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Decolonising the curriculum – a ‘serious need’?

In July of last year our photography lead Gina Lundy shared a student’s learning log post that complained of the under-representation of Black and Minority Ethnic photographers in the Expressing Your Vision course. It was a strongly worded grievance and as the author and unit leader I felt I had a duty to address it. So I went back to the coursebook to see if I could understand where she was coming from. EYV was written with globalism very much in mind – several Japanese and other non-western photographers and theorists are referenced prominently in the text and one of the case studies speaks directly to cultural identity from a non-white perspective. I felt EYV was a progressive course – it didn’t need ‘decolonising’. I wrote to the student acknowledging that black photographers were ‘woefully under-represented’ but pointing out what we’d already done to make the course more inclusive. Nevertheless, a student who identifies as Black and/or Minority Ethnic had reported a sense of alienation – was I sure that my understanding was correct?

There is plenty of evidence of racial inequality within higher education (see the reports on the Advance HE website below for example), but how does that manifest itself within the curriculum? In an article on the ‘Discover Society’ website Harshad Keval claims that decolonising the curriculum ‘re-positions who and what gets to occupy the centre and the margins of ideas and society’ while in their e-book ‘Decolonising the University’ Gurminder Bhambra and Delia Gebrial ask what are the silences within the curriculum? Which events, processes and structures are not being addressed? Over on the SOAS blog Meera Sabaratnam raises the identity of the writer, asking ‘would we find it acceptable if the writings and teachings on the situation of women and gender relations were done almost exclusively by men? How would this influence the kinds of perspectives presented? Similarly, is it acceptable if writings and teachings about international regions or global affairs are done almost exclusively by writers from or based within the West? How does this influence our understanding?’

These were complex questions and feeling an acute need to deepen my understanding I took myself down to Cambridge in January for the ‘African Photo Symposium’ at Anglia Ruskin University. Subtitled ‘Telling our tales through ambiguous photography: Decolonizing the visual library of the African continent’ the symposium included speakers from Ghana, Kenya, Mexico and Zambia as well as the West. I found the questions illuminating, for instance ‘when you showed it to the community was there a conversation about what was missing?’ and ‘the camera is a western apparatus, any thoughts about how to make local critical photographies?’ Surprisingly to me, the opening speaker and moderator of the panel discussion was white. Questioned on what significance this might have on her work in Africa Dr. Andrea Stultiens replied that to her decolonising meant adding perspective, not changing from one perspective to another: ‘I’m making my gaze relative by placing other gazes next to it’. This idea of relational ontologies was a common theme throughout the day but I was beginning to understand that decolonisation is also a matter of framing – ‘rather than rule out knowledge that has developed in Western Europe and North America, it seeks to situate it as produced in relation to the range of knowledges outside of European thinkers, but crucially – and as a result of colonial and imperial power’ (my italics) (Keval).

Then in March, just a few days before the lockdown, I attended a talk at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery by Daniel Blight on his new book ‘The Image of Whiteness, Contemporary Photography and Racialization’. To quote from Sunil Shah’s review on American Suburb X ‘the book’s central thesis is that ‘whiteness’ is a social construct configured as a system of power, still in play today and that to be part, unconsciously or otherwise, of this system is to be complicit with being racist’. In other words, Blight was saying that as a white person I am conditioned to see the world through a lens of ‘whiteness’ which is not about my skin colour but rather a way of thinking. And that way of thinking excludes. Daniel Blight is white: ‘I am implicated by and inside my argument – implicated by my own subjectivity’. He ended his talk by asking ‘why aren’t more white people willing to become vulnerable to this Gordian knot?’ I bought the book and looked up Blight’s essays on 1000 Words, American Suburb X and Vogue Italia (!). Then came lockdown and a week later Dan Robinson our acting Photography lead asked me on Zoom ‘can you write a blog post about decolonising the curriculum?’

Actually I wasn’t sure, because from the reading I’d done and the conversations I’d had I had come to see that I am implicated in the issue in a way that I hadn’t previously realised. I therefore decided to write the post as an account of my personal journey towards understanding what ‘decolonising’ means.  I also wanted to highlight the value of ‘student voice’ – of speaking up. Of course, speaking up won’t have any value if nothing is done. The OCA’s recent strategic overview document (available on the OCA website) envisions a student-led​ approach, making the curriculum ‘sensitive to ​global and cultural contexts’ and ‘closing equality gaps’. This vision has the potential to be transformative, but we need to be alert because decolonising is not just a matter of ‘add colour and stir’ (Bhambra), it ‘requires a sustained and serious commitment within the institution and across the sector’ (Sabaratnam). But perhaps first of all we need self-critique. As bell hooks notes, ‘If much of the recent work on race grows out of a sincere commitment to cultural transformation, then there is a serious need for immediate and persistent self-critique… this interrogation itself becomes an act of critical intervention, fundamentally fostering an attitude of vigilance rather than denial’.

References (lockdown friendly)

Advance HE. 2020. Equality in higher education: statistical report 2017. [ONLINE] <https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/equality-higher-education-statistical-report-2017>[Accessed 11 April 2020]

Bhambra, GK, Gebrial, D & Nişancıolu, K (eds) 2018. Decolonising the University, Pluto Press, London. 9 [Available from UCA Library electronic collection]

Blight, DC., 2019. The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization, SPBH Editions (Self Publish, Be Happy) and Art on the Underground, New York, N.Y;London.

hooks, b., 1989. ‘Expertease’, Artforum International, vol. 27, no. 9 [Available from UCA Library electronic collection]

Keval, H., 2019. Navigating the ‘Decolonising’ process: Avoiding pitfalls and some Do’s and Don’ts. | Social Research Publications [ONLINE]  <https://discoversociety.org/2019/02/06/navigating-the-decolonising-process-avoiding-pitfalls-and-some-dos-and-donts/> [Accessed 11 April 2020]

Sabaratnam, M., 2020. Decolonising the curriculum: what’s all the fuss about? | SOAS Blog. [ONLINE] < https://www.soas.ac.uk/blogs/study/decolonising-curriculum-whats-the-fuss/> [Accessed 11 April 2020]

Shah, S., 2020. Whiteness As A Position | American Suburb X. [ONLINE] <https://americansuburbx.com/2019/11/whiteness-as-a-position.html> [Accessed 15 April 2020].

Image credit: Robert Bloomfield.

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Posted by author: Robert Bloomfield
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21 thoughts on “Decolonising the curriculum – a ‘serious need’?

  • Perhaps there is the opportunity to partner with Universities etc in different regions to illustrate and integrate different perspectives.

  • Thank you for continuing to follow up this from the originally issue raised by the student – and I am grateful for the student speaking up.

    Last year I heard Simon Norfolk talk at an AOP lecture. He spoke about local Afghan photographers using their iPhones and Instagram to comment on life in Afghanistan. I asked if their images were starting to change the narrative by being from an inside perspective. His answer was that many were emulating the same tropes as the Western photographers as this would gain them more ‘likes’ and this in turn would lead to them getting work shown in other publications/online platforms.

  • A splendid way of viewing how our (to contextualise a bit: I am a white, bourgeois, university educated, straight, able-bodied, cis man – if I were a 17th century puritan, I’d probably be called Hegemony Chirgwin ) ‘whiteness’ bleaches the way we view things, is by watching the scene in Back to the Future where Michael J Fox, works his way through the next 25-odd years’ worth of lead guitar tropes totally bypassing the black artists who developed them (and even seeming to be the prompt for Chuck Berry to play the guitar like, well, Chuck Berry)…

  • Thanks for the article, Robert. As Director of Learning & Teaching at OCA, one of the issues it raises for me is the inability of the student to add other perspectives themselves. This is to do with the fixed nature of our learning materials.

    Course material, while valuable, are very much rooted in the legacy of distance learning, and as such feel quite closed. With our increased use of online technologies we are beginning to open up the relationship between our course content, the activities students do, and the support we provide. This means a much more active involvement of students to contribute to pots of shared knowledge, and finding other ways to share the diversity of student and tutor viewpoints.

    The questions you’ve raised should be very much at the heart of the curriculum across OCA, we just need a more discursive and co-created learning environment to enable more sharing to take place… which we’re working on!

    • I totally agree Christian and I think the padlets are a great way forward in that respect. I’m hoping that the EYV padlet for instance will start to be exactly such a collaborative learning environment – come on EYVers!

    • I disagree Christian, this just passes the buck. It completely ignores the institutional biases and embedded racism in our societies. Of course they can add their own sourced perspectives, but this isn’t just about teaching students of minority backgrounds but EVERY student about these things. Its also about respect, as by placing completely monoculture references in learning material you are re-enforcing what is valued and deserves to be learnt. It completely misunderstands what decolonisation of curriculum means.

      I am one of the very few tutors of a minority background at the OCA and I actually think the most important bit if Robert’s post is the last bit. The OCA can’t even start to look at how to structure it’s courses until the people involved including yourself start to understand the structural racism embedded inour society, that is woven through institutions including the OCA and that manifests itself in behaviour of people from the environment we all grow up in. It needs to start with training its staff, employees and tutors on understanding all of this before being able to begin to make changes to its learning. And it shouldn’t be left to individual students alone, thats a dereliction of duty.

      • I’m in complete agreement with Ash Ahmed. Many people cannot even see most racism. To decolonise the curriculum there needs to not just be some examples of photographers who aren’t white American or white European.

        As a white skinned female from an ethnic minority who are rarely represented in any educational student population, or in study materials, I know that it’s about more than adding personal research to learning logs. Personal research to diversify the studied photographers through the duration of the course doesn’t remove the colonisation of most curricula.

        It would be interesting to see course materials that allow the discovery of emerging photographers from different backgrounds and those already established across ethnicities.

        As a Romany, who might not have been expected to have finished high school by some, I find it strange to be studying photographic art whilst knowing that I don’t feel any sense of belonging amongst the mostly white students and tutors and study materials.

        I’m still learning about decolonisation having begun to appreciate the effects of long term power that has been held by dominant nations. I know that for some people, decolonisation of the curriculum is vital.

        To approach a curriculum that hasn’t been decolonised is an extra challenge to face for black and ethic minorities.

      • I felt uncomfortable reading the emphasis put on the responsibility of students to ‘speak up’. I am white, and gay, and the responsibility of always having to flag up homophobia and misogyny is boring and not what I can to university for. Lecturers and tutors need to be educating themselves, and the university needs to be employing more diverse people and promoting Black voices,.

  • During the landscape module, I was asked by my tutor to look into the work of Ingrid Pollard (black, female) about whom I blogged (https://amanolandscape.wordpress.com/2016/08/10/about-ingrid-pollard/). I guess the course needs to reflect what contemporary photography is about and refer to the past; there have not been a lot of “black” photographers but certainly a few nowadays many (Raghu Rai is one contemporary photographer of note who works in Delhi and has been a Magnum associate for decades; Magnum now has a sizeable number of “coloured” members). OCA study days I have attended include visits to exhibitions by Zarina Bhimji and two exhibitions at the V&A of work by photographers from South Africa and the Middle East. The OCA is changing (I see the History of Western Art course has been dropped!!) and tutor Arpita Shah is relaunching her Decolonising the Gaze workshop online later this month. Decolonisation is a worthy discourse but when BAME becomes blame, I think such discourse can become politicised and contentious if not meaningless yet remains necessary!

  • I haven’t actually ever felt. Offhand from what I can recall, in the FiP course, our research photographers included Dayanita Singh, in EYV, being a new student, I already have seen Raghubir Singh quoted, I also see a lot of non-white students works being showcased in the coursework. All across various other platforms as well, like Lens Culture include and portray works from good photographers irrespective of their nationality, international movies like Life of Pi have featured Irfan Khan, a suberbly talented Indian actor who recently passed on – What am trying to say is that what’s stopping you from researching other artists if you so want to? If there is an artist who is talented and who’s work I want to research more into then you should just go ahead and do so. For example, we were given a certain work of Karen Knorr for a research point but while exploring I came across her work in India with animals and I really loved it and researched more about it. I totally didn’t even care who she was – white or Asian. In a course that demands so much of time and is so flexible what is stopping a student from researching whatever the hell they want and bring it forward. Where is the time to complain at all? Why not add that part of what you feel is missing in the course and putting it on your blog. The course just gives you research points as start-ups where you take it to is totally dependent upon you. So instead of finding shortcomings that I feel are so irrelevant one can utilise that time to do research talented artists across the globe.

  • Archna, I completely agree. The course materials are a ‘starting point, with so much to learn from each other’s blogs. The recent additions of Padlets as shared learning zones a great opportunity for us all to provide our own contributions and insights, in addition to OCA Discuss and other Forums. Co – creation is an exciting way forward and will require us to think about collaborative innovation, openess and sharing.

    There are many inequalities to continuously address, many of them far less visible than age, race and skin colour (as examples), and we all carry our ‘preconditions’ with us, not least in the way we were taught and engaged with learning in the past. I still recall the red ink and marks out of ten that were distributed openly in class each Monday morning – albeit nearly 7 decades ago!

  • Thank you Robert for writing and sharing this honest piece and raising many essential questions. It’s been great and really insightful to read everyone’s feedback and I feel that perhaps creating new additional resources for OCA students and tutors could be one direction to explore, discussions/forums like this are also great ways to interrogate and enrich our understandings and perspectives. I’m currently reading Mark Sealy’s book ‘Decolonising the Camera’ so would be keen to perhaps write a piece about it or create an OCA virtual study event/discussion group – in response to it in the near future inviting students and tutors to take part, also be great to discuss Blight’s book ‘The Image of Whiteness, Contemporary Photography and Racialization’ aswell (which I still need to read!) and maybe some other recent/key texts and get your input too.

    I think creating resources such as potentially inviting curators like Mark Sealy, and artists like Sunil Shah and organisations like the White Pube who are all questioning and interrogating the structures of power in the arts would be a really insightful. Even if it’s just asking them to share 5 key artists/books/exhibitions that influenced their practice – this would create a new pool of resources from more varied perspectives, which would be so insightful for students and tutors. I think it would also be important to approach/include international artists and curator’s aswell to enrich it. Obviously the logistics of all this would need to be discussed with Dan, Gina, Joanne, Christian and the team, but I agree with what you wrote in your piece when you quoted Dr. Andrea Stultiens and really feels it’s about adding more diverse voices and perspectives and having these resources available for all our students.

  • This morning on BBC Radio 4 – The Art of Now – Black and Creative in Scotland
    From the programme synopsis:
    “Writer Tomiwa Folorunso explores the experience of being a black female artist in Scotland.

    Scotland is a country known across the world for its vibrant arts scene, world famous festivals and renowned institutions. What is it like to move through that world as a black woman, especially now that the coronavirus has thrown the Arts into uncertainty?

    Expanding on a piece she wrote for the platform Black Ballad, Tomiwa speaks to women across the country who are making waves in different creative mediums. She discovers what challenges they have faced, how they approach working in a community in the arts and what their hopes are for a world beyond lockdown.

    These include the visual artist Sekai Macheche, whose powerful photo series ‘Invocation’ depicts the artist as the goddess Kali. Other interviewees include the choreographer and performer Mele Broomes, Director of Creative Edinburgh Briana Pegado, actor and musician Patricia Panther and DJ/Rapper/Producer Nova Scotia The Truth.”

    Episode available on BBC Sounds here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000j21y

  • Thanks Robert for this thought provoking piece and some great comments on here. I do think it’s right to put self-critique at the heart here— on individual and institutional levels— and I hope your piece and comments help promote further work here.

    I think the bell hooks quote nails it, ‘immediate and persistent self-critique… this interrogation itself becomes an act of critical intervention, fundamentally fostering an attitude of vigilance…’

    Also worth mentioning here that hidden and underrepresented voices are actively needed on this blog, students and tutors can contact PLs or blog@oca.ac.uk to submit.

    From a tutor and acting PL perspective, I agree OCA’s move to more peer and co-created knowledge via group work, padlet and so on helps make the curriculum dynamic and relevant. However, I also see the ongoing need to raise awareness and scrutinise resources to ensure we remain vigilant and address hidden prejudice. Your piece and the comments can help us see the value of resources for critical thinking about this in photography and wider visual arts education and commissioning. Arpita’s suggestion to invite and pool diverse voices and perspectives through external engagement also sounds good.

    Any account I can give of actions to decolonise the BA Photography and Moving Image curriculum to date risks suggesting the work is done. There is credit due here: for students taking time to feedback, for your research helping raise awareness, for recent work to include more diverse voices in courses, dialogue with organisations such as Autograph, and updating of course aims, ‘to develop critical understanding of photography and its wider cultural and global contexts’. However, I agree with the need to persist at asking what more can be done…

  • What about setting up a padlet for links to decolonisation sources which might also include bodies of work (Arpita is the obvious choice here but there are surely others)!? As a student, I am interested not just in theoretical concerns around decolonisation and related issues but also making work about this.

  • It is great to see this discussion here, in public. I have had conversations with several students in Moving Image in the past couple of years about these very issues, especially women students, one from a BAME background, who complained about course materials being all about white, European or US, male film directors. I felt a lot of sympathy for this complaint, and drew on a much wider and more diverse range of practices and artists when writing the two courses I wrote for OCA (one of which hasn’t been launched) and discussed it with the PL, who was very open to my efforts. Actually it was liberating to throw out the canon (as far as I have – I am aware that it is a process of learning and listening and giving voice to those who have been silenced, or overlooked, and I won’t have succeeded, if there can be such a thing as ‘success’). It isn’t however just about seeking different artists/filmmakers/photographers/writers, to slot into a new canon, but also about exploring/critiquing the contexts and economics/politics of making and reception, and distribution and how different artists have negotiated these (for e.g. with activist films, film collectives, from all walks of life, in different parts of the world…).

    I think lots of important points have been raised and I welcome the development of padlets, inviting student involvement and external involvement – through blogposts, interviews, suggesting readings/works and discussing them, study days, etc. , ‘exchanges’ with organisations overseas, as well as Autograph, INIVA etc. Attracting a more diverse student body and most importantly more diverse tutors and course authors will no doubt help too. It’s great that this is now firmly on the agenda.

  • I am Laura Mohapi.
    I wrote and produced the work that addressed the subject of the exclusion or lack of inclusion of artists of colour in the photography course ‘expressing your vision’, 2017.

    Art, for me, is about looking at the hard subjects. Provocation is of interest, but only with the intention of what I perceive to be positive change for the greater good.

    I am going to attempt to be as clear as I can, with the intention of uncomplicating an uncomplicated situation.

    I can see self reflection has gone on and the conversation is entered into, however, this main blog post reads like an unconscious weaponisation of intellect, that’s pulled tightly around oneself out of defensive fear, which I get, I understand. There’s a self perception that’s being challenged.
    I’ve pointed out that actions have caused harm in an area of human behaviour that you no doubt find repugnant: racism. Not the big racism of getting up and moving to another seat when someone of colour sits next to you on public transport, but the little racism of having the choice of every artist, in every genre of photography in front of you and you consistently forming an opinion to NOT value a person of colour’s expression, NOT value their voice, NOT value their art, repeatedly NOT pass on their message in favour of the voice, art and message of their predominantly white male peers.
    As an artist, any artist, GIVES something. In the writing of the course an action has been taken to repeatedly take that contribution OFF the table of every person of colour, because of a value system that says their contribution isn’t of value to your student.

    At the very basic level the author of a course and myself are in an economic exchange. This is true of any and all students.
    If I’d known, in this time, 2017-2020, in particular, in reference to the art world, that these outdated values were what was on offer I would in no way have associated myself with this mindset. It’s a micro aggression that evades accountability. It leaves the onus on someone else to act.

    It is not complicated.
    If, in writing the course, there is concern of the standard of work being produced by non-white males, then the artists represented by major art galleries can appease these concerns. Thomas Ruff, (included in the coursework) and Stan Douglas (not included in the coursework) are represented by the same gallery. Stan Douglas passed the value judgement of the international art world and art market, making his work appropriate for inclusion. There are many other examples. The art world began to shift its values some time ago so it is not in the best interest of the student to not be exposing them to the diversity of artists making major waves in the art world.
    Art is a conversation that’s continually changing. The course isn’t presented as art history so being current is relevant.
    It has always been my belief that the ethos of the open University, and by proxy the OCA, has been to lessen inequality. Although I understand a great deal of those taking courses are pursuing it for personal development and not with the interest of pursuing a career, there may be other students, like myself, here with the same commitment as students in established art institutions, where being current, it could be argued, is essential. But either way, I see no benefit in the course being out of step with the evolved values in the arts today, and, I would say, in modern society as a whole.
    Diversity enriches everyone so I’m incredibly pleased for those coming behind me who will be on the receiving end of a new course which recognises this.

    As an artist in training I intentionally produced the writing and work to affect some sort of change. We can see in the world how current this very subject is, so, although I found the exclusion or lack of inclusion of artists of colour shocking, the time of change is now and I think that can be understood by everyone.

    Thank you for taking the time to consider this subject.
    I sincerely hope that the overall result is one of positive change. There are amazingly exciting artists out there and it’s an extraordinary time to be creating any genre of art and, I can imagine, material for art education.

    As a dyslexic, literacy is a second language, so I won’t be participating in any further online discussion.

    Thank you again.

    Laura

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