De­col­o­niz­ing De­Sign

OCAD Univer­sity gets schooled in rec­on­cil­i­a­tion

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Cana­dian se­na­tor and Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion (TRC) chair Mur­ray Sin­clair di­ag­nosed the prob­lem in 2015 while speak­ing to the de­struc­tive legacy of the In­dian res­i­den­tial school sys­tem.

That year, when the TRC re­leased its find­ings into the abuse in­flicted on roughly 150,000 Indige­nous peo­ple by a sys­tem de­signed to as­sim­i­late them into the dom­i­nant cul­ture, it in­cluded 94 Calls to Ac­tion, or di­rec­tives aimed at ad­vanc­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Num­ber 62 deals with ed­u­ca­tion, call­ing on gov­ern­ment to “pro­vide the nec­es­sary fund­ing to post-sec­ondary in­sti­tu­tions to ed­u­cate teach­ers on how to in­te­grate Indige­nous knowl­edge and teach­ing meth­ods into class­rooms.”

Per­haps Canada’s ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions could help get us out of this mess.

All 97 mem­bers of Uni­ver­si­ties Canada re­sponded to the call to de­col­o­nize Canada’s cur­ricu­lum. Full im­ple­men­ta­tion will re­quire at least 10 years, but it will take much longer to see the in­tended im­pact: Cana­dian grad­u­ates grounded in Indige­nous knowl­edge as op­posed to Euro­cen­trism.

OCAD Univer­sity has made de­col­o­niza­tion num­ber one on its list of six pri­or­i­ties guid­ing its aca­demic plan­ning through 2022. (The other five are di­ver­sity and eq­uity, sus­tain­abil­ity, valu­ing fac­ulty, in­ter­dis­ci­plinar­ity and health and well­ness).

De­col­o­niza­tion is a fac­ulty-wide ini­tia­tive, and while it’s clear how Euro­cen­trism has dom­i­nated English, his­tory and art, what about sub­jects pre­sumed neu­tral? How do you de­col­o­nize science? How do you de­col­o­nize de­sign?

When OCAD be­gan its search for a new dean of its Fac­ulty of De­sign two years ago, de­col­o­niza­tion was in the job de­scrip­tion. It’s what at­tracted Dori Tun­stall to the role. She’s the first Black woman dean of a de­sign fac­ulty any­where in the world. She re­calls a re­cent lec­ture in Lon­don where her sta­tus as the world’s-only was met with a round of ap­plause. “Re­ally?” she laughs. “But it’s 2017.”

Tun­stall’s back­ground is in de­sign an­thro­pol­ogy. As an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Mel­bourne’s Swin­burne Univer­sity, she worked closely with Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der community mem­bers to cre­ate a mas­ter’s pro­gram in the dis­ci­pline with a spe­cial­iza­tion in Indige­nous knowl­edge. For her, there is a prac­ti­cal and eth­i­cal im­por­tance to de­col­o­niz­ing cur­ricu­lum. “It’s about shift­ing de­mo­graph­ics. The fastest-grow­ing pop­u­la­tion in Canada is the Indige­nous pop­u­la­tion; the other grow­ing pop­u­la­tion is through im­mi­gra­tion,” she says, ref­er­enc­ing fig­ures from the 2011 Na­tional House­hold Sur­vey. “If fu­ture stu­dents do not see them­selves in these prac­tices, they will not go to these uni­ver­si­ties. “It’s [also] about a chang­ing zeit­geist where we’re pay­ing more at­ten­tion



to di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion,” Tun­stall adds. “There is so much pain, trauma and dam­age be­cause of the colo­nial project. A path to heal­ing is through this path of de­col­o­niza­tion.”

World­wide, the de­sign community agrees. Tun­stall pre­sented at the AIGA De­sign Con­fer­ence, the in­dus­try’s largest mem­ber­ship or­ga­ni­za­tion in the U.S., in Oc­to­ber 2016 and at a con­fer­ence or­ga­nized by the De­col­o­niz­ing De­sign group at Swe­den’s Malmö Univer­sity the fol­low­ing month.

She also in­vited de­signer and ed­u­ca­tor Dr. Herman Pi’ikea Clark to help OCAD’s Fac­ulty of De­sign shape its de­col­o­nized cur­ricu­lum. For more than 20 years, Pi’ikea Clark has worked to in­te­grate Indige­nous knowl­edge into the cur­ric­ula of uni­ver­si­ties in his na­tive Hawaii and in New Zealand, where he cur­rently teaches. De­col­o­niz­ing de­sign starts with rec­og­niz­ing that de­sign isn’t a neu­tral dis­ci­pline.

Con­tem­po­rary de­sign’s ori­gins are in mod­ernism, a Euro­pean move­ment that sought to oblit­er­ate his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural tra­di­tions in its search for some­thing new. Viewed from a colo­nial lens, the era­sure of eth­nic iden­ti­ties and their his­to­ries isn’t cel­e­bra­tory. “In the mod­ernist project, it’s not about re­spect­ing di­ver­sity,” says Tun­stall. “It’s every­one give up your dif­fer­ences and be­come part of Univer­sal Man.”

A de­col­o­nized de­sign pro­poses a bal­anc­ing with Indige­nous ways of know­ing and mak­ing. It’s about ex­am­in­ing and in­te­grat­ing the ways Indige­nous peo­ple have ap­proached the con­struc­tion and longevity of ob­jects, the pro­cesses and ma­te­ri­als used, and the im­pact on the so­cial and phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. “The his­toric fo­cus of de­sign ed­u­ca­tion has been em­pir­i­cal, which is about ob­jec­tiv­ity, dis­con­nect and iso­la­tion,” ex­plains Pi’ikea Clark. “Indige­nous sys­tems at­tempt to look at how things are con­nected. Ba­sic hu­man prin­ci­ples: nur­tur­ing, hu­mil­ity, kind­ness; plac­ing a value on who your peo­ple are, where you’re com­ing from, what’s your name. “It might sound re­ally sim­ple, but some of those ba­sic things have been ab­sent from teach­ing, and par­tic­u­larly in de­sign, in think­ing that we can make this a science or some kind of hard dis­ci­pline.”

OCAD’s de­sign fac­ulty is ex­plor­ing the Seven Gen­er­a­tions prin­ci­ple – the Iro­quois phi­los­o­phy that says de­ci­sions made to­day should re­sult in a sus­tain­able world for the sev­enth gen­er­a­tion to come – as a ba­sis for its de­col­o­nized cur­ricu­lum. “I tell stu­dents that the rea­son I’m talk­ing about how many cof­fee cups you con­sume is be­cause when you’re in­dus­trial de­sign­ers or you are go­ing to ex­press your­self ar­tis­ti­cally, you need to look at this earth in a sus­tain­able way,” ex­plains ses­sional in­struc­tor Mon­ica Bodirsky. “And [con­sider] who the orig­i­nal keep­ers of this land were, who kept it in pris­tine shape for over 11,000 years. “So it works its way into sus­tain­abil­ity and any num­ber of eth­i­cal things,” she con­tin­ues. “As de­sign­ers and artists, you’re re­spon­si­ble for your ma­te­ri­als.”

Other schools have also be­gun the process.

In May, Ry­er­son’s Fac­ulty of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion & De­sign re­named its Indige­nous Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and De­sign Net­work Saa­ga­jiwe, an Anishi­naabe­mowin word mean­ing “the first ray of light.” Its mis­sion is to fos­ter an un­der­stand­ing of Indige­nous world views among stu­dents.

In Fe­bru­ary, a manda­tory first-year course in fash­ion con­cepts and the­ory was changed to ad­dress, in part, how Indige­nous cul­ture has been ap­pro­pri­ated by the fash­ion in­dus­try. “While I re­spect the term ‘de­col­o­niz­ing the cur­ricu­lum,’ we’re about de­col­o­niz­ing the learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” says FCAD dean Charles Fal­zon. “These ini­tia­tives are not just for Indige­nous stu­dents or peo­ple in­ter­ested in Indige­nous stud­ies, but for all stu­dents who are get­ting a foun­da­tion in what it means to be a cre­ative Cana­dian.”

In March, Bodirsky, who is part-Ro­many and is often read as racially white, pre­sented at White­ness With­out White Supremacy, a round­table started by Tun­stall to ad­dress the anx­i­ety Cau­casian staff were feel­ing around de­col­o­niza­tion. Tun­stall re­calls the “huge mur­mur” that rip­pled through cam­pus on learn­ing of the work­shop, whose pur­pose was to em­pha­size that de­col­o­niza­tion isn’t an at­tack on white peo­ple. Rather, it’s an at­tempt to dis­man­tle a sys­tem that ben­e­fits a sin­gle eth­nic­ity to the ex­clu­sion of other eth­nic­i­ties.

Bodirsky was privy to some of the rea­sons un­der­ly­ing the anx­i­ety. “There are a hand­ful of peo­ple go­ing ‘Huh?’” she says. “It’s in­ex­tri­ca­ble from the num­ber of years they’ve been teach­ing. They’ve held a cer­tain po­si­tion in a Euro­cen­tric so­ci­ety that was not only nor­mal­ized, but ap­plauded, and all of a sud­den they need to change. OCAD used to be a col­lege; it is now a univer­sity, and the qual­i­fi­ca­tions [for in­struc­tors] have also changed. All of those fac­tors make [de­col­o­niza­tion] a real ‘and here’s another thing threat­en­ing me.’”

But de­col­o­niza­tion’s in­tent is to put stu­dents and their needs first. Both Tun­stall and Bodirsky agree that the lack of vis­i­ble mi­nor­ity stu­dents in de­sign class­rooms can­not be chalked up to the com­mon no­tion that these groups sim­ply aren’t in­ter­ested in ap­ply­ing. In­stead, it’s a prob­lem of out­reach. “Do stu­dents not feel wel­come?” won­ders Bodirsky. “Are we do­ing any­thing rel­e­vant for com­mu­ni­ties other than mid­dle-class Euro­peans?”

Cur­ricu­lum re­form is an on­go­ing process. Not only is an en­tire frame­work of Euro­cen­tric knowl­edge be­ing re­assessed, but in­te­grat­ing Indige­nous knowl­edge re­quires sen­si­tiv­ity, an ac­knowl­edge­ment of sys­tems of in­equal­ity, hir­ing Indige­nous ed­u­ca­tors and par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Indige­nous community.

As such, it must go be­yond the ivory tower. “We have to be care­ful that we don’t de­cen­tral­ize the cen­tral po­lit­i­cal ne­ces­sity right now, which is around so­cial


jus­tice for Indige­nous peo­ple,” says OCAD as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor Bonnie Devine, who has raised a skep­ti­cal voice through­out phase one of the univer­sity’s de­col­o­niza­tion push.

She feels a need to oc­cupy the role of critic so the in­sti­tu­tion doesn’t fall into a check box men­tal­ity. Many Cana­dian in­sti­tu­tions have slipped into an “okay, we’ve done that; now let’s move on” men­tal­ity after an­nounc­ing so­lu­tions for Indige­nous issues. “De­col­o­niza­tion for Indige­nous peo­ple has a very spe­cific po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity,” she says. “It has to do with ac­knowl­edg­ing treaty rights and re­dress­ing some of the sys­temic in­equal­i­ties within Cana­dian so­cial life. It has to do with eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence and ac­cess to land.”

Devine, who founded OCAD’s Indige­nous Vis­ual Cul­ture Pro­gram (INVC) in 2008, says OCAD’s Indige­nous fac­ulty and stu­dents weren’t brought into the de­col­o­niza­tion process as early or con­sulted as broadly as they would have liked. How­ever, when their con­cerns were voiced, the univer­sity re­sponded swiftly and made amend­ments.

Those con­cerns in part had to do with early drafts of the de­col­o­niza­tion plan that em­pha­sized as­pi­ra­tional lan­guage over di­rect ac­tion. “What does it ac­tu­ally do to help the youth right now who are in cri­sis?” ques­tions Devine. “Does it not in ac­tu­al­ity de­flect our real po­lit­i­cal will and our strength as a col­lec­tive of in­tel­lec­tu­als work­ing at the univer­sity when we turn our at­ten­tion in­stead to mea­sur­ing how we’ve im­proved? “We need to be care­ful that we don’t get swept away in re­form­ing the univer­sity in­stead of re­form­ing the cul­ture and the so­ci­ety.”

As OCAD moves for­ward, there will be op­por­tu­ni­ties to fur­ther fine tune and amend its ob­jec­tives to en­sure that the de­col­o­niza­tion of its cur­ricu­lum has a tan­gi­ble im­pact.

Ul­ti­mately, its suc­cess will rest on the stu­dents who grad­u­ate from its halls.

Ted Hoffie is a third-year INVC stu­dent. As a per­son of Scot­tish and Indige­nous her­itage, he’s often felt like an out­sider in his community and in­vis­i­ble on cam­pus. For him, de­col­o­niza­tion prom­ises a stronger in­te­gra­tion of Indige­nous stu­dents into cam­pus life. “Re­gard­less if they’re born here, third gen­er­a­tion or new im­mi­grants, peo­ple still think Na­tive peo­ple are gone or that we’re a rare thing like a uni­corn – and that’s the prob­lem. We’re a small community [at OCAD] but we want to grow big­ger, be bet­ter and learn. We want to build those bridges and con­nect.”

Photo by Sa­muel en­gelk­ing ti­tle font by Clayton han­mer mu­ral by ken­dra yee

Dori Tun­stall, dean of the Fac­ulty of De­sign at OCAD Univer­sity

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