Strengthening Cultures & Literacy through Art for the 21st Century

In a previous post titled Connecting Culture Through Experience and Education, I described contemporary artist Pablo Helguera’s use of the written word and storytelling as a means to explore language, immigration and identity. Through projects like The School of Panamerican Unresta four-month long road-trip across the Panamerican Highway that documented a myriad of indigenous spoken dialects, and Librería Donceles, a non-profit used bookstore for Spanish language literature and events; Helguera devotes a large part of his artistic practice to create multidisciplinary portraits and living archives of language and culture.

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Ceramic sculptures by Stephanie H. Shih. Photo by @brandicheyenneharper for @gasworksnyc. Courtesy of the artist.

I recently learned about Stephanie H. Shih‘s ceramic sculptures, which embody culinary items in Asian-American homes. Shih’s sculptures are social, emotional and cognitive reflections of Asian-American diasporic culture. They are representative of what it is like to immigrate to far away places and incorporate both new and traditional concepts that signify a unique cultural and communal identity. Shih makes connections with other members of the 20 million (and counting) diaspora through many overlapping culinary memories, which represent personal significance and collective experiences. The ceramic food replicas are vessels, enshrining heartfelt bonds between diverse individuals who share similar cultural heritage. In her artist’s statement Shih says:

“Through the lens of the Asian-American pantry, my ceramic sculptures explore how shared nostalgia can connect a diaspora. For first-generation Asian Americans, the finite collection of imported grocery brands from our youth has become shorthand for parallel childhoods raised by immigrant parents. To meet strangers who have memories of eating the same can of fried dace –a small fish preserved with salted black beans– is to discover a sense of belonging. Replicating these kitchen staples in clay immortalizes both the shared memories and the feeling of finding the nonexistent homeland of Asian America” (Shih, n.d.).

These are just two of the many examples of how contemporary art is created, presented and contextualized in a manner that reflects globalization and migration. Ideas, images and works of art travel far and wide, due to artistic discourse being spread more fluidly throughout the world. Advances in technology and the proliferation of museums, galleries, biennials and residency programs is making art more accessible to heterogeneous audiences. As a result of these aforementioned factors, artists (and other cultural producers) who are separated by borders are more easily able to collaborate and partake in collective art making (see: Representing Pittsburgh and Tehran and Transcending Boundaries).

Art has its own forms of language that facilitate the exchange of visual information and act as a liaison between individuals and groups from different cultural backgrounds. Visual art can also be a catalyst for developing speech and literacy skills that support multilingual learning in the educational system. This is especially beneficial for communities with large immigrant populations who can harness the expressive and dialectic values of visual art, in order to strengthen their social and cognitive skills in their native and emergent languages.

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CALTA21 Classroom. Courtesy of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

Some art institutions are embracing their role in teaching language and literacy skills to immigrant students through contemporary art. The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey is expanding its programming for English language learners, conducted in partnership with the Elizabeth Public School District. Their program, which has been implemented for 8th and 9th grade students, was created with help from Cultures & Literacies through Art for the 21st Century (CALTA21), a national initiative focused on creating a dynamic environment where museums provide authentic, meaningful and engaging learning experiences to immigrant communities. CALTA21 is rooted in professional development for English language teachers. Educators partnering with the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey are given training that helps them create literacy curricula in support of their diverse students who are learning English as their second (or third, fourth etc.) language. Through a dialogic method of participatory art-based discourse, students are empowered to share their narratives of immigration. Essential questions that are needed to effectuate and sustain this kind of pedagogy are: “how can art museums create space for the exploration of linguistic and cultural diversity and what role can they play in strengthening the immigrant voice?”

CALTA21 uses Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) as a methodology to encourage the development of  observation and speaking skills. There are many ways to scaffold learning by taking the time to carefully look at artworks in galleries. Embodied learning is one learning approach (see: Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant) where students physically engage with works of art in order to build personal and collective understandings about the work’s form, function and content. This type of participatory learning strengthens observational and communicative skills because it includes a critical discussion around what elements students can relate to within a work of art and how they might incorporate those elements into their own realm (Zucker, 2018). Developing an art vocabulary is important, not only in the discussion around works of art, but also for applying that language to other subjects and aspects of life experience. Talking about art is beneficial to building language skills, because observing art requires a command of descriptive words that support critical thinking and noticing deeply. As students develop their own evidence-based interpretations about art, they learn to trust their eyes and the value of their own opinions while building collective knowledge via gallery visits and artmaking exercises.

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CALTA21 participants discussing a mural by Kevin Blythe Sampson at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. Courtesy of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

Communicating thoughts and observations with others through CALTA21, has been proven to strengthen the literacy and critical thinking skills of participants. Anamaria Llanos, one of the lead Elizabeth School District teachers in the program, has seen firsthand how incorporating CALTA21 into her curriculum and lesson plans has increased student engagement and efficacy of language and literacy:

“CALT21 cultivates language and free thinking. It nurtures a dynamic environment where students are guided through thought provoking questions to engage prior knowledge and their imagination; develop and strengthen their voice; and promote language thought process. There is nothing more intimidating than talking about art, yet with CALTA21, a relaxed and non-judgmental atmosphere is created by the students themselves. Their eagerness and enthusiasm to participate and facilitate their own CALTA21 session at the museum is a teacher’s dream. The program encourages students to think outside of the box, be creative; and become more assertive in the way they look at the world” (Llanos, 2019, quoted in a press release from the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey).

Making art accessible to multilingual viewers should be at the top of every museum and cultural center’s mission. By incorporating CALTA21 in their programming, the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey –the state’s largest largest institution dedicated exclusively to  contemporary art– is providing a valuable opportunity for the 22.1 percent of the state’s immigrant population (as of 2015) to engage in viewing, making and learning through art. Other cultural institutions such as The Hudson River Museum have programs that support young docents who represent a spectrum of international backgrounds. Their junior docent program consists of students from each of the City of Yonkers’ public high schools, representing the city’s culturally, economically and socially diverse communities. Many of the docents are first generation Americans or recent immigrants to the United States. Participants in the program speak many different languages and have a variety of interests including art, science, dance, history and fashion. Having informational guides who speak multiple languages and have experiential knowledge about specific cultures, makes museums and their collections more accessible and relevant to more communities. Global Guides, Penn Museum’s docent program, employs refugees from the Middle East as gallery guides who lead visitors through thematic tours of the museum’s Middle Eastern collection of art and artifacts. Because these docents have lived in many of the regions where the art originated, they offer visitors unique insights and personal connections to the objects on display.

As people move from place to place to seek better opportunities or asylum, the incorporation of immigrant and refugee narratives into art and art education is necessary to reflect the diversity of our multicultural communities. Programs like CALTA21 and the aforementioned museum docent initiatives, give immigrants much needed authority to communicate and present their experiential knowledge in their own voices. What they have to say is also beneficial for developing empathetic understandings of the world at large.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Jia, Olivia. “Refugees Connect Their Personal Stories with a Museum’s Ancient Artifacts.” Hyperallergic, 19 Feb. 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/484835/global-guides-program-penn-museum/

Shih, Stephanie H. (n.d). “Artist’s Statement.” https://theartsandeducation.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/32dc1-cv_public.pdf

Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. “Visual Arts Center of NJ Receives IMLS Grant to Partner with Elizabeth Public Schools.” Visual Arts Center of N.J. Press Release, 20 Nov. 2019.

Zucker, Adam. “Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant.” Artfully Learning, 27 Apr. 2018. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/2018/04/27/embodied-learning-makes-the-classics-relevant/