Monday, 15 July 2019

Reflections after 'Young black women curate visual arts e-portfolios': a South African cultural hierarchy versus local practices...


Written for media studies researchers and educators interested in the challenges that young people in Cape Town face when formally expressing identities as visual arts students.

My first sole-authored journal article is published in the Learning, Media and Technology journal at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17439884.2019.1640738. Young black women curate visual arts e-portfolios: negotiating digital disciplined identities, infrastructural inequality and public visibility addresses the special issue’s theme ’Global Technologies, Local Practices’, outlined here. Please visit http://bit.ly/2NOxxiM to download one of the 50 free e-prints that Taylor & Francis has made available for download.

Dr Jeremy Knox and a few anonymous reviewers provided in-depth guidance that helped me to better address both the special issue’s theme and its international audiences. Over the course of two revisions, the article’s abstract became:

‘Despite the growing importance of digital portfolios for justifying creative work and study opportunities, little is known about arts students’ creative appropriation of online portfolios in secondary school. In particular, there is a research gap concerning the challenges that young black women face when curating portfolios as visual arts students. This paper describes the key challenges that three such government school students negotiated when taught to creatively appropriate an online portfolio software for curating showcase visual arts e-portfolios:

In formal contexts, art students’ e-portfolios are strongly shaped by assimilatory norms. Visual arts students who want to develop portfolios that follow local or global crafts and fandoms must negotiate their low status in, or complete exclusion from, the national syllabus. Students in under-resourced school and home settings may already be using other online portfolio solutions that suit their purposes better than the particular software prescribed in arts lessons. Online portfolios are public by default and young women negotiated this risk by using pseudonymous self presentations. Each student’s classroom practices were also constrained by a technology selected for its minimalist exhibition aesthetic. Students curated showcase exhibitions, but the prescribed service did not facilitate a wider exploration of contemporary digital practices.’

The case studies for three young black women revealed the diverse, yet overlapping, challenges each faced in expressing their creative identities and interests. It balanced the need to provide a full context with the special issue’s concerns in under 6,000 words. Following this article's publication, I felt I should use this blog post for reflecting more broadly on why so few local practices from Cape Town (and South Africa) became shared by visual arts students in their e-portfolios. 

Overall, such neglect of the local seemed strongly shaped by four cultural hierarchies in Cape Town communities, which may fall under a broader cultural hierarchy in South Africa:
  1. South African visual arts education is dominated by a Modernist tastes for expressing a traditional version of aesthetic distinction.
  2. Cape Town is an important creative hub in South Africa and there are many creative industries producing local content. However, students’ e-portfolios largely ignored it and other (South) African creations. This reflects how better-off homes typically prefer consuming global popular cultures versus local creative industries. Global media fandoms from the United States (such as Hollywood franchises) and Japan (Manga and Anime) influenced most of the fan art in students’ e-portfolios. 
  3. The lifestyle and vocational preferences of the middle-class dovetail with the cultural capital of secondary schooling. By contrast, working class culture was largely excluded in teens' e-portfolios.
  4. There are 11 official languages in South Africa. Despite several of the students not speaking English as their home language, all used English to present their identities and work.

As my essay describes, young black women did face obstacles in using the "global" online portfolio technology, Carbonmade.com, for expressing their artistic identities. This technology was not designed to accommodate their under-resourced contexts.

By comparison, the strong shaping influence of the dominant cultural hierarchy seemed to exert a much greater influence on all visual arts students in my PhD research study. Most did not spotlight uniquely local cultural interests and practices in their portfolios. This suggests how South Africa's cultural hierarchy is a great obstacle for those Cape Town visual arts students and their expression of local practices via "global" technology.

Kindly comment on this post, or contact me with your thoughts.
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