Afrofututrism-Part 1, A New Lens By Which to See, Inspired by Cyrus Kabiru
This Spring as a school, we focused on elevating Black Joy, Excellence, and Culture through living folx throughout the African diaspora. And while this is a project that we engaged in from February through beginning of April, Black Joy is intended to be a provocation for continued expansive teaching practice and curriculum development at School Within School as a core principle.
In the Atelier, Black Lives Matter at School is 24/7, through expression, art, culture, movements, and making. The narrow expanse historically of art, art institutions, and art education has centered white male Eurocentric artists, with a handful of women and BIPOC thrown in during their designated cultural months.
I dare say it is easy to scrap the white supremacist model of art education because there are limitless and boundless histories, cultures, and BIPOC and women artists to center to inspire young children (and ourselves) to express and transform power, beauty, and aesthetic.
Inspired by an art exhibit I visited in Barcelona 5 years ago “Making Africa”, and as the Early Childhood Atelierista (working virtually yet live with the children), I centered our Black Joy, Excellence, and Innovation projects around Afrofuturism.
“For the uninitiated, Afrofuturism is a fluid ideology shaped by generations of artists, musicians, scholars, and activists whose aim is to reconstruct “Blackness” in the culture. Reflected in the life and works of such figures as Octavia Butler, Sojourner Truth, Sun Ra, and Janelle Monáe, Afrofuturism is a cultural blueprint to guide society. The term was coined by Mark Dery in 1993 but birthed in the minds of enslaved Africans who prayed for their lives and the lives of their descendants along the horrific Middle Passage. The first Afrofuturists envisioned a society free from the bondages of oppression — both physical and social. Afrofuturism imagines a future void of white supremacist thought and the structures that violently oppressed Black communities. Afrofuturism evaluates the past and future to create better conditions for the present generation of Black people through the use of technology, often presented through art, music, and literature.”
We began by being inspired by the vision and genius of Cyrus Kabiru.
“I grew up surrounded by a lot of trash,” says Cyrus Kabiru of his childhood. “The biggest dumpsite in Nairobi was right opposite my house. I used to tell my dad, ‘When I grow up I’ll give trash a second chance.’ I used to feel like trash also needs a chance to live.”
After looking at Mr. Kabiru’s glasses ( C-Stunners, as he calls them), glasses no one had ever imagined before, I explained how he is called an Afrofuturist. He is an artist from Kenya who creates art that no one in the world has ever seen before, he creates by making a new and better future, where trash is given a second chance. All of his C-Stunners also tell a story. Each one is different. He is a creative genius.
“To me, being an Afrofuturist is a mix of creativity from different continents.” •
His increasing success in the art world has afforded Kabiru the opportunity to travel and to expand his collection of found objects. •
He says: “When I go to London, I’ll pick up trash. I always pick up trash from different continents. If I make an artwork with European trash, my work will look newer, so I try to combine old Kenyan trash and new European trash.”
This was a project we returned to for many weeks. This returning is to practice depth, as opposed to a make-it take-it crafting hour. Each class we re-visted Mr. Kabiru through looking at his art and watching and listening to him speak to us through videos. As children constructed, an Afrofuturism playlist that I created of SunRa, Janelle Monet, Laura Mvula, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Kamasi Washington, Eryka Badu, Valerie June and more played. The sensory and delight of the creative process was compelling to observe. The music helped keep track of time and guide children into a state of flow.
I could see into all the squares on the Teams Meeting where children were experimenting, constructing, and creating, all while centering the Afrofuturist ideals of Cyrus Kabiru.
We did multi-modal language shifting by using our sculptures as a provocation for mixed media 2d collage art (as Cyrus Kabiru also uses photography and mixed media collage to express his stories.)
All of this project work is happening during a global pandemic. This is relevant. There is no doubt that each child and adult has experienced trauma, loss, and abrupt change. Because trauma is experienced inwardly, with no words to express,(especially if you are 3-6- years old) the act of making and creating in an open-ended and expansive manner allows one to process (often unconsciously) pain or anxiety. The brain shifts and creates new passageways during making. When these neurological passageways shift, you are released from the biological and emotional effects of fight, flight, or freeze. Expression through the arts releases and heals emotionally and neurologically.
Right now, in the newspaper is the unrelenting horror of the details of the murder of Mr George Floyd. What strikes one, is the fact that the police officer who kneeled on the neck of Mr Floyd and killed him ceased to see his humanity. What strikes one, is the fact that a trial is even necessary when the world witnessed his tragic death via a cell phone video. What strikes one, is those who watched who had the power to stop another Black man, another human being, from being killed just watched. The othering and dehumanizing of Black and Brown children and adults hails from the transatlantic slave trade. It is enmeshed in all of our systems, including our education systems. We are raised in the subtle and the obvious ways that creates internalized hatred of BIPOC.
We are all, within our capacity able to create, demand, imagine, and act in a way that centers Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and dismantles white supremacy culture. For me it is as a mother, artist, educator, and activist.
As children gazed at the beauty and genius of Cyrus Kabiru, valuing his existence, we are reminded of the importance of our our daily work. Especially with our youngest citizens.
“Why do we care about what the Afrofuturist has to say? And why would we suspect that their answers would differ from that of an average futurist? It is because the Black experience is defined by a historical struggle for existence, the right to live, to be considered a person, to be afforded basic rights, in pursuit of (political, social, economic) equality. Because of this, the Afrofuturist can see the parts of the present and future that reside in the status quo’s blind spots.”
Our paths co-constructing Afrofuturist thinking and making in the Atelier/Art Studio led us next to The Black Indians of New Orleans, The Super Heroes of Hebru Brantley, and The Quilters of Gee’s Bend. The journey of learning and thinking as an Afrofuturist makes visible Black Joy, Excellence, and Innovation intrinsically. It goes on and on. Like the C-Stunners of Cyrus Kabiru, Afrofuturism offers us all a new lens by which to see, especially in the blind spots.
I was thinking about the complexities of “labor” today, on this Labor Day eve.
I was thinking about the labor or role of the teacher. The possibilities and power of relationship and transformation that can happen in a learning environment is on my mind as this new school year has begun. For me this is in the Atelier or Art Studio at SWS. It made me jump to the phrase “Labor of Love.”
Last Spring I became part of a year-long 12 person Art Educator DCPS Fellowship. ACES Art Fellowship. ACES stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. The fellowship I am a part of aims to create a cadre of trauma –informed art teachers to develop strategies and practice within their art classes and then share and spread this work within their school communities and throughout DCPS.
What is ACEs science?
ACEs science refers to the research on the prevalence and consequences of adverse childhood experiences, and what to do to prevent them. It comprises:
The CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study and subsequent surveys that show that most people in the U.S. have at least one ACE, and that people with four ACEs— including living with an alcoholic parent, racism, bullying, witnessing violence outside the home, physical abuse, and losing a parent to divorce — have a huge risk of adult onset of chronic health problems such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, suicide, and alcoholism.
Brain science (neurobiology of toxic stress) — how toxic stress caused by ACEs damages the function and structure of kids’ developing brains.
Health consequences — how toxic stress caused by ACEs affects short- and long-term health, and can impact every part of the body, leading to autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis, as well as heart disease, breast cancer, lung cancer, etc.
Historical and generational trauma (epigenetic consequences of toxic stress) — how toxic stress caused by ACEs can alter how our DNA functions, and how that can be passed on from generation to generation.
Resilience research — how the brain is plastic and the body wants to heal. This research ranges from looking at how the brain of a teen with a high ACE score can be healed with cognitive behavior therapy, to how schools can integrate trauma-informed and resilience-building practices that result in an increase in students’ scores, test grades and graduation rates.
“ACEs are still experienced by more than one in three children under the age of six. Even in higher income families, more than one in four children have ACEs.”
Here is a wonderful link (where I copied the above info from)
It means a more intentional and informed practice of being the safety net for children within the context of the SWS Atelier/Art Studio.
A child does not need to have 1 or more ACES to benefit from me cultivating a compassionate and inclusive classroom based on ACES science. A child who does have one or more ACES has the added potential and benefit of altering their neurology, developing a sense of healthy connection, and developing necessary resiliency.
One of my favorite simple strategies within this work is to offer “unconditional regard.” It means taking a breath and offering love, even when a child presents in an unlovable behavior. It means routines, rituals, and language that lessens triggers. It means learning how to de-escalate children who are acting out with care and thought. It means thoughtful planning and facilitating of materials, environment, and lessons through this lens.
And let us not forget the power of the arts to heal. Materials or the 100 Language of children offer children (and adults!) opportunities to express, explore, experiment, and take risks. It allows one to reflect, make beauty, destroy, make mistakes, construct, and transform.
When opportunities to create art occurs within a safe inclusive space, with a teacher who verbally and non-verbally defines boundaries, offers freedoms, and unconditional regard, there is fertile ground for growth. And for joy.
SWS and DCPS are systemically committed to this work. It is an honor and privilege to meet consistently with the DCPS ACES Art Fellowship cadre under the facilitation of Lyndsey D. Vance, ATR-BC, LPC from ProjectCreate, DC in Anacostia.
This year, all the ongoing Reggio practice, Constructivist theory, Art Theory, Art Ed, Early Childhood pedagogy, DCPS Standards, Developmentally Appropriate planning, Project Approach, and Mindfulness practices that are embedded in my teaching at SWS, have a new connecting thread. Unconditional regard. Trauma informed practice. Love.
“Relationship is the evidence based practice.” Dr. Allison Jackson
Intuitively I have always known this. In my life, I have been both on the receiving and giving end. Now I have the science and fellowship to truly understand, share, and further develop my practice.
It seems most appropriate today to declare this work, this year, sincerely, as a Labor of Love.
It’s a new school year. Filled with possibility, new relationships, and sweet growth for both the children and all the connected adults in their lives.
“Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.” Loris Malaguzzi
When children learn from their heart and soul the importance of protecting and honoring the earth (even cuty kids), when they learn to wonder, think, imagine, and be curious of the world around them at a young age, when they experience the connection of all living things, they develop the empathy and awareness to make a difference. To be kind. To create solutions. To find metaphors.
And this is why we engage so deeply in the Monarch rescue effort. It is more than science.
It’s making ripples.
“I wonder if caterpillars play with their friends?” Olivia D., Kindergarten
“I wonder, how did they take such big bites (of the Milkweed leaf) with a tiny tiny mouth?” Lucy, PreK
After the caterpillar falls, because the cage is accidentally bumped, the caterpillar curls up. The PreK3 group gasps because they think it’s hurt.
Suddenly it stretches out on the leaf and starts moving.
“It’s not curled! It’s happy now!” Alonzo, PreK3
“Actually I see (the caterpillars) are the same. Same stripes.” Felix, PreK3
In these images Laurel communicates all her knowledge and wonder and understandings to me by tapping, and pointing, and expressing non-verbally. By “visually listening” I learned how enthralled and connected she is.
“I see they have black and white feet.” Lucy, PreK
“I see they have antenna.” William, PreK
“I see 4 antennae.” Lan, PreK
One Monday, when I arrived at school, I found that 3 of the caterpillars had escaped the cage. Two were found, but one disappeared. I told Mr. Moore the custodian about the missing critter, and hoped when he swept, he would find our missing caterpillar. I crawled under every table and chair. Eventually, I cam to the conclusion that the cat had either crawled away or had been vacuumed up by accident.
5 days later, Alexandra says, “Ms. McLean, I found something in the pony palace.” This is a play house about 25 feet from where the caterpillar tent is.
“What did you find?”, I asked.
I gasped. “Is it alive?”, I asked her.
“I think so.” she replied.
I put that caterpillar on a milkweed and low and behold, after 5 days of no food, it began munching away! It has since turned into a beautiful female butterfly. What a magical story!
“I wonder why it hangs upside down.” Nergu, PreK
Transformation of the caterpillar into the chrysalis is a rare thing to witness. This year, children, parents, and staff had the opportunity to watch this four times! It is such a grand moment of wonder and hope. For if this little creature can make such a spectacular transformation, surely we can too.
“I wonder how does it (the chrysalis) stick up there?” Will C., PreK
Here’s a brief video of the end part of the transformation. It is aptly called, the pupa dance.
“I wonder how does it (the chrysalis) stick up there?” Will C., PreK“I think the golden on it tells you it’s a special surprise.” Hope, PreK
Engaging in small groups with tiny miraculous creatures offers deep moments of observing, thinking, wondering, expressing, and caring. In these small moments were opportunities to focus on not only caring for the earth, but each other too. Listening while others spoke, engaging in kind language, sharing materials, and collaborating. These are not the small things, but the big things. The ripple makers, to spread goodness.
“I wonder, is there a mommy and daddy?” Josephine, PreK
Do not train children to learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each. – Plato
When one of the PreK3 children became frightened by the butterfly, the effect was catching. Soon I had four screaming 3 year olds. I quickly grabbed two Kindergarten children, Dale and Olivia, who were on their way to recess, and asked them if they would come in and teach the 3 year olds there was nothing scary, while I took the very frightened little one out to get a drink of water and calm down. The two stayed for a whole hour, even facilitating and helping the younger children make a great big butterfly mural. I really couldn’t have done it without them. When I thanked Dale and Olivia for giving up their recess time to help me out, Olivia looked at me and said, “No, thank YOU Ms. McLean for inviting us.” I almost cried.
When it looks like you’re breakdancing in the atelier, you know something good is happening.! Embodying and engaging all senses makes one alive to the world. Processed with Snapseed.
“I think caterpillars have different brains.” Gilly, PreK
“Hey butterfly, look at this picture. She cute, right?” Ryan, PreK3
Themes and discussions of freedom emerged, as the children vacillated between wanting to name and keep the butterflies and also wanted to let it go. It also allows children to think about their selves. Wanting to be totally free, but being a child and also wanted someone there, when they are afraid. Isn’t that what we all want?
“The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.”
Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change
My deepest wish is that I can be an instrument in supporting your child/children to become themselves. Beautiful kind compassionate loving selves.
Here’s to a year of making lots of ripples, and butterfly flights.
There is a symbiotic relationship I have with my profession/s. Artist and Atelierista.
When I am both teaching and creating art I am immersed in and blessed with: aha moments of discovery, the anxiousness of the unknown, the struggle and challenges of making ideas into something visible, the struggle and challenges of materials, tools, and media, limitations of time, deep thought, play, experimentation, expanses of altered time, introspection, reflection, conversation, mistakes, mistakes that are paradigm shifting, collaboration, the feelings of exhilaration and fear within expression.
I start this blog off with these thoughts because, the children conceptualized, experienced, and sketched the music of Bach played live by Joshua Bell on a Stradivarius Violin in Union Station surrounded by a gazillion people, and it is breathtaking. Every part of this experience is breathtaking.
This is Liam’s sketches while listening to Joshua Bell perform live at Union Station.
This year, the Kindergarten classes are engaged in a year-long exploration and encounter with Union Station, located about 8 blocks from School.
The poetry of these pictures illustrate the connections, interactions, observations, and encounters that the Kindergarten Citizens experienced in the last few months. In and out of Union Station, the immersion, awe, and thinking is evident in the Historic gem of a building, teaming with humanity. The children’s presence seamlessly adds to the hustle and bustle as they sprawled and pointed and pondered.
But wait, this blog post is about the children’s conceptualization and making visible the music of Joshua Bell.
Perhaps you have seen the viral video clip of Joshua Bell, one of the best concert violinist in the world played for free, for 45 minutes, on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars at a subway station in Wash DC. Over a thousand people passed by Bell, only seven stopped to listen him play, including a 3-year old boy, and only one person recognized him.
So imagine my excitement when a week after taking the Kindergarten children on another excursion to Union Station I saw this headline in the Washington Post:
Joshua Bell to play again in DC after 2007 stunt
By – Associated Press – Tuesday, September 23, 2014
WASHINGTON (AP) – Joshua Bell wants a do-over in Washington.
The Grammy-winning violinist played for change in a D.C. Metro station in 2007 during an experiment with The Washington Post, and almost no one paid attention. It made for a good magazine story that won the Pulitzer Prize. But Bell hasn’t been able to live it down after seven years.
Now, Bell tells the Post (http://wapo.st/ZGRQRm ) he is planning another public performance in the main hall at Washington’s Union Station. And he hopes to have an audience this time. The performance is set for Sept. 30 at 12:30 p.m.
I love my colleagues at SWS! When I squeeled that we HAD to take the kids in just 3 days, both Kindergarten Teachers, Margaret Ricks and Laura McCarthy took a breath and made this last minute hustle with chaperones and schedule changes a reality.
But first: I showed the kids the above video about all the grown ups who walked by a world class violinist, because he looked like just some guy in jeans and a baseball cap. Here’s their faces as they watched:
They were flabbergasted.
Parent, Emily Greif told me there was a childrens book made about what happened, and how it was the child who heard and wanted to stop to hear the music, but the Mom was too much in a hurry. The child noticed.
She lent us the book. Here’s a short trailer about it: The Man with the Violin
The children wanted to hear the book again and again. The day before the Joshua Bell concert, the children would yell out as they passed me, “We’re going to Joshua Bell tomorrow!”
The day of, many parents in excitement pulled up some Joshua Bell music for their children to listen to. Even before the concert, children were doing this at home:
Finally the day arrived.
The kids had to eat quickly and then walk briskly to Union Station. Spirits were high. They sang as they walked. And then we arrived.
You cannot imagine the adult crowd. Almost 45 minutes before start time and it was packed!
Being a short person who can readily scoot to the front, I attempted to part the crowds like Moses, shouting out, “Please make way for the 5 year olds! Excuse me can I lead these children through so they can see?” I was almost to the inner circle just one row of people to go, I had 40 5 year olds and a dozen adults protecting them from the throngs. And then a voice rang out. “It’s first come first serve and we were here first. We are not moving!!!”
“Can they please just scoot in front of you and sit? The adults will stand back.”
“We were here first!!!”
And so I signaled, to go back the other way.
As the crowd capacity grew I finally said, “Everyone sit! We are claiming our ground!”
The adults encircled the children with love and passed out the sketchbooks.
It was loud and chaotic.
And then something completely magical happened… First, they started sketching the noise and the crowd. Lily’s diagram or map of the concert.
And then the second magical thing happened. The music started. And the din of the crowd silenced. The haunting and soaring, the joyful and the somber sounds of Bach surrounded us all. And this is what I witnessed: Sasha F.’s sketch
The experience was seemingly spiritual, as the sounds and the sketching melted away the sea of adult legs pressing in on and around the children. Their being, their presence as participants in this historic moment solidified and confirmed their citizenship. In fact their sense of noticing and hearing surpassed the majority of the crowd of almost 1,500 who were jostling to get closer and closer and closer. In fact, the children managed to get the closest…inside, in their hearts and souls.
The newspapers gave great reviews to the event, but I wanted Joshua Bell to know about these small folks and their experience with his music. I sent Joshua Bell’s “people” an email with some photos of the children and their sketches of his music.
A week later I received this response, and a package in the mail.
Thank you so very much for your email to the Joshua Bell team. I am based in Los Angeles and just returned today.
I found the children’s drawings quite fantastic and thank you for sending them along. How lucky they are to have you as their teacher, someone who thinks “out of the box” and knows a good teaching moment when there is one.
I’d very much like to send you the new Bach CD for the children to listen to and an autographed photo of Joshua if you will kindly provide me with your mailing address.
With sincere thanks and best wishes,
Press Representative / JAG Entertainment
4265 Hazeltine Ave. / Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind,
flight to the imagination, and life to everything.” …Plato
Her response moved me. She also validated the depth of young children and the importance and beauty of their collective voice.
The very first time I handed out the Union Station Sketchbooks,
“real artist sketchbooks” to the children,
and the first time the children sketched into them
at Union Station, Mason Grace turned to me and said;
“This journal is like a bible.”
“From seeds” comes from a conversation that came about today when I was in the SWS garden harvesting vegetables and flowers to paint with Caleb, Franklin, and Boaz (PreK children).
The act of picking the produce or herbs or flowers develops a shared anticipation, as each child waits their turn to cut, pluck, or support a friend who is cutting.
It’s exciting, the bees are buzzing, the wind blows, the sun shines, or maybe it is raining. It is an act made with care. It is filled with sound and touch and friends.
Placing each tender newly harvested item onto a tray or basket to bring back to the art studio, there is a glee and a joy. Once we have happily skipped back inside to the studio, the work of looking
and collaboratively choosing just the right pallette of paint for each piece of nature becomes a debate.
No, it’s purple.
Well maybe purple brown.
Where is that?
There! There! As a group, this act of looking, observing, debating, and choosing goes on for each pepper, tomato, zinnia, or radish.
It is slow.
It is purposeful.
It is a task that connects the children deeply to each nature item, even if they didn’t pick it. It connects each child to one another as they help, shout, whisper, and cajole their friend who is choosing a paint, that no, it really should be a light green for the stem. After this beautiful experience of harvesting, and collaboratively choosing a pallette of paint, each child gets to choose what they want to paint.
Since they themselves pulled the radish from the dirt, passed the radish from hand to hand while choosing a tub of paint that matches it, and then carried it all to the table…what happened next was a natural act. These small children, PreK children, naturally understood the beauty and nuances and began to paint. The Trail of Tears Bean on the vine gestured.
It was silent.
This is more than painting a still life.
This is connecting to life.
This week as millions marched world wide to stop climate change and met to discuss the health and future of our planet, I am struck by the importance of these small connecting moments in the garden with our young SWS caretakers of the urban garden at the entrance to our school.
Please read the conversation below. It speaks to a child’s understanding of interconnectedness, of consumerism, and in the end…that it all comes “from the seed.” We had this conversation outside, hands in the earth by the radish bed.
I wonder, if I did not take them out, if SWS did not have the vision and will to place a garden at the entrance to our school, if parents and staff did not have the passion and energy to volunteer and create and upkeep this plot, if our FoodPrints program did not exist, if the teachers did not have the values to get the kids in the mess and the dirt and the seeds…
would the conversation had ended at “…food comes from the store”?
It is science, it is art, it is literacy, it is nutrition, but it is oh so much more.
These acts of engagement and connection are acts of activism. They are acts of expression. They are acts of discovery. They are acts of joy.
Better than “dust to dust,”
our young children are expressing that human existence is “From the Seeds, From the Seeds.”
Please watch this 3 minute video. It is a love letter. This is the poem by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner of the Marshall Islands that brought down the house at the UN Climate Summit today. It is moving in a way that you wouldn’t believe.
Dear Matafele (a love letter to a child)
Please linger in the garden with your child, or volunteer to cook, harvest, plant and water at SWS, in your community, or wherever you live.
Get a little dirty.
March, sing, dance, research, talk, touch, create.
Every small act.
We truly are interconnected.
We are all
(Thank you to Boaz, Franklin, and Caleb who inspired this post.)
But, I wondered, what if the “uncommon” polar vortex that changed the DC metro area could be transformed into a temporary wonderful, magical, and stunning curiosity? For the children and community of SWS, this small poetic gesture was offered. Frozen Sun catchers.
May you encounter the uncommon with all your senses May it fill you with wonder And joy May you pass it forward