identity and multiculturalism, a play area with black dolls, and other uplifting objects and materials that are more inclusive of a diverse student body. It is important for all students to feel represented in their schools, and examples of literature, toys, and art works that express diversity are great ways to inspire empathy, mindfulness, and positive interactions within a heterogeneous educational setting.

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Suannette also set up an interactive activity where participants are asked to fill out a response on a star relating to what they associate Empathy, Being Positive, Mindfulness, and Implicit Bias to mean. This is a powerful form of assessment that prompts our recognition of the problems marginalized students face in schools and the artful and holistic actions we might employ to raise awareness and explore creative solutions for equity and equality in our schools.


You can participate in How Was School? and view other works that relate to educational issues in the exhibition Summer Break at the JCC Harlem (318 West 118th St, between Frederick Douglass Blvd & Manhattan Avenue) through December 2018.