Deconstructionist Practices As Reconstructionist Curriculum

In 1995, I worked with two eighth grade classes at Washington Irving School on Chicago’s west side to explore whether middle school age students could use current methodologies in art and cultural studies to study the symbolism of black and white in contemporary culture. The students’ superior knowledge of the texts of popular culture combined with my knowledge of cultural theory and critical investigation to produce some sadly expected and some unexpected insights into the construction of meaning through color symbolism.

As a visiting artist, I couldn’t come into a classroom and begin an examination of such a potentially charged subject without first getting to know the students and establishing a climate of trust. Because I believe that successful cultural investigations must be embedded in studio art investigation and learning, throughout the project art lessons were introduced to give the students the skills needed to conduct their aesthetic and cultural inquires.

During the first two weeks of the residency, students studied value, the darkness or lightness of a color. The students drew geometric solids and then used their knowledge of making value gradations with oil pastels to create convincing three-dimensional forms. Developmentally these students are striving to master adultlike skills in drawing. This highly successful exercise set a tone of significance for our further studies and convinced many students of their ability to do high quality work in an art project.
In the second phase of the project, we began the study of value as the criteria by which people judge the worthiness of objects, ideas, and even, of other people. Our focus question was, “How does this culture value value?”

We began by thinking of ourselves as investigators, detectives looking for clues in the popular movie and children’s book, The Lion King. We discussed the difference between imputing significance to an isolated example of color use and seeing significance in the use of color in a number of related instances.

Over and over, we discovered that lightness was associated with good and darkness with evil. Simba and his father, the true king of the lions, have light manes; the evil brother who wants to usurp the throne has a black mane and nails. We contrasted the good light animals with the threatening dark ones; the high chroma kingdom with the dusky and fearsome land of the marauding hyenas. We considered what this means in a story that opens with the lines, “...every living thing has its place in the great circle of life.” Of course, we could not help but hear an echo of the tradtional racist exhortation to “know one’s place.”

As part of our visual investigation we mixed colors to match Simba, the hyenas, and the various lions and then painted projected versions of the drawings in the “wrong” colors. We spent time looking at these new images--considering whether the different values caused us to see the story differently. We noticed how strange it seemed to see the “blonde” hyenas attacking the little dark cub or how the perception of the bad uncle was softened when he took on the coloration of his good brother. The revised images seemed highly charged and unfamiliar.

In another aspect of the project, the students made lists of familiar cultural icons and everyday sayings that utilize dark and light symbolism. From this list we created a series of questions, “Which witch is the good witch?” “Which horse has a better chance to win?” “Which angel is the devil?” that caused us to think about what messages we absorb from everyday sayings.

Our visual investigation at this stage of the project involved the study of graphic symbolism. The students drew and cut out silhouettes and pictograms of the various language images: angels, horses, witches, cowboys, birds, airplanes, etc.

Each image was painted in black and in white so that we were able to experience the psychological impact images in different values had on our consciousness.

The final presentation of the project called It’s Not Just a Black and White Issue consists of four large, canvas banners that hang permanently in the school’s hallway. The banners include stories about racism and resisting racism based on interviews students conducted with adults in the community. The ability to draw geometric solids became the basis for developing cartoon characters who enact the community’s stories.

For me, the most touching aspect of the project is the language of everyday urban life used to describe struggling with day to day issues of external and internal racism--quite different from the Disney movie in which the moral voice of the lions (who according to the students “talk like the teachers”) is contrasted to the wicked hyenas who speak in clever, colorful street slang.

One section of the banners includes student responses to the question, “What effect does this symbolism of dark and light have on children?” The Mexican, Puerto Rican, and African American youth discussed the implied messages about their future and possibilities; several students mentioned that they had been uncomfortable with this imagery in the past, but had not known how to articulate or discuss what they were seeing. It was particularly fascinating to hear these students of color discuss the way in which white children would be effected: “It might make it seem natural to them if they are in control or have more advantages.”

Through the public art project, the students’ investigations were shared with the larger school community, thus drawing other students and teachers into the discussion of color symbolism in popular and school culture. Initially it seemed odd to be seriously discussing the symbolism of a Disney movie, but it became increasingly clear to us all how racially charged symbolism is an unchallenged part of our everyday culture.

Click here for Page 3 of "Drawing Color Lines"

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