The Legacy of Through Our Eyes: celebrating over a decade of collaborative, socially engaged art education with young people in Hong Kong
Art is an enquiry into the creative process, an interplay with the intellect and intuition. Art is felt with the whole human being, not just in the senses – emotionally, socially, and intellectually. (Djon Mundine, 2017)
Photography acts as a mirror and a window into the world and its greatest gift, according to the late documentary photographer Marti Friedlander, is that it helps us engage with the world and make connections with others. The medium of photography offers us multiple perspectives and shifting viewpoints and gives us the opportunity to explore stories, experiences and revisit the past in innovative and reflective ways. Through art education, young people can engage and experiment with their own stories and experiences and create visual representations on their own terms, while also learning from the past, from ancestors, family and friends, in order to move forward as better-informed citizens and socially engaged, critical thinkers.
The creative process has enormous potential and can bring joy, beauty and insight. It can also help express sadness and is often used as a way to ask questions. Through the process of making art together, ideas and issues can be probed visually. Photography taps into the unconscious, accessing our senses. Photography has unique qualities and is a highly accessible language; as a practice it provides young people with unique means of expression. It helps us to explore and sometimes make visible hidden and embodied meanings that we have not been able to retrieve or express previously.
The art of education
An inquiry-based way of learning allows for description, learning to read and deconstruct images and investigate different perspectives. Often, it is in the process of making work, and exploring a theme or issue that we gain greater clarity about it, and that we learn something about ourselves, our community, our family, our country. We need to protect spaces that re-mold traditional teaching practices so that young people can make collaborative work using innovative processes.
Art is an essential medium, and linked together with the art of education, it provides us with important tools to explore society. Skilled artist educators can integrate this knowledge, and experiment and seek opportunities with students to investigate and use the tools of photographic techniques, film making, sculpture, painting, drawing, storytelling, creative writing to help share stories through the eyes of young people. When art and education are fully integrated, art education can be transformative and put to productive use as an important component in critical inquiry. This extremely inclusive and interactive practice is based on dialogue and exchange. Everyone has the potential to be an artist. The German artist Joseph Beuys used the word ‘artist’ to describe the essence of what it means to be a human being: humanity’s deep need to be creative and have spaces where ‘to think, to feel, to want something’ and be free to express themselves. For young people art education provides a platform within which they can make mistakes, and where accidents can result in positive, interesting and valuable visual projects. This is a safe space within which to experiment.
Through Our Eyes
The renowned Hong Kong based photography education programme, Through Our Eyes (TOE), has provided an innovative learning environment for young people since 2005, and has been hosted by the Kaitak Centre at Hong Kong Baptist University, under the programme directorship of artist and academic Ki Wong, since 2013. The programme is unique because it combines art and education and recognizes the value of both as transformative agents.
TOE has been exploring a fusion between art and education where each have equal importance and value and status. Both are essential to our wellbeing and critical thinking. Taking part in TOE workshops gives young people opportunities to find and access their inner voice and personal vision. TOE tells the stories of young people through projects they develop with the support of a team of fantastic artist educators – all practicing, engaged artists and culturally sustaining educators – who use empathy and self-reflectivity to create nurturing learning environments. One of the reasons the TOE programme is so valuable is that each of the established artist educators brings their own experience and knowledge to the programme while being open to collaborative processes. It is this sense of awareness and interdisciplinary practice that in turn stimulates TOE participants and encourages them to try out different visual tools. In an education system that is focused on outcomes, we need to cherish and protect creative spaces like TOE, which make it possible for young people to make work without the pressures of formal assessment. What is distinctive about TOE projects is that they take place in participatory and collaborative ways: young people and AEs make and learn together over several months, building knowledge and strengthening their analytical and technical skills. As part of this process, the students learn to be more independent, self-reflective, confident and resilient.
TOE workshops give young people the choice to commit and participate fully and to take responsibility for their own learning. Through question posing pedagogy and ongoing pupil engagement, AEs give young people the tools to engage with the world around them in visual ways. It is vital that we engage with the world, question the world, and work out how to be in the world. The participatory process offers opportunities to connect with others, with communities, on an intergenerational level, with migrants, to work on and seek solutions for environmental issues in ways that we would not be able to commit to in any other ways. There are opportunities to explore a whole range of socially engaged themes, to reframing identities through collaborative portraiture and self-portraiture, to exploring journeys of discovery and also experimenting with the folding and unfolding of narratives and storytelling and finding ways of connecting and seeking community. Photographs can help to present ideas, take a stance. They can be charged with symbolic and emotional meaning and experiences can be validated and extended through the process of making images and working together, developing technical skills and paying attention to formal properties of image-making (framing, composition, lighting) as well as making meaning; thinking about the value and context, developing empathy between photographers and subjects, and how photographs begin to circulate and reach different audiences.
Being able to work on visual projects over several months affects and changes the way young people think about important topical issues such as their relationship to nature and the environment, their food choices, personal histories, but also cultural and collective heritage, the heritage and experience of the city and of themselves in the world as active citizens. Working with personal archives and timelines, and a dialectical process of mediation has led to deeper self-awareness of the connectedness of past and present, and a wish to care for and protect the world we inhabit.
Long term Art Education programmes like TOE provide safe, contained spaces within which young people can share experiences and learn to transform these experiences into visual stories that might find an output as a book or zine publication, as an exhibition, a film, a blog, as a site specific outdoor projection event or as an installation piece or public pop up exhibition. Over time, TOE exhibitions have travelled from one location to another both within as well as outside of traditional art contexts. There have been beautifully curated exhibitions at Kaitak, showing the students’ work alongside art works by the AEs. Pop up exhibitions have been shared with local communities, schools, in the city centre and in public spaces on the peripheries of the city so that many people who would not historically look at art projects and consider them to have any value can engage with the work, learn from it, and even participate in it. Taking photographs back to the communities where the work was made can help build community cohesion; exposing people to other viewpoints nurtures tolerance and empathy. As the exhibition contexts change, so does the work’s reception, stretching the minds of viewers and engaging their own creativity and critical thinking.
One of the tangible benefits of art education, whether in Hong Kong or elsewhere in the world, is that it enables participants to share their perspectives with wider audiences. It gives voice and vision to their experiences. Art removes the barrier of speech. Sometimes young people are uncomfortable talking about their feelings and find it much easier to articulate and express these visually. It feels safer to do so through images. TOE has also worked on projects where young people work together on intergenerational projects, making stories together with older residents, developing projects jointly, which through the process of dialogue become something new and transformative; nurture and enhance tolerance, curiosity, understanding and diversity as a social asset. The art education process is transformative and everyone who is part of the process is valued as a human being and relating to each other in this way.
TOE has always worked with the principle that everyone’s experiences and knowledge are equal; that each contributor has something important to say and share. The focus has always been on generating personal and collective knowledge; on using photography to raise awareness, bring about change, preserve histories, create testimonials, document realities and help record memories and dreams for a safe future. In my role as art education consultant, I have hugely valued the spirit and friendship of the TOE team, which nurtures inclusivity and generosity through the sharing of resources, mutual support and sharing sessions. Since 2005, the TOE team has developed a beautiful and varied programme of photography curriculum, all of which has been archived so it can be shared with other art education programmes.
There are of course other brilliant art education projects across the globe, but I cannot think of a single one that just over the last decade has had the same sustained impact on the field of committed art education and will have as substantial a legacy. Many former TOE participants are now themselves AEs and work as part of the programme. Quite a few former students have gone on to study art at BA and MA level, and now are involved in art education as independent practitioners and educators.
All of the students who were part of the TOE programme over the years have developed their criticality and sense of self-worth. They have all learned from being part of the programme that their voices, their experiences, their stories matter and that there are audiences for their work in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the world who want to learn from them, and experience and see their work in order to connect on issues that are vitally important to all of humanity: most notably environmental challenges and our relationship with the natural environment which is constantly being threatened by expansion and development. The preservation of cultural heritage and holding on to some of the original landmarks that are so distinct and unique within the Hong Kong area, and which are sadly being demolished at an alarming rate, not just there but elsewhere too, is another theme that has been recorded through photography.
To return to the question of the value of art education in contemporary society, I would argue that it plays a vital role in our existence as it allows us to be fully human. We need both art and education as much as we need anything else in life because these offer us spaces within which we can think, reflect, dream, experiment, make mistakes, try things out, critique the status quo, reach out to others. Art is vital to our existence as it offers us hope and a space within which to find meaning and create meaning collaboratively. We can make a wish that the resulting questions and challenges motivate others to also engage with the world, to take a stance, transform public perceptions and nurture intercultural and intergenerational dialogues one project or photograph at a time.
Julia Winckler 31 March 2018