The fading away of the mind when learning Artucation and the art of making and storytelling

Artucation Info
Artucation participants © Miora Rajaonary

An old adage goes 'if you can walk you can dance/if you can talk you can sing'. Puleng Plessie's Artucation sets out to challenge the notion that resources are a barrier to quality art/s education.

1.
“Doornfontein carries so many Jozi (hi)stories”, I think, as I’m trying to find the corner of Jeppe and End streets to visit the high school where Puleng Plessie is doing a workshop with learners. I’m thinking of the miners’ houses; of Marabi dance parties, student housing and disappearing factories; of the repercussions of gentrification, African-American concerts, stadium stampedes…
 
Doornfontein also has many one-ways and rundown buildings. I struggle and go around and around.
 
Circles…
 
I also remember the former Graphix Express, where we used to buy cheap(er) art supplies for Fine Art when Wits Tech/University of Johannesburg Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture was here. I see a poster for an event at The Precinct, a newer “art hub” (live entertainment, carwash and mini market) extending the ever expanding gentrification of Johannesburg east. I think of “Honey”, the fantastic online Kwaito-inspired photography and graphic design storytelling collaboration that celebrated their 1st anniversary here. Two streets, turn right. Corner of August House: the Mary Sibande billboard was fading; now it’s gone. I am facing a T junction thanks to this infamous building. Its residents have been swept under the carpet. It is undergoing change: cement dust, mounds of rubble, scaffolding fragments. I turn right. I feel like I have missed the school. Hazards.
 
Pause…
 
“Abuti Ra!” greets dancer and a former Keleketla! After School Programme (K!ASP) member, Wesley Hlongwane. He points me in the direction of New Model Private High School. “It’s just back here opposite the building.”
 
Reverse…
 
“BoNtate, Thobela!” I greet the security guard and his friend. “I believe this is New Model?”
 
I am pleased to park right in front of the gate of a building currently under renovation, because … mag wheels and side mirrors.  
 
2.
After announcing that I am here for a workshop, I am directed to the reception. The three people behind the reception desk are warm and welcoming, but they don’t know Puleng, they haven’t heard about any workshop. “Is she a student?” one asks. In my head: “She is my Masters student.” But this description won’t help me. “She is also practising Freirian tests” I think to myself. But that won’t help me either. Maybe this should be where I explain what Artucation is? I am reminded of an e-mail I sent to Puleng, asking her to fill in the missing words:
 
Me: Artucation is...?
Puleng: a year-long interdisciplinary arts educational programme.
 
Me: Artucation does...?
Puleng: arts educational workshops (visual arts, music and applied drama) with learners from New Model Private College, Metropolitan College and Mahlasedi High School.
 
Me: Artucation exists because...? 
Puleng: grade 10 - 12 Further Education Training (FET) learners from schools located in the city of Johannesburg do not have access to arts education; these schools only offer Creative Arts until grade 9. At first I misinterpreted this “lack of access” as “lack of resources” and through this programme I have learned that the learners in themselves are in fact resources, as well as the environment around them. This is one of the most important aspects about the Artucation Programme, that the learning does not only impact the learner but the facilitator, school teacher, principal and myself as the director.
 
Me: Artucation in 10 years from now hopes to...?
Puleng: provide arts educational workshops to schools in every province. To impact more facilitators, learners and schools.
 
I say, “She is not a student here but she is here on a workshop with learners.” Well, nobody knows anything about this.
 
So I call Puleng and she sends a learner to collect me from reception. I recognise this boy, too. He used to participate in K!ASP at the Drill Hall. It’s been years, so it’s a pleasant surprise to be led by this young man. He looks older, calmer.
 
“Are you also in the workshop?” No, he doesn’t do art. “Why?” He doesn’t know how to draw. “Is drawing the only thing one can do in art?” The things he’s interested in are not being offered, he tells me, and leaves it there.
 
We arrive at the door to a 4m x 7m classroom, with a group of quiet learners seated at desks and Puleng sitting warm and attentive at the back of the class. I thank the boy for bringing me this far and then, nodding my appreciation to Puleng, step in to find a seat. That’s when I started writing this.
 
I am reminded of my annual teaching experience visits as a lecturer in Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) arts methodology courses at Wits. An experience preceded by a complex web of ‘community art projects’: my first collective as a student living in Joubert Park; Artist Proof Studio teaching and workshops; UJ-linked community papermaking projects across the country as Kim Berman’s research assistant; my master’s research with a papermaking collective in Welkom; Keleketla! After School Programme in Joubert Park; Freedom Community College; Constitution Hill…. It’s slightly amusing to me in its nostalgia, but still I’m nagged by the boy’s “I don’t know how to draw” and “what I’m interested in is not being offered”. So I use the quiet moment to speak to the young one, seated, as he was, outside the room.
 
“Thanks again for the escort. What’s your name again?” He tells me. I won’t disclose his real name, so let’s call him Mapula. “I am Rangoato. Ra,” I say. And then: “What is it you are interested in that’s not offered?”
 
Singing.
Dancing.
Visual art.
Poetry.
 
“What do you mean by visual art?”
 
The only thing Mapula can draw perfectly is flowers. He likes that he can colour them in. When he’s angry, looking at flowers makes him calmer.
 
“Where do you go to look at flowers? There are few attended parks in the city.”
 
Wild Waters in Sandton (isn’t it in Boksburg?): he goes there once or twice a month.
 
We discuss the cool things about flowers. We dream up an art project, like an art garden using flowers to “calm” the school. “That would be cool,” he says. I thank Mapula again and step back in.
 
3.
I’m introduced to everyone as “Ra”, and everyone is introduced to me as “learners” and they are all asked to say “Hi, Ra.” I ask to know all their names. An impromptu icebreaker activity is introduced. Its intensity grows, slowly, gaining momentum as it becomes dynamic in a circle, people saying their names with an “action feeling”. Everyone steps up. For a moment we forget everything else and we are the only group together in the world … It is so now, I’m convinced I know much more than just the names of this group at the corner of Jeppe and End streets.
 
“Nna ke Rangoato.” Action? Salute.
 
“When was the last time you (artists) went to a black school to share what you
know?” asks the late Geoff Mphakathi in the Aryan Kaganof film Blue Notes for
Bra Geoff. (2005). Artucation, the radical arts education project by Puleng
Plessie recalls this rhetorical question. In an environment where a satisfying answer to this question is still pending, it is radical for artists in South Africa to intervene in primary and high schools.
 
They say one cannot give what one doesn’t have. Many artists are struggling to practice as studio and gallery artists; many townships and rural schools don’t have conventional “arts education”. The irony is that artists have skills, including that of turning nothing into something. In other words, the question of “resources” should be the least of hindrances to a “free, quality, decolonised” education, to take a cue from the Fallists.
 
It is significant that artists are working in schools, and I recognise many others beyond Puleng Plessie and her Artucation project. I know it is easy to romanticise poverty when we speak of arts education or the lack thereof. Poor and often neglected neighbourhoods tend to be the target for artistic education, arts in education, etc. This is to say that it is easy to call any and all arts education interventions “radical” simply because they are targeting places where I fear for my car’s mag wheels. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the keywords developed by the participants of Artucation include (but are not limited to): Depression. Sadness. Sad. Horror. Evil. Witchcraft. Christian. Devils. Blood. Poverty. Scary. Complicated. Regret. Zombies. Ghosts. Blood. Sacrifice. Separation. These words were collected from discussions arising out of the learners’ critical engagement with the exhibition “Fantastic”, curated by Nomusa Makhubo and Nkule Mabaso at the Goethe-Institut in Parkhurst from 1 September to 15 December 2016).
 
I wish to stress: these keywords don’t necessarily represent the lived experiences of the learners in Artucation. What they do is take me on a journey of the imagination. I had not seen ‘Fantastic’; the learners led me through notions of art as “spiritual fighting against devil”. Issues of “a lifetime sacrifice” in which the “giving the baby to a king” leads to a “mother and father disagreement”. This disagreement ends with the mother being “chased to the forest”. Why, I wonder, do women always carry the ultimate sacrifice?
 
One of the significant interventions in Puleng’s project has to do with language. In Puleng’s teaching and learning environment, dialogue puts language to real-time use; not rooted in imported, travelling meanings. Reflecting on the printing session facilitated by the Joburg-based collective, Alphabet Zoo, one learner is searching for a word to describe a popular technique:
 
“What do they call it… this dabeit thing…?”
 
Puleng intervenes. “OK, we will leave it at that (dabeit).”
 
Besides dabeit as the ubiquitous vinyl flooring in many South African homes, what is its process in the Artucation learning environment? One learner offers that Alphabet Zoo took them on a process that involves taking a piece of dabeit to:
“put it in the sun, it becomes soft and flat
draw on it
scoop onto the drawing
paint the dabeit
press paper on the painted dabeit (with a wheel of steel when available)
press – and the artwork comes out
like this…”
 
For those who have had basic art education, this technique is called linocut. For the Artucation learners, this is also “printing without electricity”. This is to say, even without the “wheel of steel”, or what we call a press. Alphabet Zoo introduced them to what one learner refers to as “the use of spoons for small masterpieces and cups for bigger masterpieces, without printing with a press”. And what about other tools? “They (Alphabet Zoo) explained that the scooping tools are shaped like the letters C, V and U”. I ask, “What happened after the dabeit process?” Zinning.
 
Zinning, otherwise known as zine-making, is the micro-publishing process that embraces the photocopier machine as a tool to duplicate print publications. When members of Alphabet Zoo were still students at Artist Proof Studio, I remember introducing zinning there because its link with print-making, particularly dabeit and screen, seemed obvious. I am pleased to see the expansion. Another learner adds: “We also spoke about the professional world of doing things, processes of newspapers and t-shirts, etc.”
 
We are coming to the end of the session. This was just one session of several in the Artucation trajectory. I think about the very first time I participated in Puleng’s project, then at the GoetheOnMain project space in 2010. I recall the dynamic debates that took place at The Bioscope, a cinema in Johannesburg’s Maboneng precinct, as part of the Film+School project that ran for many years. There’s so much more I have not experienced. My thoughts are brought back into the space when Puleng asks, “Who wants to show us their work (lino prints) from yesterday?” To induce pride of ownership, Puleng reiterates: “Who feels like a ngangara, a skhokho?” My senses explode when the work comes out.
 
One learner’s closing words were astounding to me in their aptness. I really want to say his name, especially because I borrowed his words for the title of this reflection, but … minors and ethics. Anyway, he dropped these jewels while he was reflecting on the Artucation-facilitated conversation tour of Fantastic and subsequent processes. As if distilling half a century of theory and simultaneously pointing the way beyond the horizon to unthought-of configurations, he said: “The fading away of the mind when learning … makes the exhibition more interesting.”