I began my career teaching art appreciation in 2016 as adjunct faculty at Illinois Central College and Bradley University in Peoria, IL to a predominantly white student body. Before our current cultural conversation of anti-racism existed, I adapted anti-racist practices in my pedagogy as a Black feminist advocate and educator.
About the same time, five years ago, I was an MFA student at Illinois State University in Normal, IL listening to my own faculty probe my perception of Blackness as a self-described, political, abstract artist instead of acutely critiquing my artwork. During graduate reviews, sometimes the white faculty would claim to feel like an outsider to my work and question how my audience would respond to my artist statement. Thus graduate school showed me how white supremacy is upheld in higher education as I developed my skills as an artist-activist and educator.
With this wealth of experience, I am not impressed with the anti-racist letters and statements made by for-profit companies since the summer of 2020. There is a real deficit for Black and Brown students in art classrooms between kindergarten and 12th grade (and beyond) when teachers don’t know how to prepare these potential artists and art supporters for arts participation. Drawing exercises with hand-traced turkeys and coloring sheet portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. don’t address social justice. BIPOC students are often prevented from speaking their truth through their artwork because white teachers are uncomfortable listening. We are beyond teaching visual elements and principles of design and “art for art’s sake” which is something that I have witnessed teachers doing in higher education, middle school, and elementary art classrooms.
We need educators to set up our BIPOC youth to be active in the art world, as curators, researchers, community organizers, and creators. Using a Black feminist framework and community-based cultivation strategies are key to innovating arts education as a relational tool to link trauma, oppression, privilege, and inequities to real world art projects better serving BIPOC students. Implementing Black feminist frameworks involve three steps: 1) reading and naming systems of injustice at micro and macro levels; 2) exploring ways of opposing them by rejecting their stereotypes and negative images; 3) reclaiming negative images with positive images of resilience and cultural pride. A simple example of community-based cultivation is art teachers implementing a code-switching project with text and images incorporating vernacular, local dialects and standard United States English. This exercise honors individual identity and distinct forms of knowledge.
Arts teachers should adopt the lessons from Cindy Foley’s epic Ted Talk about transdisciplinary research and combine it with an exploration of Black aesthetics in the work of contemporary artists such as Nina Chanel Abney who makes investigative paintings about race. This means teachers (regardless of ethnicity) will be invested in defining and exploring the aesthetics of artmaking at the intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality while uncovering stories lost in the gaps of canonized art history.
It is critical we educators do more than rewrite syllabi and read a few articles on culturally responsive education. We need to be art educators who eat, sleep, and breathe reimagining art education. As it stands, we need art teachers guiding students towards critical collective consciousness by reading and naming patterns of marginalization in media images and stereotypes, exploring ways to reject these systemic negative images by disrupting their ways of dominance, and replacing negative images with restorative positive images.
In another example of community-based cultivation of critical consciousness, Chicago scholars and artists Simone Leigh and Jenn Freeman enacted art projects that resulted in community forums about public health and the celebration of Black women. Leigh organized the “Free People’s Medical Clinic” (2014)to critically examine intersections of public health, racial consciousness, and women’s work. Jenn Freeman, a performance artist used their burlesque persona Po’Chop to transform Black church traditions into worshiping queer Black feminists of Chicago’s Bronzeville, “The People’s Church of the G.H.E.T.T.O.” (2019). These art projects replace the ongoing paranoia and sense of low self-worth often experienced by people in marginalized communities.
So, what do we do now? Juneteenth being a federal holiday and anti-racist pledges of allegiance ain’t gonna cut it anymore. I want BIPOC artists and Black feminist frameworks to be at the foundation of school arts curricula. Imagine art as a core academic subject rooted in these understandings! Our K-12 arts students would be equipped to envision themselves as professional artists and be empowered to build sustainable social justice perspectives right in primary and secondary school. The notion of an art career doesn’t have to be unfulfilling if there is emotional support and proper mentorship that is culturally responsive and anti-racist. The long history of inequity in art education is calling for us to make big changes.
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