The Genderless Mannequin and Other Stories:
Using Art and Storytelling to Teach Critical Theory
Critical social work education introduces BSW students to a range of critical theories and applications to social work practice. As a social work educator, I began teaching theory in the traditional way, using theory-dense readings and analytic, text-based assignments. I love theory and know that it can be liberating and transformative; however, I wasn’t sure that students were “getting it”. I was also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the cognitive imperialism (Battiste, 2005) of the academic setting. With the collaboration of Suzanne Carte, Assistant Curator at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU), I created a new assignment that required students to produce conceptual art. In this paper, I will present four examples of BSW student conceptual art. I consider how arts-based teaching methods can expand student learning opportunities and enact anti-colonial strategies of resistance.
Marie Battiste’s (2005) concept of cognitive imperialism gave me the language and confidence I needed to question traditional teaching methods. Although a teacher, I am also very much a learner. My main learning project over the past several years has been to begin to educate myself about Indigenous worldviews and use this understanding to resist Western academic colonial structures and processes. Challenging Western cognitive imperialism required me to engage students’ in mind, heart, body, and spirit. What better way to do this, than through art and storytelling? Arts-based assignments allowed me to align my teaching with Indigenous epistemology and values and resist colonial structures embedded in Western higher education.
In 2014, in the full-year required BSW theory course SOWK2030 Critical Perspectives on Society, I created a new assignment called “Telling New Stories”. Working in groups, students were required to use feminist and queer theory to explore their own lived experiences of gender and sexuality, to connect their experiences to dominant narratives, and to create and present new and more liberatory stories. They came up with some very interesting presentations, using spoken word, slam poetry, film, and multimedia performances. Around this time, I met artist and AGYU curator Suzanne Carte. Through our collaboration on a different project, Suzanne expanded my ideas about art. Having no background in artistic practice, history or theory, Suzanne introduced me to conceptual art. Conceptual art does not follow a traditional artistic format (i.e. drawing, painting, sculpture); it is a “set of strategies” for articulating artistic ideas and making meaning (Kaplan, 2016). This, I realized, is exactly what the “Telling New Stories” assignment asked students to do: use a set of strategies to articulate theoretical ideas using artistic mediums. The following year, I formalized the requirements for students to make art.
The four art projects presented in this paper were completed by second year BSW students in 2015 and 2016. The first two projects, Gender Baggage and the Genderless Mannequin, were completed during the segment on feminist and queer theory. Students chose from a range of topics, such as gender-based privilege, gender performance and identity, gender-based violence, sexual orientation and identity, etc. The second two projects, Out of the Zoo and the Bitstrips cartoon, were individual projects submitted at the end of the year, after we had also covered political economy, critical race, anti/post-colonial, and critical disability theory. Whitney Wilson’s group used feminist theory to examine their own lived experiences of gender-based violence. For their presentation, group members walked into class, each carrying a briefcase. They took turns opening their briefcases to share what was inside. Whitney’s briefcase contained, among other things, a Hooter’s uniform, personal photos, copies of York University Security Bulletins, and a package of Plan B Emergency Contraceptives (see Image 1). On each item, she had written a direct quote said to her: “You shouldn’t put yourself at risk like that”, “Please don’t tell your boyfriend”, “You know I always get what I want”, “Well what were you wearing?”, “But did you like it?”, “You know I’m your boss right? I could fire you…”. Her group concluded, The aim of our art is to represent the innumerous ways that gender-based violence oppresses and impacts us individually while applying theory to navigate the roots of this oppression. We hope to impress that the baggage we carry around with us is meaningful and despite the weight it has on us we should be commended for our strength to carry it instead of shamed for its accumulation.
Using feminist and queer theory, the Genderless Mannequin project challenged the gender binary (see Image 2). The mannequin was made by wrapping plastic wrap and then packaging tape around a volunteer. They placed gendered items on the outside of the mannequin to show how gender is both imposed and performed. They placed representations of their own individual gender identities and sexualities inside the mannequin, to highlight the difference between gender performance, gender identity and sexuality. In addition to the mannequin, the group presented a video of the making of the mannequin to class.
The next two examples of student art were created by individual students for their final assignment. Harmony Toumai’s “Out of the Zoo” project (see Image 3) consists of a cardboard box. Inside the box is a cage. The cage is surrounded by a maze. The bars of the cage each have a word on them representing a social category: age, race, class, ability, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and citizenship status. The cage has no top to represent the fact that these categories are socially constructed and not inescapable. However, should a person escape from the cage of imposed identities, they will find themselves trapped in a maze of greed or shame created by capitalism and neoliberalism. Harmony used the cage and maze to illustrate interlocking systems of privilege and oppression. Reflecting on her own positionality, she felt even more motivated to challenge these unfair structures:
For her final project, Ishi Wang used the free on-line application Bitstrips.com to create a cartoon strip about her intersectional experiences (see Image 4). In the excerpt of the cartoon shown here, Ishi identifies as 20-years old, female, middle-class, able-bodied, and Taiwan-Canadian. The fourth and fifth panels illustrate a racializing encounter she had in the high school cafeteria after arriving in Canada. Ishi approaches a table of her peers. “Can…I…sit…with...you?” The blond-haired blue-eyed character who is sitting at the table asks, “Er…Don’t you have any Asian friends to sit with?” In the sixth panel (not shown), another group waves her over. “It’s okay, you can sit with us.” Ishi responds, “Thank you, you are nicer than that white girl.”
Anyone Can Use Arts-Based Teaching Methods
Huss’s (2011) theoretical model for using visual methods in research includes three stages: 1) the process of creating visual images, 2) the images themselves (the product), and 3) interpreting the product or process. While conceptual art is not restricted to visual images, I find this model useful for thinking about arts-based teaching.
The Process: Making Art, Making Connections
My teaching experience echoes what other scholars have found: arts-based methods challenge Western Eurocentric knowledge paradigms, allow subjects to express tacit and unconscious knowledge about their own lived experience and give voice to this experience (Hafford, Leonard & Couchman, 2012; Huss, 2009; Wehbi, 2015). The process of making art required students to share personal experiences and negotiate agreement on how to give voice to their diverse stories. Some were anxious initially about their artistic abilities; they realized that if they weren’t being judged by ‘artistic’ standards, anyone can make art (Huss, 2011; Wehbi, 2015). Storytelling and images provide a unique way for students to connect micro-level interactions with macro-level structures and processes (Huss, 2017). For example, the Gender Baggage group was able to see and visually represent the accumulation of sexual harassment they experienced as individuals and to connect these to an entrenched system of gender inequity upheld through gender-based violence. It also allowed them to connect with one another in a way that rarely happens in an academic setting, reducing isolation and self-blame.
The Product: Conceptual, Activist Art
Because student art embodied critical theory, it was both conceptual and activist art – it was based on an idea that social change is urgently needed. Whitney and Ishi’s art resisted sexism and racialization by making processes visible; Harmony’s sculpture raised possibilities for dismantling and escaping interlocking systems of oppression; the Genderless Mannequin playfully and joyfully illustrated the arbitrariness and absurdity of the gender binary. I chose to grade their theoretical understanding, not the artistic value of the art itself, as the purpose of the art was to engage with theory and use the art as a tool for critical reflection, not as an end.
Interpretation of the Process or Product: Critical Reflections
Class presentations provided an opportunity for students to respond to and reflect on one another’s art. Their images and stories could be interpreted in multiple ways and stimulated new understandings. When Whitney showed her project to her boyfriend before class, he was surprised and asked, ‘Did this all really happen to you?’ We know the statistics and have read the newspaper reports on gender-based violence. Maybe we are numb to the data. The briefcase communicates in a different language and has a different kind of impact. As Huss (2011) found in arts-based research, the externalization of lived experience into an art product creates a kind of distance that enables students to engage in difficult conversations and co-create shared understandings of the causes and solutions of the oppression they experienced. Everyone does not have to be the same or have the same experiences to come to a shared understanding of a problem and develop collective solutions.
Critical thinking is an important cognitive skill to nurture in critical social work students. Creating a new and better world will, however, take more than a good social analysis. It will take the collective negotiation of embodied knowledges and histories of inter-generational pain, and the imagination to see and act in new ways that engage mind, body, heart and spirit. I have found that you don’t have to be an artist or understand art to use arts-based methods in the classroom. You just have to be willing to step outside of your own cognitive cage.
I would like to thank Suzanne Carte (AGYU) who helped make this work possible and the students who generously shared their creative work.
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