Exploring Culture, Identity, and Representation through Art Education

Culture is understood in Anthropology as the symbolic, ideational, and intangible aspects of human societies. The “essence of a culture is not its artifacts, tools, or other tangible cultural elements but how the members of the group interpret, use, and perceive them” (1). It is the values and beliefs based on knowledge and perceptions chosen and expressed through behaviour, image, and sound. According to my students, culture is about food and religion and clothing.
I realized that these slides my students created as part of a lesson on global issues are just the beginning of an authentic exploration of culture, identity, and representation. This realization was particularly important to explore on a more meaningful level in the multicultural learning environment of my school.

How are educators to challenge the assumptions surrounding culture?
How will we decide whose voices will be heard?

One approach to facilitate learning surrounding culture and identity is through art education. Art can provide us with a tangible object to discuss intangible concepts of identity, and help bring words and understanding to such abstruse constructs. Art is experienced through the senses and acts as a window into cultural representation. The representational power of art is intertwined with the interpretation of symbols used to communicate cognitive processes that are unique to each person. The creation of art can also be used to help students construct meaning surrounding culture and identity.

As an art educator, Stacy Friedman explores issues of racism through puppetry. She has students design, create and script puppets with a commentary on conflicts surrounding identity representations. She notes that the puppets “serve as sort of metaphorical Trojan horses helping us to enter into uncomfortable discourse through a seemingly benign medium” (2). Friedman’s intent is that the puppets open up a door to higher critical thinking and have the potential to become a mechanism for exploring the thoughts and voices of others. Art is an individual encounter based on the mental filters and prior experiences of a specific person.

French artist JR’s street art toys with identity by challenging preconceptions and reductive images propagated by advertising and the media. He work can be found in war-torn and conflict ridden areas of developing countries. JR snaps black and white portraits of local people and literally pastes blown up paper photocopies of these images in the streets. Powerful images of women were pasted around a slum in Kenya, Israeli and Palestinian portraits were placed next to one another in the Middle East, and portraits lined the streets of poor areas of India. JR does not explicitly explain the meaning of his art but instead allows the audience to interpret the art themselves by collecting the stories of those featured in his portraits. He also notes that his projects aid in the construction of his own mindset regarding culture and identity.

Shouldn't students become producers of art as an alternative to the traditional 
consumption-centred model to emancipate students from media bias 
and offer a different perspective of how meaning is created?

Authorship of media texts and tangible art can be applied to forms of critical analysis that “open up alternative positions from which students can think, debate, act” (3). Not only can art serve as a surrogate of abstract ideas surrounding culture, but the “truths” about identity and culture can be interrogated and constructed through the production of artifacts.

1. Banks, J.A., Banks, & McGee, C. A. (1989). Multicultural education. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
2. Friedman, S. (2004). Responsibility and re/presentation: Reflection on digital video and puppet-based inquiry.
3. Goldfarb, B. (2002). Students as producers. Visual pedagogy: Media cultures in and beyond the classroom (pp. 57-83). Durham: Duke University Press.

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