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.

 

 

Loud Halls, Silent Rooms

There is a really vibrant debate going on regarding the content and context of a Great Depression-era fresco within San Francisco’s George Washington High School. The painting by Victor Arnautoff, titled Life of Washington, depicts the life-cycle of George Washington, portraying him through a web of identities including a war hero, political leader, colonizer of indigenous land and a callous slave owner. The imagery of the latter two facets is quite blatantly expressed, which is why some advocates for the fresco’s removal have decried the painting to be racist and unnecessarily violent. They assert that these images can cause trauma to students of color for whom racial and cultural bias is a very contemporary issue.

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One of the panels from Victor Arnautoff’s Life of Washington fresco (1934), depicting slave labor, which Washington and other founding fathers were beneficiaries of. © Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association.

This isn’t the first time that this fresco has been largely scrutinized and critiqued. Arnautoff’s painting initially caused a school-wide stir in the late 1960s, when African American students addressed several problematic aspects of the work. The Black Student Union wanted the fresco be removed because they felt it represented a binary view of African Americans during the colonial era. While they agreed that the painting accurately depicted the brutality of slavery and genocide, the students objected to the lack of positive imagery regarding contributions made by black individuals, as well as the depiction of the enslaved as passive victims instead of revolutionaries and fighters. A compromise was made, and a mural was painted in another hallway by artist and activist Dewey Crumpler, who studied mural painting with some of the seminal Mexican Modernists and painted in a similar emotive and monumental style. Crumpler’s mural consists of three panels featuring several historical and contemporary revolutionaries and metaphorical imagery that symbolizes the vitality and cultural influence of Latinx, black American, Asian American and indigenous peoples. For the next five decades, Arnautoff’s fresco and Crumpler’s mural coincided without controversy. Crumpler has weighed in on the current debate and is in favor of preserving Arnautoff’s painting.

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Dewey Crumpler’s Multi-Ethnic Heritage mural (1974). © Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association.

The current disagreement between people who want the mural removed and those who want it to stay, illuminate a division in how we look at, understand and critique art. This is not shocking, since art is a visual experience that is informed by our cultural backgrounds (prior experiences and knowledge), research and appreciation of art and art history (education) and a degree of subjectivity (personal taste and/or emotional responses to artworks). While it is perfectly reasonable to like or not like a work of art, we should be able to articulate why, using compelling arguments that are both content specific and rooted in our social and cultural framework. In critiquing works of art we should anticipate a variance of interpretations and responses. A good critique empowers us to communicate empathically and find helpful ways to support and understand each other’s lived experiences.

Opponents of the mural would prefer that the unpleasant imagery be gone for good and replaced with more uplifting images. And that is what will eventually happen. The school board has voted in favor of covering the fresco with panels that illustrate the triumphs of marginalized people. By doing this, they won’t physically destroy the fresco’s form, they will just censor its imagery. Proponents of the painting suggest that it should remain intact and be utilized as a teachable resource, because it confronts us with an unpleasant history that needs to affect us deeply and make us uncomfortable if we are truly going to reconcile injustice, inequality and inequity. An essential question here is whether we need a 1930s painting by a white male artist to ‘teach us’ these things? Jennifer Wilson (2019) argues that the very real and recurring trauma still induced by racial injustice is impactful enough. She says “to hang that argument exclusively on the notion that marginalized people will forget their own history without visual cues falls into a pattern of paternalism that lends merit to the accusations of racism being levied at the mural’s defenders.”

Since all art is created in a time that is contemporary to the artist, it is important to understand the context of that period, while also scrutinizing it through a more current lens. In the previous post, I mentioned the new AP Art History curriculum and one major component of the course, which is to have students formulate their own original thesis on why art is made, how art changes meaning over time and how historians might address bias within traditional meanings and interpretations. Arnautoff ‘s mural was created at a time when public art was being sponsored by the government –through the Federal Art Project– to lift the American spirit and promote a pride for civic duty and labor. This was done in varying degrees of aesthetic execution by a range of artists, many of whom leaned to the left of the political spectrum. Arnautoff was a member of the Communist Party and studied painting with Diego Rivera in 1929. He believed that art needs to exist as a critique of society. However, that critique and the way it is presented can change over time. The artists of the Federal Art Project weren’t without fault, and several of the highly stylized murals from that era idealized the working class to be uniform and soulless as Laura Hapke (2008) mentions. What can be gained from critiquing their art is significance for the way they expressed the zeitgeist of “the era of labor insurgency, anti-fascism, and anti-eviction campaigns” (Kelley, 2019). Arnautoff’s fresco is not wrong in its depiction of Washington, however, the painting could benefit from updated contextualization in light of contemporary non-binary sociocultural experiences. As Titus Kaphar states and exemplifies in his own paintings (see: What does an equitable art education look like?), it is more poignant to “try to make these “amendments”—not to remove those monuments, not to take them down, but in the same way as we do to the constitution, when we change the laws we add an amendment” (Blondiau, 2016).

The students at George Washington High School should have agency in what they have to encounter in the halls of their school on a daily basis. If they decide the fresco should remain then perhaps there are ways to amend it so that it is acceptable to the student body at large. A problem-posing pedagogical model (see: Freire, 1970), that allows students, teachers and administrators alike, to develop a collaborative environment, rooted in equitable ideas and multiple perspectives is needed. A successful active learning setting should manifest creative responses to thinking critically about such a complex issue.

An interdisciplinary project where students turn the fresco into a memorial as suggested by art critic Zachary Small (2019) is one possibility. This would entail significant research and collaboration between the students, educators and possibly even experts in the fields of art, history and social justice. The names and narratives of enslaved individuals, black abolitionists and indigenous leaders, could be incorporated around the work of art to humanize the victims of slavery, colonialism and genocide. Small suggests giving students the opportunity to amend the painting’s purpose and “preserve the mural as both an art historical tool and a critical lesson on the politics of representation.” It is important that any solution is representative of those affected, and circling back to Wilson’s argument, groups and individuals who have been traumatized by racial inequality do not need artistic imagery to remind them of this truth. Preserving this challenging painting and being sympathetic to students’ social and emotional experiences is a slippery slope that will require a very creative solution that hasn’t yet been realized.

While the George Washington High School community hasn’t shied away from having a passionate discourse and critique of art that narrates issues of race and identity, you can almost hear a pin drop within some higher art educational settings when it comes to discussing these themes. The silent treatment during formal critiques was a profound and poignant experience for the students who formed the Black Artists and Designers (B.A.A.D.) collective at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In predominantly white private art schools, there can be a discrepancy in the pedagogical framework, due to the aversion to having discussions about race and identity. This avoidance further marginalizes a minority group of artists who are using art as a means for communicating their experiences enduring racial bias.

The Room of Silence, is a metaphor for the lack of equitable discussion within art school critiques. B.A.A.D., commissioned filmmaker and artist Eloise Sherrid to create a short documentary exposing the racial inequity that students of color and mixed-race encountered during classroom studio critiques. Students describe the silence that occurs when works that address intersectionality are presented. As the students reflect, whenever feedback about their work was given –either by peers or professors– it was almost always about the formal qualities of their artwork rather than the context.

Whether it is because their predominantly white peers and professors are uncomfortable discussing these issues or don’t want to come off as offensive for critiquing work about race; the lack of contextual discourse and feedback given to students of color in these instances is indicative of implicit bias and the insufficiency of their peers’ and teachers’ ability to exhibit empathy or make connections to the work on a humanizing level. This is unfortunate, because exhibiting empathy and making connections are two studio habits of mind that the arts teach us, yet they are evidently not being applied in certain higher education settings. Fortunately, through the initiative of B.A.A.D., the bias within art school programs can become a teachable moment for making formal critiques and art historical curricula more equitable within classroom environments. The short film has been screened at both national and international colleges and universities. The accounts of the students speak for themselves and can be viewed below.

The Room of Silence from Eloise Sherrid on Vimeo.

 


References, Notes and Suggested Reading:

Blondiau, Eloise. “Amending American History with Titus Kaphar.” Interview, 19 Dec. 2016. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/titus-kaphar

Hapke, Laura. 2008. Labor’s Canvas: American Working Class History and the WPA Art of the 1930s. United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Kelley, Robin D.G. “We’re Getting These Murals All Wrong.” The Nation, 10 Sept. 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/arnautoff-mural-life-washington/

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

Small, Zachary. “A Controversial WPA Mural Is a Litmus Test for the Longevity of Public Art.” Hyperallergic, 8 Jul. 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/507802/the-life-of-george-washington/

Wilson, Jennifer. “Black People Don’t Need Murals To Remember Injustice.” The Nation, 9 Jul. 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/san-francisco-school-mural/

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 bungie “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 the 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.