Current Activism and Advocacy

This page is dedicated to Emily’s offerings and work around addressing the cultural, class, gender and racial imbalances in art, both in school curricula and the wider art world. Emily actively advocates for better representation of BAME art and artists in schools and galleries, a reclaiming of the Ofsted focus on Cultural Capital and a general shift in how we decide what is and isn’t art.

Emily centres herself as an Indo-Guyanese, London born woman who has inhabited the mostly white spaces of teaching and art. She draws on her own personal experiences as well as her years of teaching, leading and consulting on art in education. The page is regularly updated as a collection of the broad work that Emily is doing in the form of consultancy, blogposts etc.

Contact Emily if you are interested in working with her around these themes.

Crafts Council Event- Anti Racist Approaches to Craft (and art) Education

Emily was invited to speak alongside other presenters at this day long event.

2020, How can Primary Art & Design provision respond to a call to change? NSEAD conference

A longer version of a presentation I made for the 2020 NSEAD national conference. Sharing ideas with Primary Art Leaders around how their art provision can encompass wellbeing, a reclaiming of cultural capital, creativity and links to creative industries.

All the Art I Loved Before

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? There was also 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.

Hosting a year 1 class in Tate Britain

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.

Your Art & Design curriculum: Have you included any Black or Asian artists?

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. 

Screenshot 2020-06-04 at 12.26.22
SLIDES FROM CPD TRAINING I OFFER: I ADVOCATE INCLUDING THUMBNAILS OF ARTISTS TO HIGHLIGHT DIVERSITY OR LACK THEREOF 
Screenshot 2020-06-04 at 12.26.06

 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 use the BAME resource I have created, email me emily@theprimaryartclass.com or post questions to my FB page.

See Online CPD opportunities for more.

BAME Artist list

I have started putting together a list of BAME artists in the hope that we are all looking to improve our art curricula. I would very much like this to be a COLLABORATION between us art education leaders.

Collaborate with me on this resource? Use the PINK Add icon.


Please add: name of artist, date of birth/death and a very brief bit of info about their work with a link to a webpage or a video. Please place your post-it in chronological order using birthdate (you will need to shuffle the post-its around a bit). Artists who work mainly in paint are on Yellow post-its and ‘bold’ key words related to mediums used.


Email emily@theprimaryartclass.com to find out more.

Made with Padlet

Schools can’t Teach this Post Lockdown: Knowing your Individual Family History is a Privilege and a Lesson that is Best Learnt at Home.

As schools have admirably done throughout the crisis, post Covid they will continue to provide routine, safety and education but also, importantly, address the emotional and enrichment needs of their communities. I hope that schools will feel they can focus less on the children ‘catching up’ and more on the school system catching up with what is needed by their school communities.

With speculation and anticipation about the reopening of schools, many of us are considering how that should look. Experts are advising against a hurry to return to old norms, examinations and emphasis on attainment in core subjects. We are realising that children, and indeed staff, will need carefully thought out activities and interactions, to support them through the transition and address the deficit in learning. I am sure that art and creativity will have a role to play in this reintegration period, and hopefully long-term too – but that’s for another post.

For now we remain in Lockdown, and one of the unique outcomes of this time is that all children are spending an extraordinary amount of time at home with their adults. There are undoubtedly disparities in each family’s approach and attitude to how that time has been spent. One of the key concerns of myself and others involved in education has been how the children are spending their time at home and what they are learning and doing. Of course, I have busied myself providing (art) resources as many others have. What children learn at home and during the holidays is not a new interest for educationalists but it has, like many other things, been highlighted by the lockdown.

For example, when schools return we can be certain that some children will have spent these months enjoying family time, perhaps establishing even stronger bonds with their caregivers. The power of a nurturing family environment emphasised by the circumstances. I have seen through friends and Instagram, how some adults have managed to provide rich and exciting experiences from home – whole houses revamped for theme days, such as a ‘weekend in Paris’ or ‘Space day’. I have enjoyed seeing photos shared with me by my teacher friends of their children ditching the school online programme for a ‘naughty’ day of baking and play. I, like the rest of the nation, have been amused and wowed by the collaborative efforts of some families to create whole musical performances. Adults taking initiative and trusting their instincts about how to proceed day by day.

Of course, with the best will in the world this level of engagement is not always possible. I think in particular of those Key Workers who will be dealing with their own emotional needs as well as physical exhaustion. Also, of other adults who have tried to maintain a work schedule whilst home schooling, and any of us really on an understandable ‘off day’. Also, of course, thoughts go to those households for whom ‘normal’ life is a struggle let alone Lockdown life… That said, generally I am heartened by the thought, of parents spending quality time with their children, creating, learning, sharing and playing.

Creative ideas for home school: Paper skateboard with original design by ‘E’

There’s something that has been playing on my mind though and so in my home learning video number 8, I actively encouraged parents to be ‘Home School Rebels’. I did this because I felt concerned that some parents might lack the confidence to, and may need support with (not how to teach the resources provided but) how to deviate from the home school timetable. I suggested sharing family histories, photographs and stories as a day or two of learning; enriching their children using themselves and their ideas as a resource. Using this unique time as an opportunity to do so.

I did this because, it has not escaped my notice as a teacher, but also from conversations within my own friendship groups, that not all of us can speak with confidence and knowledge about our family history. I have taught many children (secondary and primary) who could not say where their mum or dad, who they lived in the same house with, were born or which languages were spoken at home. In contrast, some individuals have their family histories communicated to them with pride, they know where they are from geographically and in relation to a substantial family tree. They have photographs of their ancestors and they own family heirlooms that are passed from generation to generation. In my experience though, some children don’t have the same enriching experience. In my friendship group this seems to be mainly children of immigrants – some of us are not even sure of our own exact birthdates or our parents ages. Some, like myself are not sure which country our great grandparents were born in but only have a sense because of surnames and skin colour. Surnames have been changed in migration, possessions lost or taken and I am not sure why but with some parents and elders there is less of an inclination to talk about family history. My own grandmother is full of interesting tales but she delivers them sporadically. For example, I only learnt after a few years of living in South London and aged 37, that her and my grandfather got married in the town hall right near my flat – I had always assumed Guyana as their place of marriage!? Of course, some stories are hard to tell especially where migration is forced and lives are impacted by war, natural disaster or other traumatic experiences.

I think that it is a form of privilege to know about your family and that there must be a valuable beauty in being able to reach through time with them as far back as is possible. Even though stories are inevitably altered and subjective, there are bound to be facts intermingled within each persons retelling. In any case the reassembling of the information, perhaps from different sources, is part of the integration process – ready to be regurgitated again and again to future generations. Knowing about your family helps you understand your place in the world and this gives you a certain amount of confidence about who you are. That confidence is empowering.

I really hope that during lockdown, families have shared their personal histories and stories, because whatever those stories are and even if they are scattered and disjointed, they are important and they matter. Class teachers are amazing but this is one lesson they cannot teach to each child. Perhaps, moving forward, schools can better support and empower all parents and carers to share and culturally enrich in this way.

Lots of schools are great at outreach around how to extend formal lessons at home, but how about empowerment around how valuable parents and carers are as a resource, regardless of their own educational experience or personal stories. Back in the classroom, conversations between children who know about their families and the nuances of their personal history can support a genuine appreciation of diversity and equality – one that stems from an understanding of each other.

Many artists utilise their families and histories as stimulus for their work. I myself have done this, in my first year of my art degree I presented a projection of old family photographs onto a billowing mosquito net, alongside the suitcase that my grandparents used when they travelled over to the UK from Guyana. Through making our personal experiences visible, we make them available for others to understand and appreciate, and to learn from. This in turn makes us feel valued and worthwhile – regardless of demographic. There are lots of great examples out there, I like Frida Kahlo’s Family Tree and Homesteaders by William Johnson.

I believe that confident children who feel valuable trust themselves and their surroundings more, and that this is a good foundation for being a curious and self-motivated individual and learner. Not only that, having spent so much time with our families hopefully we return to post lockdown life with a new appreciation of them.

“My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel, what is in me, both rhythmically and spiritually, all that which in time has been saved up in my family of primitiveness and tradition, and which is now concentrated in me,” William Johnson

Home Art Lesson 8:Homeschool Rebel

Could you suggest any other female artists that we could look into please?

This is a Question that I get asked a lot, in various forms. I myself have experienced the frustration of sitting in front of the computer, trying to find female artists that link with the ‘Topic’ or ‘History’ theme for that term. So, in a fairly non organised but quick way, here is a list of SOME female artists with suggestions for links…This is not an exhaustive or particularly refined list but hopefully is is helpful nonetheless! This list is a work in progress and I will endeavour to add to it and refine ASAP.

Frida Kahlo – Self portraits / family tree / Mexico / Painting feelings / nature / Colour mixing / still life

Elizabeth Catlett – Portraits / Family / People who help us / Printing / Lines / Tone

Niki de Saint Phalle – Colour / 3D / Animals / Myths / Fantasy

Lubaina Himid – Activist art / migration / black women / paint /

Marianne North – Botanical art / explorer / painting / observational / plans / nature

Amrita Sher-Gil – Indian women in art / painting / portraits / everyday activities

Rachel Whiteread – 3D / negative spaces / everyday objects / concrete / House

Sarah Eisenlohr – Collage / graphic design / landscapes / surreal / magazines

Brianna McCarthy – Collage / mixed media / colour / textiles / masks / portraits / colour /texture

Dorothea Tanning – Surrealism / painting / dreams

Guerrilla Girls – feminist / word art / activist art

Maggi Hambling – drawing / line / portraits / paint / expressionist / abstract

Chila Kumari Burman – Printing / mixed media / 3D / vibrant / Bollywood / Asian culture / found materials / fusion of culture

Michelle Reader – Recycled models / 3D / found materials / Eco art / Junk modelling

Hannah Starkey – photography / women doing everyday things / narrative

Zineb Sedira – Video art / family / portraits / cultures / Arab women / Languages

Lee Krasner – colour / abstract / expressionist / large work / lines /texture

Francoise Gilot – paint / colour / abstract / cubism

Reclaiming Cultural Capital

SHIFT, is a weekly IGTV series by @_artisteacher_ a network instigated by the Freelands Foundation (instagram to follow for more). Artisteacher invited artists and educators to share their varied practices each week during the 2020 summer break…

‘In today’s IGTV, Emily Gopaul, an artist, art teacher and founder of @theprimaryartclass, discusses ways to celebrate diversity and inclusion within the classroom and suggestions of how to engage children with other forms of culture without diminishing their own.’