Aminata Cairo and Rosa te Velde have officially started as the leads of the new Lectorate Social Justice and Diversity in the Arts. Here an introduction to the duo in their own words.
Aminata: So, here we are in a partnership leading the new Lectorate of Social Justice and Diversity in the Arts. You know, people keep asking me: “what are you going to do?” I get that, but I want to answer “I am not going to DO anything, I am going to BE here and be with you.” That may sound strange, so I don’t say that out loud, but that’s what it comes down to. I am going to join this community, or rather, we are, and in joining we will cause rifts and shifts that hopefully lead to a transformation in house and will reverberate outward. That’s how I see it. Of course I bring knowledge and experience, but if it does not connect and interweave with what is already here, it will be rather useless. When you think about this job, and it is a very big job, what are you looking forward to?
Rosa: I am looking forward to get my hands dirty, to make and move, shake things up, be surprised. To be with you an anthropologist (and so much more!) in this place and discuss and digest all the things we encounter excites me. Earlier you said that “information is not transformation”. Yes! There is a lot of information about inequality, about discrimination, racism and so on. But what is needed for transformation? It’s about the small things, in-between the lines. We need to learn to bring to the surface that which seems unimportant but is crucial for change. What skills, habits, interventions can we cultivate, cherish and develop?
A: So you mention some obstacles that we can expect in any organization, and yet we are here. What is specific about AHK? We chose to do this job. Why? Maybe I shouldn’t put you on the spot.
R: I think, if not here, then where? The AHK, like any other organization, is struggling. In that sense there is nothing special about this place. Of course, what is specific is that this is artistic education. We produce a new generation of practitioners. This is a place of studying, not-knowing, not-yet-knowing, experimentation, imagination and ‘building worlds’. This sounds great, doesn’t it? Yet, because of a long legacy, we’re mostly acquainted with specific and narrow ways and understandings of what the arts should do, what buildings should be or what heritage is. What kind of practices do we need to cultivate beyond ideas of the ‘individual genius’, ‘originality’, ‘authenticity’, or of so-called ‘cutting-edge contemporary innovation’? Each of these disciplines has similar and different issues and potential. Working with all our senses and creative means to transform education and artistic practice, that is what excites me.
A: It is already a joy doing it with you, and particularly with you because you have very good insights. I believe it is important that this work is done in collaboration. You can’t do it alone. I also specifically chose you because you are the next generation, so I am honored to do this with you and will help prepare you to be in the lead one day. You are right, as an anthropologist there are things that I notice or pay attention to. Because especially in this work there is so much stuff that we overlook. Which is why often no real progress is being made because we are not willing to look at the little stuff which is important.
R: What are your thoughts on ‘social justice’, which was chosen by the AHK as the title of our lectorate?
A: It is interesting because the language used at this institution is mostly dedicated to Inclusion and Diversity, rather than Social Justice. Now for me personally the two are always entwined. My approach to inclusion always comes from a social justice perspective, acknowledging that the inequalities that I am trying to address are the result of and maintained by historical and culturally embedded legacies that you cannot ignore. You can do inclusion work and appreciate diversity from a 0 starting point: “Those people were never here, so let’s just add them and then we are good.” But there was a reason why they were not here. We have to understand that reason so we can break and alter those patterns, while acknowledging that disrupting those patterns will bring discomfort and possibly resistance. And how will I work with that in this new story we collectively are trying to create? So for me there is no inclusion without social justice. Social justice entails all that work including appreciation for legacy or the existing story, dealing with the sensitivities, disruption, bravery, transformation, etc. There is a danger of getting caught up in the lingo and definitions and making it an intellectual journey, rather than an action driven one. Still, it does mean we might have some work to do around clarifying the meaning of social justice in this assignment.
R: Already we are encountering the different use of the language between the people that we meet. So you have to sort out where people are, how they relate to each other and how they perceive the goals to be pursued. People would like clear answers about what we are going to do, like you said. We do have guidelines: contributing to knowledge and skill within the AHK to make a more inclusive community and through this institution contribute to the arts and culture sector in their pursuit of inclusion and a socially just society. We have added to that a specific focus on supporting and guiding students, because they are the torch bearers of social justice. How we are going to do that depends a lot on where people are and how we can move with them. We have various ideas of course, but it is not just about us two and what we would like to do. What we can share here is that to us moving from a social justice perspective whether that be about education, research, artistic practice, producing or citizenship, comes from a certain conviction that for us is based in five pillars: relationality, temporality, transformation, cost and joy. We will say more about that later, but we believe that moving towards environments that are more socially just requires for us to question things and guide our actions. Which relationships are involved or overlooked? What does relational accountability look like? What is our relationship with the earth, the locale, the materials used? What is the role of legacy, story? What is the cost and sacrifice or what should we be willing to sacrifice, etc. We are going to work on translating and embedding that as an approach, because there is a call for something different. That we know for sure.
Continue reading below the photos
A: It comes down to who do you want to be? Who do you say you want to be? What does it take to get there and are you actually willing to go there? There is a call, a tangible urge and desire for something different. And that’s why we’re here.
R: So do you think that’s related to the Arts? A special pressure or idea or what the arts have done or should be?
A: I think it is just about the world, about where we are in the world right now. And we happen to be artists, and we happen to have these resources and these gifts. To be artists we might feel in a different way because we are more open or more sensitive. We have these tools, these wonderful tools that we don’t know quite exactly how to use. So we get frustrated about that. But as far as the anguish, that is just global, whether you are a construction worker or an artist. But the fact that we are in the arts is such a gift that we should celebrate. The arts are also a way to release and really feel and help others feel, but do we stay stuck in the suffering or do we use it to rebuild something and create a better story, which we say we want? So, I am excited to try this again and this time at a place where the arts are central. I intend to push because I know about the potential. Then let’s go for it.
R: That’s where I think there is a lot to let go of. The self image of the arts has always been that we are progressive, we are special, we are cutting edge, we are open minded.
A: And now we are confronted with the fact “Oh well maybe we were not!” You can be cutting edge and excluding and oppressive and marginalizing. Our aesthetics are not neutral and are full of legacies of inequality. I like how you started out by saying you were looking forward to moving and shaking. That goes back to how do we want to relate to each other as human beings?
R: Yes. And for that there is no fixed strategy. It’s hard to capture this in a step by step guide or a policy. I think that this is what people don’t dare to do and are also not trained to do: to think and act in each situation anew. What I see, also with students, is that we are so desperate for things to change that sometimes complex situations become reduced to simple oppositions. We are hardwired to search for certainty, formats, procedures, identities. It takes courage to let go of that. And to me this work is not about ‘allyship’. Forget about allies, it starts with you and your desire to know the world differently.
A: Yes, and how you stand in relationship to people and what happens in that space between. And how we have power to change that if we want. If we are brave enough. A lot of times we can figure out what to do. But knowing that there are consequences, that you may be uncomfortable, that there is a cost, that you might lose some status and some power, will you do it anyway? Are you willing to make some sacrifices? I see it as our job to help this massive group of people grow in that ability to address that and to support each other in that and to create spaces for each other. The desire is there. There are all kinds of initiatives, little sparks and little seeds. So how can we help weave all those seeds together so that as a community there will be some leeway that is not only long lasting, but also deeply entrenched. I am looking forward to taking on that challenge. That’s what I see as our job.