She wanted to talk about circles

Curator and educator Sepake Angiama's speech for seLecT Art and Education Prize

Publicado em: ANO 09, Nº 48, Set/Out/Nov 2020

Categoria: Destaque, English, Prêmio seLecT

Sepake Angiama's lecture at seLecT Art and Education Prize

Hello everyone, my name is Sepake Angiama and I am the artistic director at the institute of international visual art and one of the initiators of the self-organised gathering of unlearning called under the mango tree. Firstly, before speaking today I would like to thank the organizers and conveners of this series of lectures for their patience and commitment and of course for the invitation. We find ourselves in troubled times where we are juggling multiple commitments. The need for artistic practices that go beyond the realm of what we understand the art world to be have only increased their significance. So thank you for your persistence. It is always a pleasure to speak within the Brazilian context as I have been inspired time and again not only from my encounters in Brazil but also because of the different models of art, architecture and education practices – past and present. It is also a context of convergence of narratives, Indigenous, African and European that continue to have entangled resonances today. 

It’s been a difficult time for many of us these last 6 months. Many of us have suffered loss one way or another. Perhaps loss of a loved one but also a loss of sociability, of coming together and of intimacy, of passing conversation on the street, of the unplanned and unexpected and this is something I rely on so much in my work. I talk of intimacy here in the context of education practices – as an opportunity to get close to others, to be able to voice and to listen, a true space of exchange – although those spaces also require a good amount of time, patience and vulnerability too. So much of my practice relies on intimacy. But one thing I have enjoyed is reading to others. Reading texts by those black feminists to whom I turn and often find so much strength to continue my work.

Today I am going to speak using a number of different registers – flowing between poetry and texts that I have written and written by others–  using my experience in different situations as my primary source. We sometimes fail to trust our own experience and our own voice, but this is a practice and as we continue to experience we find articulation of language and this movement between doing something, reading out loud, reading collectively, writing and further conversation is a continual flow of movement which forms the discourse that we are engaged with. But I will also be reflecting on the practices of other artists and pedagogues and those who have influenced my thinking and doing.

She wanted to talk about circles, 

about forms that go around and come around, 

about circular forms,

  that ripple,

  that return,

  that revolt and resonate, 

that curve, 

about bottoms, 

and bellies, 

the soft curvature, 

and form

that pleasing line that returns on itself, like the cupping of clay and how a ball feels in your hand, about open circles, with fissures and breaks and spaces for one more, the shape that our bodies make when they are fetal, curling up into a ball when in fear, or feeling sick or wanting to make yourself small, she wanted to think about the form we make in the womb, the proximity between two bodies, the roundness of bowls, of columns, and the seduction of a curved wall, of a curved corner, of curved things, that line that goes around and comes around, that rolls, that repels, that rebounds, that relates. A circle, a round, relenting circle, a line that goes around and comes around, that revolts, that repels, that spins, that resonates, that ripples, that responds, that returns, that rattles, that goes around and comes around, that responds, to the sound, that echoes, that rebounds, that line that would rather continue along its way. A revolution of sorts.

Circles are very important for under the mango tree, a gathering of artist initiated, schools, libraries and spaces of unlearning, of decolonization, an unravelling of thought, a thinking through bodies, while resonating with other bodies. 

“form a circle” 

that’s how the first gathering began. Sanchayan asked us to form a circle in front of the Fridercianum just under a tree planted by Joseph Beuys. Instead of mango trees our walk through the park was lined with oak trees that were planted by Beuys and transformed the city. Rabindranath Tagore was perhaps thinking of another way to transform our bodies in space. Planting mango seeds into the dry terrain of Santineketan to form classrooms – bodies of thought finding shade under the mango tree.

The entangled roots of the gathering, under the mango tree gleaned its inspiration from many radical pedagogical thinkers and spatial art education practices – Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), Lina Bo Bardi (1914 –1992), Paulo Freire (1921–1997), Ivan Illich (1926 –2002) –  as well as bringing together ten schools, initiatives and libraries whose practices derived from such radical lineage. The etymology of the word radical – I learned from Emmanuel Pratt who organizes Sweetwater Foundation in the south side of Chicago a land based education that seeks to think about the neighbourhood as a commons – comes from, ‘pertaining to the root’ so when we talk of radical education practices we think of practices and writing that aims to challenge, uproot and destabilize conservative forms of institutionalized learning. 

We see learning as active, constantly shifting and evolving, exhausting and yet very much alive. The practices brought together from very different geographies share the struggle against ‘banking’ knowledge based forms of exchange and strive for biophilic rather than a necrophilic education –  unlearning transactional forms of knowledge as though the student is an empty vessel collecting wisdom from the ‘master’ and instead attempt to identify the tools needed to pursue self-education, to decolonise, to embody, to experience, to make and do. Coming from the etymology of ‘education’ ‘to draw out and lead forth’, how can the congregational, the coming together, the being with produce new forms of learning which replenish and not simply extract? As one of the contributors to under the mango tree Jorge Gonzales who will host the next addition in Puerto Rico describes how do we construct other forms of we?

Indeed, the mango tree, with its delicious fruit and seductive smell, is a site of learning that allows us to activate all our senses for learning with each other. The first of these images being, Santiniketan – the abode of peace –– the Nobel Prize writer and poet Rabindranath Tagore whose father Maharshi Debendranath Tagore bought twenty bighas (approx. 5 acres) of land from the landlord of Raipur near  Bolpur, 150 Klms from the city of Kolkata, West Bengal in India and built a garden house and named it Santiniketan, the perfect place for meditation and contemplation within nature. After his father’s established Santiniketan as a spiritual center in 1863 Rabindranath explored the idea of an experimental school in 1901 which began with an equal number of teachers and students and called it the Brahma chary asram, later becoming the university Visva Bharati in 1921. The motto of the university speaks to Tagores’ vision of a global village – Yatra visvam bhava tye kani dam (where the whole world can find a nest) which follows the idea of education as a holistic field, in which teacher and student work together in a circle of communal learning—under the shade of other mango groves – amra kunja.

Rabindranath’s idea was to devise a curriculum that creates harmony with all existence in which its roots dug deep in connecting with the locality but it’s resonance and attraction would stretch far beyond the remote lush greens and red soil of the locality. An education that grew out of open air classrooms and a connection to nature and indignant turn away from shut in classrooms and the European models of exam driven frontal learning which he felt stifled his own learning. A celebration of seasonality rather than religious rituals, an awakening of the senses which embraced expression through the arts.

She is our own, the darling of our hearts, Santiniketan.
Our dreams are rocked in her arms.
Her face is a fresh wonder of love every time we see her,
for she is our own, the darling of our hearts
In the shadows of her trees we meet
in the freedom of her open sky.
Her mornings come and her evenings
bringing down heaven’s kisses,
making us feel anew that she is our own, the darling of our hearts.
The stillness of her shades is stirred by the woodland whisper;
her amlaki groves are aquiver with the rapture of leaves.
She dwells in us and around us, however far we may wander.
She weaves our hearts in a song, making us one in music
tuning our strings of love with her own fingers;
and we ever remember that she is our own, the darling of our hearts.

Rabindranath Tagore is often described as a polymath – he becomes well known in Europe as a poet and the first from India or indeed from non-European descent to gain recognition through his poetry and writing gaining him a Nobel prize for Gitanjali or as it is translated Song Offerings. What is most striking about Tagore is what he does with the prize money from winning the prize? He takes this money to invest back  into the school. He believed that students should not have to pay for their education and that they should experience a freedom to learn not hindered by this concern. This meant that much of the travel and lectures that Tagore gave internationally were for the ongoing support the upkeep and running of the school.

Before we gathered in Santineketan the women from the close by village prepared the ground for our registration. They drew a large circle on the ground and levened the earth in a circular motion. They used the same method that women do to finish the dwellings in the area using a mixture of cow dung and sand. Over the next couple of days it dried while they also prepared the place for cooking and eating together. This was the second edition of under the mango tree, the first taking place between Athens and Kassel. But Santineketan had been the inspiration. The invitation from Sanchayan Ghosh the Head of the Painting department at the art school came at the end of the first edition. He attended the first edition and considered that another gathering could commemorate the 100th year of the school. The art school was founded in 1919 in the same year that Bauhaus was formed. Bauhaus training in the foundation year found the importance and relation between the body, movement and the creative force. But today I am not going to focus on the formal aspects of learning but rather to think about practices that bring us back to ourselves being fundamental to our own learning and unlearning. Today I would like to focus on these practices of unlearning as a form of praxis. In the practices of the schools that we brought together there was a need to collectively rewrite knowledge – not only in terms of how we understood knowledge to be but also how to un-train ourselves. I saw that the schools, libraries and initiatives that we brought together recognized their practices as extensions of their own thinking and processes of learning.

How can you think through the body if you have spent years being conditioned to think that to listen is to sit still, to be attentive is not to fidget and to focus the eye on the one that is speaking? Through my time as a teacher I have found that using the hands to concentrate on something else generates another way of being together. The nature of the conversation and dialogue shifts. The haptic allows for a connection to others that is not pressured and flows allowing for silences and chatter. Another thing within my schooling that I was discouraged from doing was talking. And I liked to talk a lot. Talking was my way of understanding what the task was at hand. If I knew how to do something the pleasure of showing others how to do it was too much for me to resist the opportunity. In my schooling was not encouraged to speak – I was encouraged to stay silent. Because as far as the teachers understood if I was silent I was being receptive. And while silence has its uses it’s important to know that speaking has its uses too. Not only to demonstrate knowledge but also as a form of transmission and translation, expression and to enter into a dialogue. Potentially it’s in the speaking that understanding is consolidated. But we are not encouraged to enter into a dialogue with those who teach us. The role of the teachers is to teach and the student should therefore soak up what is being taught.

A voice

A small voice

A small voice speaks

A small voice speaks from within her and she doesn’t move her lips. Remaining very still, she listens. Listens to hear if the voice will speak again. She only hears her breath this time as her chest rises and falls. She becomes aware of the noises that surround her. The repetitive trill of an early Sunday morning bird and the dry dragging sound of the wheels of a car as it drives up the hill. One sound of a church bell and the cry of a small child. Creating the setting of a quiet Sunday morning. But this voice, this voice that spoke from within her, spoke so softly, clearly, without confusion and with perfect clarity. It’s time to wake up.

She would often wake up to her inner voice trying to make sense of the world. Solving problems from the day before. Resolving arguments. Creating solutions and making plans. Her inner voice was quietest at night and always awoke early. The cacophony of too many voices from the events of the days passed through her. But in the morning, there were very few sounds to challenge her inner voice. Get up, there is so much to do today.

She takes in another breath focuses on the blue sky and awaits further instruction. Closing her eyes she realizes how much her inner voice sounds like her own voice. Pondering on how she could hear it, she becomes stuck in her thoughts. Did she train herself to hear this voice? Upon reflection perhaps the voice had always been there. The insanity of possessing another voice speaking from within was most likely developed while in school or from trying to hear the voice of God while at church. When writing and reading, pupils of her school were asked to work in silence. Only the scratching of carbon pencils on paper and the flipping of pages to be heard. She had struggled with reading in silence and had trouble identifying different voices in narrative texts. She often couldn’t tell who was speaking. This did not stop her from trying to decipher the voices. For the words on the page would remain as encoded symbols without the articulation of the voice. Who was speaking? Was it the writer or had they crafted another narrator? The narrator in her mind should be neutral and without bias. 

This was also why she struggled to follow a story being read to her. While the reader subtly reflected the nuances of the text, the articulation of the words from the page, pushing up from the diaphragm, the air passing over the larynx and trachea, to be manipulated by the tounge, the air squeezing past the tounge and the teeth creating a wave of sound that oscillates midair until they reverberate around the skin of the outer ear spiraling down into the inner ear, cocooning the sound into three connecting bones surrounded by a balancing liquid, the information travelling to the brain to decode the sound symbols as something meaningful. Attacking like rapid gunfire, the manipulation of sound into a language of meaning. But instead of following the flow of words, she would drift and converse with her inner voice. One word or a sentence acting as a trigger.

I am often asked the question – how do you unlearn? Or what does it mean to unlearn? Well for me it was a journey that began in trying to recognize my voice. When I talk about my voice I talk about the consolidation between my inner thought and my outward expression. This is often something that we struggle to do and much of our education is about guiding this outward expression. But I think that very much of what I think about when I think about unlearning is recognizing that often we are not at the centre of our own story. Our voice can often be decentred. That is at the root of the many grass roots movements whose continual struggles are galvanizing change. What could it possibly mean to decentre whiteness from our education? To recognize and value other knowledges. What could it mean to rupture this space to no longer tell the story of the one that we name the victor but to listen to the voices that have been for so long marginalized, silenced, othered or even erased. When I think of this question I also think so much about non-human life. A number of the practices that I am inspired by consider land based learning as central to the formation and design of coming together.

‘To come under the shade of this mango tree with such deliberateness and to experience the fulfillment of solitude emphasize my need for communion. While I am physically alone proves that I understand the essentiality to be with.’

Through under the mango tree our shared or collective aim was to share and broaden our understanding and knowledge of artistic initiatives critically positioned outside of the Western canon. Is it possible to transform old structures into new ones? We were interested in collective forms of knowledge production, centering other forms of knowledge or in some cases indigenous forms of knowledge as well as finding ways of creating a non-hierarchical setting. In preparation we looked to a text written by Freire from his text Pedagogy of the Heart. As he sits under the mango tree in solitude he recognizes the value of what it means to be with. As well as sharing practice what we discovered is that through the workshops and the moments of gathering we were also practicing what it meant to be with. And that togetherness is not a given. When you stand in the circle for the first time with a group of people that you do not know you are not together – you are not yet a group – you have not found your common ground even if you are all drawn to be in one place at one time – you are a group of individuals. What I have learnt is that togetherness is a practice that requires, time, demands attention and focus and requires active listening. Not only to others but also to yourself and it’s through this back and forth exchange that a connection is forged. 

I would like to focus the second half of this talk to discuss some of the practices that we have brought together. It will not be a conclusive list but perhaps it helps to give a sense of the nature of these practices and in the ways they come together. For the first gathering the contributors firstly met over a series of days in Athens. We occupied the old university library of the Athens School of Fine Art. By way of introducing ourselves we also shared connections that we had with others in the group. I also asked each contributor to bring a seed – perhaps this was more of a symbolic gesture than an unethical attempt to shift the ecology but each of us brought something that we wanted to plant in terms of ideas. What did we want to grow in ourselves and each other? At the time documenta 14 was taking place and at the art school the exhibition there focused on the pedagogical and included some of the work of the contributors. 

We invited two guests from Ciudad Abierta – Open City from The School of Valparaíso, or the School of Architecture and Design at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso was re founded on the 50s by a poet and an architect with a strong view of the offices and their relationship with the poetic word. Many other artists and philosopher joined this idea and in 1965 developed a trip called the first Travesía, a trip that started in Tierra del Fuego and finished in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The main question formulated during this trip was the meaning of being American, and it gave origin to the poem “Amereida”. After this experience, it was necessary to create a place where the poetic word and the acts remain together, and mostly, the union between “life, work and study”, so the Open City presents a place or land in America, in front of the pacific that unifies the words and the acts. It remains open through the hospitality presented in all the members of the school, corporation and inhabitants. Ciudad Abierta is also an experimental campus in which some questions about design, architecture and the shapes related to them or to other artistic disciplines can be studied, and it is also a campus of research and projection for the students and the community of the School of Architecture and Design, who attend classes all together every Wednesday. I have not yet had the chance to visit the school but one of the difficult conversations was to explore how this school views the landscape in relation to the indigenous people who have worked and lived in these territories and whose very existence, ways of being and knowing are forcibly erased through the legacy of settler colonialism. 

We invited Woodland School an ongoing project with no fixed location or form. First instigated by Duane Linklater, Wood Land School were looking to make critical engagements within the realms of representation, film, contemporary art, land and politics in Turtle Island and beyond. It emerged out of Linklater’s investigation into Indigenous artists based in northern Ontario in the 1970s, whose work engaged both ancient and contemporary Indigenous art forms. Each iteration of Wood Land School brings into being a commitment to address the lack of structural inclusion of Indigenous people, both historically and in the present, in a multiplicity of institutional spaces. It is a conceptual and physical space for Indigenous people, with Indigenous people deciding its directions, structures and functions. 

One of the things I loved about Wood Land School was there boldness to completely rethink how as indigenous artists you can work with institutions. One thing I learned from them was how important it is to recognize that for so many education can also trigger the violence or the trauma of schooling. A schooling that can be structurally racist and attempts continually to erase your existence. In Wood Land School’s 2017 project in Montreal, SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art has been renamed and operates as Wood Land School. Wood Land School is negotiating structural shifts and limitations while programming Kahatènhston tsi na’tetiátere ne Iotohrkó:wa tánon Iotohrha / Drawing a Line from January to December, a slow exhibition that unfolded over the course of the year in a series of three gestures that centred Indigeneity through art objects, performances and discursive events. Wood Land School extended that gesture to documenta 14, bringing art works from Turtle Island to be installed in the Stellwork Kulturbahnhof in Kassel. This modest exhibition of works was proposed as a condition for Wood Land School to articulate their concerns, questions, ideas and sense of being within the larger international context. 

Not all the practices and schools that were invited for the first edition were able to attend the second edition as moved to a model of self-financing through individuals writing for grants and also self-organising. But we did have some continuity. One of the things that was interesting for me to see was the ways in which we communicated after our first gathering. I had a selection of old postcards that I had bought in a market in Kassel – I distributed them to the contributors and asked them to put their addresses on the cards. And then one of the artists Nikola Oleynikov who is part of two different schools Freehome University and School of Engaged Art took all the postcards and created a collage and drawings on them. Later on the following year – he sent them to everyone as a reminder of the commitment we had made to meet again. But of course over time initiatives change and some come to an end and find new energy in other forms. Coming from Canada was Vincent Tao who attended the first and second edition brought a way of thinking about our relationship to bodies and books to consider the library as a generative and productive space for learning.

Notes on Political Ecologies (N.O.P.E . 2016) was an institutional experiment that assembled a collective of six emerging artists, writers, and researchers, and invited them to appropriate 221A’s exhibition space as a site of communal study between June and August 2016. With the guidance of 221A’s librarian Vincent Tao, the collective convened twice a week to plan and carry out an investigation into the institution’s intimate surroundings: Vancouver’s Chinatown and Downtown Eastside. These overlapping neighbourhoods have historically been a vital nexus of struggles for immigrant and working class power, Indigenous sovereignty, and the right to housing. At present, this contested terrain is besieged by a campaign of resurgent capital investment—‘economic revitalization’, or eviction, displacement, and gentrification, in brief force. Using 221A as an entangled space of study embedded in the geographic centre of this struggle , N.O.P.E. 2016 tasked its participants to interrogate, with hopes of transforming, the roles of artists and their institutions in the rapid redevelopment of Vancouver. Due to the work of Vincent Tao and the engagement of the space within the local community they developed the idea of making the space a permanent library that gathered a collection – they named it Pollyanna.

Pollyanna offered artists and curators a flexible platform to experiment with new strategies of production and public engagement. The library and permanent collections infrastructure was conceived to short-circuit the compulsory transience of rotating exhibitions, a model that 221A understands as embedded in the temporal logic of economic precarity. 

Pollyanna’s collection actively responded to and developed with the fellowship’s activity; documents and materials accumulated in the research fellow’s work will be made publicly available for study during the library’s open hours. This format encouraged a sustained engagement and generative exchanges with publics throughout the research fellow’s time at 221A. 

Counter to the cycle of production and exhibition paradigmatic of cultural industries, Pollyanna favours an ecological model of social reproduction. The art institution as ferment or compost heap; where ideas, actants, and communities develop in cooperation. In addition to a shift towards educational programming and dialogical projects, Pollyanna will hence function as a free space for gathering and communal study, guided by a considered strategy of cultivating productive encounters between publics. Learning from Notes on Political Ecologies (N.O.P.E. 2016) the generative potentials of building relationships and trust in a community, neighbourhood organizations will be given key access to the library to host meetings and events. In a city where common space is deliberately enclosed and erased, Pollyanna will be a common institution—or institution of the commons—where the making of culture and society will be, and must be, a communal endeavour. 

In Santineketan Vincent focused on this idea of the Drifting Classroom that he described coming from a 1972–74 horror manga series (漂流教室 Hyōryū Kyōshitsu ) about a school mysteriously uprooted and set adrift in a phantasmagoric wasteland. The students discover they’ve been transported into a future where Earth has been depopulated by a devastating cascade of environmental collapses. In the final chapter, the students receive a letter sent from the past, “our world—the world we left behind,” packaged in a capsule with a cache of tools and supplies for survival. Nourished by this encounter with history, their history, the students resolve to rejuvenate the wasteland-school rather than continue to attempt escape: “For better or worse, this is our world! … Imagine what we’re capable of doing if we actually commit ourselves!” Together in the drifting classroom, they begin to build a new society in the shell of the old. So these ideas of transforming new pedagogies within the remains of old structures was something we were also thinking through with the students in Santiniketan because their school had become a heritage site and in someway had enshrined the pedagogy in a way that had not allowed it to transform. We drifted through the library and allowed ourselves to wander and pick up any book that we were interested in and spend a short time with it before moving on to another. We then shared our selection and tried to see if there was any connection between the texts we were drawn to.

 We were not putting forward any radical practices per se but we were encouraging dialogue between disciplines and recognizing that the painting department students had not had an opportunity to meet the sculpture students, or printmaking that was not part of a set curriculum. We were awaiting for the unexpected to happen. One of the students said we know each other but we don’t really know one another. And making space for the students to do this became a vital force of conversation and creation.

So when preparing my talk for you today I realized that much of the work in making under the mango tree is built on trust. Trust that we have a common language and understanding by what is intended. Although leading up to a gathering there have been many conversations so much of the workshops, interventions and moments are also reliant on those who wish to participate and be in dialogue. In the case of Santineketan we were on the grounds of the school in an open park. Many of the art students engaged with our programme but as workshops happen simultaneously and for different periods of time depending on the nature of the workshop group numbers varied. One of the group of students who spent time with Sharmila Samant became a kind of perpertetic school within itself. They would visit other groups and Sharmila would spend time discussing after their experience in more depth the ideas and concepts brought up through the workshop.

And it is in this way that under the mango tree operates as a gathering of practices that are collectively shared and find their feet in the invitation. We have been invited by Jorge Gonzales and the Escuela d’Officios to Puerto Rico in 2022 and we hope that we will find a resonance locally that draws on the experiences of the last two gatherings. 

Thank you for listening.


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