Artfully Speaking

As another new school year begins, anxious and excited feelings and thoughts flow through the minds, bodies and souls of educators, students, parents and guardians. Similar to how the end of the 2019-2020 school year was rife with uncertainty, so begins the 2020-2021 academic calendar. Although in-class sessions were (and in many cases typically remain) disrupted, experiential and social – emotional learning captivated and transformed our enduring understandings about what education should encompass and what good pedagogical frameworks can produce.

As students and educators were settling in and trying to adapt to remote academic instruction, the outside world became a vibrant and poignant arena for learning important lessons that both adhere to and go well beyond the core educational curricula. The discursive and activist driven demonstrations in support of racial equality and equity, have been replete with teachers and students standing side by side, in order to construct foundations for upholding social justice principles and practices.

In a successful educational environment students and teachers will foster significant answers to issues of racial, environmental and economic disparity. Classrooms are important sanctuaries for social, emotional and cognitive learning that empowers generations to express their voices, ideas and passions. The benefits of the intergenerational collaboration between teachers and students should be problem-posing models (see: Freire, 1970) for critical thinking and student-centered liberation. Problem-posing education is a theory from Paulo Freire, advocating for the manifestation of knowledge through a democratic dialogue between teachers and students. Traditional oppressive hierarchies are dismantled when both students and educators listen, learn and collaborate together.

On an episode of the podcast Code Switch, co-host Shereen Marisol Meraji states that: “We leave it to students to deal with integration, busing and learning about this country’s sordid racial history. We leave it to teachers to help educate each new generation to be more racially literate than the last. At least, we hope that’s what they’re doing” (Maraji and Demby, 2018). One way of doing this is to help students develop the wherewithal and confidence to embody their own cultural backgrounds and experiences in a manner that contributes to the culture at large, while staying true to their unique identities and standing up for issues, qualities and viewpoints that are important in their lives. Being racially literate means understanding that race isn’t a monolithic structure. All individuals have distinctive practices of changing one’s language, expressions, dialect or speaking style to engage within fluctuating environments. This is known as code switching.

Code switching (aka language alternation) is a type of dialectical methodology where a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties in a single sentence, phrase or conversation. Examples include the use of standard spoken English with conversational Spanish (Spanglish) or African-American Vernacular English, which is the implementation of vocabulary, accents and grammar particularly spoken in Black communities. Code switching is often used as a way to express one’s cultural identity and also to address and communicate within the cultural status quo. Code switching can be a form of assimilation or a type of activism depending upon the context and responses it generates. Students who are corrected while using Black English in schools are experiencing linguistic racism. If an educator encourages them to ‘switch’ dialects from Black English to Standard English to ‘fit in’ or be ‘appropriate,’ they risk significant harm to their students’ sense of identity and self worth. Dr. April Baker-Bell explains that “The only thing worse than Black students’ experiencing anti-black linguistic racism in classrooms is when they internalize it. When Black students’ language practices are suppressed in classrooms or they begin to absorb messages that imply that (Black English) is deficient, wrong, and unintelligent, this could cause them to internalize anti-blackness and develop negative attitudes about their linguistic, racial, cultural, and intellectual identities and about themselves” (Baker-Bell, 2017).

A blatant example of negative code switching is referenced in the surrealist comedy and science fiction film, Sorry to Bother You (2018). In the screenplay, written by Boots Riley, telemarketer Cassius Green is confronted with a chance to fulfill his material desires, but like most corporate gigs in late stage capitalist society, his success comes at a moral and ethical price. One of the keys to unlocking his financial successes is his seamless ability to code switch, while engaging with clients and executive level co-workers. All of this is to the chagrin of his social circle, which centers around Oakland, California, a city with a vibrant and cacophonous background in regards to Black liberation and creative prowess. The film’s messaging is rooted in an analysis of capitalism –specifically its effects on class and race– and the power that workers and citizens can wield against authoritarian and corrupt governing forces. We see this happening outside of science-fiction via the mass protests and general strikes across the globe.

Code switching and shifting paradigms

Left: Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977). Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005. Oil on canvas, 108 x 108 in. (274.3 x 274.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Partial gift of Suzi and Andrew Booke Cohen in memory of Ilene R. Booke and in honor of Arnold L. Lehman, Mary Smith Dorward Fund, and William K. Jacobs, Jr. Fund , 2015.53. © Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Right: Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748-1825). Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard. oil on canvas. 1800-1. Chateau de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison

Art is a potent medium for expressing a multiplicity of semiotics and aesthetic and contextual vocabulary, which communicates the fluid experiences and intersectional identities of groups and individuals within civilization. Artists literally and figuratively weave and blend together variable elements of visual linguistics and identity within a single composition that can be widely interpreted by viewers with differing prior knowledge and cultural experiences. The most prominent example of artistic code switching is perhaps in the paintings of Kehinde Wiley. Wiley’s paintings turn predominantly white and colonialist linked genres of neoclassical painting (i.e. Baroque and Rococo) into a language that is familiar and fresh, by replacing austere subjects from historical paintings with contemporary figures. Wiley’s insertion of Black men in the place of traditional royal, bureaucratic or aristocratic figures we would typically find in a Baroque or Rococo painting, is a commentary on what it is like to have unique rich cultural experiences while simultaneously interfacing with the culture of a dominant group (Ujiyediin, 2017). In reference to why Wiley portrays such seemingly stark juxtapositions, he remarks:

“Much of the way that we look at black men specifically in America has to do with a very fixed notion of hypersexuality, propensities towards sports and anti-social behaviors. And I think that there’s a dissonance between the received culture and the body that I happen to inhabit. And there’s a strange bifurcation that happens in the minds of many people of color and it’s not just an American question but one that has to do with the interface between your reality and the one that’s being presented to the world as true when you know it’s not true. The opportunity for an artist has to do with being able to communicate human subtlety, to be able to communicate a level of complexity of identity that exists outside of these sort of binaries that we’re oftentimes presented with.” (Ibid, 2017)

Kennedi Carter, Mariana, 2020, medium format film. Courtesy of the artist.

Similar to Wiley, Kennedi Carter has shifted the paradigm for how Black bodies and identities are represented and assessed in fine art. Carter’s medium is her camera, and through her elegant and eloquent photographic compositions, she highlights the aesthetics and intersectional aspects of Blackness. Her work heightens viewers’ awareness to the often overlooked and marginalized depictions of Black subjects in the art world. Her subjects are beautiful and her work focuses on both the sensual and serious nature of Black experiences: including: skin, texture, trauma, peace, love and community. Her series of portraits titled, Flexing/New Realm, subverts the tradition of portraiture as a symbol of white supremacy and colonialism, by conflating historical motifs seen in European aristocratic portraiture with contemporary Black aesthetics.

Jeffrey Gibson, Say My Name, 2018. Glass beads, copper and tin jingles, steel and brass studs, and artificial sinew on repurposed trading post weaving and acrylic felt, mounted on canvas, 69 x 41.5 x 3 inches (175.3 x 105.4 x 7.6 cm). Courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson Studio and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Jeffrey Gibson and Nadia Myre utilize visual code switching to assert and contextualize their individual and communal backgrounds as contemporary Indigenous artists within a culture that has a history of erasing, misrepresenting and revising BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) voices. Gibson blends traditional elements from Indigenous culture with other cultures, subcultures and backgrounds that he identifies with. He expresses his impetus for doing so by stating: “We are stuck in a present and past written and defined by non-Native people. I want to create work that makes the marginalized feel central” (Lukavic, 2018). As a contemporary artist, a gay man and a Choctaw-Cherokee, Gibson’s art speaks in multiple languages and codes all at once. Gibson’s materials and inspiration for his artistic practice come from the relationships he builds with other BIPOC and LGBTQ artists and artisans. He develops striking aesthetic objects including colorful fringed punching bags, abstract paintings on rawhide and raised beadwork wall hangings. These compositions are often paired with poetic and lyrical verses that symbolically express insights from his multifaceted heritage and exploration of self. Gibson’s fluidly conscious movement between traditional Indigenous American and non-native signifiers, suggests cross-cultural connections and patterns for universal themes like love, community, strength, vitality and struggle.

Nadia Myre, Code Switching, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Art Mûr, Montreal.

Myre is from Quebec, Canada, and is an Algonquin member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation. Her art examines Colonialism’s revisal of Indigenous culture through the display and re-presentation of cultural artifacts that have layers of conflicting narratives. Her series, Code Switching, consists of cylindrical sculptures and Indigenous regalia and motifs, constructed using fragments of clay tobacco pipes. Clay pipes and smoking tobacco were introduced to the British by Indigenous Americans in the 17th century. The subsequent popularity of Europeans indulging in ‘New World’ tobacco, resulted in individuals like Walter Raleigh getting incredibly rich via the trade of the crop and the mass manufacturing of clay pipes. The pipes are the epitome of colonial exploitation. The English (and other foreign settlers) appropriated Indigenous designs for pipes and usurped Indigenous land to farm their own tobacco. Trades and relationships between the colonizer and colonized were largely one-sided, despite the fairy tale depictions in Western films, novels and popular culture. This manipulation continues via the global marketplace’s co-opting and commercialization of sacred Indigenous cultures and intellectual property (see: A. Daes, 2004). In the planning stages of Code Switching, Myre and her son collected pipe fragments along the bank of the Thames river in Southern England. Her re-purposing of the clay pipe fragments to depict Indigenous signifiers, exemplifies the reclaiming of Indigenous culture and sovereignty.

Code of Conduct

Tim Rollins and K.O.S. Amerika – For Karl, 1989, watercolor on paper mounted on canvas. 97 x 132 inches. Courtesy Studio K.O.S., Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. Photo: Matthew Herrmann

A group of young inner city artists, who dubbed themselves K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), did much more than survive during the late 1980s and 90s; they went on to become successful artists whose work hangs in major galleries and art institutions worldwide. In fact, art became a way to cope and thrive in their surroundings. Founding member, Angel Abreu reminisces “If you had some sort of special talent, like drawing for instance, you garnered respect, including respect from drug dealers and other rough entities. They left this nerdy kid alone. In ways both physical and metaphorical, the making of art provided me safety” (Abreu, 2019).

K.O.S. is a collective of artists and educators who were former students and professional collaborators with Tim Rollins in his middle school classroom and after school “Art and Knowledge Workshop” in the South Bronx during the 1980s and 90s (see: What we can learn from Tim Rollins). Rollins’ curriculum was intended as a way to improve English language arts (ELA), by making required reading assignments relevant to his students’ prior knowledge and lived experiences. Rollins and K.O.S. expanded upon canonical texts by mining through and juxtaposing additional subject matter such as legal documents, musical scores and comic books; illustrating how seemingly contrasting elements of culture are not mutually exclusive. Using these resources as inspiration, K.O.S’ work re-presents standard forms of language in their own terms. Their process begins with an interpretation of well-known works of literature in an informal manner where one member reads a passage while the others make connections to the writing using visual motifs. Key themes which have connections to their personal experiences, their community, and societal spectrum at large become subject matter and media for collaborative works of art. From their social and creative process, they develop a visual language that riffs on “the classics,” in order to make intimate and relatable statements on events from everyday contemporary life. Carrying on Rollins’ pedagogy, Studio K.O.S. works with youth groups and students to personalize seminal texts like Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, W.E.B. Du Bois’ Darkwater and Franz Kafka’s Amerika (see: Harden, 2020).

Decoding and Re-coding

Jesse Chun, Name against the same sound, 2018, pigment print, 50 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Bi-lingual learning is rising across the United States, and has strong benefits for both native English speakers and students whose native language is not English. In classrooms with emergent bilingual language learners, visual communication is an incredibly beneficial and empowering methodology for making connections between the students’ native tongue and the language they are learning. Garcia (2009) cites research by Thomas & Collier (2002), which suggests how educators can scaffold an emergent bilingual student’s development by building upon their prior knowledge and cultural identity within a dual language curriculum. Educators can help English language learners become proficient in speaking English by encouraging students to think in and relate meanings between their native language(s) and developing tongue(s), in order for them to discover commonalities and patterns.

Jesse Chun’s artful investigations into language, destabilizes the hegemony of English, and explores how systemic bureaucratic structures such as schools, impact the ways we speak and act. Her work, Name against the same sound (2018), examines the English language through the framework of E.S.L (English as a Second Language). Chun’s own experiences with linguistic pedagogy come from diasporic roots, having lived and learned English in Hong Kong, Canada, and the United States. Each geographical location has its own form of English vernacular, dialects and spellings. Learning English in Hong Kong, a former British colony, further complicated her relationship to the social, emotional and cognitive aspects of the language (see: Fisher, 2019-2020). Therefore, this body of mixed-media work, which consists of appropriated pages from ESL workbooks, audio clips from YouTube language tutorials and abstract writing systems and glyphs; is a way of decoding and interpreting the way standard English is utilized as a tool to assert cultural supremacy. In the words of the artist and curator Howie Chen, “Mediated by the process of abstraction and the poetry of translation, Chun’s works consider conditions and aesthetics of readability. The provocation consistent in the exhibition is a decentering of English as the world’s most dominant, “common” language: Could English ever become secondary? Could visual language come first? Could poetry, or 한글?” (from Chun’s website)

Final Words

All educators who work with diverse student bodies will experience students using community-central dialects. We should refrain from telling a student who is utilizing sociolects or their native language that they are wrong in doing so, or to ‘speak proper English’ (see: Baker-Bell, 2020 and Gonzalez, 2014). That type of response is both ignorant of linguistics and language pedagogy, and shattering to a student’s sense of being. We should focus on balancing core curricula content with project-based learning assignments and social interactions that give students the platform to express themselves in their own voices. Expanding the visual art curriculum to include more diverse representations of art and artists is one way to scaffold students’ development of vocabulary that combines their own cultural understandings with the history, heritage and experiences of others. Rather than focusing on a ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ language form, students should be given the wherewithal to be able to apply visual, written and spoken languages in a way that gives them agency to communicate in various cultural settings and articulate their unique sense of self.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Abreu, Angel. “Tim Rollins and K.O.S.” The Paris Review, 24 May 2019.

A. Daes, Erica-Irene. “The impact of globalization on Indigenous Intellectual Property and Cultures.” Lecture at the Museum of Sydney, Sydney Australia, 25 May 2004.

Baker-Bell, April. 2017. “I can switch my language, but I can’t switch my skin: What teachers must understand about linguistic racism.” In E. Moore, A. Michael Jr., & M. W. Penick-Parks (Eds.), The guide for white women who teach black boys (pp. 97–107). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Baker-Bell, April. “Dismantling anti-black linguistic racism in English language arts classrooms: Toward an anti-racist black language pedagogy.” Theory Into Practice, 59:1, 2020. DOI: 10.1080/00405841.2019.1665415

Demby, Gene and Meraji, Shereen Marisol. “Ask Code Switch: School Daze.” Code Switch from NPR, 12 Sept. 2018.

Fisher, Cora. “Jesse Chun: Know What I Mean?” Art Papers, Winter 2019/2020.

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Garcia, Ofelia. 2009. “Emergent Bilinguals and TESOL: What’s in a Name?” TESOL Quarterly, 43(2), 322-326.

Gonzalez, Jennifer. “Know Your Terms: Code Switching.” Cult of Pedagogy, 19 June 2014.

Harden, Brandon T. “Philly high school students get to be part of a famous art movement.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 17 July 2020.

Lukavic, John. “New Jeffrey Gibson Exhibition Blends Native American & Contemporary Art Influences.” Denver Museum of Art, 11 May 2018.

Ujiyediin, Nomin. “Kehinde WIley Reimagines Blackness in a Eurocentric Art World.” KGOU, 15 June 2017.

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