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Education as Deviation from Colonial Ways of Inhabiting the World


by Aldones Nino

When thinking about education as a space for the exchange and expansion of perspectives, we must take into account the complexity of issues of opacity and visibility, given that both are strategically articulated in the history of humanity and have contributed to the world as we know it, where a scenario organized in order to make visible and invisible exists, sustained by hegemonic modes of planetary occupation.

The title of this essay derives from an intention to reflect on certain artistic practices that are based on education, understanding it as a strategic field to deviate from the colonial ways of inhabiting the world, led by models that come from the formal education system supported by white supremacy, the patriarchy, and heterosexism. When we think of such practices in Latin America, it is impossible not to add layers of urgency, considering that education is an increasingly scarce and besieged right, which is becoming the privilege of a few. Hence the pressing need to overcome the precariousness driven by large private conglomerates that collaborate with markedly liberal governments, which increasingly narrow the spaces for developing research and thought.

Therefore, bringing education closer to decolonial prerogatives provides a wide field of action, in which, more than resorting to trendy educational premises, the educational field is questioned from a specific point of view that “unravels” the very concept of education to the point of drenching it in the historical, the economic, and its corresponding territorial spheres. Far from being a novelty, a more unified—though diversely plural—gap opens now when thinking about the roots of contemporary problems when proposing actions that are justified as a continuity in the specificity of the environment.

Consequently, it is worth considering decolonial educational practices as a way to access an “alternate mode,” as specified by researcher Catherine Walsh, as a set of “different ways of being, thinking, knowing, feeling, perceiving, doing, and living in relationships that challenge the hegemony and universality of capitalism, Eurocentric modernity and Western civilizational logic, including its anthropocentrism and binary foundations.”1 Thus, denoting the construction of “a lived pedagogy and praxis that is neither human-centered nor humanistic but grounded in the interrelation of all of nature, of which we humans are only a part” (Ibid.).

From the Surface of the Blackboard to Historical Interventions

During the 29th São Paulo Biennial (2010), the artist Cinthia Marcelle presented Sobre este mesmo mundo [This Same World Over] (2009), an installation composed of a blackboard accompanied by mountains of powder of chalk, the accumulated remains of erasure processes. In the words of Ian McEwan, the white stains allow the visibility of “’versions, sayings and landscapes left behind.’ By appropriating the signs of formal education, the work subverts school doctrine and gives the artist the opportunity to experiment productively and imaginatively with 'unlearning.'"2 For her part, according to Gabi Ngcobo, Marcelle's proposal preserves "residues of her previous formulas, those already irrelevant to current problems and that need to be updated to address issues of the world as they occur."3

Cinthia Marcelle: “Sobre este mesmo mundo” [This Same World Over] (2009). Photo: Agustin Estrada. Courtesy: Collegium.

It is not surprising that this work is part of the Collegium collection, a radical museum project focused on building bridges between contemporary production and the historical and artistic heritage of Arévalo (province of Ávila, Spain), a city marked by the relationship between various cultures and events of worldwide resonance, such as the ratification of treaties that marked the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age (Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494) and the genesis of the Society of Jesus, founded in the 16th century and known for playing a fundamental role in the internationalization of Western education in continents such as Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The city’s Jesuit Complex continues to be a remodeling scenario designed from a project by architect Tatiana Bilbao focused on the relationships between learning processes and local and global demands, where contemporary art is the main field of arrangement of the issues presented by the environment.

In this way, education, architectural heritage, geopolitics, and art can contribute to the research and display of works such as Cinthia Marcelle’s Sobre este mesmo mundo (2009). A work triggered by reminiscences of the time frames of formal education and powder as the material element of the transmutation of accumulated knowledge, which from the frame to the floor becomes a ground for reformulating statements and certainties learned through models that exercise the fear of self-determination.

In Decolonising the Mind (1994), Ngugi wa Thiong'o states that a writer's handling of reality—and it is our interest to extend this postulate to artists—can be biased by a basic philosophical perspective on nature and society which will obviously be used in the formulations derived from the methods used for research. However, the risk lies in the ability to perceive the universal, which, overshadowed by a material fog, may err in the search for the “widest possible scale in time and space—in its minutest particularity as a felt experience. But it does affect his approximation of reality or rather his effectiveness in correctly reflecting reality.”4 Therefore, the material basis matters in this context of analysis, as would the magnifying glass under which his poetics unfolds, although this says nothing about the power of a work. Underneath this discourse is the reflection of the social place in which a work is produced, even though this does not necessarily circumscribe what can be articulated within the creative field.

Considering the expansion of the expressive possibilities, museum institutions have gone through an important process of approaching the colonial structures that sustain them, seeking to consider the relationship between objects, human, and non-human beings, thus articulating visible and invisible worlds, to the extent that these allow themselves to be revealed in certain contexts.

A process that could only be carried out by incorporating agents that can integrate such communities into all the phases, from conception to exhibition, and not only with new approaches and interests.

Imagination, Language and Culture: Deviations and Other Ways of Existence

When reflecting on Guarani education and interculturality, educator and curator Sandra Benites takes the occupation of spaces provided by the school as a starting point to portray the ways of life and understanding of a system and its customs. The author finds that this difficulty in understanding the other finds its origin in the school and its imposition of a "universal education," which generates more processes of domination of colonial imagery than of emancipation and possibilities of desirable lives for the bodies that state and explain their current occupational paths. Therefore, for Benites, it is important to take advantage of these spaces to build a school "according to our system, which in turn demands an egalitarian listening, a space for negotiation so that there can be an understanding of the other’s language, otherwise, there will always be a dispute for power and dominion."5

One of the powerful voices addressing education linked to artistic practices is Agrippina R. Manhattan, who creates educational experiences shaped as platforms for the encounter of subjectivities, thus expanding the possible worlds; she articulates them from her experience of transition between the hegemonic fields of art history and pedagogical and museum education. In 2020, at the Hélio Oiticica Municipal Art Center (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), she presented the action E-DU-CA-TI-VO: O que é uma criança travesti? [ED-U-CA-TION-AL: What is a transvestite child?] as part of the Arrebatrá residency program, curated by the theorists and transvestites Ventura Profana and Walla Capelobo.

Agrippina R. Manhattan: "E-DU-CA-TI-VO : O que é uma criança travesti?" [ED-U-CA-TION-AL: What is a transvestite child?] (2020). Centro Municipal de Artes Hélio Oiticica (Rio de Janeiro, Brasil). Courtesy: Nalla Corsa.

Manhattan carried out a playful experience with the language of drawing. Departing from a dictionary in which the words 'transvestite' and 'child' were missing, she invited participants to imagine a meaning for them. In this way, she activated an exercise in political imagination, bringing together audiences for reflecting on the relationship between bodies that are seen as incompatible: children and transvestites. Different and complementary experiences, impregnated with crossings and memories. In the words of the artist:

«All these works operate at some level in the paradox of ‘to speak’ and ‘to be heard.’ I seek to understand how to build relationships between bodies that do not speak the same language, understanding that even though we speak the same language, we are on a level of singularity talking about ourselves, so: How to make myself understood? These works, whether through linguistic games and puns, or through an analysis of the morphological composition of language, seek to access what is said without being said, that which language cannot handle and is only transmissible through the body—that is, what only the body speaks.»6

Communication plays a main role in the relationship between different parties interested in the same or similar issues, but what does the fluidity of the statements depend on for reaching the desired conclusions? In Ngugi wa Thiong'o's research, colonialism had a double implication: the destruction—or undervaluing—of different aspects of a people's culture and the praise and diffusion of the colonizer's language; a process that shows that “the domination of a people's language by the languages of the colonising nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonised.”7 Therefore, it is worth noting the radical study of the transmutation of language undertaken by Jonas van Holanda, which had Desambiguação [Disambiguation] (2021) as one of its developments; an installation based on the possibility of rejecting the separability of the different materialities that make up the multidimensional universe.

Prostheses created in collaboration with dissident-gendered subjects, from molds of their jaws, function as a counter-hegemonic model against colonial language, evoking the utterance of the unspeakable, where the disintegrated word materializes into mineral. Guided by a dental arch composed of acrylic resin and amethysts—which are minerals endowed in various cosmologies with great healing and protective power, connecting physical and invisible worlds. The mouth as a meeting place of dental/modern knowledge and ancestral dissidence, deconstructing language and the semantic ties of imagination.

Jonas van Holanda: "Desambiguação" [Disambiguation] (2021). Courtesy: Jonas van Holanda.

On the other hand, the artist Xadalu Tupã Jekupé has been building communicational bridges between the history of his Guarani Mbyá community and the Juruá (non-indigenous), transmitting knowledge and memories previously limited to orality. His research unfolds from an increasingly deep immersion in the cosmogonies of the Guarani Mbyá culture, proposing his works as a vector of transmission associated with the urgency of the lives of indigenous peoples in the context of contemporary Brazil. In the exhibition Tekoa Xy 'A terra de Tupã,' hosted at the Instituto Inclusartiz (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), Xadalu Tupã Jekupé presented Invasão Colonial meu corpo nosso território [Colonial Invasion: My Body Our Territory] (2019-2021), an installation that confronts the visitor by explaining the death practices across different regions of Brazil, where the indigenous bodies are threatened daily with land expropriation, having to literally run with shots aimed at their annihilation. In this installation, contemporary art paves the way for expanding the cries for the need to preserve life models not guided by the destitution of natural resources, a search for the reverse of profit built on destruction, which has death as a result of the unbridled drive for accumulation. It is worth thinking about this model, articulating other ideas around borders, where life can exist in these gaps, as the words recovered by Sandra Benites state: "the border is not only a space, it is another way of thinking and, therefore, it is necessary to dialogue and understand the other, because that is interculturality: the encounter of knowledge on the same proportion between cultures."8

6 Xadalu Tupã Jekupé: "Invasão Colonial meu corpo nosso território" [Colonial Invasion: My Body Our Territory] (2019-2021). Courtesy: Instituto Inclusartiz.

Deviant Writings and Historical Cracks

When thinking about education as a space for exchange and broadening perspectives, we must consider the complexity of the issue between opacity and visibility, since both are strategically articulated in the history of humankind to contribute to the world as we know it, where there is a scenario organized to make things visible and invisible, sustaining hegemonic modes of planetary occupation. Two works reveal the need to use this pair of opposites: 2021: Spell to Become Invisible (2019) by Jota Mombaça and Musa Michelle Mattiuzzi, and Marcela Cantuária's La larga noche de los 500 años [The Long Night of 500 Years] (2019). Back again to Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who placed our mental universe at the center of the dispute for domination, considering that:

«Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people's culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.»9

Jota Mombaça has sought ways to question luminosity and transparency as positive values, turning to the role of secrecy and opacity as a protective resource in the face of heterogeneous communicative dynamics, which act to reaffirm the subjugation of black and dissident epistemologies. In 2021: Spell to Become Invisble (2019), we see the work in progress initiated in the context of the project Ecos do Atlântico Sul [Echoes of the South Atlantic] (2019), where Mombaça and Matiuzzi read and discuss texts in a closed immersive process, in which they materialize elaborations and quotations on sheets of paper, presented in a public reading where phrases are crossed out, combining drawing and orality as a technology of sharing and protection in favor of continuity after the world apocalypse. Thus, self-definition becomes a horizon of action in a future being designed and dreamed of today.

For her part, Marcela Cantuária's research focuses on the multiple possibilities of accessing diverse systems and narratives that break with chronological linearity based on non-linear simultaneities. In La larga noche de los 500 años (2019), Marcela presents a metaphor of memory in the face of the attack on the modes of resistance of indigenous communities and the promotion of anti-fascist practices. She evokes the historical painting genre and its protagonism within the civilizing project, thus dictating a composition resulting from the narrative and imaginary ambitions in a pictorial representation to reaffirm the relevance of the feats of the combatants. A constellation of posters and portraits that tear the sky, as a sort of pantheon of Latin American insurgency.

Finally, I conclude this essay with the debate on visibility and invisibility, articulating different forms of memory and history from actions carried out in the present. Here, education and sharing have an emancipatory purpose that allows making present the existence of other knowledge. Each of the artists mentioned contributes to broadening the ways of understanding the reality around us. They prove that education and emancipation can be woven from contemporary art, as long as we consider experimentation as a way of stitching material reality with dreamlike longings. Destabilizing everything we learn as a norm and finding in the cracks a space for continuity, an invitation to continuous learning about histories, cultures, and identities.