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The signature pedagogies of artists working with new arrivals

Signature Pedagogies of Artists working with New Arrivals 

Our observations of the artists in each city’s iteration of the programme, and particularly our lead artists Lara and Shamila, illuminated the ways in which there was a distinctive approach that seemed to be particularly effective when working with new arrivals. This aligns with Shulman’s concept of ‘signature pedagogies’ (2005). Shulman identifies aspects of practice or pedagogy which are characteristic to different professions through which novices learn ‘to think, to perform, and to act with integrity’ (2005: 52) according to the ‘values and hopes’ of that profession (ibid). Thomson, Hall and Jones extend Shulman’s ideas by identifying the distinctive or signature pedagogies of creative practitioners working in school settings (2012).

They describe how signature pedagogies are epistemological, ontological and underpinned axiologically (i.e. representing particular values and purposes) (Thomson et al, 2012: 9). Hall and Thomson develop this further by identifying what they describe as ‘hybrid signature pedagogies’ that the artists they observed developed in the ‘permeable sites’ that are created when artists work in schools (2017: 110). These are comprised of the following five components: ‘the approach to inclusion, the importance of choice and agency, the challenge of scale and ambition, the role of the carnivalesque, and the lived experience of the present.’ (ibid). Hall and Thomson develop a heuristic which we have drawn upon to explore the particular approaches our artists brought to the Art of Belonging programme. 

In comparing the iterations of the programmes in Lund and Nottingham we observed that our artists’ practices often aligned with the descriptors in Hall and Thomson’s heuristic. This was not a surprise as we were working with passionate experienced creative practitioners experienced with working with and inspiring young people. But we also noticed there were some variations and additional practices that clearly were responsive to the needs of this particular group of participants suggesting a distinctive pedagogical approach for working with young people from refugee backgrounds. We have defined this as The Signature Pedagogies of Artists working with new arrivals. We have organised the components of this practice under four headings. 

The first aligns draws on what Thomson et al describe as axiology. We have labelled this component as the artists have particular attributes. These attributes are to do with their individual experiences, demeanours, orientations and values. This draws on Shulman’s third dimension of signature pedagogies- that of ‘implicit structure’ where pedagogies convey a shared sense of values and the morals of a profession (2005). In many ways this accords with Hall and Thomson’s observation that artists have a different approach to inclusion (than that often observed in formal school settings). Hall and Thomson note that the artists they observed drew on ‘open-ended’ pedagogies creating opportunities for young people to meet ‘the high expectations of artists’ (ibid: 111). In our observations, our artists also were motivated by an approach to inclusion that was based on the premise that all in the group would, given the opportunity, participate and be able to produce artwork that exceeded often their own and the artists’ expectations. There were examples of this inclusive approach acting to empower to develop the young person’s ‘sense of their own capability and agency…make distinctive, autonomous choices’ (ibid). 

1. The artists have particular attributes 

This inclusive and empowering approach was achieved through the artists’ 

  • personalized and empathetic approach modelling kindness and respect for everyone; 

  • celebration of diversity (in terms of cultural representation and responsiveness but also through their encouragement of individuals to develop their own response or process which often deviated from the initial demonstration or the artist’s own intention for the session; 

  •  encouragement of a ‘no right or wrong’ attitude, empowering young people’s decision-making; 

  • strong non-verbal communication, they orchestrate rather than direct the activity; 

  •  ability to be intuitive and relate their own personal experience to the young people often using this as a point of connection; promotion of and valorisation of collaborative ways of working and commitment to co-constructing the art with the participants based on what they individually and collectively bring to the sessions; 

  •  ambition for the individuals, the group and the project. 

"During today’s session, Shamila suggests we go downstairs to look at the new gallery exhibition Laced: in search of what connects us. This is an exhibition curated by Loren Hansi and features work which connects to Africa and its diasporas. Much of the exhibition draws on textiles and stitch work. I read in the exhibition leaflet that ‘Laced is a meditation on the threads that connect us to our-selves and each other’. I had noticed that before bringing the boys down to the exhibition, Shamila had laid out some embroidery circles in the art room. In the exhibition, Shamila shows them the 4 pieces made up of line drawing and embroidery. They seem really interested. Extraordinarily so. S looks intently at one exhibit made up of 4 pieces incorporating embroidery, and then uses his phone to translate the information about the piece from the accompanying text box next to the exhibit. The group gather round the 4 pieces and spend a long time pointing at the details they notice. It is a mixed group and S moves from talking in Kurdish to English with others responding in Arabic. G. asks Shamila if there is any string upstairs – pointing at the thread in one of the 4 pieces. She says yes. He goes upstairs whilst the others stay wandering around the exhibition. … We go back upstairs. G has created a series of intricate string paintings. Shamila asks him if he has done this before. He laughs and says no. He seems to have an ability to quickly see an artist’s technique and imitate or adapt it and do his own version or incorporate this into his own work. G rarely sticks to the brief of the session. Shamila later tells me that he often asks to take materials home and then comes the following week to show what he has created." 

(Fieldnotes 7 December)

The second component, The artist carefully crafts each session arose from continued discussions of our observations of the artists in Lund and Nottingham, we noticed that despite feeling quite organic each session had been carefully structured. We set up meetings between the artists in our different locations where they compared their approaches. The collated artist’s session plans are located in the workshops bank . Like the artists in Thomson et al’s project (2012), there was sense of routine, a focus on self-expression and a structure to each session. In addition, there was a tangible endeavour to deliberately build on the cultural experiences of individuals recognising that they were not a homogenous group and to explicitly draw attention to low (c) and high (C) forms of culture in both European and global contexts. 

2. The artist carefully crafts each session 

Each session typically: 

  • begins with a warm welcome and personal conversations without probing into the young person’s past; 

  • encourages the young person to celebrate something about themselves, their experiences, their culture; 

  •  involves a brief demonstration of art technique followed by individual 1:1 time, encouraging personal self-expression; 

  •  references relevant artworks reflecting C/culture within the city; 

  •  involves a sense of focus similar to that of ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1996) 

  • allows participants to leave feeling they have accomplished something.

"As she waits today to demonstrate the activity, as on other days, she chats to those who arrive first asking them how they are, how their week was. Their responses vary – some give short but polite answers ‘I am fine’ etc. others say much more and Shamila spends time talking quietly to them. When she feels there is a large enough group to make a start, she introduces this session’s focus with a demonstration. Today, as with the previous sessions, as soon as she starts addressing the whole group the young people immediately give her their attention – she never has to raise her voice- they are all incredibly respectful and listen to her and watch her demonstration of the activity. Last week in our conversation about her approach she said that this is informed by a collaborative participation approach- that she works to understand what the individuals in the group bring to the activities and she responds accordingly. (9th November) In all these sessions, I find myself noticing that there is a strong sense of quiet purposeful flow- I never am able to observe the factors that contribute to this but each time it just seems to have evolved. I usually notice around two thirds of the way into the session but am not able to pinpoint when it started. The sense of flow feels restorative. It is very calming to me as an observer. It feels very inclusive. However at the start of each session the young people seem slow to get going, to contribute. I note that Shamila often says when reflecting on the session that she thought at the start of a session that she had chosen the wrong activity or approach as they were unresponsive. But somehow something seems to click and we cannot notice what or how it happens but we both notice that it is going well and sometimes catch each other’s eye. (Fieldnotes 16 November) Two Eritrean boys are deep in conversation about what to add to the word wall Shamila has created about belonging. They are sharing their phones to translate and eventually they seem to find something they are happy with. They go and write on the wall copying from one of the phone screens. I ask them what they have written (it is in Tigrinya) They say they have written the Tigrinya word for ‘together’ (Fieldnotes 16 November). In a meeting towards the end of the first half of the planned programme Shamila said ‘I always want to ensure that they bring something of themselves to the art process like for example their language/ their memories’." (Meeting 9th December).The third and fourth headings are linked to the ways in which ‘artists managed time and space’ (Hall and Thomson 2017: 115). Our third heading is The artists’ understanding of spatiality. At the beginning of the project, we had shared with our artists our emphasis on the conceptual importance of place-making in the development of cultural citizenship. They embraced this wanting to understand more about the theorization of place-making through arts and creative practice. In the planned timetable of activities for each iteration of the programme, the artists included trips to culturally relevant places in each city. They ensured that the young people were not simply passively visitors/observers in those spaces. Instead they incorporated arts activities which the young people participated in within those spaces. In the reflections on their experiences of the project, the participants referred to the ways in ‘doing art’ in those spaces encouraged an enhanced relationship with that place. The places left an impact on them, as one participant observed: ‘And you understand the history of the city like the castle and I am part of it now’. Reciprocally, those they met in the places were also changed by their encounter with the group. What had previously been for the participants ‘undifferentiated space’ became a significant ‘place’ (Tuan 2003:6). This is particularly important for young, forced migrants who find that after reaching a place of safety and possible resettlement that they have relatively little agency over where they experience place. They are sent to dispersal locations and put in designated accommodation; their movements across and 

beyond their immediate locality are curtailed by their limited resources. So, finding new places within their new cities where they are welcome is important. 

The research team and artists deliberately adopted a strategy to not ask the young people directly about their past experiences and their journeys to their new city. There was an agreement that if an individual chose to discuss this then space would be given for that either through conversation or through the art process. One of the participants explicitly reflected that the project provided the one space where he could talk to adults who were not looking for a particular story or version of himself. This had obviously been very important to him when he was attending interviews with officials about his legal status. The artists were creating safe spaces through their workshops and visits. 

3. The artists’ understanding of spatiality 

  •  the sessions take place in a designated art space or in a c/Culturally relevant place in the city (where they ‘do’ art rather than simply visit the place) 

  •  there is provision of a range of special materials and use of many different processes 

  •  participants move around the spaces freely, there is little obvious regulation of behaviour

  •  the sessions create safe spaces:

- for the young person to talk about memories and feelings (though this is never forced) 

-  for political debate, encouraging young people to use their voice, to be active citizens 

-  for the young people to teach others about a range of cultural practices 

- allowing for divergence and the development of personal styles. 

"Nottingham Castle is an iconic Nottingham venue with stunning views over the south of the city… At first the group wander around the grounds of the castle in quite an unfocussed way, enjoying the views of Nottingham in the sunshine. Then Shamila encourages them to gather around near the top entrance where she demonstrates the frottage technique. This involves using a stick of graphite on its side to make a rubbed impression of a textured surface - her demo is of the stone flags which are very rough and undulating. They begin to copy her, one participant is getting into it enthusiastically and creating a multi-layered image. It is interesting to see was the way that they become more and more involved in the task. One group appears around the corner after a while, so proud of their collection of textures and words (from plaques or drain covers). It is as if they are on a treasure hunt gathering precious things! Another is very excited by the potential of leaves and the delicate detail that could be picked up by the process of the frottage. Some become almost compulsive, gathering more and more textures. One makes an image of an eye out of textures- an imaginative idea beyond the brief. Ruth observes how the process encourages us all to observe detail - we are all getting really acquainted with this iconic place at a deeper level. Does it also give us a feeling of knowing it better than the tourists who wander past looking a bit baffled by our exploits? A contrast between the gaze of the visitor and the young artists who are so focused on the detail of the place." (Extracts from the Art of Belonging project blog)

Our fourth and final heading, Artists work with multidimensional temporality draws on Hall and Thomson’s component ‘the lived experience of the present’ (2017: 110). In similar ways to space and place, time and temporality have particular connotations for young forced migrants. Kohli writes about how time is simultaneously speeded up and slowed down for those navigating physical and metaphorical journeys towards resettlement (REFERENCE). 

We observed how our participants had to develop a flexible approach to time which our artists needed to accommodate. This was characterised by late arrivals or early departures from sessions- often because of appointments with social workers or other professionals over which forced migrants have limited control. The entire project had an additional element of flexibility as forced migrants arrive at any point in the calendar year and might be moved to a different location following decisions about their legal status. 

4. Artists work with multidimensional temporality 

There is: 

  •  planned flexibility, for staggered arrival and departure times; 

  •  a focus on the lived experience of the present without probing into personal past experiences or possible futures; 

  •  an emphasis on what the young person wants to celebrate about their culture that allows for individual choice over sharing memories of the past; 

  •  a flexible goal- the project evolves over time in response to the young people and their evolving circumstances.

Workshop bank: Welcome


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Sketching and Frottage 2.png
Graffiti Tags 2.png
Spray Paint Silhouttes 2.png
Patterns in Batik 2_edited.png
Natural Pigments 2_edited_edited.jpg
Embroidered Portholes 2_edited.png
Protest Placards 2_edited.jpg
Carving Soap 2.png
Collaborative Mapping 2.png















Workshop bank: Research
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