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Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education!

Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education!

Posted by on Aug 12, 2015 in all posts, on the road | 0 comments

As you may be are aware, there is a knowledge movement slowly building all over the world, an emerging network of lets call them Eco-versities for now – of people and communities reclaiming their local knowledge systems and imaginations to restore and re-envision learning processes that are meaningful and relevant to the call of our times, that cultivate new stories and possibilities, that re-connect and regenerate diverse ecological and cultural ecosystems.

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From the start of our adventures in this landscape of these diverse ecologies of knowledges focusing on Higher Education emerging around the world we dreamt: – what if these places could share their experiences, knowledges, their learning approaches amongst and between themselves and strengthen the beautiful and important work they are all doing?! What even more wondrous and powerful transformations could occur! As we visited places across different countries, as well as writing and making films, we took on ourselves the role of traveling story-tellers – telling stories to people we met of the other places we had visited and what they had been doing. Some links between places started to emerge through this as people and places begun to hear more about each others’ work.

Now that our physical journey to many of these places has come to a rest, as well as carrying on writing and editing the films, we have put our energy into that original dream.

We are really excited to have co-created with Manish Jain from Swaraj University (Udaipur, India) a Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education! This ‘Re-Imagining Higher Education’ event will gather more than 50 other leading visionary-doers and thinkers from more than 20 countries at Tamera Peace and Research Centre, an eco-village in southern Portugal this August (from the 20th – 26th).

We are gathering this group from a variety of learning places around the world – to share experiences, wisdom, insights and challenges to learn about how transformative learning is being imagined and enacted in each place. Our primary focus is to bring together people who are hosting or who are deeply involved with ‘alternative’ or ‘post-traditional’ places of higher education, or who are somehow re-imagining higher education in their work. Many of these have emerged from different social movements, ecological movements and indigenous communities.

During the six days we will spend together in Portugal we will host an interactive process through a structured un-conference format where there will be a lot of time for sharing and co-creating with self-organizing sessions and open-spaces. Our intention is to co-create a gathering that can propel this movement forward, where stories are shared, creative sparks fly, and friendships and alliances are woven. We hope to be able to explore common emerging themes such as sustainability and social justice; unlearning and decolonizing; indigenous ways of knowing; healing; gift culture; re-engaging community, nature and the built environment; local media; literacies; the question of certification; mentoring; rites of passage; right livelihood and social/eco entrepreneurship, and many others. We will keep you posted on how the event goes on our Facebook and Twitter page. We will also let you know how you can participate in this emerging network.

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Artisans of Meaning

Artisans of Meaning

Posted by on Aug 13, 2014 in all posts, on the road | 1 comment

So… we decided to write from the present and share the journey of what it has been like to transform the materials from our year of visiting all of these amazing innovative places of higher education around the world into a series of films. We plan to continue writing about places further on in our trip that we still have not blogged about – to write about them as we are finishing drafts of films.

This ‘making of’ has been quite a ride in itself because of the breadth and amount of material: we recorded over 140 hours of film, with over 80 interviews, visited 21 places in 10 countries. But… it has also been an adventure because rather than editing this material just from our perspective we wanted to involve friends and kindred folk in the making of the films. We also really wanted creative input from people we visited and met along the way, to bounce off our experiences and interpretation of the places visited against the views and experience of those who founded them and of the young people who had gone through them.

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We also want in this project to learn and experiment with a different way of creating knowledge and a story — together — that is collective, rather than so individually-focused. We felt that co-creating would mirror the learning that is occurring in each of the places to be represented in each film. We want to embody in the making of films some of the principles we learnt along our journey: mainly the power of openness, serendipity, co-creation and gift culture. We want to tap into the synergy of having diverse minds and hearts and eyes crafting together stories which are about learning and living and sharing in a different way.

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We are now in rural southern Oregon, a dry region of high desert. It is the height of summer and a thunderstorm has just rolled by and breathed some cool air into the valley giving us some rest from the wildfire-induced smoky air. I look out of the window onto the garden where we have been growing some vegetables and herbs since we arrived. The garden keeps us connected to rhythms of nature’s growth and the life of plants are a nice reminder of the living things that are all around us — providing much –needed breaks from the screen and computer that are the tools of an editor.

Our intention is to make these films within a community of friends.

Nothing substitutes the power of face-to-face interaction when we make things together. We were lucky to have experienced this on numerous occasions during our journey – the intensity of being in the same place and intimately sharing ideas, feelings and intuitions, drawing and sketching ideas, building models and mindmaps, moving pieces of paper around, pointing at a screen or photo, sticking notes on a wall, going for walks, cooking and eating together.

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Enlivened Learning Map by Manuela Pereira

But we ended up in a small rural town where Kelly was born, slowing down with the birth of our first baby —- the friends we met or re-encountered along the way are scattered around the globe.

So we devised another way of maintaining a creative community that would nourish each other and participate in the making of these films. Experimenting with various online tools and platforms we are navigating places of co-creation. Our friends from India, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, USA, Canada, UK and France have been participating in this co-creative process. A syncretic mix of emails, online meeting groups, Skype group chats, a vimeo page to host our interviews and work in progress and a website where we share transcripts, ideas and conversations – provides the architecture where we meet and work.

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This has meant adapting a working environment and editing workflow so as to make it available online and distributed across people, places and timezones. It has also meant opening up the making process out of the ‘editing room’ so that others are watching, transcribing and annotating the interviews, and discussing early drafts of the films together. Beyond this, we have also become a creative community, making maps and images, animations and posters all which are further enlivening the stories we are telling.

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Enlivened Learning Logo Animation made with Madhur Anand

Thinking about this process of editing and finding the threads significance across the range of materials – interviews, action sequences, shots of places, people, events, photographs and sound recordings – we came up with the name of the group as ‘Artisans of Meaning’. This name emerged because we are crafting and weaving the meaning of each film through the strands which stand out for each of us, which move us and which we all find significant. The films then emerge as a tapestry of this process.

We also see and have experienced the group as a way to learn together through the materials. Again we took on board a lesson from our journey of the importance of creating situations whereby we can learn together whilst connecting this learning to real issues happening in our lives. We saw the wonderful opportunity of learning together around the making of a film, as well as learning of the topics that the film covers.

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Enlivened Learning Poster
created by Ali Hodgson

For Kelly and I this community has been invaluable. It has been a tremendous source of nourishment — rather than a typical editing process that is often quite lonely and isolating as editors, writers, filmmakers and many others with a ‘making craft’ may recognize. But much more than that, co-creation has often opened up many wonderful new avenues and perspectives on these stories we are telling, helping us to shape them in a way that is more clearly expressed and relevant.

Now we have been some 10 months into this process. We are about to finish a draft of our fourth short(ish) film. We still have some way to go, we plan 6 films of 6 of the places visited before tackling the feature film which will be a story of the whole journey. And this is before the second stage of editing next year which will be on films of the places we visited that are focused on arts and cultural expression.

I think back to something I wrote some months ago under the title ‘Meeting Hospitality and Friendship on the Road’ (http://enlivenedlearning.com/2013/01/06/). This post was an expression of gratitude for the generosity, hospitality and friendship we met along the journey. I also described here an experiment of the open sharing of ideas amongst academic friends whilst living in the UK, in the ‘amateur academic adventurers club’. Amateur because we were engaged in something we loved and enjoyed, as the Latin roots of the word imply, an adventure’s club because it sounded fun and suggested that the pursuit of ideas and social inquiry can have the quality of an active running forth, an investigation and act of discovery. As I also wrote, the group was an attempt to create a place outside the atmosphere of institutional and often interpersonal toxicity that haunts the walls of the academy, to cultivate the opposite, an environment of hospitality, friendship and the nurturance of ideas. Something that would enrich our own enquiries and enliven our sense of possibility of making, relating and thinking. The Artisans of Meaning has also been an extension of this beyond the world of film-making. It has been an exploration of a way of making a film beyond an industrial model of filmmaking to one whereby the making is also an opportunity for learning together and cultivating relationships as a priority, rather than a by-product. As a friend once put it ‘making is connecting’.

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the art of rebellion, part 2, Chiapas

the art of rebellion, part 2, Chiapas

Posted by on Dec 30, 2012 in all posts, Mexico | 0 comments

Zapatista school mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

The relationship of art and political culture I wrote about in my previous post can be even more clearly seen in Chiapas. The city of San Cristobal de las Casas, capital of the state of Chiapas, does not have the same overt display of the art of rebellion on its walls as Oaxaca. But this outward lack of visible signs and the seeming normality of this picturesque town with indigenous craft sellers and wandering tourists covers an intense uprising and violent conflict which emerged here in 1994. Here the figure of the Indian, the indigenous person, is even more present than in the art we found on the streets of Oaxaca.

Zapatista mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

The Exercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN) were often referred to in many of the conversations we had throughout our time in Mexico. The EZLN uprising in Chiapas in January 1st 1994, the same day as the signing of NAFTA (see Kelly´s posts on Maize for more information on NAFTA), also created an effervescence of visual imagery. Indeed the key figure in this struggle, Subcomandante Marcos, appears very aware of the power of imagery and symbolism for a political movement, using the balaclava, amongst other images and symbolic events, as a devices through which to communicate a new way of sharing power or doing politics. In this case the anonymity of the mask declares that the struggle of the indigenous Maya is also the struggle of peoples across the world. Artists and craftspeople from Chiapas and beyond have tapped into the imagery and stories of this revolutionary struggle and their work can be seen in shops and galleries across San Cristobal and on murals in the autonomous Zapatista towns in the state. Proceeds from the sales of these products, here in Mexico and abroad, often go to support Zapatista communities.

Zapatista mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

Postcards, posters, t-shirts, wallets, bags, mugs, shot-glasses, Marcos dolls and key rings populate this visual world. This world overlaps with an older iconographic tradition of revolutionary imagery in Latin America with the ubiquitous pictures of Che Guevara and here in Mexico Emiliano Zapata, key figure in the revolution of 1910, and from whom the current day Zapatistas draw inspiration.

zapatista dolls in shop, San Cristobal, photo by Udi

zapatista postcards in shop, San Cristobal, photo by Udi

The present day revolutionary imagery of the Zapatistas also has important innovations which say something about the novelty of their politics and their visions of hope for the future they are trying to build. We already mentioned the mask as a symbol of the dispersed nature of power and leadership amongst the Zapatistas, we also see recurring images that represent the struggle of women for equality in the figures of the ‘mujeres dignas e rebeldes’ and in the other icon of  the revolution Comandante Ramona. In these images we also see the centrality of indigeneity as a key category of the struggle, as well as expressions related to the importance of land and subsistence. The images also serve as pictures of hopeful futures, we see communities living in harmony with each other and with nature. We see the importance of education, of working the land. In some of these images we also see the more subtle spiritual dimension of Mayan culture, the cycles of nature, the stars and moon.

Zapatista clinic mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

We visited Oventic, a Zapatista autonomous community, or caracol – snail – as they are called, an hour away by car from San Cristobal. The governing principles of the caracol are meant to embody the Zapatista approach to power which is the practice of leading by obeying.  This approach to leadership means that no one person holds power.  Rather, every person (men and women in the community) learns how to exercise power, what it is to govern their village. The leadership positions frequently rotate (every couple of weeks).  Arriving at the gates of the village we were greeted by masked women who were standing guard at the gate to the main street of the community by the side of the main road the coletivo driver had dropped us off at. Two other masked men approached us and asked questions whilst filling in the mandatory form; who we were, where we were from, why we were there. They went inside one of the houses with our answers before returning a short while later, asking us to follow them.

Zapatista mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

We were assigned a guide to show us around, a local Mayan Tzoztil, one of many Mayan groups and the most widespread in the region. Our guide was quiet (Spanish was not his first language), reserved and naturally wary considering the continuing state (military) oppression and paramilitary violence his community faces, but he beneath his mask he was friendly and provided brief answers, often just a ‘yes’ to my questions. What we, and most visitors who come here see, and what our guide appeared to have been most keen to show, are the murals which cover every building along the main street of Oventic. These have been painted by various artists over the years, many by outsiders, who have come in support of the Zapatista struggle.

Zapatista mural, Oventic, photo by Udi

The murals are beautiful. Their imagery and colors are intense and heartfelt as is the hopefulness and strength they convey, more so for their being found in this place, a community struggling against the odds and the state to be autonomous, to have their own school and clinic, their own cooperatives for their food production, their crafts and transportation. That the Zapatistas are actually practicing, with the various challenges this brings, this new way of living together in another world that they have created – makes the art we saw here, which promote these values, all the more alive. From all the murals we saw I think my favourite ones were the first one I added to this post, on the walls of a Zapatista primary school, I love the notion of an Escuela Primaria Rebelde, where from an early age children are prepared to be creative and autonomous. The image just above, outside the Oficina del Consejo Autonomo, the village assembly, is also very strong, merging the symbol of the mask with that of corn (see Kelly´s posts on Maize). But I also really enjoyed the image below, a playful use of Matisse´s work to show a group of dancing Zapatistas. This playfulness is often missed when people speak about the Zapatistas – see for instance the last few pages of the 6th Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. Though engaged in a serious struggle that emerges in a context of 500 hundreds of years of continued oppression against Mayan communities of the region, their statements, comuniques, poetry and art, and the symbolism embodied in their repertoire of contention (see for instance their recent silent march across a number of towns in Chipas) we see a constant subversion of usual ways of understanding and doing politics.

Dancing Zapatistas mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

So what does all this have to do with our journey into enlivened ways of learning? For me this has been about reconnecting to art as another source we can learn with or from. In Alberta we began to discover how we could learn from place, from the land and from sites which were sacred for the Blackfoot. In British Columbia we began to understand how the art of the Northwest Coast carried within it stories, cultural practice and identities that have been important in processes of cultural rejuvenation. Here in Mexico we also began to see how art reflects and carries forth the political culture in which it is made, the way that relations of power (who is oppressed, by whom and how) is expressed and how images of possible futures are constructed. This has allowed us to enliven our experience of the art we see, hear and touch and suggested ways by which these other ways of expressing (see our post on literacies too) could become incorporated into how we communicate with others.

Zapatista mural, mujeres por la dignidad, Oventic, photo by Kelly

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the art of rebellion, part 1 – Oaxaca

the art of rebellion, part 1 – Oaxaca

Posted by on Dec 13, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

gm corn wall stencil, downtown Oaxaca, photo by Udi

From our very first day walking around we noticed there was something distinctly rebellious and innovative in the political culture in the state and city of Oaxaca. There seemed to be an energy present – in the air… on the political posters and painted on the walls… Also, since quashing the rebellion in 2007, which Kelly wrote a bit about in the previous post, the Mexican state has a constant and menacing military police presence patrolling the city, its officers always in black uniform and bullet-proof jackets and sometimes also in black ski masks, circulating through the city streets in pick-up trucks with mounted machine-guns.

Oaxaca Rebelde, t-shirts, photo by Udi

The city is home to a diverse plurality of experiments in living, organizing and creating that have been going on for at least for the last decade. Indigenous identity, forms of organizing, learning and relating to each other and nature are important in these Oaxacan experiments in living and resisting. Indigenous ways of knowing and key concepts and practices such as ‘comunalidad’ and ‘interculturalidad’ (which we write about elsewhere) have become important in this changing political culture, slowly finding their way into schools and universities across the region, pushed for by indigenous activists and intellectuals.

During our time in Oaxaca we encountered different kinds of social, political, artistic and ecological experimentations taking place across the city. We were very lucky to spend time with one experiment that is equally social, ecological, artistic and political in its creative and critical ways of being.  This ‘experiment’ is the Universidad de la Tierra, or Unitierra as it is more commonly called.  Unitierra has been, since its beginning in the 1990s, an important hub in this fermentation of new forms of living in and around the city.  We will be posting about our various experiences, encounters and learning(s) as related to Unitierra.

What I wanted to describe here is the most expressive sense we had of this culture of rebellion, both here in Oaxaca as well as in Chiapas where we also spent some time.

zapata mural, oaxaca, photo by Udi

The walls of Oaxaca are covered in murals, graffiti, stencil and political posters. The city is also home to a number of artists’ collectives and creative spaces that produce this rich collection of images. Kelly and I both felt how these images speak about present concerns, key ideas and hopes of this surrounding political environment: the corporate take-over of land and resources and the imposition of genetically modified corn; continuing state oppression and abuse of people’s rights; indigeneity; communities attempting to live differently in balance with each other and with nature.

Twins graffiti, Oaxaca, Photo by Udi

Early one morning we walked around the downtown area and found what became our favorite stenciled piece painted on the wall in a small street, next to a collective art space, a few minutes from the bus station. The simple but elegant image shows a woman pointing a shotgun at a group of figures dressed in radiation or contamination suits who appear to be either planting a new species or stealing her planted corn. The woman is wearing a local indigenous headscarf and shirt whilst the other figures represent external ‘alien’ forces allied to corporations who are pressuring the state and local farmers to adopt genetically modified corn (see a separate post on this). This work (the first image at the top of the page) though simple in appearance shows an important topic touching on many campesino (peasant) and indigenous communities across the country and provides an imagery of resistance that inverts the normal power relations.

Graffiti Artist’s Poster for event, Oaxaca, photo by Udi

This art of political murals stretches back almost one hundred years in Mexico. Dating from the period after the Mexican revolution of 1910, which overthrew the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and was started and propelled by peasants, indigenous and generally people displaced the land. Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, who coined the term Mexico profundo to refer to the Meso-American culture that continues to deeply influence Mexican national culture, has been a hugely influential figure around debates concerning the past and recent conditions of the country’s indigenous populations.

siqueiros ‘the revolution gives back culture’ 1958, Modern Art Museum, Mexico City, photo by Udi

The notion of Mexico profundo (or ‘deep’ Mexico) is in sharp contrast to the distinction Batalla makes with the ‘imaginary’ Mexico, or the Mexico that has tried to imagine its way into a domineering existence and has largely failed because of the continuing strength of the millions of people who comprise deep (profundo) Mexico.

His name has also been recurring in the conversations we have had with a number of people in Mexico. Batalla, wrote the following about the prevalence of such murals in the post-revolution period:

Hundreds of square metres of murals adorn every type of public building in many cities of the republic. Murals are in seats of government and public offices, in markets and hospitals, in schools and libraries, in factories and workplaces. In these murals, the image of the Indian is practically indispensable. Rarely is there missing some allegory about the precolonial world that frequently lays the foundation for or presides over the scenes of the world today or tomorrow.

Mural-Diego-Rivera- photo by Mirairi Erdoza – from http://fr.fotopedia.com/items/anboto-2umoIxo9DBo

In the first half of the twentieth century the most internationally famous generation of Mexican artists (Frida Kahlo, Diego Riveira, Gabriel Orozco and Siqueiros) were also deeply immersed in the politics of the time and in the post-revolution period of constructing a national identity. The latter three were themselves involved in largescale mural projects which was supported by the Mexican state in its nationalist aspirations. As Batalla argues, this search for identity often went back to Mexico’s indigenous roots using aspects from it that were easily appreciated:

the bucolic life of the campesino, popular handicrafts and folklore. In music, dance, literature, and the plastic arts, the theme of the Indian provided the basic elements for shaping a vast nationalistic current under government patronage.

For Batalla museums also played a key role in this process of ‘exalting the Indian roots of Mexico’ something clearly seen in one of the Mexico City’s most famous attraction, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology) in Chapultpec Park, a wealthier part of the city. We spent many hours in the museum but managed to see only a small fraction of it, exhausted by the overwhelming number, diversity and amazing quality of the objects displayed.

Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City, photo by Udi

The museum is divided into Mexico’s various geographic regions each with a number of ethnic groups. Each section has two floors the lower ground showing the treasures of the ‘past civilizations’ whereas the top floors demonstrate the present life of these ethnic groups. We happened to go on a Sunday, I think, a day when museums are free for Mexicans and the sheer numbers of people, especially parents and their children was simultaneously overwhelming and heartening. Many children also seemed to be doing some kind of homework, going from room to room with notebooks and writing things down. The rooms upstairs, on the ‘living’ second floor, in contrast, were deadly quiet and the exhibits of the living cultures were anything but enlivened. This contrast of the exalted past as a part in shaping Mexican national identity and the lack of attention to the present conditions of indigenous people is a key theme in Batalla’s work:

The Indian presence as depicted in murals, museums, sculptures, and archaeological sites, all open to the public, is treated essentially as a dead world. It is a unique world, extraordinary in many of its achievements, but still a dead world. Official discourse, translated in the language of the plastic arts or of museography, exalts that dead world as the seed of origin that gave rise to today’s Mexico. It is the glorious past of which we should feel proud, which assures us of a lofty historical destiny as a nation, even though the logic of that assertion is not entirely clear. The living Indian and all that is Indian are relegated to the second floor, when they are not ignored or denied. As in the National Museum of Anthropology, the contemporary Indian occupies a segregated space, disconnected from the glorious past as well as from the present, which does not belong to him: an expendable space. Through an adroit ideological alchemy, that past became our past, a simple reference to what existed as a kind of premonition of what Mexico is today and will be in the future. It has no real connection with our contemporary reality and our collective future.

The art objects and visual expressions we have seen in Mexico from the inexhaustible museum of anthropology, the temples, the work of twentieth century artists like Kahlo, Riveiro and Siqueiros, the murals and street art in Oaxaca and Chiapas, have made me reflect more on these connections between art, politics and the construction of identity. Our brief but deep immersion into the art of the Northwest Coast of Canada taught us much about the languages and grammar speaking through these forms, the deep relationship to place, stories carved into living beings sacred to these communities and the importance in their role to preserve cultural practices and identities (see posts on Freda Diesing School). How did this experience of art here in Mexico relate to that in Canada? What is the place that this art emerges from, what language and forms and stories does it draw from? How does it preserve cultural practices and imagine new futures and identities?

Votiv Painting from Freda Kalho’s collection, Freda Kahlo house, Mexico City, Photo by Udi

Kahlo, Riveira, Siqueiros and many other artists of this generation were involved in a broader post-Mexican revolution period of crafting a new national identity, as Batalla explained. As artists they were creating a new imaginary for the country by drawing on various local and avant-garde pictorial traditions, such as votiv paintings and surrealism in the case of Kahlo or mural painting and social realism for Riveira. These were artists who were also deeply engaged in the broader political and ideological struggles of their day, both Kahlo and Riveira as well as concerned with questions of national identity were also committed communists.

Photo taken by Udi of the space between the Templo Mayor and the Mexico City Cathedral

With these thoughts in mind the images we saw on the walls of Oaxaca and in the city’s art collectives started to make more sense. These images were also connected to place, stories and cultural practice: protest culture, an iconography of rebellion and struggle against the state, the support of indigenous culture. These were attempts at crafting a new imaginary of solidarity and struggle against various forms of oppression using the language of stencils, graffiti, political posters and so on. The wonderful book Teaching Rebellion, which is a compilation of personal testimonies of those present in the teachers’ rebellion in Oaxaca also has something to say about this visual expression of this political culture. In the editors’ introduction they describe how graffiti artists played a crucial role in challenging the government dominated media by appropriating other spaces of communication across the walls of the city:

These artists used their creativity and imagination to visually represent the marginalized, exploited and oppressed, as well as to promote anti-capitalist counter culture in Oaxaca.

The movement showed its capacity not only to organize political acts, but to create artistic and culture events to recover a history of Oaxaca unmediated by the sheen of tourism.

multinacionales stencil, oaxaca, photo by Udi

The walls of the street and the artists’ collectives then provided other images and imaginaries.

‘the greatest triumph’ graffiti, oaxaca – photo by Udi

In some of this art the Indian which in Batalla’s argument had only served to represent a fossil of past glory and as such an innocuous ingredient contributing to national identity surfaces as a living subject, as someone talking back or resisting the current situation. Such is strength of resistance in the indigenous woman from Mexico profundo pointing a gun at the genetically modified corn pushers furthering their imposition of an alien cosomivision.

Indigenous woman with gun stencil, Oaxaca, photo by Udi

These street artists then exemplified something we came to learn more deeply during our time in Oaxaca, the importance of autonomy in the face of various state or corporate institutions that we have grown dependent and as such subservient to regarding our education, health, food, communication and even sanitation (more on this soon). In their case the walls of the city were a means of taking back the spaces for communication and visual expression.

Printers Collective, Oaxaca, photo by Udi

solidaridad zapatista poster in graffiti artist’s studio, oaxaca – photo by Udi

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Discussing art and identity with emerging Northwest coast artists

Discussing art and identity with emerging Northwest coast artists

Posted by on Dec 7, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

We talked with several of the students at the Freda Diesing school, on and off camera.  I would have really enjoyed engaging in conversation to a much further extent with all of the learners at the school, but those that I was privileged to talk with, I learned a lot from.  Each person learning and teaching at Freda Diesing have inspiring stories to tell – stories of how their engagement with art has helped to inspire a deeper connection with their identity, but this self identity being deeply connected to their larger community of place, land and people, including their ancestors.

Photo taken by Udi of students’ morning practice art at the Freda Diesing school

This posting is meant to provide a sketch of some of the key messages that I learned listening to several students speak of their stories of how they ended up coming to the school as a student and what experiences they have had since their immersion into the program.  I have kept these names anonymous for this blog posting as these conversations were either recorded for the film or were unrecorded informal conversations.  I feel it is imperative to stress that what I write here is not their direct voice – rather, I provide a brief account of what I learned.  I wanted to write this posting because of the deep inspiration I felt from each conversation.  Fuller accounts that were provided through recordings will be provided to the students themselves and the Freda Deising school for their own use over the coming months.  Sections of these and other recorded conversations will be used for a shorter film specifically related to the Freda Diesing school, and for a longer documentary film that we will be producing from our entire journey, integrating moments from each place we have visited and will visit over the next 8 months.

Photo taken by Udi of students at the Freda Diesing school

An older student told me that art, or his engagement with and learning about First Nations art, had saved his life.  I was admiring a design he was drawing as a copy from an old bent-wood box and I asked him about his work – what he was doing, how long it had taken him….  He said that he was in his second year.  And then he looked at me and said that art had saved his life.  This came as a surprise as I was not expecting him to talk with me about this sort of experience as suddenly as he did.  He told me that Dempsey had come to teach a class that he sat in on – while he was in prison.  He said that he had a long sentence and that he had been an alcoholic and drug user like many people from his community.  He also told me that he had been to residential school as a child – a horrible part of his life – similar to many other people from his community.  He said that after being introduced to art through these workshops he decided to stay involved and he ended up coming to the school after he was released.  Art helped him to reconnect to himself, to heal, to be proud of his identity.

Photo taken by Kelly of photos of bent-wood boxes re-enhanced photographically by Bill McLennan

One student we spoke with, a first-year student, spoke to us with a great deal of enthusiasm about the ways in which studying art is helping him connect to his community and identity.  We noticed him on the first day speaking publicly about different repatriated Nisga’a objects (masks, blankets, combs, shaman’s regalia) within each room at the Nisga’a museum, but did not realize until the end of the day that he was also a student.  He was interning at the Nisga’a museum (which he is really enjoying), helping to convey the histories and importance of different repatriated objects in the museum to visitors.  When we asked him to introduce himself in the interview, he spoke to us first in his own language to introduce himself (we found this quite often) – his name, where he was from.  He also introduced himself through his ancestral past and his crest.  He told us about being half-White, that having this identity meant that he was not as engaged with the community growing up as he could have been.  He did not grow up in the dancing, ceremonies, cultural events.  He explained that before coming to the Freda Diesing school, he learned from a non-native how to carve native art (this person also taught him philosophy).  He did not focus on learning more about art or becoming an artist.  He went to study mechanical engineering at university.  He had a hard time with the linear non-creative environment and ended up failing his first term.  He knew that he wouldn’t be happy and so he then pursued art and ended up with a scholarship to come and learn at the Freda Diesing school.  He spoke proudly and confidently telling us that learning at the Freda Diesing school gave him a really strong integration into traditional perspectives towards everything.  For example, he explained that right now, as we spoke, we were in Tsimshian territory – and how when we went to the Nisga’a museum, we went to the Nass and back – to a different territory.  He marveled how this was done in a day, that before the time of contact, this would have taken well over two weeks.  He explained that thinking this way, in a traditional cultural sense – gives more respect towards everything. He loves being at the Freda Diesing school with so many First Nations students – from different First Nations communities and has learned, in his view, that all First Nations cultures are connected – pieces of the same spiritual forms..  He told us that there is so much to learn and that he wants to learn as much as he can.  He is particularly interested in learning about traditional spiritual forms, the stories, language and grammar through which each form has come into being.  He also just really wants to help in his community.  He told us this with a strong sense of energy and passion.  He also told us that he is torn about this – ‘helping’ is easier if you are a shaman – you cannot force these things.   He told us emphatically that art opened the door for him to re-connect – to himself, to his community.

Photo taken by Kelly of the interior of the Long House on the Freda Diesing school campus

Another student came back to the Freda Deising school later in life after other career trajectories.  He introduced himself as Haida and German and explained that art had always been a side interest, but eventually he decided to go back more strongly into it.  He knows now that he wants it to be a full time career.  He loved art as a child, but he did not pursue it in school.  He wanted to work in a logging camp when he was an adult.  He was discouraged from doing art because of money – he explained that most people stay away from art because of income.  His abilities in art waned – he told us how he had lost his edge because of so many years of doing other types of work.  He told us how he used to always tell people that he was an artist and when they asked about his work he would say that he wasn’t doing it now… but he would again soon.  This ‘soon’ took a long time to happen.  Now, however, he is in it properly, learning with other artists at the school and intending to continue with his learning and practicing after.  He then discussed his background and connection with his community.  He told us that the Haida have possibly been on Haida Gwaii for at least 20,000 years.  He talked to us severity of how disease had decimated the population of the Haida and the stealing of the objects by the British.  He also told us how the Haida burnt their objects because of the fear of God through Christianity.  These tragic stories, as well as his own desire to be an artist, helped him to be inspired to learn and engage with Haida art – to help maintain the continuity of the art. He described how inspiring it is for students from different First Nations groups to unite and learn from each other as much as learning about their own cultural past – like they are able to at the Freda Diesing school.

Photo taken by Udi of students doing morning ovoid drawings at the Freda Diesing school

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