Learning to Unlearn


Elke aus dem Moore, Head of the Visual Arts Department at the ifa – Institute for International Cultural Relations, and Sepake Angiama, Head of Education at documenta 14, talk about shifting educational approaches in art, new curricula, and the conference Under the Mango Tree – Ulterior Sites of Learning on this subject

C&: For you, what is the key issue behind the theme “Learning from Athens”?

Sepaka Angiama: “Learning from Athens” was never meant literally. In geographical terms, it initially refers to the center’s “willful estrangement” from a location that is considered on the edge of Europe but is almost a central connection between Europe and other geographies, between Europe and its shared histories with the Middle East and Africa. The magazine hosting documenta 14, South as a State of Mind, also points to a way of thinking or an attitude that is not dialectically opposed to the North but creates another position from which to speak from.

Elke aus dem Moore: To me “Learning from Athens” echoed the ideas of “solidarity” and “learning from crisis.” Evolution would be inconceivable without crisis. And crisis allows and affords another manner of thinking, an alternative way of doing, acting, and learning. We are in the midst of a crisis of the Western model of universalism, and the known and formal models of knowledge production and educational systems are showing their limitations and exclusions. Many artists are launching initiatives that question and problematize this hierarchy and the homogenization of educational systems, in their place creating new forms of collective learning.

C&: Discussion of learning is commonplace these days, but we also hear about unlearning in current debates around the decolonization of education. Some even say that the word “learning” itself is no longer appropriate. What is your perspective? And what does the “decolonization” of education mean to you?

SA: Yes, there has been a lot of debate about learning and of course unlearning. For example, we decided to call documenta 14’s education department “aneducation.” The prefix “an-” refers to undoing something. Learning for me is about shifting positions, being able to see something from another point of view. Learning is also about recognizing how you give form to knowledge and how you connect to it, recognizing narratives other than the ones you have received.

Why, for example, was I taught at school about Ancient Greek civilization but not about the Kingdom of Benin? Our systems and institutions of education reinforce forms of knowledge considered “established,” which creates social systems of oppression. Learning in this way is also then about unlearning. About challenging what is labelled as “known” and deepening our complexity of understanding to form altering perspectives. Unlearning means considering forms of knowledge that have been suppressed and excluded from the “canon.”

In order to decolonize education, you have to recognize that education has been colonized. Again, this is in relation to systems of knowledge, and the recognition of what can be considered valuable knowledge. It is much more than inserting a perspective or conducting research to add elements that were not previously included. The process of colonizing education was a violent and brutal obliteration of indigenous cultures, traditions, and language. The process of decolonization will bear the fruits of a painful process of recognition, repatriation, and reconciliation. But first it requires acceptance and acknowledgement of wrongdoing.

EadM: On the one hand, decolonizing education means rethinking and speaking about learning structures, power systems, and hierarchies. Who is allowed to teach and what knowledge is being taught? On the other hand, the term reflects the urgent need to develop new curricula. The new program at the ifa gallery focuses on questions of coloniality. One of our aims is to bring awareness to the fact that the history of German colonialism is rarely found in German school textbooks. The ifa therefore plans to cooperate with schools to write an alternative curriculum on the subject. The seminar we host is devoted to the study of schoolbooks and school materials with regard to their pervasive social, temporal, and political natures. The main questions this research will address are these: What visual and linguistic policies prevail when and in which contexts? How we can learn to recognize the colonial, racializing, or segregational aspects of representations? Indigenous perspectives need to be acknowledged in formal education systems as well. To that end, new curricula must be created that value this knowledge and offer multifaceted and layered narratives, alongside alternative ways of collaborative teaching and learning that break with traditional structures.

C&: You are both spearheading the conference Under the Mango Tree, initiated by ifa and documenta 14. What are your aims for the conference?

SA: We recognized that there was a general lack in our understanding of alternative forms of education. We placed a specific emphasis on the Global South but also indigenous practices, which have been developing discourses through building up structures outside of the academy or formal art schools. Many of the schools are artist-led and we wanted to understand why they were established, how they sustain themselves, and what could be shared or learned from their experiences.

EadM: Formal art education in the Western context is reaching its limits. Showcasing historical examples and especially current alternative strategies and methodologies can open up the process of rethinking art education in general. With the conference, we are creating a space of mutual dialogue and learning. We aim to open a space for collective imaginaries and reverie.

C&: Where does the title of the conference come from?

EadM: The motto of our conference is a quote by Paulo Freire from his book Pedagogy of the Heart: “To come under the shade of this mango tree with such deliberateness and to experience the fulfillment of solitude emphasize my need for communion. While I am physically alone proves that I understand the essentiality of to be with.” We are also referring to the mango tree’s seductive smell. The mango tree is a site of learning that allows us to activate all our senses for learning from and with each other.

SA: Also, Adam Szymczyk took a research trip to Santiniketan, India. He shared some photographs of gathering spaces. Small low stumps in a circle directly under the mango tree with one, slightly taller, stump for the teacher to sit on. This got me thinking about forms of education outside of the formal structures of a classroom. Since then, whenever we mention the title, someone always wants to send us a photograph. Elke even took a photo in Bahia of a gathering space made by Lina Bo Bardi that is also in the shade of a mango tree.

C&: Can you give us one or two examples of “educational” systems, collectives, or other structures that have figured out new forms of knowledge production?

SA: When people think of alternative forms of art schools, Black Mountain College is always mentioned as an example of a model that arose after the dissolution of the Bauhaus. People also mention the controversy around Rollins College, where a number of tutors and professors left Rollins College and decided to form a new school. However, there are a number of contemporary models, which I felt also needed to be addressed.

EadM: One initiative we’ve worked with is KUNCI, a collective from Yogyakarta, founded in 1999. They are dedicated to critical knowledge production and sharing through different media, encounters, artistic interventions, and vernacular education within and across community spaces. They recently started the School of Improper Education and initiated a new school as “a garden of ideas, a laboratory of affects, and a space where new ideas clash and coalesce.”  

C&: In your opinions, how can art institutions and events contribute sustainably to new systems of knowledge production?

SA: This is a difficult question to answer. Large-scale projects like documenta are of course opportunities to create a platform where practices can find a confluence but also divergence of thinking. I recognize their power to transmit ideas that might ricochet and create new forms of knowledge that can resonate beyond the site of learning.

EadM: This is indeed a difficult question but also the most urgent one of our time. I think there is so much potential in artistic research, in the discourses within art contexts. And yet, although we have fantastic initiatives in Germany, we still lack ways to carry over this kind of knowledge to the formal educational sector. There’s also a lack of transcultural education, which can activate different perspectives as potential sources of progress. With our conference, we plan to bring people together and create new networks on this subject. We hope to plant seeds of inspiration.

The Conference Under the Mango Tree – Ulterior Sites of Learning takes place on the 18th and 19th of July 2017 at the Kunsthochschule and other sites in Kassel.

The interview is from the print issue of C&, which can be found here