Good practices regarding sexism and decolonization in art schools

Door Redactie rekto:verso, op Fri Oct 25 2019 22:00:00 GMT+0000

Art schools realize they have to take more action against possible sexism. And what to do about their white tradition? Different schools in Belgium initiated projects or decisions to create more awareness. We asked four of them to present their initiative, in order to inspire others.

1) Seven hints for art education


As an artist-led movement tackling sexual harassment, sexism and power abuse in the Belgian arts field, Engagement shares some concrete proposals for the teachers, the directors and the policy makers of art education:

Lees hier de Nederlandse versie

  1. Pillar of democracy: every community has the right to see itself represented in public institutions. The future of art education will not be white nor male, so changes have to be made rapidly. If a school is too white or too male, insert quotas in both teacher and student body. The lack of diversity in a student body is directly linked to the absence of role models in the teacher’s body. Recruitment programs in preparation of the yearly admittance exams is one proposal. Employment procedures should become more transparent and include affirmative actions.

  2. Break the canon! We need to go beyond the art context we are familiar with and use a broader frame of reference. Schools should organise hands-on working groups where teachers can inspire each other and discuss common shortcomings in relation to teaching. We don’t always have to look internationally to find successful artists with a different background. Invite local artists of color or artists with migration backgrounds for lectures, juries and studio visits.

Instead of organising discussions around diversity, invest in mandatory training to directly affect teachers’ approach.

  1. Art schools have to invest in transparent and honest evaluation methods. Precisely because of the subjective quality of art, extra attention should be given to the importance of constructive feedback. It is the responsibility of the school that as many students as possible can graduate. Failure to obtain a degree can have lifelong consequences for students, especially those with precarious backgrounds.

  2. Establish an environment of trust for all students. This means redefining what is considered to be the norm, as we do not all share the same cultural habits and sensitivities. Dig into methods of teaching that are culturally responsive, meaning ‘in tune with difference’. Instead of organising discussions around diversity, invest in mandatory training to directly affect teachers’ approach to these challenges. This will also help with recognizing implicit biases.

  3. Establish, in conversation with the students and teachers, a code of conduct. Discuss what kind of daily behaviour is needed to create a safe learning environment that supports all students. Discuss some basic agreement on how to deal with conflicts. Define together with students the meaning of terms like racism, sexism, discrimination and harassment.

How are complaints followed up? Do they lead to concrete changes?

  1. Reevaluate the current complaint procedures. Do students and teachers know where to go when something happens? Are these procedures safe enough for students? How are complaints followed up? Do they lead to concrete changes? Is extra attention afforded the most precarious students (e.g. students in poverty or who have a visa)? When proper procedures are in place, make sure the information is clearly visible and known to all people involved in the faculty.

  2. Make a diversity plan that tackles all levels of the institution, including at the very top! Define a clear vision and link this to a series of goals and corresponding strategies. Set a clear time frame (short/mid/long term) so that actions can be evaluated and adjusted if needed.


Open design course (ODC) is a program dedicated to refugees, asylum seekers and people who do not have access to higher education due to administrative, financial or social reasons. The course has no tuition fee, takes place at KASK School of Arts, Ghent, and is currently supported by the federal government and the Digital Belgium Skills Fund.

It focuses on Open Design as a technological, cultural, artistic and critical practice. This course method is based on co-creation and peer learning, putting an emphasis on new media literacy.

'As long as we can overcome our fixation on what art has been or should be, art education should challenge and re-invent itself.'

Its ten weeks curriculum is built on the concept of input and output weeks. In the input weeks FLOSS tools [Free/Libre/Open Source Software] and co-creation methodologies, from idea development to storytelling, are introduced by a multidisciplinary and diverse teaching team, including former ODC participants.

In the output weeks the participants are invited to contribute their educational, professional or cultural expertise to design their projects, towards a public moment. This year, the public event will be a five days Open Laboratory in Zwarte Zaal, KASK.

The original course was initiated by the late Bram Crevits in 2016. His vision of the course was and remains multiple: as an educational experiment on the one hand, and as an artistic statement on the other.

'Art education should be a place of resistance and dialogue, to activate art as the collective conscience of our society.'

Crevits saw school as an open tool for society: “Schools should resist to reproduce the system we feel trapped in (..). As long as we can overcome our fixation on the identity of the artist, and on what art has been or should be (…) art education should challenge and re-invent itself, being a place of creativity, imagination and constructive experimentation; but also a place of resistance and dialogue (…) to activate art as the collective conscience of our society.”

The current team is expanding this prototype by introducing and applying feminist and decolonial practices where the spotlight is on relations and networks between us, the society we live in and the systems that support us [or not].

As we are now entering the 3rd edition of ODC we have already some results to look back onto:

  • The creation of The Post Collective, an initiative of the ODC2018 participants, which offers an autonomous platform for cultural activism and artistic employment opportunities for its members in which the identity of the refugee is celebrated as a “vanguard of their people”, as put by Hannah Arendt in her seminal work We Refugees (1943).
  • The participation in the Transnational Alliance of schools “We Cannot Work Like This, who gathered students and tutors from art academies and universities in Belgium, France, UK and Hong Kong to work together on a proposal for sustainable, decolonial and inclusive practices. The meetings took place in “The Swamp School” - Venice Biennial, the Royal College of Architecture – London, Brussels and in Contour9 Biennale in Mechelen.
  • The ongoing collaborations with Constant and the School of Love.

Following the thoughts of the celebrated decolonial, feminist, queer and intersectional theorist Sara Ahmed and what she calls “diversity work”, we are aware of the danger imposed: by enclosing “the other” in this space that is dedicated to diversity – aside of “the normal” body of the school.

Our mission for the 2019-2020 edition is to create a threshold, a common time and space, between the official school’s curriculum and ODC. We hope that this will generate ways of including the ODC participants, methodologies and content in the main body of KASK. To enable this, ODC needs to be embraced not only by the ones involved, but by the whole school community.


3) Un Atelier sur Genre et Race

En 2018-2019, un atelier critique sur les phénomènes de domination à l’œuvre dans le secteur des arts de la scène en FWB a été mis en place à Arts² (Mons), avec un focus sur les questions de genre et de race.

Nous avons pu observer que les étudiant⋅e⋅s ne se sont pas saisi de la même manière des enjeux liés au genre que de ceux liés à la race.

Cet atelier a vu le jour dans la foulée de la création du mouvement F(s), un mouvement de femmes du secteur des arts de la scène qui s’attaque aux diverses formes de sexisme présentes dans les champs culturel et artistique belges francophones. C’est suite à une présentation informelle de ce mouvement auprès des étudiantes de l’école, aux questions et réflexions qui s’y sont exprimées, et sur l’invitation de Sylvie Landuyt (directrice du domaine théâtre d’Arts²) que nous avons proposé cet atelier non obligatoire en 4 séances, destiné aux 3e et 4e années, comprenant des séances en non-mixité de genre.

Les objectifs de l’atelier sont d’abord la prise de conscience des différents enjeux liés aux dominations structurelles de genre et de race opérant dans le secteur des arts de la scène : discrimination à l’embauche (pénurie et caractère stéréotypé des rôles proposés) ; difficulté d’accéder à des postes à responsabilité ; harcèlement (sexuel ou non) au travail, racisme et machisme ordinaires, etc.

Il s’agit également d’introduire les étudiantes à différents outils de résistance ou d’empowerment, comme la non-mixité ou l’auto-défense féministe, mais aussi de les mettre en contact avec des lieux, associations, livres, documentaires, podcasts et ressources diverses par lesquels prolonger ce qui se pense, vit, conscientise dans l’atelier. Différents intervenants extérieurs (Garance asbl, Petra Van Brabandt et Tunde Adefioye) ont ainsi été invités.

Si certains apports théoriques issus des gender studies et de la pensée décoloniale nourrissent les discussions, les moments d’exposés magistraux sont limités au profit de jeux et de discussions visant à libérer la parole, à échanger sur les expériences et les savoirs, afin de se donner, en partant du vécu des étudiant⋅e⋅s, les clés d’une compréhension individuelle et collective des enjeux de discrimination et d’exclusion auxquels font face les groupes minoritaires dans nos écoles, nos professions, notre société.

Qu’avons-nous pu observer, après cette première expérience, que nous espérons bien pouvoir poursuivre en 2019-2020? D’abord, que les étudiant⋅e⋅s ne se sont pas saisi de la même manière des enjeux liés au genre que de ceux liés à la race. Si les étudiant⋅e⋅s racisé⋅e⋅s sont relativement peu nombreux⋅ses au sein de l’école, peu d’entre eux se sont en outre présenté⋅e⋅s aux ateliers, ou ont manifesté l’urgence de dire, penser, transformer l’expérience des personnes racisées à Arts².

Les étudiantes doivent composer avec la résistance d'une partie du corps enseignant, et l'absence de soutien de la part de leurs homologues masculins.

Il semble très clair, en revanche, que les étudiantes se sont emparées de la question du genre, et sont entrées en résistance contre des pratiques pédagogiques qu’elles jugent inacceptables. Cela est certainement aussi imputable au climat général de féminisme renouvelé, mais, quoi qu’il en soit, la question est désormais présente à l’école, et posée comme urgente.

Ce faisant, les étudiantes doivent composer avec la résistance d'une partie du corps enseignant, et l'absence de soutien de la part de leurs homologues masculins. Un travail de conscientisation devrait donc être mené en 2019-20 auprès des professeur⋅e⋅s, afin que celles et ceux-ci puissent mieux comprendre, soutenir et accompagner les revendications étudiantes. Par ailleurs, un projet de charte sur le bien-être au travail est désormais porté par quelques enseignant⋅e⋅s. Il semble ainsi que les questions posées par les étudiantes trouvent écho dans le besoin manifeste chez leurs professeur⋅e⋅s de repenser la façon dont les décisions se prennent, la gouvernance, les droits, libertés, et limites aux mandats de chacun⋅e.

Toutefois, ces bons signes ne doivent pas occulter que c'est toute une culture pédagogique et théâtrale qui se trouve interrogée, en confrontant directement ou indirectement la relation professeur-élève telle qu'elle existe traditionnellement dans les écoles d'art avec l'épineuse question des limites.

Comment un⋅e étudiant⋅e en théâtre peut-il/elle (apprendre à) poser ses limites dans une formation qui se fixe comme objectif pédagogique le lâcher prise, la confiance dans la figure du metteur en scène, et une certaine forme de malléabilité ? Et ce d'autant plus dans une culture où la souffrance peut être considérée comme partie intégrante et « naturelle » d'un processus de création ?

4) second shelf

Elizabeth Haines and Heide Hinrichs

While teaching at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, I began to interrogate the role of the institutional library for the students, which resulted in the international project second shelf. This project aimed to expand the kinds of subjectivities that were given space in the library.

The participating project advisors recommended books for our library that explore the artistic production of non-binary artists, queer artists, female artists and artists of color. This list was never intended to be comprehensive, but is rather based on the advisor’s own creative experiences and expertise.

Interventions included interviews, lectures, and workshops, as well as the creation of physical traces of the project on the library shelves.

In an educational library, the selection of books has an important role in the process of learning by imitation, especially for art students. After all, books about art and artists offer a gateway to see many variations of artistic production. In many cases, they also offer more concentrated immersion into art worlds than are readily available online.

Art libraries offer the means to expand the students’ creative and aesthetic vocabularies. Whether or not one believes in an artistic ‘canon’, institutions demonstrate what they believe to be important and valuable through their libraries. By investing in particular books and not in others, institutions point out to the students what to look at.

One important register for disrupting or challenging hegemony is that of satire and irony. In the 1970s, the artist Elaine Sturtevant began operating an art practice in which she meticulously copied selected works of her male colleagues. Sturtevant’s practice was a critique of the culture of the art world in which she was working, a world that was dominated by the concept of the lone genius and the autonomous, white male creator.

Deploying the processes of learning to ‘act alike’ in order to work against hegemony is a playful strategy with complex, unpredictable effects. This act leaves a cognitive, material and psychic imprint on the protagonist, and simultaneously accretes more attention to its target, whilst also eroding its authority.

second shelf aimed to do more than just extend a library collection. Firstly, being a research project, we invited interventions from the project advisors and guests that highlighted the shaping forces of the publishing industry (economic, cultural, political) and the effect of those on library holdings, and by extension on artistic careers. These included interviews, lectures, and workshops, as well as the creation of physical traces of the project on the library shelves.

We were struggling with our appropriation of the power to classify.

Secondly, this project queried the process of mimesis through which artistic subjectivities are memorialized and celebrated, or alternatively framed as ephemeral, or even de-voiced. Finally, second shelf alive engaged with the library as a physical space, activating it as a site for reflection on its own practice and purpose. The website, co-designed by the advisory team, with Sara De Bondt and Arthur Haegeman, gives a digital form to all these elements of the project.

By learning to ‘act like’ librarians, second shelf has raised unexpected topics of discussion within the advisory group as we were struggling with our appropriation of the power to classify, the pragmatics of library management, and institutional geographies. We hope that sharing some of these discussions with the students, faculty and staff will provoke more critical thinking about art school canons and resources within the participating institutions.

The legacy of second shelf will be the renewed library holdings in the participating institutions and beyond. The discussion that the project has generated will be published in shelf documents (forthcoming in spring/summer 2020).


My grade school teacher always said that the library has all the answers, that it contains the world. We are taught this and believe in it until maybe one day we realize that not all answers are in the library. It is the duty of the library to provide books and resources that properly reflect the diversity, in general, of our world history.

Within my artistic practice, libraries are unfortunately an occasional resource. Most libraries do not contain enough resources that are relevant to my research. I am selective with the resources that I incorporate into my practice, as it reflects my own perspective, and sadly the shelves of most libraries, especially institutions, do not provide and even continue to silence the underrepresented peoples by keeping them off our shelves, out of the library catalogues.

Julia Hong (MA Graduate In Situ, 2019, Royal Academy of Fine Art, Antwerp)


Libraries retain their value by welcoming a curious public into a real, palpable, site of exchange. Furthermore, libraries remain one of the last sites in shared urban space where sensitivity and silence is paramount — that same silence, however, can be isolating. As such, the library has the potential to refuse its obsolescence by the creeping omniscience of the internet search-engine.

These qualities generate potent places for activity and exchange. It is critical that the knowledge they keep remains self-aware and relevant to the current cultural climate — refusing solitary stacks piled high to the ceiling. Interventions like second shelf make audible the alienating silence which saturates these sites and their complacency in upholding the empire of knowledge.

Felix Rapp (MA Graduate In Situ, 2019, Royal Academy of Fine Art, Antwerp)

Heide Hinrichs, Inscription AA, 2018

second shelf is Heide Hinrichs (kunstenaar en lesgever op de Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerpen), Elizabeth Haines (wetenschapshistoricus aan de University of Bristol), Jo-ey Tang (director of exhibitions in de Beeler Gallery van het Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio), Marisa C. Sánchez (kunsthistoricus aan de University of British Columbia in Vancouver), Ersi Varveri (kunstenaar die woont en werkt in Antwerpen) en Susanne Weiß (freelance curator in Berlijn).