Artist eyes decolonising school curriculum

District Six resident Valerie Geselev.

A local art expert is on a mission to decolonise the school curriculum and to make what pupils learn in high school in Cape Town and the rest of the country more relevant.

Valerie Geselev, who is from Israel and lives in District Six, has done extensive research on public art in Cape Town since arriving in the city. “I was interested in my perspective coming from journalism and how art can influence social issues.”

She said she has been researching young artists who have been doing good work but have been operating under the radar of the mainstream.

She researched it for her UCT Honour’s degree. “I kept on researching it for myself and at some point I started approaching high schools to do presentations.”

And she believes a lot of the content in the current curriculum that is taught in schools, including art, was irrelevant. “My dream is to get this kind of content into the curriculum and part of what high schools are teaching.”

She said some of the artists in her talks and who should be included in the curriculum are artists such as Haroon Gunn Salie (who renamed Zonnebloem to District Six on street signs to connect the history to the present), Frank Lunar (who re-dressed statues in Cape Town with green blankets to remember the Marikana protest), Tebogo Munyai (who staged dance performance in pop-up zinc shacks in town to introduce the life of (‘informal settlements’) and XCollektiv (who create posters and stickers commenting on the gentrification of Woodstock and CBD). “The artists give us an opportunity to speak amon each other about social issues. It’s about speaking creatively about issues, it allows people to share their own stories. I would like to focus on high school education at the moment rather than universities. “

The project started in 2014 and since then has included 13 lectures to more than 300 audience members, and had been developed into a one-month workshop for 15 Grade 9 pupils. While Ms Geselev was researching this for her UCT Honour’s degree at the Art School’s Hiddingh Campus, the Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall movements gained momentum.

“I was very much inspired by that. I was working at Michaelis art campus. The students wanted to create a place to gather for different creative people to come to campus. They wanted to make a space for people to come and talk about their grievances with the system. They had open sessions where students and alumni would come and say what their experiences were.”

Ms Geselev said one of the things they raised was that the art curriculum at universities was very eurocentric and didn’t recognise the work of contemporary African creatives. “One of the demands from the students was they wanted to see a decolonised curriculum and see more specific content. And that raises the question: what does that look like and what does that mean? In a way the decolonisation rejects what it doesn’t like about the current education system but I would like to ask ‘so what next’?”

Ms Geselev said there needed to be construction of a new curriculum. “It’s a nice opportunity for me to keep on presenting these collection of stories I have gathered.”

She said one of her recent highlights included giving a free talk at the Iziko National Museum earlier this year.

“All the artists are motivated, young people who are based in Cape Town and doing really cool things in decolonising the city. I think their stories would be very relevant to the youth. The power of a decolonised curriculum is to be relevant to people’s everyday life. It can also inspire the pupils to be creative and be active citizens in their own city.”

She said she has also approached the Department of Education to set up meetings but had not heard back from them yet.

She added that she had received positive feedback from the talks that she has given so far.

“Ideally I would like to sit together with the person who is in charge of education to discuss this. I am happy to share this knowledge that I have gotten from my research. I don’t care about owning it, it is about finding ways of distributing the information.”

Ms Geselev said ideally she would like to create a textbook that would contain all of the stories of these local artists.