Lyn French, Director of Aspace tells us about the work of Iniva Creative Learning – a partnership between Iniva (the Institute of International Visual Arts) and Aspace (an arts & therapies service) – on the important role contemporary art plays in stimulating and challenging our understanding of the world around and within us.
Iniva Creative Learning’s resources - Emotional Learning Cards
Iniva Creative Learning produces resources and delivers workshops using contemporary art to support teachers, educators and therapists in introducing important conversations which develop reflective and critical skills while building emotional insight. Our boxed sets of Emotional Learning Cards highlight specific themes designed to facilitate a better understanding of what makes us who we are and how we make sense of our experiences -bringing together the artwork of international contemporary artists with therapeutic commentary and questions. We move beyond commonly explored subjects by branching into discussion relating to difference and diversity and how past histories (both personal and collective) shape the present.
In 2017, in response to the Department of Education’s directive for schools to teach what they have identified as four core British Values, Iniva Creative Learning has developed set of Emotional Learning Cards entitled Let's talk about values, illustrated by the artist Shiraz Bayjoo. In this blog, Lyn French explores the rationale behind shared values and their links to living with difference. The images featured below are from our sets of cards. You can also find out more about in schools programme ArtLab on our website including how Iniva artist Shiraz Bayjoo and Aspace family therapist Camilla Waldburg worked with primary school pupils at Newport and Dawlish Schools in London around the subject of values.
Why have so-termed 'British' values been identified? Who, or what, determines which values are considered the most important? Can values ever really be specific to one nation or are some shared by all societies regardless of cultural, political and religious beliefs and norms? What might prompt us to question our society's values? Perhaps the most important question is: can shared values help us to live well with each other in spite of our differences?
During the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval periods, the Celt and Pict tribes arrived in the UK and formed the first communities in the British Isles. The next wave of migrants were the Romans in 250AD. Since then, the story of this country continues to be one of people from around the world making their home here. By highlighting the values of liberty, tolerance, democracy and respect for law as British Values, the current government intends to identify values that are essential to living well with others.
However, managing difference and diversity in everyday life isn't quite so straightforward. Humankind has a tendency to behave in tribal ways, consciously or unconsciously gravitating towards those who are similar rather than different. In part, this reflects the behaviour and psychology of our earliest ancestors who relied heavily on the protection and care of their own community to ensure their survival. As well, the familiar (a word which is rooted in 'family') is comfortable in part because it requires less social, emotional and psychological work than negotiating 'otherness'.
Difference often evokes a sense of potential threat which stirs up primal feelings such as anger and fear. This, in turn, leads to the loss of our capacity for curiosity, compassion and empathy. Whether real or imagined, 'the other' can be perceived as a rival for whatever is considered of primary value. This echoes backwards in time to early years when children compete against their siblings and peers for what they experience as a scarce commodity: that is, adult attention of which they are not the sole recipient such as that shown by a parent or a teacher. Intolerance, discrimination and prejudice can result when we feel 'the threat of the other', whether real or imagined.
One of Shiraz Bajoo's original images created for our new set of Emotional Learning Cards entitled Let's talk about values features a pair of mountain goats locked in battle reminding us that any kind of conflict usually has its origins in interpersonal struggles for dominance and privilege, especially the power to rule. The intense, dark colours in the background might reference a foreboding, perhaps reminding us of the way in which differences between individuals or groups can escalate into more serious conflict, even violence.
Shiraz Bayjoo image illustrating ‘Rules’ from Let’s Talk about Values
Image courtesy of the artist
Building our tolerance for difference starts with recognising our own 'otherness' and the feelings this brings up. All of us will have had times when we feel as if we don't fit in or that we have a 'secret difference' that separates us from everyone else. Outsider/insider experiences are part of everyday life and can even be a feature in our own family. Feeling on the outside looking in is a very uncomfortable place to be. It puts us in touch with loneliness and isolation, states of being which can bring up feelings such as sadness, anger, shame and anxiety.
Shiraz Bayjoo's image illustrating the theme of accepting difference, also from Let's talk about values, shows a group of animals, often seen as natural enemies, here coming together seemingly peacefully within a golden ring.
Shiraz Bayjoo image illustrating ‘Tolerance’ from Let’s Talk about Values
Image courtesy of the artist
Taking Shiraz's image as a starting point, a simple art task would be to make available silhouettes or outlines of animal figures and give each student/participant three different ones. Ask them to list on a separate piece of paper all the qualities they can think of which we commonly associate with each animal (e.g. dogs: friendly, loyal, eager to play, able to protect (guard dogs) / cats: independent, clever, cautious / birds: free, a symbol of peace & love (such as the dove), has perspective (bird's eye view) etc). Talk about how these qualities contribute to fostering supportive and sustaining relationships. Then discuss the qualities that these animals have which need to be managed (e.g. dogs: barking threateningly and starting fights / cats: aloof and arrogant / birds: not using their mind ('birdbrains') and 'flighty' (can't concentrate). Talk about how humans share these traits too and discuss which help or hinder our relationship building and developing our potential in general.
To assist with this exercise, you can make available a 'tip sheet' such as a list of qualities, positive and negative, to be matched with the animals. Ask students to decorate their animals with colourful patterns or collage. You could suggest that each of the three animals be decorated in the same pattern or style to symbolise that, despite their differences, they have qualities which can be used to enable them to get on well together. If you want to go on to make a collective piece of work, the animal shapes can be hung together as a mobile or arranged against a backdrop and photographed or made into individual 'values' cards with text on the reverse.
Returning to the theme of insider/outsider-ness, we're never just one or the other. Our emotional life takes place on a continuum - sometimes we feel more 'in' than 'out' or vice versa depending on the situation. This can be as subtle as feeling like we've misjudged our clothing and have the 'wrong' clothes on for the occasion, or it can be as overt as feeling less included due to our gender, race, culture, class or sexual identity.
Our Emotional Learning Cards also explore sexual identities and intimate relationships. Christian Thompson's photograph entitled Hannah's Diary bears the imprint of the artist's own Aboriginal roots as well as playing with gender identity. In this self-portrait, Thompson is inviting us to question which parts of his visible identity are 'real' and which are socially constructed.
Christian Thompson Hannah’s Diary, 2008 Image courtesy the artist.
From the set What do relationships mean to you?
Discovering who we really are, including what our cultural heritage and family history means to us, can be a long process. Feeling comfortable in our own skin relies on being tolerant and respectful of all aspects of ourselves and of our recent and distant past. The greater our capacity for looking unflinchingly at ourselves and achieving self-acceptance, the more compassion we feel for others who, after all, face many of the same internal and emotional challenges we do regardless of who they are and where they come from. Reflecting on life values and what they look like in practice can be used as a starting point from which to branch into an exploration of the kinds of feelings and qualities which, as a human family, we all share.
Visit www.inivacreativelearning.org or www.iniva.org to buy our cards and download free resources. The Art Lab section features A to Z of Values project ideas, worksheets and descriptions of all values from A to Z.