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Reflecting on the letter: The precarious body: analysing the black experience within the art school (2018)

Author: Nagaré Willemsen – 19 March 2020

After my performative reading of the letter ‘The precarious body: analysing the black experience within the art school’ in 2018, I was offered a job as the coordinator of USB (Black Student Union) at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie and Sandberg Instituut. A year before my graduation in 2017, the USB was initiated by students of African descent. These students noticed that they all shared the same racialized experiences within the academy. They found that they were treated differently than other students, experienced microaggressions but especially they felt the effect of a more or less a fully European-oriented programme. This weighs heavily on underrepresented
students, because there was no space or knowledge provided for their black identity, and this will make a space uninviting. The USB created a common ground and safety net by sharing perspectives, creativity and dreams. By organizing regular meetings, public events, artist talks, screenings and reading groups, the union is contributing to an ongoing discussion about
diversity and inclusivity.

Our goal is to have a permanent space for the black identity within the institutional structure that will be allowed to evolve to reflect the needs of the black students. This space is particularly important because it highlights the necessity of giving room to the voices that have been historically silenced through imperialism and colonialism, and still remain heavily underrepresented in western academia. It is for this reason that the space that the USB creates is used to invite black artists and creatives to share their work processes whether that be in the form of a workshop, lectures or private talks.

The first speaker that had been invited was writer, poet, painter and curator Micheal Tedja (1971) who gave individual talks to all the black students. This was the first time I could experience having a conversation with a role model, which was an immense enrichment to my art practice. I
found that I could directly start to reflect on my art-practice and learn from his experience, instead of the same conversation loop it often gets stuck in where I have to explain my perspective and black identity.

The individual talk with Michael Tedja inspired me to request three changes from the Sandberg Instituut which I used in my performance letter: “There will be workshops and lectures given by black people (1), a black tutor will be hired (2), and Critical Race Theory will be permanently integrated into the curriculum (3).” In my letter, I deliberately shift the responsibility to realise these changes to the Dirty Art Department, towards the department head, director and staff members.

There is a structural problem at the art academy where expectations and emotional labour rests on the shoulders of students with different cultural backgrounds. I myself experienced this while studying at Sandberg. There is a strong need for broader representation of different backgrounds,
lifestyles, genders, cultures and schools of thought in the academy. Students are not there to solve racism. The responsibility needs to be taken up by the organisation, so that students can have the space to learn, advise, study, reflect and grow.

The paradox is that I am still carrying a part of the responsibility by being the coordinator of the USB_black student union, for which I’m very grateful. Awareness of this paradox allows me to keep the organisation accountable for responsibility. I hope that, by providing support and building a network, it facilitates black students and staff to have a sense of belonging in the academy. A place that maintains people’s uniqueness within the organisation as they fully contribute to the processes and outcomes.

There has been a chain reaction of activities and discussions about inclusivity and diversity in and beyond the Rietveld and Sandberg over the last years. For example the adoption of a policy for diversity and inclusivity made by Unsettling, more student-led projects, such as the Student Council and Student Unions such as the Asian Union, Near East Union and Latin American Caribbean Union. We have now come to the point where all Unions are in need of structural support to become sustainable and professional platforms within the organisation, such as a budget and training opportunities. The unions are playing a crucial role in the environment of
the academy, not only for the students involved but the rest of the school profits in terms of encouraging cultural shifts, pointing out blind spots, opening new perspectives and providing student support.

My advice for all art academies is to ask students yearly to write a critical letter that reflects on the quality of the organization. It is important to question knowledge production within the art world. The way it is now, it has been shaped by coloniality and western superiority which influence what
is seen as relevant and what is not. The letter as a medium has a powerful feature, it demands that you take time for the words and it is a monumental immediate position , contrary to the digital communication that is more ephemeral.

There has been an evolution in the visibility of the student’s voice, and it has had an influence on the curriculum. Students have a more advisory role, they are involved in study groups and roundtable discussions in the institute. There is a pitfall in all this here; how can the student unions be made a sustainable and permanent part of the institution? Student initiatives cannot help but shift the power relations or dominance of ‘whiteness’ within the institute that will allow for the broader representation of different backgrounds, lifestyles, genders, cultures and schools of thought that the art academy so desperately needs. It is for this reason that it is important for an institute to provide resources and continual support to student initiatives. The academy can make use of alumni herein. They have intimate knowledge of the academy and besides nurturing the local artistic community, supporting students and alumni will help to actively grow and maintain
knowledge within the institute towards a diverse and inclusive institution.

Nagaré Willemsen

Nagaré Willemsen was a guest during the conference entitled ‘The Roadmap to Equality in the Arts in the Netherlands’ on 18 January 2020 at ArtEZ in Arnhem. Nagaré Willemsen is a visual artist and coordinator of the Black Student Union at Sandberg Instituut and Gerrit Rietveld Academie. As a ArtEZ and Sandberg alumna, she is interested in working with re-enactment and performance to explore her relationship to Blackness within White spaces. Her final piece at Sandberg, My Black Body: A Letter Addressing Racial Concerns (2018), was a performative reading of a letter she has written to the teaching staff of the main Dirty Art Department and future Black students at the institute. It outlines her experiences of racism and the lack of support she received during her studies. It ends with recommendations for the appointment of more Black teaching staff and for diversity initiatives in order to increase the Black student body at Sandberg.

The Roadmap to Equality in the Arts in the Netherlands

A conference that addresses the under-representation and misrepresentation of women artists, WOC and nonbinary artists


conference18 Jan '20