Representation Matters

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Representation matters. I know this. I’ve seen the power in seeing an artist who looks like me or has had an experience like mine do for me. I’ve seen what it does for my students. This past year after having gone over a variety of artists, intentionally stating ethnicities and race of artists, a student was digging into Kara Walker, watching a video from Art21. This student was enthralled and then whispered, “Oh my gosh, she’s black.” This light bulb went off for this student. It didn’t magically change this student’s interest in art but it made it accessible.

This summer I’ve been intentional in my planning for who I share with students and I’m constantly unsure of who to leave out. So I’m not leaving anyone out if I can help it.

I created a large slideshow with as many artists as I could last year – using the Art of Ed sheet. This was helpful for my AP students who didn’t have as much background knowledge about artists. I shared the slideshow with them one day going through it super quick but allowing them to SEE artwork by artists whose names they might’ve heard, might not have heard. They highlighted the sheet with work they were interested in looking at deeper. My biggest issue with the sheet and slideshow was the lack of representation of women, LGBTQ, POC, Indigenous, and Latinx artists.

My task this summer was to uncover those artists and see what resources I already have and what resources I need to ensure that students can dig into these artists in a variety of ways. But first, I needed to update the slideshow.

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The slideshow update seemed simple enough – right? Just by including these artists I knew needed to be included would be enough. Right? But I also knew that just seeing someone’s name doesn’t mean that a student understands that that artist is a Puerto Rican LGBTQI woman. So how can I bring attention to some of these basic (and so not basic at all) parts of identity? My thought was a simple symbol – like the LGBTQI flag. I thought I was brilliant. Until I started thinking about how to symbolize a black man… oh of course.. the black power fist! But then, am I separating Americans out? Ugh. Identity is complex. So then I started thinking about artists from other places – use a flag! But the flag is surface level culture. Ugh. I asked my people on twitter for advice and was prompted with loads of questions. The questions have made me think deeper about what this slideshow is for, what’s the goal? The goal isn’t for students to know everything about each artist but for students to have their interest piqued, for them to see themselves in some tiny way represented, for conversations about intersectionality and identity to begin.

So in the end, I am going to use the flags of country or tribe of origin, an American flag to identify a white American, a fist to identify an American POC (Black, Latinx) to identify; the LGBTQI flag and the heterosexual flag; the female symbol, the male symbol, and the non-binary flag. I am also going to provide a key to help with this and also in both writing and orally state that identity is complex and limiting identity to 3 areas and also limiting to just symbols limits the understanding of people’s very complex identity. I am well aware of the issues that are being presented through the use of this method, but I am also aware of NOT identifying or even bringing to the attention of students artists’ identities beyond their media or message is WAY more limiting. The slideshow is very much a work in progress, which I hope it always will be, constantly adding and including more and more. After going through and adding the “identities” into each slide I realized how many identities I am missing and I will be intentionally seeking out more Indigenous artists, especially from my local community, along with many many other artists.

I also plan on discussing with students this use of symbols and what they might use instead. This slideshow is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what I’m hoping students will do with artists. Embedding days filled with responding to artwork; discovering artists and their complexities and context; exploring museums and how curators choose work will all create a much broader understanding of what the art world looks like now and how it has changed (or maybe hasn’t changed that much?).

How do you ensure the artists you share with students represent their complex identities? How do you engage in these conversations and exploration with students? 

Here’s a link to the slideshow.

4 thoughts on “Representation Matters

  1. Does each artwork have all applicable symbols or just one identifier?

    1. Not sure what you mean.. but there’s one for gender, one for sexuality, one for ethnicity/country of origin

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