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Lesson Plans

Celebrating Pluralism: Multicultural Approaches to Art Learning

[ Thread ][ Subject ][ Author ][ Date ]
Graeme Chalmers (gfchalm)
Thu, 9 Jan 1997 17:26:35 -0800 (PST)

I hope that you've taken a look at CELEBRATING PLURALISM: MULTICULTURAL
Chalmers, author of CELEBRATING PLURALISM, and I'm very pleased to be
moderating four weekly discussions with three Vancouver area colleagues.
You can meet each of us by clicking on "GUESTS" in the ArtsEdNet program
(you can even see what we look like!).

[Graeme] Let me begin by asking each of you to tell your own story so that
others might understand why you are interested in multicultural art education.

[Daun (a high school art teacher)] My interest in multiculturalism started
early. I grew up in a middle class [white] suburb. I attended public
school in the 70s and issues of multiculturalism (in the arts or any other
subject . . .) were non existant in my early education. My mother was an
elementary school teacher at a multicultural inner city school . . . As a
youngster I was fascinated with the rich cross-cultural make-up of her
classes. . .

I visited my mom's classroom at every opportunity (non-instructional days,
special events, etc.) when I was young. This interest continued throughout
adulthood. While attending art school I visited [her] classroom frequently.
A multimedia installation and a large body of photographs grew out of my
experiences in this inner city classroom. The students taught me much . . .

After art school I moved to Japan and spent a couple of years teaching
English as a foreign language. I studied some traditional Japanese art
forms: ceramics and silk weaving and became a member of a photographic
society working with Japanese photographic artists. . . The four years that
I spent at art school were wonderful but there were some notably large gaps
in the history of art that I was taught. The history that I learned was the
history of white men. . . . I needed to research and fill in some of the
wide gaps . . . My experience in Japan helped me do this.

In the little town in Japan where I lived, I experienced for the first time
a truly homogeneous society. I experienced this society from the outside.
For the first time I was a visible minority . . . I was Gaijin [foreigner].
This was an important experience for me as an educator and as a person.
Currently I'm teaching art in a large . . . suburban high school.

[Graeme] Have your views become stronger over the years, particularly since
becoming a mother?

[Daun] I am the mother of a school-age child. My child is biracial and is
of African and European heritages. When you become a mother, your eyes
become larger, because you start to look at the world through the eyes of
your child as well as your own. When I look through books and at school
curriculums that exclude my child and the rich history of her ancestors, I
become annoyed. When I go into her Grade 2 class to teach a lesson about
African Art, as I did recently, I am happy to share what I know about
African art with my daughter's classmates. The pride that my daughter, the
only African-Canadian in the class, displays is evident when her culture is
being shared.

[Graeme] Amir, you came to Canada as a child. How does this impact on your
committment to multicultural art education?

[Amir (a museum and gallery educator)] My "story" consists mostly of tales
of invisibility, low self-esteem, and systemic racism, experienced as a
"person of color" in both my public school and post-secondary art education
experiences. The values of many (but not all) of my art teachers over time,
reflected perspectives that were Eurocentric and at times even hostile to
practices outside Western Art discourse. Rather than being empowering or
alleviating the racism I experienced in everyday and artistic life, these
experiences made me seem even more different from my peers, and confirmed my
private suspicion that
being "white" was better than being "brown". The underlying message from my
formal art education, that Western culture was somehow superior to other
cultures, caused me to undervalue and even deny my own cultural heritage and
perspective; I've come a long way since then. As an artist, curator
and educator, I am now committed to the idea of a "multicultural" art
education that recognizes, and values as equal, the artistic contributions
of different cultures and traditions.

[Graeme] Gail, you came to North America from England and returned to
teaching after working as an arts administrator and raising your family.
What's different?

[Gail (an elementary teacher)] I returned to teaching 6 years ago . . . I
initially taught Enlish as a second language, but took over as art teacher
for the intermediate grades, combining that with being a classroom teacher
of Grades 5/6. After 3 years in this role I have returned to teaching art
and ESL. Our school is 85% ESL, mainly from Asia. My school has been part
of a pilot project for ESL schools piloting different ways of teaching
English, social studies, etc. I think that we have made a reasonable
attempt to introduce culturally diverse literature in our school. Now we
need to tackle art.

[Graeme] In CELEBRATING PLURALISM I state (on page 5) "perhaps children who
live in culturally homogeneous societies need multicultural education even
more than others. Their understanding, appreciation, and respect for
cultural diversity and the artistic productions of others need to be
expanded and their possibly limited views of the world need to be
challenged." Do you agree? Can you elaborate?

[Gail] I definitely agree . . . In order to understand each other, in all
aspects, we must increase our mutual respect and appreciation. Even those
who still live in a culturally homogeneous society will be caught up and
need to understand the diversity of different cultures to avoid isolationist
attitudes which often lead to racism through ignorance.

[Amir] I strongly agree with this statement. A culturally homogenous society
(if any still exist, or ever did) is in danger of finding itself physically,
intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually isolated, if it does not
recognize its symbiotic connectivity to everything else going on in this
complex world. A widely accepted goal for education is to expand a
student's capacity to experience the world; to participate fully in society.
In a [North America] that is increasingly becoming more multi-ethnic and a
world that is experiencing globalization and shrinkage at an unprecedented
rate, people need to develop the skills and sensibilities to shift their
perspectives so that they can value the points of view and forms of
different cultures. There is a lot to learn from one another when cultures
approach one another as equals, searching for commonalities and respecting
difference. There is also immense possibility for innovative and hybrid
cultural forms and perspectives to develop out of inevitable shifts and
tensions, arising from such interactions.

[Daun] I agree . . . [but] In culturally diverse schools we can still
experience narrow curriculums where the history of dead white European male
artists is exclusively taught and the canons of western art are the only
ones appreciated. This situation is unfortunate for students from European
backgrounds who are being given a false sense of cultural superiority from
the curriculum being taught. It is also unfortunate because all students
are being short-changed by a curriculum that does not introduce many worlds
of art. Students from diverse backgrounds are losing out because their
heritages are not being acknowledged and appreciated through the curriculum.

[Gail] Although I have always understood the need to acknowledge the
cultural diversity of students it is not until recently working with you,
Graeme, that I have realized how much I still view . . different cultures
through my own somewhat Eurocentric lens. Also . . I have tended to pay
lip-service to the inclusion of multicultural issues in my teaching -- using
add-ons rather than promoting a deeper understanding [of] particularly the
similarities rather than the differences.

[Graeme] You've each read CELEBRATING PLURALISM and it's always interesting
for an author to know how others "read" their work. Can you share some

[Amir] This monograph provides a convincing argument for art as a uniquely
well suited subject area through which to "teach" cultural diversity,
preparing . . students) for contemporary life. This is a response to the
reality of a culturally diverse society and the contemporary need for a
"curriculum that respects pluralism" (p. 1). The book does not restrict
itself to pluralism only in terms of ethnicity, but also includes gender,
sexuality, and socio-economic status; its scope is broad and inclusive.
There is a strong argument for the use of a sequential, discipline-based
approach in a cross-cultural art education, approaching all art from the
different art disciplines. This is because multicultural art education is
not seen merely as the adding on of "units" that discuss one or two works
from other cultures, or a studio activity that consists in reproducing the
"artifacts" of different traditions; it is ultimately about learning to
shift one's own perspective and to give up habitual, culturally conditioned
ways of seeing and being - of relinquishing a Eurocentric perspective. The
main "thesis" (from my first reading) is that by asking the "why?" of art
and its functions and roles across cultures, commonalities, and therefore
starting points for discovery and understanding are uncovered. This makes
it possible to begin to value and respect art and cultural perspectives that
are non-European. These are skills necessary for children to live
effectively in a complex pluralistic society.

As a gallery educator and curator of contemporary art, this monograph offers
me valuable advice and also supports and confirms some of the strategies
employed by me in these roles. The issues of cultural identity,
representation, appropriation, sexism, homophobia, and cultural diversity,
addressed in the monograph, are all part of the contemporary discourses of
art, and have been integral to my practice as a curator/educator. The goal
of cross cultural understanding is central to much of this work. As
educator/curator, I am faced with an increasingly diverse audience and a
need to be relevant in a pluralistic society; a shrinking world facilitates
encounters with the work of artists from different cultural contexts and the
responsibility to reflect society through art. What I found most valuable
in CELEBRATING PLURALISM was the idea that in looking across cultures at
art, we need to look at the "whys?" of art practice. Art's roles and meaning
in various cultural contexts, although specifically different, are
accessible in meaningful ways through your approach; you do not believe in
making only formal comparisons based on a single value system, but condone
the use of "many lenses" in dealing with cultural diversity and art
education. It is possible and necessary to engage with the art of other
cultures without appropriation, tokenism, or disrespect.

[Daun] CELEBRATING PLURALISM speaks to many of the challenges that I face
as a secondary art teacher trying to introduce a multicultural . .
curriculum. One of the challenges of working with older students . . . in
their last two years of public school, is that they have already been
enculturated (indoctrinated into a Eurocentric system) They have undergone
ten years of art education where cultural pluralism may not have been
celebrated. Students often enter the classroom with very definite ideas
about what "good art" is. They may have already adopted a hierarchical
scale of rating forms of art, with European-style painting at the top and
other "craft" forms at the bottom. Integrating the art of diverse cultures
into the curriculum at this stage is not an easy task.

CELEBRATING PLURALISM reconfirms my belief that a multicultural art
curriculum is important and necessary for contemporary students. Throughout
the pages of the monograph I am reassured that multicultural art education
is possible. CELEBRATING PLURALISM gives us a place to begin by looking at
the similarities of [function in] art across cultures and it emphasises what
connects us as art makers. In Chapter 5 when you talk about implementing
curriculum, I am reminded of how capable senior secondary students are and
how powerful multicultural education across the disciplines of art can be.

[Gail] We are living in an increasingly multicultural society and we can
encourage the use of art to promote understanding between cultures --
particularly if we regard art from a social anthropology point of view. As
long as we ask "the why of art" much else will follow . . . As art educators
we do not have to feel overwhelmed by the task . . . The monograph
clarifies a somewhat "woolly" philosophical position giving me a better
insight into what CELEBRATING PLURALISM means. It gives me direction on how
to translate this philosophy into action with my students . . .

[Graeme] We discussed a number of other aspects, particularly Chapter 2
which looks at the origins of racist and Eurocentric views in western art
education. As Amir said "Racism and Eurocentricism still exist and some of
the stated outdated beliefs are still held by people today" and Daun added
"we can't go forward without coming to terms with the past, as painful and
disturbing as that past may be."

Next week I have asked that panelists to share some of their learning
activities and projects that are consistent with the spirit of CELEBRATING
PLURALISM. Each has been invloved in some exciting multicultural projects.
Until then why don't you TRY IT YOURSELF -- (see CELEBRATING PLURALISM at for details and let us know what you are

We look forward to hearing from you.

Graeme, Gail, Daun and Amir

Graeme Chalmers
Graduate Adviser
Department of Curriculum Studies
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, B.C.
Canada V6T 1Z4

Tel: 604 822-4842
Fax: 604 822-9366