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 must thank all the folks who sent photographs and videos, both Erika and I had our hands full and were unable to do it ourselves. Thank you thank you thank you!
Thank you to Lynette Craig who did all the paperwork and phone calls to convince our city to shut down the streets for this parade (park service and the police!). She left to me- only to meet with the officers/officials and sign my name. You have powers!
Thank you to Erika Bowman, my sista Atelierista and dream-it-into-reality-parade- partner. I will miss you. But I get to keep the memories (and friendship!), lucky me.
After the video link is documentation of some of the early childhood experiences that inform the parade video.
As a team (Prek3, PreK, Kgn) we focused on a year long exploration of Global Environmental Citizenship. Here’s how it emerged in the studio context:
This year, in addition to the daily creating and expression and relationship building in the studio/atelier, I engaged and facilitated a Mardi Gras/Speak for Living Things Parade and an Earth Day Parade with my partner Atelierista, Erika Bowman
One weekend there was a community sign building for a national parade, this past week a pop up interactive art installation, then we made and completed and installed a kinetic sculpture attached on the side of the school “The Listening Sculpture”,
and there were three big field trips for students to encounter immersive, sensory, recycled, and out of the box art. (ArtTech House, The Glass Forest, and The Renwick)
And all of it connected to each other, overlapped, provoked, and embraced the idea of Global Environmental Stewardship (or as Amira, age 5, summed it up, “Dear Earth, Why are we here?)
…but no blog post. All my time and energy went into the hands on making and organizing.
Hence, the balance issue.
Yesterday, I represented DCPS by marching in the DC Capitol Pride Parade with my SWS sisters and brothers.
(YES, it’s been a year of PARADES!)
All to find myself home sick today, coughing, headache…seems like life gave me lemons, so here comes the lemonade!
Overwhelmed by the idea catching up from Earth Day, I am posting from the present- the most current happenings, (and will try and catch up the middle at a later date.)
I have no voice today, so I will stay with this as a metaphor and let the children/SWS speak through this vide0 I created, (since I was stuck at home in bed.) Enjoy the lemonade!
I want to thank the Renwick, they opened up No Spectators- The Art of Burning Man exhibit an hour early, so that some of the youngest citizens in DC (ages 4-6) could experience the wonder and beauty of the exhibit (without competing with taller and larger bodies.)
We were welcomed by Geoff, and his invitation to touch and explore was lovely.
The children were moved and wowed. Many felt the weight, the lightness, the sacredness, and emotions of the Temple,
and all were mesmerized by the plethora of possibilities within the art and ideas of the playa.
The upper elementary aged children who visited the exhibit with Erika during the previous weeks were also astounded and inspired.
Upon returning to school, the upper elementary children began to build a collaborative Temple out of recycled cardboard.
The youngest children used tools and helped each other (just like the teams of artists who collaborated in the exhibit) to create a small Burning Man/Woman out of recycled materials with a wish, hope, or memory.
“I remember when I was a little baby , I felt happy with my family.” Brooke, age 4
“My memory is going inside the Renwick gallery. My favorite room was the one with the television in the sky.” Malda, age 6
The pop up museum opened Friday June 8th.
It will be gone by the end of the week.
But maybe gone only in the material state.
The gift of this type of work is the deep resonating memories and the thoughts by the children and community left in the SWS temple.
The gift of this work is children learning first hand, the power of creating a vision and dream into reality with friends.
The gift of this work is creating something in community with others, with both personal and global ideas (reflected in the cards left in the temple.)
The gift of this work is creating the space and the safety to be vulnerable in interactions, sharing wishes, hopes, and remembrances, and in the actual creating.
It was not easy. “If it’s easy, your brain isn’t growing”, a common refrain of mine. “It’s supposed to be a little bit hard.”
This is education:
Inclusive. Cultural. Personal. Community based. Global. Reflective. Expressive. Scientific. Inventive. Kind. Meaningful. Fun. Hard. Connected and inter-connected. Responsive. Oriented from thought to action (and sometimes the other way around,) Most importantly education is being a part of creating a better world.
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.
“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.)
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