I am starting to question all the art I ever loved before. This has been a slow unfolding consideration alongside the realisation that I, like most of us, have been fed an art diet of predominantly white men. The problem is, I love so much of it. Although now, like many others, I am questioning whether I really love it or whether this like so much else, is learned behaviour heavily influenced by the status quo I grew up with.
I was taught by education, galleries, books and documentaries that artists like Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, Kandinsky and Gauguin to mention just a few, are the epitome of master artists. My naïve younger self believed that they were the artists that had attained fame simply because we live in a world where, if you are good at something or the best at something, you rise to the top and attain recognition for it; above others who are probably less good. I now know that this is not true. I understand, like many of us are starting to, that there are other reasons why some people (mainly white men) have been centred on most platforms and above others for many years.
However for a long time I assumed that this gang of artists were the best of the best. I was not just enthralled by their paintings but also by the stories of their lives. Lives which in some cases sounded like a romantic struggle against the status quo in order to remain loyal to the creativity within them. I identified with that struggle, I often felt on the peripherals myself and found I could make sense of the world by exploring my emotions through art. So somehow, as much as I would like to say that I was always fundamentally aware of underrepresentation, I (think I) did see my young, female, brown self in them and their identification as artists and outsiders; Reflecting on issues of race and racism is not straight forward. The truth is that looking at images in books or actual artworks by those artist’s felt as if I was looking at jewels created by marvellous minds, they held magic for me. When I reflect on my lack of curiosity about ‘other’ artists at that time, I have to remind myself that the internet was not an option then. There were not the handheld means of self-led learning that there is now. I didn’t have the option of ‘following’ people who would offer me alternative perspectives, and perhaps resonate with me in a way that felt a much better fit. Although I have to wonder, up until now how hard have we really tried to include art by historically underrepresented artists in any of the existing forums.
I recall being introduced to Rachel Whiteread at college in the 90’s during my art foundation, but at the time I was interested in paintings and the physicality and conceptual nature of her work evaded me. I also lovingly remember coming across a book about Frida Kahlo’s work on my home bookshelf – it wasn’t a shelf brimming with art books but this one had found its way there. When ‘I discovered’ Frida something in me clicked, I felt validated in my own emotion-driven style of working. Frida remains one of my biggest inspirations. I had long been using art as an outlet for my feelings and suddenly there was a legitimate artist who also did this (and her sense of style was incredible).
I resonated with art and the world of the artist so much that I left secondary school and pursued art at A-level and at degree level, all the while with not much more exposure to ‘alternative’ art than the two female artists I mention above. It was enough for me though; I had the bug.
During my art foundation and degree years white tutors would encourage me to make work specifically about ‘my heritage’, often without going to any lengths to understand the nuances of my heritage for themselves. In fact often assumptions would be made based purely on my appearance and surname, but without the proper understanding that only comes through genuine conversation (cut to montage of me explaining why I am not necessarily the person in the staffroom/meeting etc. to represent or authenticate something Indian). I did produce some installation pieces that referenced my Indo-Guyanese ancestry but I feel the work lacked depth. I was still relatively young then and I was not strongly identifying as anything ‘other’– having spent most of my youth simply trying to fit in to predominantly white spaces. I didn’t understand what about my heritage/identity I was supposed to be making art about; At that time I was quite immersed in seeing and feeling through through the same lens as everyone else. Also, I hadn’t encountered examples of others like me who had made art about their heritage or cultural influences. Furthermore, even outside of the art world there were very few people who were like me anywhere on television, in magazines or as characters in books. It felt like my brownness was being superficially cited as a resource to be drawn on to make my work more interesting; What are the chances that my fellow white students were encouraged to do the same? In this climate of new anti racist approaches we need to be mindful about the provocations we are offering in an attempt to be inclusive.
I also often encountered an assumption that I had stories and resources associated with my ethnic and cultural background to hand, by nature of just being brown, which I didn’t. In an earlier blogpost I talk about the pattern that I have witnessed and experienced, for children of immigrants to be somewhat disconnected from their roots. This can happen as a result of trying to ‘fit in’, keenness to assimilate the dominant culture of a place, loss of information due to movement – forced or otherwise, or deliberate erasure. (In fact it is with this in mind that during Lockdown, I shared my home learning video prompt Home School Rebel. The video invited parents to ditch the official home learning schedule and spend some time sharing family stories).
I completed my degree having never really found my own voice in my art work, I could draw and paint but my concepts were underdeveloped – by my own judgement. Fortuitously though, my degree was Fine Art with a minor in Community Art, which meant that I spent a portion of my degree working with groups of children, older people, teens and other sub groups making art. I loved it. I found that I could work well with others to create art. Art and creativity had meant so much to me and I enjoyed seeing others realise it as a powerful tool for connecting with feelings and expressing oneself. I still enjoyed the ‘high’ art world through regular visits to galleries but I had also opened up to creativity as a tool for everybody. I started to believe that art should be for all and that creativity was not a gift bestowed on the few but actually alive in all of us. As my journey continued, I came to know a few more female artists; Georgia O’Keeffe, Niki De Saint Phalle, Shirin Neshat to name a few. Yet still I did not question, with any real urgency, where the black or brown artists were. I completed my degree and went straight on to complete a secondary art PGCE course, to become an art teacher.
My first teaching experience was in a ‘challenging’ secondary school that had just been given the result of ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted. I was dedicated to finding ways to engage those young people with art and creativity in exciting ways, and with art and artists they could identify with. That said, I still had the western art history canon fixed in my mind as the crème de la crème. I, like many others, created lessons and resources that referenced the usual art gang with a sprinkling of women, people of colour and ‘edgy’ young people themes like ‘graffiti’ or ‘street art’. I continued to visit all the top gallery exhibitions, consuming and through teaching, relaying the art that I was presented with.
Looking back it never occurred to me to question with much fervour why much of the art I saw was by men, and certainly not why they were all white men. That was just the world I grew up in. I am now 39 and I am slightly embarrassed that I never thought to question; I remain fairly confused as to why my eyes did not open to this earlier. Did I think that there just weren’t many other artists who were good enough to have made it? Did I assume that in other countries they were learning about different art? Did I internalise that whiteness and high art were something to aspire to? Maybe.
I started this post by saying; I am questioning the art I (thought) I loved before, but maybe it would be more accurate to say I am expanding upon. I am so grateful to the abundance of content that we have now and how easily accessible it is. There are individuals and organisations who are actively trying to change the way we define art and culture – maybe they were always there but since May 25th I hear and see them more. I think educators in schools and galleries have a big responsibility here – to self reflect and to listen to and work with relevant individuals and organisations. I hope that moving forward we can co-create a type of change that is deeply aware of being untethered to ideals of the dominant culture, and does not perpetuate it.
For some time now I have advocated for more diverse selection of art and artists in education, this has to start with curriculum design. My BAME artist resource is open to contributors and growing and is one of the ways I support this. Through my work with schools, teacher training events and CPD videos, I invite curriculum designers to actively centre artists of colour, rather than adding the odd few for diversities sake. I have also championed the use of art in classrooms as discussion stimulus, not just practical inspiration. I want all children to confidently engage with and critique the art on offer around them so that they share their opinions and challenge the status quo. More recently I have spoken and shared around the theme of Cultural Capital (and the 2019 Ofsted focus on how schools support it in their pupils). I advocate a reclaiming of the term so that it does not merely mean increased access to the existing cultural institutions. Those institutions do not hold the one answer to what is or isn’t art, they often aren’t representative of the children we teach and sometimes they actively offend with the art they display. I want children to know that whatever cultural background or mixed cultural influences they hold are valued and valid. That they do not need to aspire to be another person, colour or culture. They can engage with other cultural forms without diminishing their own. I have spoken about this at the NSEAD 2020 conference and for the Artisteacher network. I am set to speak on anti racist approaches to art and craft education at the upcoming Crafts Council event and am currently working alongside the schools and teachers team at Tate, on various projects that centre inclusivity and definitely seem to reflect a commitment to positive change.
The combination of Covid and the killing of George Floyd, and subsequent speaking out of people about race and inequality, has hurled 2020 into a strange yet somehow more hopeful (?) place. It is time for change and I am committed to doing what I can from my art education corner. I am curious to see how genuinely committed our galleries, schools and leaders are to anti racist approaches and for how long.
Meanwhile, I continue to delight in creating (sometimes inspired by my heritage and sometimes not) and learning. I seek out and feed myself with new art, art forms and artists to broaden and nourish my own idea of art and who artists are. The truth is they are everywhere in all corners of time and place. There is no lack of inspirational work or people. This is so because being an artist means that you likely find a way to create, whether you are famed or not, whether you can afford the time and resources or not. The work exists, we must find it and celebrate it and make sure that all future artists have a better chance at making it.