Diversity as an art teaching imperative

By Ramesh Nithiyendran

Diversity. The word is thrown around a lot. As a contemporary artist, I’m witnessing a moment where, more than ever, institutions are being held accountable to certain standards for equity and diversity. Their programming, collecting and commissioning processes are being held to scrutiny; critiqued for centralising narratives and perspectives from middle class white males. It is clear that core public institutions are presenting some counter-narratives through their programming.

Currently, the Art Gallery of New South Wales is staging an exhibition titled Fearless, focusing entirely on women artists with connection to South Asia. The Museum of Contemporary Art’s Primavera, an annual showcase of emerging practice from Australian artists under 35, will be presenting artists from primarily non-European backgrounds for their 2018 edition. In a private/commercial context, leading commercial gallery Sullivan + Strumpf are hosting an exhibition curated by Kate Britton focusing on women and non-binary artists who are challenging what Britton describes as "heteronormative sanctity".

As contemporary artists who are also academics, it is important we reflect upon our responsibilities. How can we conceive our role as educators in light of these urgent social and political developments within our broader arts ecology?

Literacy to address equity and representational imbalance is developing in public discourse. Social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have become viable modes to mobilise community members and collectivise action. However, addressing historical imbalances and inciting meaningful structural and organisational progress demands a sophisticated level of leadership, community engagement and strategic thinking. It is useful to reflect upon the role of art education and university degree programs in this industry context.

While there are diverse pathways to developing a career as a professional artist, tertiary education remains the primary mode of industry training. More often than not, Australian artists with industry recognition have completed post-graduate studies. Thus, as contemporary artists who are also academics, it is important we reflect upon our responsibilities. How can we conceive our role as educators in light of these urgent social and political developments within our broader arts ecology?

Before I elaborate personally, it’s important to describe the positions I speak from. I have leveraged my academic career on industry presence and recognition. As a contemporary artist, I have exhibited internationally. I am the youngest artist in history to be commissioned for a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. I have attained commercial and curatorial traction, both locally and overseas and am regularly featured in a range of media.

However, in many ways I am an anomaly.

While 74% of art school graduates are female, women are 3 times less likely to appear in museum exhibitions than men.

My family migrated to Australia as refugees from Sri-Lanka in 1989 when I was one year old. We lived in Auburn in Western Sydney. I grew up educated within the public-school system and neither of my parents are university educated. Given these indicators, it is statistically highly unlikely that I would attain an academic position at a sandstone university such as the University of New South Wales; let alone sustain a career as a contemporary artist. These thoughts linger in my mind when I reflect upon my teaching practice.

Teaching within the studio contexts of the Fine Arts program at UNSW Art & Design, I encounter a diverse range of students. They are generally quick witted and appreciative of the effort embedded in my engagement. This classroom generally consists of a mix of international and domestic students. 80% are female identifying and most have Anglo or European backgrounds. Despite their savviness they are often surprised when provided with insight into the gender imbalance still present in the industry. As The Countess Report explains, while 74% of art school graduates are female, women are 3 times less likely to appear in museum exhibitions than men. [1]

While I believe it is important to provide this information, these sobering statistics must be accompanied by acknowledging community members who have worked to redress this imbalance and creative methods of delivering content. Within the studio learning environment, I often encourage feminist and structural interpretations of art histories and promote intersectional analyses that consider class and race. I try and foreground the work of women in lectures and provide evidence to challenge notions that terms like ‘sculpture’ and ‘painting’ are objective. Additionally, as an address to the Eurocentrism that has dominated and continues to dominate art education in this country, I encourage students to acknowledge both global and local perspectives in the context of cultural practices.

I recently attended a meeting on campus where academics teaching within the Fine Arts program convened. When asked what we believed were the most important graduate attributes the consensus was that critical thinking skills were vital. During curriculum development, discussion of what and how we will teach generally dominates discussion. In the instance above, we placed emphasis on the why.  Deliberating on this question of why brings me back to our collective responsibility.

As contemporary artists who are also academics, it is our responsibility to equip students with productive ways forward. We should develop teaching strategies that encourage students to understand that art and its institutions are not and have never been neutral. We should ensure that they are not only prepared to participate in industry as artists and arts workers, but encourage them to understand that they are our future cultural leaders who can and will affect change. As teachers, we are in a privileged position. We can positively shape our current and future arts ecology.

[1] http://thecountessreport.com.au


Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran is a contemporary artist and Associate Lecturer at UNSW Art & Design. He has exhibited at the 2018 Dhaka Art Summit, the encounters section for Art Basel Hong Kong, The Kuandu Biennale, Taipei and the 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art. He has presented solo exhibitions at the National Gallery of Australia, The Ian Potter Museum of Art and the Shepparton Art Museum. His work is held in various collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of South Australia, The Art Gallery of Western Australia, Artbank, The Ian Potter Museum of Art and the Shepparton Art Museum.