Ethnographic field note. Attending the research day ‘Mind the Gap’ on Diversity and Education.

On a Friday in May, I attended the Mind the gap research day on diversity and education at a Dutch-speaking Brussels school of art. The day started with a performance of Ben Benaouisse, a performance artist. The end of his performance drew my attention the most: When Ben started to read his curriculum vitae to the audience of mainly white women, some white men, a couple of Moroccan-Belgian men and a handful of mixed-race alumni of the school. He summed up his many accomplishments during his life, but he ended with “I am not a stranger, but a stranger-in-the-making. I hope to once become a stranger.”

With his performance the artist demonstrates to the audience that he is so much more than the unidimensional ethnic label the audience often places on him. By naming his accomplishments as an artist, he shows that he is an artist first and foremost and that his career is what he wants to be accounted for in the first place. He does not feel like a stranger himself; other people are the ones who make him aware of his otherness.

Next, the director of Moussem, Mohammed Ikoubaan, takes the parole. He starts with joking that he and Ben Benaouisse have something in common: “we both learned Dutch in Ghent.” Again, Mohammed who is born in Morocco does not mention their shared Moroccan heritage, but instead he alludes to the languages they have in common. The main thing I took away from Mohammed’s talk is that he thinks that the reason that migrants do not end up in art schools is mainly a result of the social class in which they grow up. Many migrants come from a working-class background and are predominantly encouraged to become lawyer or engineer instead of an artist. As long as the social conditions do not change, nothing will change he seems to suggest.

Furthermore, he is not a proponent of integrating urban arts into the official arts circuit because the urban artists would lose all credibility with their audience. “The public then becomes white and middle class. This is not the way to go forward”, he argues, “there are other ways.” One of the solutions he believes in is to inject ‘other’ stories with different contents (other canons) in the art world and to broaden the communal arts patrimony. Furthermore, he thinks it is time that “Moroccan artists should be able to play Shakespeare.” He states that today it is still not possible to do that for any Moroccan artist. The plays that Moroccan artists are asked for “always have to deal with Jihad or something like that.”

Finally, a couple of mixed-race alumni are asked to the front of the room to talk about their experiences as a person of color in their school career. In general, none of them have experienced any problems and hindrances regarding their color. Samira goes as far to say that “this is the first time I ever got confronted with my otherness.” Samisha, who recently published a comic book, tells us she thinks that gender issues are far more prominent in the comic book world than issues of ‘diversity’. But she adds that she dislikes it when people label her comic book as exotic. When her comic book got published, she explicitly did not want to partake in the discourse on “it is a book from black people for black people.” So, sometimes the students are confronted with their otherness even though they themselves never think of their otherness. When Veronique, for instance, was told her art work looked very African, she became angry. Although she does not realize it, the venues and events she tells us she got asked to perform could be considered as part of the world music or the development circuit: The Sfinks festival, Couleur café, a campaign for 11.11.11 and ‘Broederlijk Delen’. Whether they want it or not, artists of color often seem to end up in this circuit. Sammy is upset he got asked in the first place to participate in a research day on diversity. Instead of being asked as an artist, he is asked as the guy from a “different ethnic background”. “I find it very sad that I was not asked to talk about my work.” He asks the organizers “what am I doing here? Tell me why I am sitting here? Everybody does have an ethnic background, no?” The organizer, the diversity coordinator, tells him they are interested to hear people from a ‘diverse background.’ “Diversity”, Sammy replies ironic, “My work is diverse: I use diverse media and I have done diverse jobs.”

In general, the alumni agree that they are not the ones that should have been invited. They have never experienced any hindrances in their school careers and thereafter. Veronique thinks of herself as “a bad example” because she has never felt any racial barriers in her career. The people who should have been asked to present at the research day are the people who did not make it to art school in the first place. These are the people that need the researcher’s and the larger society’s attention.

Veronique also points to another interesting insight into artists’ careers. She explains that the people of her cohort who graduated successfully were the ones who were already studying at Luca school of arts in high school where “they learned to push through and learned to handle the freedom of the education”. This demonstrates that it is important for artists to learn the artistic codes and behavioral rules of a cultural institution early on in order to be successful.

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