School Watch: Changes on the Horizon: A Conversation about Art Education in Vancouver

School Watch: Changes on the Horizon: A Conversation about Art Education in Vancouver

e-flux Education

September 20, 2021
School Watch: Changes on the Horizon: A Conversation about Art Education in Vancouver
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Changes on the Horizon: A Conversation about Art Education in Vancouver
with Amy Fung and Raymond Boisjoly

As many artists and educators wearily return to in-person teaching at art schools this fall, the systemic issues exacerbated by Covid-19—income disparity and racial capitalism, to name only two—have assumed profound importance in students’ and teachers’ practices in and out of the classroom. Here, Amy Fung speaks with artist Raymond Boisjoly, a citizen of the Haida Nation and assistant professor at the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University, about his experiences across all three Vancouver art schools, the recent controversies around race shifting in academia, and the hopeful signs of a politicized student body. This conversation took place between Vancouver, on unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, and Ottawa, on unceded Algonquin territory.

Raymond: Something really meaningful that I think about a lot is the complicated relationship between Indigenous art and surrealism. For me, it’s about what industrialization has done to us, impacting human culture and human relationships to the world. Surrealism embodied this way of engaging critically with the negative impacts of industrialization, which left the Western world spiritually bereft, and as a movement, it was really thinking about that peculiarity by looking to the cultural life and practices of non-Western peoples. Then there’s surrealism’s impact on anthropology, and personally I have been fascinated with the work of political anthropologist Pierre Clastres and his Archeology of Violence and Society Against the State. His work communicates to me that Western democracy is not a natural thing and the importance of looking critically and seriously at the political systems of non-Western peoples, specifically Indigenous systems, to understand how Western democracy distorts our relations to one another and our capacities to engage with political life.

Amy: Academic institutions have lately been more aware of hiring faculty who better reflect the diversity of the student body. But at the same time, this kind of hiring and support often repeats a Western institutional logic. What kind of mechanisms do you think could be put into place to better support diversity initiatives that go beyond window dressing?

Raymond: I think a lot of diversity hires begin with the idea of “good intentions,” but this has turned out to be highly problematic. I’m concerned that efforts to diversify don’t necessarily follow an anti-racist approach, and also that having some Indigenous faculty doesn’t necessarily reflect the breadth and diversity of an Indigenous student body at any given institution. I see greater participation of students as really crucial in shaping the direction institutions take. I really appreciated that aspect at Emily Carr and SFU: seeing students offer critical perspectives on hiring committees and hearing the questions they ask to incoming faculty. Students are very capable of communicating their concerns and the trajectory of what they imagine might happen as a result of addressing those concerns. Institutions want to believe they can change things for the better for the students, but it’s really important to center student experience.

It’s complicated and a nagging concern, as it does seem like many institutions are more likely to hire people of mixed heritage for faculty positions, people like myself who can pass in these spaces. Sometimes students don’t even know that I am Indigenous, that my presence within any institution as an artist or faculty member does not exactly represent what these institutions desire. People of mixed heritage and lighter skin seem to be more visible to institutions. Their visibility likely informs hiring and the institutional desire to diversify. These are ongoing challenges we need to address in order to understand what exists beyond the view of institutions.

Read more on School Watch.

School Watch presents critical perspectives on art and academia. Featured profiles, surveys, and dialogues consider education in fine art, curating, and critical theory, as well as the ideas and conditions that influence practice.

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September 20, 2021

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