‘Funktional’ Art Education

Xenobia Bailey, Funktional Vibrations, 2014, glass mosaic. Courtesy of  the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York.

I’m not a religiously observant Jew, but my Jewishness is a large part of who I am today. My realization and embracing of my Jewish identity came at a very early age, thanks largely to my extended family introducing me to a wide range of cultural, historical and social narratives around Judaism and the Jewish diaspora. I learned about the joys and sorrows of my ancestors through literature, songs, plays and arts and crafts. Balancing the good times and the bad times and feeling a communal sense of pride for overcoming obstacles is something that I discovered through observing and experiencing Jewish folk lore, community gatherings (both religious and cultural) and current events. My Jewish identity is a significant aspect of my whole self, and has influenced everything from domestic skills (ask those who have tried my Hanukkah latkes and borscht!) to social and professional developments.

One of the most important principles that I attribute to my Jewish upbringing is the idea that we are simultaneously unique and interconnected as a human race. It is painful to see the fission existing within our culture at large, which pits people of similar and different religious, ethnic, physical, social and emotional experiences against one another. While I have experienced a fair amount of antisemitism, my white skin tone provides me with many privileges that are blatantly not afforded to my Black and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) brothers and sisters. Judaism has taught me several lessons involving going beyond tolerance and finding insightful and pragmatic ways to bolster empathy and build bridges between seemingly desperate faiths and cultures. It has also taught me something that along with (and similar to) contemporary art has shaped my pedagogical philosophy: we are not final products, we are works in progress and learning is our greatest asset to fostering personal and collective value, empathy and progress. Lifelong learning through experience, observation and active listening are all elements of a good art education. And as I’ve been expressing throughout this blog, art education is essential for inspiring much needed ingenuity, empathy and critical thinking.

I recently had the chance to learn from interdisciplinary artist Xenobia Bailey, which led me to reflect and assess my own experiences and education regarding intersectional identity, self-purpose and communal value. Bailey was presenting via Black Lunch Table‘s Instagram live event on June 7th, and through the course of her non-linear discussion she shared incredible insights about her interests and experiential knowledge of art, design, Black history, education, nutrition and the supernatural. Her message of advocating for Black children to have an all encompassing childhood and become both interdependent and independent under a contemporary Black aesthetic, is central to the tenets of “whole-child approach.” In order to repletely impact one’s desire to learn; physical, emotional and mental engagement should scaffold and inform how students and educators collaborate via the learning cycle (see: Swindall, McGee and Leyden, 2014). The contemporary Black aesthetic Bailey was referring to is constantly in flux just like our constantly expanding notions of culture, identity and epistemology. It is an art form, philosophy and pedagogy that incorporates extensive cultural narratives and promotes physical and emotional well-being in tandem with the African diaspora and the plurality of all Black individuals. She mentioned the importance of play, lullabies and folktales centered around Black experiences (both real and fantasized) in order to foster imagination and ingenuity. Bailey explained that reprising and creating folktales, lullabies and games uniquely centered on uplifting Black experiences will inspire young generations to shape their present and future through an equal, equitable and justice driven lens. A Black aesthetic includes examples of art, literature, fashion, design, music, healing and spirituality that rhizomatically connects ancestral Africa to contemporary Black life (see: Tree of Knowledge).

Black culture at large, is linked to polyphonic thinking. The history of Black civilization and Africa involves transdisciplinary approaches to living and learning. The utilization of mathematics in Ancient and present day Africa is intrinsic to daily life. The oldest games inspired by numerical and logical systems were developed by Sub-Saharan civilizations, and mathematical insights continually envelop many different aspects of culture throughout the continent. Rhythms from music and dance, colors from art and clothing and healing properties from food, are all connected to holistic Earthly and other phenomena that is observed and experienced (see: Bangura, 2011 and Wright, n.d.).

Bailey’s art-centered pedagogy supports developing domestic skills and industrious mindsets to strengthen social and emotional well-being. One of the aims for a contemporary Black aesthetic is to build a world for future Black generations that is largely devoid of racism and inequity. Through exploring, discovering and sharing insights around Black experiences and African diasporic cultures, Bailey hopes that individuals have the chance to live their best lives and feel pride in expressing themselves. She mentioned that under a contemporary Black aesthetic education life skills would be learned through play and imagination. Fables, fairy tales, lullabies and works of art will have Black protagonists, inspirational themes and celebrate Afrocentric perspectives in an open-ended manner (see: Abraha, 2020 and Grady, 2020). There will be a fusion of traditional and contemporary Black craft making, holistic healing practices and nutrition, which will enable people to realize their creative ambitions and autonomous financial goals while feeling efficacious about themselves and others.

Bailey’s personal creative oeuvre is influenced by functional and esoteric African-American and Pan-African aesthetics. She calls her utilitarian practice ‘Funktional’ because she marries the vibrant, groovy and syncopated styles associated with Funk, with time honored African American industrial arts (i.e. weaving, quilting, embroidery and wood carving). In 2014, Bailey was commissioned by the socially engaged public arts organization, Creative Time, to participate in an exhibition called Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn. The exhibition featured four community-based installations that were accessible by walking through Brooklyn’s historic Weeksville neighborhood.

Screen Shot 2020-06-27 at 2.29.53 PM
Funktional Design Vanity Table created by students at Boys & Girls High School and fabricated at Weeksville Heritage Center for Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn. Photo: Xenobia Bailey. Courtesy of the artist and A Blade of Grass.
Screen Shot 2020-06-27 at 2.31.41 PM
Student, designing furniture from found cardboard boxes at Boys & Girls High School as part of Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn. Photo: Xenobia Bailey. Courtesy of the artist and A Blade of Grass.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Bailey collaborated with sixty students from Boys & Girls High School in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn to design and fabricate furniture to decorate one of Weeksville’s Historic Hunterfly Road Houses. The prompt that inspired Bailey and the young artists was to envision three pieces of furniture made using recycled materials, for an imaginary couple moving into an apartment in modern day Bed-Stuy. She explained that she “asked these juniors and seniors to draw from familiar designs — ones that were in their own homes — to outfit one of the historic Hunterfly houses. My goal was to cultivate their innate design aptitudes through visualization, play and fabrication. Our tools and materials were nothing but X-Acto blades, glue and recycled cardboard boxes” (see: Bailey, 2014). During her Instagram live talk, Bailey mentioned how inspirational it was to work with and learn from the students. She described how each student incorporated their own personal styles to the creative process, which were based on their cultural backgrounds, interests and life experiences. The amalgamation of the students’ uniqueness formed cohesive furniture design concepts that expressed the plurality and profundity of contemporary Black aesthetics.

Towards the end of her talk, Bailey mentioned something that I’ve also been contemplating a lot lately, which is how we will seize this current moment and turn challenges into something mutually beneficial that will continue to resonate throughout the course of human history.  She used the notation systems BC (Before Coronavirus) and AC (After Coronavirus) to riff on the the year-numbering system used by the Gregorian calendar to record moments in time; and implored us to consider how we will utilize our time to improvise on a better world, one that is transcendent from the glaring social and cultural problems of present day life. While we acknowledge that Black Lives Matter and act to dismantle systemic racism, we need to simultaneously work towards uplifting Black voices, Black experiences and Black aesthetics. Bailey’s own words, repeated in the captions of her recent Instagram posts, signify the perfect mantra for our collective consciousness: “We all have Super Powers, Learn Them•Practice reciprocity with the Earth•You Must Tap Out To Tap In•Operate In Love, (not fear) Love Wins. No Fear” (Bailey, 2020). 

This is a chance
To dance your way
Out of your constrictions
(Tell suckah!)
Here’s a chance to dance our way
Out of our constrictions
Gonna be freakin’
Up and down
Hang-up alley way
With the groove our only guide
We shall all be moved
Ready or not here we come
Gettin’ down on
The one which we believe in
One nation under a groove

From One Nation Under a Groove (1978) by Funkadelic

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Abraha, Magdalene. “Publishing has ignored and pigeonholed black authors for too long.” The Guardian, 9 June 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2020/jun/09/publishing-has-ignored-and-pigeonholed-black-authors-for-too-long

Bailey, Xenobia. “Teaching Brooklyn Kids ‘Funktional’ Furniture Design.” Marthastewart.com, 24 September 2014. https://www.marthastewart.com/1084922/teaching-brooklyn-high-school-kids-sustainable-funktional-furniture-design

Bailey, Xenobia. (@xenba_xenba). “(Exposing) “False Evidence Appearing Real•We all have Super Powers, Learn Them•Practice reciprocity with the Earth•You Must Tap Out To Tap In•Operate In Love, (not fear) Love Wins. No Fear” (…or Foolishness)Instagram, 27 June 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/CB7t3sAl7U3/.

Bangura, Abdul Karim. African Mathematics: From Bones to Computers. University Press of America, 2011.

Gerdas, Paulus. “On Mathematics in the History of Sub-Saharan Africa.” Historia Mathematica. Volume 21, Issue 3, August 1994, Pages 345–376. Accessed 26 June 2020 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0315086084710299

Grady, Constance. “The need to read black literature that’s not just about black struggle.” Vox, 20 June 2020. https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/6/20/21295761/black-literature-black-struggle-racism-pride-book-link-roundup

Swindall, Emily; McGee, Katherine; and Leyden, Jessie M., “Whole Body Learning in the Classroom” (2014). Georgia Association for Positive Behavior Support Conference. 21. https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/gapbs/2014/2014/21

Wright, Calli. “13 Interesting Facts About Math in Ancient Africa.” MIND Research Institute Blog, n.d. Accessed 26 June 2020 https://blog.mindresearch.org/blog/math-facts-ancient-africa


    1. Thank you! Xenobia’s work is incredible and so multifaceted. There’s so much to take in. I think it would be the perfect example to show to extraterrestrial visitors when describing what human art is all about…


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