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. It was a newly opened school and I had enthusiastically started the job just after the year nine children had chosen their GCSE options. The uptake for Art and Design was depressingly low. I attributed this to the fact that it was a new 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 (the general disappointment of the way that school experience unfolded for me is another story!).
I had asked a group of about 60 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 across the hall ‘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 thinking otherwise. This statement shocked me and then almost immediately didn’t surprise me at all; after all, why would she think that people of colour could be artists if she’d never been exposed to visual artists that were brown or black or anything other than white?! Also, why had she not been exposed to any in her lifetime – my thoughts, again, turned to the importance of proper primary (art) curriculum planning.
Slides from CPD training I offer: I advocate including thumbnails of artists to highlight diversity or lack thereof
If you have attended any of my training or follow my FB page, you will know that I am now passionately 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 diverse art and artists. I warn against the bias towards dead, white men in art curricula. I am sure this tendency is there is other curriculum areas, but art is the place where I can make a difference, so I focus my efforts here.
I must be honest and admit that it 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 gang that I had learnt about throughout my art education; I inherently 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 have gradually become more aware of planning to include (women and) people of colour in my schemes of work. That said, even for me, there is always that list of artists that are so deeply ingrained into my art brain that it sometimes feels weird leaving them out of an 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.
I have experienced actual audible gasps when I have shown photographs of black or brown artists to classes – of course, the right thing to do is acknowledge responses and allow them to open up conversations. ‘can you explain that response?’ I often ask, and often the answers from children are around the idea that they didn’t realise black and brown (and often old) people could be artists, or that they have just never seen an artist that looks like that. One child responded utterly bemused to a photograph of an older black artist by saying ‘but he looks like my grandad’.
The young lady I referred to earlier ended up swapping her RE GCSE for Art, and I was delighted. Three or four years on, I wish I could send her a message somehow and let her know how much her response challenged me and how proud I was of her, how when she bravely made that honest remark she made a big difference to the conversation of that day. Subsequent to that discussion many of her classmates went on to take art as a GCSE. (I am gutted that I did not get to make that art GCSE journey with that cohort. I had to resign from that post after 6 months because my integrity as a teacher was extremely compromised by senior management.)
I advocate being proactive about inclusion in your curriculum – I invite you to begin with making a list of all the artists currently on your curriculum, examine it. When it comes to planning documents, I strongly suggest that you include thumbnails of the artists you teach about to make a stark visual reminder.
The diversity in your curriculum content must be broad enough to celebrate artists of all colours, cultural and geographic backgrounds, ages and genders…and as teachers we must be prepared to have the conversations that may or may not come up because of that.
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. I appreciate how busy you are but the links will require you to take some time to read, understand and look at the works yourself, and to plan your lessons accordingly. If you find yourself scratching your head about how to use the art/artists for art lessons, please remember that you can always email me firstname.lastname@example.org or post questions to my FB page.