#ualsowhite #race #racism #poc #inclusivity #blackarts #bame #dunasabri #attainmentgap #closingtheattainmentgap #shadesofnoir #tatebritain #decolonise #postcolonialism
Shades of Noir ‘Safe Space Crits’ is a go to place where students talk about race and identity, gain tuition for their work and discuss any racism that they might be experiencing at UAL. It’s important that a space like this exists on campus as students of colour have a safe place that they can use, and people that they can talk to and confide in; A space like this is invaluable, however the is question the purpose of this space and why its function is not being provided in the studios and by staff, and more importantly, the need for it in 2020. The reason for this is because students and staff of colour do not feel at ease, or comfortable in openly discussing race and racism in the studios, which is extremely saddening and worrying.
Whilst discussions about race can be uncomfortable, I strongly believe that a young person at an establishment of learning should be able to talk about race, racism and inequality openly without any fear of being reprimanded, undermined, ridiculed or challenged. I recall an outspoken student of mine (POC) at a tutorial, suddenly start to whisper about the painting that she was making on the theme of skin colour. When I deliberately ignored the whisper, which I assumed came from a self-conscious place and continued to talk in a normal voice, I noticed that it drew the attention of other students in the room who appeared to be eaves dropping with interest. Over the weeks, and months our discussions of race have been common place, and I have had a number of very interesting conversations about race and post-colonialism with students in the studios.
I acknowledge that my brown skin is a privilege in the classroom/studio where conversations on race are welcomed, especially when students of colour are present as there is an unspoken sense of solidarity. In these circumstances I am able to talk openly and confidently about race, identity and racism without the fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’ or offending anybody. This comes from years of training myself in developing skills to continuously consider my position as a teacher/tutor who is non-white and how my position changes from student to student, with peers, contexts and within different learning environments.
In Hahn Tapper ‘A pedagogy of social justice education: social identity, theory and intersectionality’, the writer discusses social justice education and the importance of empowering students. He describes how teachers take into account their position, the student’s position, both of yours race, identity, class and cultural background. This is described further in Paulo Friere’s book ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ where he discusses his childhood socioeconomic background and how the inequality felt from these early experiences has impacted on his teaching methods. He talks about the position of the teacher and likens that to a coloniser, somebody that has power, seeing his/her subjects as lower than themselves and uneducated, groups of young people to which he/she imparts knowledge to, rather than receive from. He talks about the student being empty vessels that are to be filled with the knowledge, rather than the teacher seeing themselves as beings that are also there to learn and that learning can be two-wayed if you allow yourself to be humble and open to students.
It’s difficult and tiring to constantly challenge the ingrained stereotype of the subservient Asian Woman in the West and to be seen as an equal. As I have been stereotyped so much, and every cloud has a silver lining I constantly check myself and ensure that I don’t stereotype my students or treat them in a manner that is patronising and judgemental. I always welcome what my students bring to classes/the studio and enjoy learning from them, especially in the subject area of digital / social media, and the current terminology around sexuality, feminism and politics. I believe it’s important to remember that sharing knowledge is more than the information that we have read in books, it is also the life knowledge and the experiences that we have had as human beings. I question how we can as educators embrace a more open holistic and an equal approach to teaching, when we have been raised in a system that reveres the privileged white male? How do we even begin to pull down hierarchical structures that are so embedded in British culture, when change is resisted? How can we as a community encourage teachers to discuss race, especially when certain eyes and ears and refuse to see and listen as it challenges privileged positions?
I believe that one way to challenge the status quo is to diversify staffing in art colleges and galleries, diversify gallery and museum collections, have people of colour in senior positions, but until that happens I can continue to refer my students to the wealth of Black and Asian artists found in our communities, and to the resource pages on SoN where POC artists and designers are showcased with a range of creative practices that have been inspired by a variety of cultural heritages and experiences. I believe that if a diverse range of artist’s stories and artwork is shared with students, then they can see themselves in the diversity that exists in the art-world, which sadly is not apparently visible in mainstream galleries and museums.
I see the value of SoN ‘Safe Crit Space’ I’m glad that it’s there, however I also believe that all spaces across colleges should be safe and staff should have the ability and the skills to discuss race, racism, post-colonialism openly with students. All staff ought to be able to do this in 2020, if they squirm and pass the task of exploring race over to the few tutors of colour, then this is problematic; it’s shouldn’t be the job of POC’s only to deal with this subject area of race, it is for us all as a community of tutors to have the skills to talk about all topics and be knowledgeable about them, it is a shared responsibility. Just as we are skilled to discuss feminism, post-modernism, abstraction, materiality, etc, race should be included as a valid and important subject area. It shouldn’t be a private matter, hushed up and whispered like dirty words behind closed doors, it should be explored by all, openly talked about, drawn, painted and sculpted.
The students interviewed in the film ‘The Room of Silence’ describe the silence or the lack of feedback/dismissive attitude given by tutors and fellow students in crits and tutorials. They talk about the uncomfortable silence and the lack of acknowledgement of the themes that their work has, this is on artworks made about race, racism and skin colour. Their frustration, sadness and in some cases the lowering of self esteem echo some of my own student experiences. It is worrying and deeply concerning that these experiences are similar to the ones that POC students had in the early 90’s, which in turn were similar to the stories that I heard of Black artists in the generation above me in the 1980’s. How is it possible for art colleges not to have progressed in terms of being able to support POC students and to discuss race with them over the past 35 years? Clearly there are issues that urgently need to be tackled nationwide as this is something to be truly ashamed of. How can fairness and equality be fostered in the art-world, when race, cannot be encouraged or spoken about at college? The inability to be equal, to speak up about race, challenge racist opinions and actions, feeds into the capitalist cogs that once fuelled colonialism.
I talk loudly about race and racism in my museum and gallery workshops, and to ensure that everyone else in the space listens in, I notch up my volume. An ideal work to talk about racial violence is the seemingly benign looking painting ‘No, Woman, No Cry’ named after the Bob Marley song and painted by Chris Ofili. This is a painting of a woman crying at the loss of Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager who was murdered in 1993 by a group white racist lads in the South London suburb of Eltham. These youths were not caught initially, and after over a decade of the police bumbling and supposedly ‘losing’ files, some of these racist perpetrators were finally caught. I have spoken this painting at it at least a hundred times to variety of audiences, young and old. Some of them squirm, some say they do not want to discuss race with young children/people (mainly white), some look uncomfortable, but most people engage fully with the discussion and are saddened by the reality of the Macpherson Report, they see the importance of having a painting like this on public display. On an another note everyone enjoys seeing the spectacle of the elephant dung that the painting sits on, Ofili has certainly been skilled at drawing audiences to his work despite his subject matter.
We should be encouraging the Chris Ofilis of the future. Where are they? Are they at UAL? Are they being nurtured and encouraged? I sincerely hope so. I was disgusted to read Duna Sabri’s report of the inequality of attainment grades. Once I had processed the horror that BAME home students are attaining 20% lower grades for their degrees than white home students I spoke about it to my friends that work in galleries and museums across the UK, who like me had not heard of this report before and felt very disturbed. We were saddened by it because in our work as gallery and museum educators we work extremely hard at bringing in young people from diverse backgrounds into galleries and museums, nurture them, support them in getting excellent A-level and B-Tec grades and help develop their portfolios so that they can enter art colleges confident and optimistic. On first day I started my current role as an Associate Lecturer there was a welcome talk to students. I was surprised to see the that out of around 400 students only a tiny handful were POC, the hashtag #UALsowhite came to mind. Several weeks later a new student mentioned the fact that she too noticed how white the 2019 cohort was, not exactly inviting to a new POC student starting college in the locality of Peckham where the community outside of the hallowed university doors is diverse.
From reading Retainment and Attainment in Art and Design. A.Richards and T.Finnigan it is evident that BAME staff are essential to staff teams at UAL. Students need to see themselves in their tutors and have someone that they can identify with and relate to, especially in the current political climate with many divisions in society. The attainment gap on BA Painting, where I teach is not equal and neither are the student numbers in terms of diversity (out of 120 students only 5 are POC), which is not reflective of the diversity of the country and certainly not the locality of Peckham. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview prospective students for the forthcoming academic year 2020/21, it was an insight in seeing how the different interviewees behaved. I noticed similarities with working class and POC prospective students (with the majority of POC people coming from working class backgrounds). What I noticed was that most of them hadn’t developed the skills to ‘sell themselves’ to discuss their work confidently, drawing upon their best assets. In several interviews I had to tease out the information, discover their talent (that was buried in sketchbooks, notes and photos). On the whole they seemed different in their approach compared to the middle classed White prospective students who were outwardly confident, outspoken and could “sell their wares”.
In my short time working at the college I’ve heard that the evidence behind the statistics of BAME low attainment might be in-correct. I’ve heard remarks on the need for BAME staff when the students at the college are pre-dominantly white, and the disregard for the lack of diversity in the staffing. Are these racist comments? In my opinion, yes, but they often passed off as “white fragility”.
I watched Robin Di Angleo’s film ‘Deconstructing White Privilege’. It was interesting hearing a white woman talk about her sheltered middle-class childhood experiences and the uncomfortableness that white people might experience when talking about race. I noticed a sense of privilege in the way that she spoke, and who her audience might be (white, educated, middle classed?) Di’Angleo consisitently used the word “we” throughout her talk with disregard that “we” did not include “me” a brown skinned person who does not feel fragile in talking about race. Di’Angleo goes on to discuss the pre-dominantly white neighbourhood that she grew up in, my first reaction to that is that she has not grown up in a neighbourhood where the majority of the community are on low paid incomes and in turn diverse. She doesn’t seem to acknowledge class privilege and the inequalities that those on a lower income face, for these reasons amongst others I found her talk patronising. It’s a small step in the right direction that a white person is acknowledging their racism, however but I wouldn’t give her a medal for her efforts as they are miniscule to burden of present day and historical racism and abuse that POC’s carry and continue endure, it’s something that Di’Angelo has the privilege of never experiencing.
In my discussions on race, or any topic for that matter as race is a part of every ‘ism’ in the history of art. These are a few prominent artists/movements who explore identity and race that I share and raise an awareness of with my students; Eddie Chambers, Sonia Boyce, Zarina Bhimji, Sutapa Biswas, Rasheed Araeen, Adrian Piper, Coco Fusco, Ana Mendieta, Ingrid Pollard, Claudette Johnson, John Akromfrah, Frank Bowling, Lesley Sanderson, Mayling To, Erika Tan, Said Aldrus, Bhajan Hunjan, Lubiana Himid, Maud Saulter, Li Yuan-Chia, Shirin Neshat, Mona Hatoum, Amrita Sher Gill, Denzil Forrestor, Hurvin Anderson, Harold Offeh, Anish Kapoor, Sheela Gowda, Keith Piper, Kadar Attia, the RAQS Collective, the Harlem Renaissance, the 80’s Black Arts Movement, the Black Audio Collective, myself… UAL has no reason to be SO white, there are many successful fine art practitioners that should be sharing their experiences of being an artist with students.
The Room of Silence https://vimeo.com/161259012
Hahn Tapper (2013) ‘A pedagogy of social justice education: social identity, theory and intersectionality’,