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Pedagogy as liberation: existing outside of the white cube.

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

When thinking about contemporary art practice on the continent of Africa and its relationship to the global art market, its consumption and validity is anchored or understood with the continent as a monolith that is homogeneous. Little can be said of the occluded histories, archives and creative production still to be cemented through documentation in lesser known regions. This way of consuming artistic production impacts cultural production, the ability to remember and historicize our wide-ranging histories and the impact it has on art as a vehicle to unearth invisible or forgotten truths.

As a Malawian curatorial practitioner and artist, I have no doubts of the rich presence of oral traditions of storytelling and the performative practices of dance in my own country. Yet, I was always aware of a lack of resources to explore and incorporate these histories further in my own practice during my time at a British arts university. The only references made to artists with a connection to Africa were of a handful of artists in the diaspora that received only a brief mention. This made me consider how an active interrogation of creative identity can be conducted, shared and presented. How do we explore and understand all the many different fragments of our existence into a unified pluralistic whole? This exploration could allow for a well-rounded and fully formed understanding of our experiences that better informs our practices. How do we design the spaces to redress the frequently outdated or more specifically, non-existent artistic and curatorial curricula in institutions here? An example close to home would be Chancellor College at the University of Malawi being the only institution that offers Fine Art and Performing Arts as a module in a Humanities degree.

Structures of visual literacy and knowledge such as the University of Cape Town, Rhodes University and Chancellor College at University of Malawi are still uncritically steeped in colonial curricula and Eurocentric models of making and engaging with art objects and their purpose. This brings to mind current debates on the repatriation of artefacts back to Africa and misgivings in terms of their care based on western conservationist practices. Prominent universities in Southern Africa, independent art spaces in East Africa, the strong art market in West Africa and emerging spaces in the North are a broad spectrum that shows us that there is a diversity of our art historical awareness, tools of criticality, life experience and levels of education on the continent. Yet there tends to be the impression that there is only space to engage critically with globally familiar modes of presentation of art and culture. There needs to be an examination and investigation of the vast local genealogies that encourages practitioners to become the tellers of their own histories in the face of current African realities. This requires thinking outside of the imposed Western matrix when it comes to the stimulation of knowledge systems and knowledge production, creating space that is open to the possibilities presented by non-formal art and art education initiatives. A system that is multimodal – varied in its ability to be local and global at the same time. The creation of our own stories and the caring for our histories in a way that allows for the heralding of emancipated futures.

One must also cast a critical eye on the African art boom that doesn’t nurture a space of slow development. A boom that is tied to a system of accelerated production on demand. A pouring into those spaces that aren’t afforded the resources to have those engagements. So, in thinking about the gathering, interpretation and dissemination of knowledge is to think about the making of artistic work, the writing and framing of exhibitions and art history and the complexities inherent in this practice from an African position, particularly in spaces that do not have the infrastructure to facilitate this relearning.

Slow development manifests in the creation of spaces and programmes that are developing new forms of knowledge or that make possible a way of working that is context specific to Africa both in practice and ideology. Challenging ourselves to find creative ways of exhibition making and knowledge production that allow us to focus on understanding our histories, providing the context and the paradigms for that production and evolving our work on the continent. So where does that leave cultural production in places that have not yet cemented space for criticality in order to create their own modernity? Unique social patterns can be hindered if the growth of a group identity is not fostered. Without the ability to engage with one’s culture on a critical level, the mapping out of its history, its place in the present and all it’s possible future is no longer valued. What does that say about nourishing a contemporary curatorial and artistic production that can be understood as multimodal? One that understands indigeneity as well as the understanding that we are a more globally connected society. It is able to reach and engage a global audience but also speak to and represent the multiplicity of cultural and artistic practices across the continent.

When I returned to Malawi, I was challenged by a lack of discourse around artistic practices, naively only understanding them from the lens of the Western education that I had received. In looking to understand how best to create a shared space of dialogue around art as an extension of the lived experience, I came across the writing of Paulo Friere. Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed calls for education to emancipate. A new approach to education, a pedagogy i.e. that of the oppressed and that of the lived experience. In this text, conventional education is critiqued and Friere proposes a pedagogy that is forged with and not for the oppressed. Creating a space for learner agency, situating the context of the lived experience at the centre of the learning. Not a hierarchical binary that emphasizes the teacher over the learner. Having the tools to reflect, ask critical questions and create meaning and interpretation of that experience. This learner agency challenges what Friere calls ‘narration sickness’, the notion that the teacher is narrator and the student becomes a receptacle for memorizing mechanical content. Here, the student’s ideas are shaped by the teacher, the more receptive the student, the better the teacher appears. This parallels a tendency to situate contemporary African art from a western art historical context which then informs its validity. Friere proposes the alternative of ‘problem posing’ education. Engaging in dialogue is critical to dismantling the traditional teacher-student power dynamic that discredits alternative knowledge systems. It encourages critical cognition where the role of student and teacher are interchangeable rather creating a space for partnering in research.

Friere’s analysis and concepts grew out of a specifically Latin American context where overt and extreme social deprivation was the norm of late 1960’s Brazil. The concept of the pedagogy of liberation in relation to the arts still resonates and applies to current artistic and curatorial practices. In a cultural, art production context, a pedagogy that can flourish without needing to feed solely into a framework that only supports artists and cultural producers who affirm global market trends is necessary and vital. A network that makes space for the research and exploration of art histories and contemporary art practices in countries that do not have the infrastructure, funding resources and political support for the arts.

Àsìkò, an innovative programme founded by Bisi Silva and the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos is one such example of the critical examination of structures of education and production. By bringing together different cohorts of emerging African artists, historians, curators and writers at different stages of their career, an experimental approach to art and curatorial history and professional development was implemented. Modes such as these that nurture dialogue and critical thinking opens up a space that allows for the thinking outside of the hierarchical ideology of teacher and student as spoken of by Freire. Àsìkò is a one representation of a growing sense of investigation and questioning taking place that seeks to articulate the need for a wider understanding of our artistic and curatorial practices.

Embracing those challenges created by gaps in art education can provide the freedom to develop and implement models that favour a dialogic system of sharing and learning across the board. This reflects a wider cultural shift between art communities that in turn reflects the potential of wider social, political and structural change to happen.

Building and reinforcing transnational ties expands that dialogue, creating a stronger artistic network and support system. Then we can facilitate each other in developing our own structures. The value of an accessible resources is key in bridging art educational gaps. A repository of information, archives that can be tapped into across our networks and shared. Collaboration and solidarity provide the space for the mining of our stories, for teaching and learning from each other, kindling a system of new models, necessary models that provide opportunities to write about ourselves and our contributions in ways that evoke the lived experience.

Author: Precious Mhone


Friere, Paulo (1972), “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Kierney, A and Leyde, L (2015), “Putting Theory Into Practice: Developing Wits Art Museum Education resources in Nettleton, A. and de Becker, L. (Eds). Activating/ Captivating: Engaging the Wits Art Museum Collection. Johannesburg, Wits University Press.

Silva, B (2017), “Àsìkò: On the Future of Artistic and Curatorial Pedagogies in Africa”, Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos.

ho ha cha, ke eng e salang

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