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Decolonising the arts curriculum: Thoughts on Higher Education

Former UAL education officer Anita Israel shares her thoughts on systemic racism and how art universities have a long way to cross towards anti-racism

Decolonising the arts curriculum: Thoughts on Higher Education

For BAME university students the fight against systemic racism has started long before the BLM movement as we know it today. Our feeds have gotten silent, but the conversation on how art universities should be more inclusive environments that offer anti-racist education has to continue, while creative institutions take action that exists after online activism. Anita Israel, a photojournalist, and former education officer at UAL, shares her thoughts on creating space for BAME students and talks about the DECOLONISING THE ARTS CURRICULUM: THOUGHTS ON HIGHER EDUCATION zine, a body of work that all students, staff and professional creatives should know about.

Could you tell us some words about you, what did you study and what exactly was your role as the UAL education officer?

I was a photojournalism student at LCC, part of the reason I became involved in the Students Union was due to the lack of representation on my course. I was one of two black students and pretty much all my curriculum was centered on white photographers. There were no black tutors or guest lecturers and I had to search for a community to belong to at UAL. I got involved in two Student Lead campaigns, the Decolonising the Curriculum campaign that was being run by my predecessor Hansika Jethani and the ‘Stop the Elephant development campaign’​ being run by previous campaigns officer Sahaya James. Both these campaigns revealed to me that UAL was complicit in racism both inside and outside the institution.

I wasn’t prepared to accept that things couldn’t change and I knew I wanted to help other Black students find their voice. I ran on a manifesto that was all about inclusivity, creating space for Black students and ending systemic racism at UAL. But I’ve worked on a range of different projects and campaigns such as the end outsourcing campaign , tackling racism at UAL,​ saving the only SU bar at UAL​, reducing the cost of study for students, and the Decolonising the Curriculum Zine to name a few. Fundamentally my role was to support and represent students across UAL on all things educational.

Why is the decolonisation of the curriculum, in art colleges specifically, important in your opinion?

Art Universities, present themselves as being free and liberal establishments, it’s what appealed to me as a younger student. I wanted to be part of a creative environment that celebrated diversity. However, as a Black student, you quickly come to realise that the curriculum is not necessarily designed to be inclusive. It’s lazy and it’s racist. Black and ethnic minority artists are completely axed from pre-colonial history. The Black history we are taught in British schools starts and ends with slavery and the civil rights movement, the teaching of selective history continues into higher education. If you are questioning your curriculum, to me that is a sign of growth and intellect. Universities should be empowering Black students to reach their full potential, not penalising them for calling out an oppressive system. It’s not just the curriculum that needs to be decolonised; it’s the culture, there has to be a zero-tolerance attitude to racism in our classrooms and the governing structures of institutions like UAL. This is a pivotal moment for art Institutions to set an example for the next generation of the creative industry.

 

Could you explain what the Zine “Decolonising the Arts Curriculum” is, how did it start and what it is about? What kind of work does it include?

The zine originated as a safe platform for students and staff to share their experiences, the zine was used as a way to share resources and challenge the university’s colonial structures. ​This project created a lane for Black students and staff to feel represented at UAL. ​Like most Black students, I remember raising questions of representation within my course and wondering why I was having to search for a curriculum that reflected my identity. I didn’t know what “decolonising” meant until I had read the first zine, it opened up the floor for racism to be discussed. In zine two you see the evolution of critical thinking, there’s a confidence in the way contributors are sharing and expressing themselves. The zines have taken on a life of their own, they have been a gateway for so many students and staff to connect. In 2019, the first zine became an exhibition tour, with a full line up of networking events, talks, and workshops. Both Zines have influenced the curriculum criteria and have been used as university-wide resources. We’ve been able to facilitate a safe, creative platform for black and minority ethnic students.

 

Why do you think this body of work did not become more known after its creation?

People don’t realise how much work and time goes into creating a publication like the decolonising the curriculum zine. Working on the second zine with Rahul Patel, Clare Warner and Hansika Jethani, was a truly inspirational and educational journey. There are so few BAME staff at UAL and the ones that are doing great pieces of work rarely get the recognition they deserve. The feedback we’ve had from zine contributors, students, staff, and other universities has been so overwhelmingly positive. During the UCU strikes in March Rahul and I was delivering teach-out sessions on the picket lines and it was clear that there is a high demand for resources like this. Universities have to invest more time and resources into developing projects like Decolonising the curriculum zine. ​The vice-chancellor and senior members of staff at UAL should have just as much responsibility in decolonising the curriculum as the student-facing staff on the ground.

Photographs by Anita Israel
Photographs by Anita Israel
Photographs by Anita Israel
Photographs by Anita Israel

Where do you think an educational institution should start to dismantle racism? From its staff, admissions, curriculum, or somewhere else?

All of the above! ​First and foremost institutions need to be listening to their Black students and working with students. ​If I’m honest, I think institutions have yet to grasp the severity of systemic racism and the impact that it has on you physiologically. These negative experiences follow Black students into the world and have a direct link to the prison system and the criminalisation of young Black people in the UK. The ACS president Armani Sutherland and I produced a list of “ anti-racist” actions for UAL and we petitioned the university to commit to these recommendations. There are twenty tangible action points that have been supported by over 10,000 signatures.

Some of our demands include: 

Implementation of mandatory face-to-face anti-racism, racial diversity, and cultural & racial sensitivity training for staff, fast-tracking the process for complaints regarding racism, race discrimination, and cultural insensitivity.

In the Diversity Report, disclose the statistical information of the specific numbers of Black students and staff. Do not continue to publish statistics of BAME races grouped as it encourages erasure of identity.

Increase the number of Black staff to 30% and ensure they are qualified and not just hired because they are Black (to meet the statistical requirement)

Further, decolonise the curriculum by including mandatory Black guest lecturers from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds from different industries sectors.

Be anti-racist would mean that universities would have to hold themselves accountable and demonstrate a willingness and commitment to end discrimination.

As you write in the Zine, through your photographic work as an artist as well as the education officer at UAL, you have a unique insight into the reality of young Black creatives and their fight towards institutionalised racism. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

The work I create is a statement of my truth as a Black woman in society today. Photography allows me to create my narrative and change the negative depictions of race. I’m generally just interested in storytelling and using my privilege as a creator to uplift marginalised voices in society. ​I’ve been photographing and interviewing the essential business owners in my community throughout the pandemic. ​This project has given me a chance to get to know my community, Deptford High street is home to a vibrant African and Caribbean community, most of the shop owners and traders are from migrant backgrounds. The pandemic has exposed the structural inequalities but it’s not just coronavirus that’s killing BAME people, it is the far-right imposing oppressive policies, the lack of resources for councils, the health inequalities and the consistent austerity cuts. More recently I’ve been documenting ​young people and their involvement in the Black Lives Matter protests. Generation Z had to adapt rapidly to the current political climate and they are noticeably more fearless and forward-thinking in their approach to activism. I think it is important to be socially and politically aware of the impact I have as an artist, I’m not just documenting, I’m learning about the world around me. Social change begins with us and how we interact with one another.

 

How do you feel about the recent Black Lives Matter protests as well as the online activism on the topic by universities, fashion and arts media, and fashion brands?

I’m completely blown away by the strength and tenacity of the Black Community, even during a pandemic we are leading the fight against racism. ​Social media is a gift and a curse: on one hand it’s been a powerful tool in elevating the Black voice and enabling us to call out brands, businesses, and institutions for capitalising on the Black Lives Matter movement. But I’m not going to lie, it has been exhausting engaging with the performative statements and the whitesplaining. Cool, you’ve recommended some Black authors, now what’s next? P​olice brutality and institutionalised racism are both forms of racial injustice, what’s happening in our streets is no different from what’s happening in our schools and universities. Collectively we need to continue to lobby institutions, businesses, and government officials to change their policies and stop normalising racist behaviour. ​There has been a complete energy shift at UAL, the university is now putting together an anti-racist strategy using our petition recommendations as a foundation for the action plan. It’s significant progress and it wouldn’t have happened without staff and students coming together, the public support and platforms like UALTruth. I’m not a Black expert and I’m learning just like everyone else. The questions I always ask are what can I do? Where can I use my voice? And how can I help empower my community? I think we all have a role to play in dismantling racism.

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