One of the most thought-provoking times in my art teaching career came just a few years ago, when I was head of the art department at an Inner (South) London secondary. I had started the job just after the year nine children had chosen their GCSE options, and the uptake for Art and Design was depressingly low. I attributed this to the fact that it was a newly opened school on a temporary site with no art room, art was taught in the dinner hall with extremely limited resources. The school, for various reasons, had been unable to maintain a steady art teacher and the love of art was just not there.
I had asked a group of year nine students, a tough crowd, why they had not chosen art as a GCSE subject, and one of the girls (who at that point was a thorn in my side but who I later grew to admire and really like) shouted ‘black people can’t be artists!’. She shouted this at me as if it were the most obvious fact and as if I were ridiculous for suggesting it.
This shocked me and then almost immediately didn’t surprise me at all; why would she think that people of colour could be artists if she’d never been exposed to visual artists that looked like her or her peers in her lifetime?! Also, why had she not been exposed to any in her lifetime – my thoughts turned again to primary art curriculum planning.
I am now proactive about the fact that children need to feel represented by the art and artists they learn about, and that they need to be introduced to ethnically and culturally diverse art and artists.
I wasn’t always this way though, even as person from an ethnic minority background myself (Indo-Guyanese-London-born), for a long time when planning art schemes, I would rely on the same gang of old, white, male artists too, because they were the main guys I had learnt about and I respected them as artists who were the pinnacle of skill and creativity.
I have been involved in art education for over a decade now and over the years I did gradually became more aware of planning to include (women and) people of colour in my schemes of work but I was still rather tentative about it. There was always that list of artists that were so deeply ingrained into my art brain that it felt weird leaving them out of the art curriculum. That is what education and school does, it feeds us with norms and ‘right ways of doing things’ decided by other people, that don’t necessarily reflect reality or possible realities. Then those ideas are perpetuated and remain unchanged and unchallenged, leading to scenarios like the one I found myself in on that day, with the year 9 class.
In my role as a primary art consultant, I often get asked for recommendations for BAME artists; with this in mind, over the coming months, I would like to share with you some links with suggestions of BAME artists, look out for the links on my FB page. The links will require you to take some time to read and look at the works and to plan your lessons accordingly so if you find yourself scratching your head about how to use the art/artists for art lessons, please remember that you can always post questions to my FB page!