“Yes! That’s what I say!”
“Yes! That’s what I believe!”
“Yes, we have that exact problem!”
What gives these refrains such a sense of energy and relief between kindred spirits or kindred organizations? Is it the recognition of one’s own dilemmas elsewhere, even in a different context and country? Perhaps a sense that human beings share essential experiences of passion, of struggle, of success and recognition? When you happen upon a kindred spirit or place the recognition is so instantaneous that one’s reaction can be joyous: “Ah, you understand me,” one sighs with relief at finally not having to explain everything.
I have just returned from an intense week in Johannesburg (Jo’burg), South Africa at Artist Proof Studio (APS), a community organization that trains and educates young people from ages 19-23 in print making. Printmaking in many ways both documented and instigated change during the years of Apartheid. Kim Berman, with her arts degree from Tufts University/The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, was determined to answer Mandela’s call for each citizen to contribute to the building of the new democracy. She returned to Jo’burg in 1991 and co-founded Artist Proof Studio.The belief that arts could play an important role in social change fueled a commitment to the necessary and painful processes of mutual interchange to overcome the distrust and alienation of the apartheid years. Some 21 years later APS continues to help artists discover their own capacities as creative voices for social change. APS leads by example in many of its programmatic initiatives. They use a visual medium to teach about HIV, AIDS and other health issues. They staff a professional printmaking shop that employs young up-and-coming printmakers. They offer printmaking classes to approximately 40 or 50 students a year. The life and work of Artist Proof Studio parallels the development of democracy in South Africa. Five years ago, when I first visited APS, I felt an intensity of focus on the work; evidence of caring teachers, and a clear commitment to quality as demonstrated by the critique I observed. APS felt oddly like Boston Arts Academy (BAA) with its energy and buzz. Kim then sent us two young teachers to work with students. Next came an exhibition and symposium in 2009 that showcased the work of Kim and her students.
The interchange was an unparalleled success. Our BAA students and community were drawn to the social issues portrayed in the work—issues of xenophobia, of racism, of shame to discuss HIV and AIDs. And work that demonstrated deep sensitivity to issues of family, children, and alienation from one’s self and/or community, and the importance of the importance of play, beauty. Young people from two very continents seemed compelled to express themselves about social issues and also called upon to create new work.
APS, just like BAA, has a strong practice of critique. What makes work strong? How does one communicate one’s ideas with the audience? What does it mean to be an artist and an activist? And how does the organization continue to grow and improve? This last question brought BAA back to work with their entire staff to analyze these questions and more.
Our goal during our week at Artist Proof was to provide the studio with a more coherent approach to curriculum and assessment, as well as to help the various parts of the organization gain clarity about mission and vision. The words of an APS report of our exchange demonstrate what BAA means to them: An innovative pedagogical approach that integrates the arts throughout the academic curriculum based on best practices. BAA has created a successful model through its “inventive approach to leadership, professional development, community building, incubating new curriculum designs, arts integration and student support” (http://bostonartsacademy.org).After a great deal of work we came up with four terms. We wanted everyone to be able to innovate, to be self-aware, to engage and to excel. The acronym was ISEE which was particularly apt given that the organization is dedicated to visual arts. The next steps involve APS staff returning to their curriculum to specifically describe how students will demonstrate these habits in classes, projects and every day interactions. We hope that APS will develop a clear assessment process over time so all students and teachers can attest to the attainment of ISEE. Our work with APS was an opportunity for all of us to be learners, teachers and observers of one another. The power of interchange offered exciting prospect for collaboration across many spectra and organizations in general, not just the artistic world. Jo’burg is a study in contrasts. Enormous wealth is evident in the manicured suburbs with houses hidden behind high walls and shopping centers more opulent than any I have seen in the US. On the other hand, residents in neighborhoods of Jo’burg and townships like Soweto or Alexandria live in crowded conditions, with no running water or other amenities, and sky-rocketing unemployment. They also rank near the top of the entire continent with the incidence of HIV and AIDs. While the 1994 Constitution speaks eloquently of human rights in all forms, the reality of life for the majority is quite different. In a country where music, dance and art are foundational parts of human life and expression, in Soweto, of the 350 schools, only two offer any kind of art experiences. It is a miracle that each day students leave Soweto for Artist Proof, often traveling over an hour each way, committed to becoming skilled printmakers.
APS stands as shining example of what can happen when political, human and artistic forces combine for the advancement of young people.