AGAINST THE BACKDROP of ongoing conflict in the Middle East coupled with an unfolding humanitarian disaster, portents of impending doom and clashing civilizations, and a new open season on Islam in the Media, it is easy to overlook the many positive initiatives seeking to bring people and ideas together, to cross real or imagined boundaries that many would have us believe are impassable.
One such venture is the British Museum’s “Artists-inSchooJs” Project, launched in January 2006 by the Museum’s Arab World Education Programme, with the support and backing of the Karim Rida Said Foundation. A versatile and dynamic initiative, by placing artists from the Middle East into British schools to wof k with secondary school pupils, the Project seeks to counter misleading impressions of the Arab and Islamic worlds while at the same time enriching the lives of the pupils involved and giving them the opportunities to work with new artistic media and to express themselves in alternative ways.
As Nicholas Badcott, who heads the Arab World Education Programme and is Project Manager to Artists-in-Schools, has pointed out, it is events like the recent conflict in the Lebanon “that make the [Arab World Education] Programme relvant”, seeing it as a vehicle for getting beyond the usual images portrayed in the news and for challenging the negative information that is being fed. To convey the message that, “just because you wear a head-cloth doesn’t make you a terrorist”.
In terms of the Artists-in-Schools Project, Nicholas Badcott explains that many school teachers do not feel equipped to teach about the Arab World, but that through the medium of art they are given the opportunity to explore the topic without being scared of discussing it. He says, “Working through artists is a good, enjoyable way of [changing ideas], as it is not necessarily controversial, and it is a good route for exploring the subject as students enjoy art and give it high status”.
For artist-teacher Stephen Stapleton – Founder of Offscreen Education and Project Co-ordinator for Artists-inSchools – the initiative is not just about what is going on in the Middle East, but also about the school children themselves. “We’re doing this to enrich the lives of young people”, he stresses. And, perhaps supporting his point, one student from South Camelen Community School enthused that having the opportunity to work with British-Iraqi artist Satta Hashem had been not just “brilliant and fun”, but a “life-changing experience”.Although the British Museum has conducted outreach work in schools before, the Artists-in-Schools Project is the second of its kind to come from the Arab World Education Programme, the basic aim of which is to improve understanding of the Arab World and Islam, particularly through use of the British Museum’s extensive collections, which range from the ancient – with significant Egyptian and Mesopotamian collections – to the contemporary, some of which were spectacularly displayed in their “Word Into Art” Exhibition.
So far Artists-in-Schools has been taken to seven London schools, working with children from a range of backgrounds, ages and abilities through a variety of themed projects. Many of the students came from underprivileged circumstances, a number of them refugees or asylum seekers. The programme introduced the children to skilled practitioners, themselves from a diversity of backgrounds and using a variety of media, and aimed to be flexible enough to tailor-make the individual projects to fit the needs of the schools and their students, and to make the work suitable to their respective curricula.
In an attempt to make the project-work more accessible and relevant, the assigned artists- were asked to give more prominence to contemporary themes and developing art, and less to traditional aspects. No particular emphasis was placed on Islam, with the overall project seeking to portray the diversity of the Middle East. However, Nicholas Badcott also stressed the organic nature of the Project and the necessity of keeping the venture malleable as it needed to fulfil a number of people’s requirements. Specific subject matter was kept open, and left up to the artists, as well as the students themselves, to develop. This flexibility can be seen in the diverse themes and project- work that emerged from the different schools.
THE ARTISTS IN THE SCHOOLS
Phase One of the Project saw British-Iranian artist Maria Kheirkhah working with Year 9 students at Heston School, and, with the help of art teachers Rosanjeet Khalsa and Steve Hook, they explored the theme of maps and the Middle East by using the British Museum collections as inspiration. Also part of Phase One was British-Iraqi painter Sadiq Toma’s “My World” Project with GCSE students at Brentford School for Girls, which inspired a stunning and vibrant collection of posters and ceramic tiles, proudly displayed at a British Museum event in July celebrating the success of Artistsin-Schools so far.
Rashad Salim’s entertaining “Headgear” Project in Langdon School addressed common stereotypes about the Middle East by an imaginative exploration of different forms of headdress, for example by encouraging students to create their own “buqchés” (bundles worn on the head filled with personal objects of value). With the help of Addela Khan, Langdon’s Head of Art, Rashad Salim gave the students the opportunity to experiment with photography, and with more unfamiliar media like animation. British-Iraqi architect and calligrapher Taha Al-Hiti worked with 20 AS-level students at St Angela’s Ursuline School as part of their examined coursework, and explored with them the theme of “Habitation” in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Al-Hiti was determined to get across to his students ideas about Islam that were “the exact opposite of Islamic terrorism”. Students experimented with calligraphy and produced a range of imaginative sketches, paintings and structures. Taha Al-Hiti believes that London’s diverse environment makes it an ideal place for road-testing this initiative.
A particularly interesting project occurred during Phase Two where photojournalist Saeed Taji Farouky worked with GCSE students at Forest Gate Community School, and which coincided with the now notorious incident in the borough where a police raid on the home of an Asian family had led to the wrongful arrest of brothers Abul Koyair and Mohammed Abdul Kahar, with the latter being shot during the course of the raid. Saeed Taji Farouky’s project explored the themes of identity and refugees, asking the students to draw inspiration from Media imagery and the local environment, along with a museum visit to the ‘Word Into Art’ Exhibition so that the students could engage with the work of contemporary artists from the Middle East and how they had dealt with similar themes.
Farouky notes that the climate surrounding the project produced some interesting reactions from his students: “I didn’t present the work from a political perspective, but many of the kids instinctively addressed politics in their work – the Iraq War, for example – and many of the kids were also instinctively very pessimistic about the real motives behind Britain going to war in Iraq, which surprised me … I could tell they were really eager to ask, for example, why was Islam being misused and misrepresented? Why did they feel victimized by their own government for being Asian or Muslim? And in a way, I think they were excited that they could use their photography to ask those questions.”
Art teachers Stephen Gillatt and Gordon MacGregor noted that one of the outcomes of Farouky’s project at Forest Gate was that new skills had been introduced into the department, including digital photography and photomontage. One of Saeed’s students commented that, “Working with Saeed I have learnt that art is not just about creating a pretty little picture with lots of detail and colour. I have learnt that the way you see a picture may be different from someone else.”
Similar outcomes and comments can be found in relation to the other projects. One of the students from Plashet School, who had worked with Iranian artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh and Jordanian printmaker Rima Farah – whose project explored the theme of family backgrounds – observed: “I have realized that the Islamic World is not just about fighting and war, but Islam is about peace and identity”. Another noted that, “All you see is negative news on TV about terrorists and wars. So it’s nice to see another part to everything.” Andrew Mutter, the borough Arts Adviser for Newham said he felt that the project had made the department go beyond its usual limits, thereby enriching the students’ curricula experience and developing new skills.
Satta Hashem’s work with South Camden Community School produced what Nicholas Badcott perhaps saw as an unexpected outcome of the project, which was to change the ways that students view museums in general and to encourage schools to use the British Museum in different ways. Various students from the school said that their visit to the British Museum and the Word Into Art Exhibition had been their favourite part of the project, and that they felt privileged to have been given a special tour of the exhibition by its curator, Veneria Porter, and by the artists themselves. Students developed their ideas from the exhibition, as well as from the Museum’s Mesopotamian collection, to experiment with symbols and Arabic calligraphy, producing four large murals.
However, Stephen Stapleton suggests that Artists-inSchools has been a positive learning process not just for the students, but that the teachers and artists themselves have gained a great deal from the experience, as have the Project organisers. Saeed Taji Farouky also observed, “I would definitely say none of the kids in the class I taught would fit into the stereotype I was expecting before I got there . . . it’s very humbling, very humbling, for someone who thinks they might be a good artist, or a successful photojournalism to present your work to young students and realise just how little you know about people’s ways of seeing”.
THE NEXT PHASE
Artists-in-Schools has been received with enthusiasm allround. For Stephen Stapleton, who believes that students learn better when they are enjoying themselves, the Project can be summarized in one word: “fun”. Julian Gore-Booth Director of the Project’s sponsor, the Karim Rida Said announced at the July celebration of the Project that he was “fizzy” and “bubbling over with excitement”. The Foundation, he noted, aims to break down stereotypes about the Arab World and works to promote the great wealth of culture that comes from the region. “Working with young people and bringing young people closer to the culture of the Arab World is exactly what the Karim Rida Said Foundation wants to do”.
For Nicholas Badcott, one of the many highlights had been the opportunity to work with one of the British Museum’s local schools – South Camden Community School – a mixed comprehensive school based in an economically deprived area, saying that it was important to have worked with stu- dents who would not normally have had opportunities like this one. He also noted that the overall response from the local borough Arts Advisers and the various Art teachers had been “warm and overwhelming”.
The Project so far culminated in the “Artists-in-Schools Celebration” evening at the British Museum in July, which brought together the students’ project- work in a varied, colourful and very im- pressive exhibition, that was appreciated by friends, families, fellow students, spon- sors, organizers, and others. The event was confidence boosting and a high point for many of the students. One pupil of South Camden Community School enthused, “Making the banner was fun, but getting to see it actually displayed in the British Museum was probably the best bit”. Ano- ther agreed, “I was very happy to see my work up, I was so proud. It was also fantas- tic to be able to see everyone else’s work”.
For its organizers the event was a means of bringing together and assessing this unique initiative. As the British Museum’s Arab World Education Programme moves into its tenth year, Phase Three of the Artists-in-Schools Project is being planned. Nicholas Badcott is aiming for “significant impact and continuity”, but current ideas also include the possibility of testing the scheme outside London, perhaps in some of the more rural parts of Britain where students will probably have had minimal contact with Arabs and the Arab World.
Unique and successful the Project undoubtedly is, it is exciting to see it generating so much enthusiasm in its students not just for Art as a subject, but for learning itself, and to see them easily overcoming established stereotypes and prejudices in order to engage with different ideas, lifestyles and cultures. As Taha Al-Hiti noticed at St Angela’s Ursuline School, the children showed a great deal of imagination and receptivity: “The more you throw at them, the more they learn.” What Artists-in-Schools has shown is that, “There are no limits to learning and no limits to culture”.