Maria Amidu, episode(s), work in progress, 2022, Tosa shi paper, indigo, laser etch as featured in the digital set of emotional learning cards entitled Making that remembers… a correspondence between emotion and materials
Maria Amidu. 'Episode(s)', work in progress 2022. Tosa shi paper, indigo, laser etch.

Lines of Connection

Threading together key influences and ideas that shaped the development of the emotional learning cards

About the article

The story of how the emotional learning cards came to be published pivots on a particular moment in time. The year A Space opened – 1997 – coincided with New Labour coming to power with Prime Minister Tony Blair’s oft quoted mantra ‘Education, Education, Education’ summing up his party’s top three priorities. Just three years earlier in 1994, iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts) was set up in the Shoreditch area of east London, with Professor Stuart Hall, one of the founding members of British Cultural Studies and Director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, as its first Chair. iniva’s remit was to seek out and champion artists from around the world whose work and ideas would provide new perspectives, challenging the prevailing western-centric view of the visual arts. Dedicated to nurturing and disseminating radical and emergent contemporary artistic practice centring Global Majority, African, Asian and Caribbean diaspora views, iniva is an evolving organisation with an overarching aim of fostering greater understanding and acceptance of diversity and difference.

In the mid to late 1990s, the terms ‘emotional literacy’ and ‘emotional intelligence’ were rapidly gaining currency. The bestseller Emotional Intelligence by psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman was published in 1995 (Bantam Books), followed by psychoanalyst Susie Orbach’s Towards Emotional Literacy (Virago Press, 1999), bringing seminal ideas from psychology and psychotherapy to a general readership. Under New Labour, the Department for Education and Employment and the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport introduced the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education. Their inaugural report, All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (1999), recommended greater balance in and out of formal education, between acquiring knowledge and skills and having the freedom to innovate and experiment.

Against this backdrop, A Space introduced arts and therapy-led workshop programmes to selected schools in Hackney foreshadowing themes the emotional learning cards came to feature. Although I am credited for the original card concept in the published sets, ideas that capture the zeitgeist are never developed in a vacuum.  As the A Space Director, I was optimally placed to have conversations with fellow psychotherapists, artists, senior leaders in schools and gallery-based education curators spanning many years, all of which sparked interconnected lines of enquiry. 

In this article, I highlight some of the key influences and ideas that fed into creating the cards. When the cards were in the research phase (early to mid-2000s), thinking about the visibility of culturally diverse artists had yet to assume a central place in the collective mind of those leading major institutions. Perhaps the emotional learning cards have retained their relevance as the artists represented and the themes highlighted reflect an ever-growing awareness of the need to address issues relating to negotiating ‘sameness and difference’: these can either divide or connect us.

The emotional learning cards are intended to be used in a range of art and therapy contexts, as well as in educational settings, including upper primary school, secondary school, sixth form and university. This means that sessions featuring them could be led by a teacher, learning mentor/student support worker, seminar leader, artist, psychologist, creative therapist, psychotherapist or a clinic- or hospital-based mental health practitioner. From this point on, I refer to the facilitator as ‘the educator/therapist’ and session participants as ‘the student(s)/client(s)’.

A brief introduction to the origins of emotional literacy

Becoming more emotionally literate is now considered vital if we are to fulfil our personal and professional potential and create a more inclusive and accepting society. Social-emotional learning as an educational method aiming to foster emotional literacy has been around since the 1960s, when it was first conceptualised by a team of researchers at the Child Study Centre, Yale School of Medicine.

In the 1970s and 80s, Claude Steiner, a French-born American psychotherapist specialising in transactional analysis, established Radical Psychiatry as a new approach to psychotherapy, based on social theory rather than a medical model.  Steiner picked up on the term ‘emotional literacy’ and used it extensively, breaking it into five parts:

  • Ability to recognise and name feelings
  • Developing a sense of empathy
  • Learning to manage emotions
  • Repairing emotional difficulties
  • Putting all of these skills together (‘emotional interactivity’)

Steiner’s book Achieving Emotional Literacy (1999) illustrates how emotional intelligence can be achieved by following a three-stage training programme, and includes practical exercises to foster these skills, as well as questionnaires to evaluate ‘EQ’ (Emotional Quotient).

Among the books taking a more psychoanalytic approach in the 1990s and early to mid-2000s was The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching (Routledge, 1993) by Elsie Osborne, Isca Salzberger-Wittenberg and Gianna Williams, which identified the emotional factors that come into the teaching and learning process. Based on work carried out by the authors with teachers who participated in a course at the Tavistock Clinic, entitled ‘Aspects of Counselling in Education’, The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching remains relevant today and is still used in psychotherapy training.

Biddy Youell’s The Learning Relationship: Psychoanalytic Thinking in Education (The Tavistock Clinic Series, 2006) discusses many of the issues that continue to preoccupy those who work in education. It outlines the origins of learning in the child’s earliest relationship with their mother/primary carer before going on to explore the teacher’s experience alongside that of the student. It addresses topics of continuing significance, including the impact of separation, change and times of transition, bereavement, bullying and racism.

Minding a Gap by Alan Bainbridge (Routledge, 2012) applies psychoanalytic theory to delivering education in schools, universities, and colleges. In an attempt to bridge the gap between learning and human development, education is viewed by Bainbridge as a vital element in a lifelong aim to gain more in-depth understanding of self and others. The book encourages teachers, trainers, policymakers, clinicians, researchers and academics to look beyond superficialities to deeper, more personal self/other struggles. Unconscious processes in teaching and learning relationships, as well as the resistance to new ideas and practices, are also brought into the frame.

David Colley and Paul Cooper’s Attachment in the Classroom: Theory and Practice (Sebda, 2017) uses Bowlby’s attachment theory to understand emotional development and offers guidance for teachers drawing from psychology, health and education.

The perspectives taken in these books very much coloured our thinking at A Space. Those published in the mid-1990s and early 2000s fed into the design and development of various workshop initiatives that ran alongside A Space for Support, our psychotherapy service providing one-to-one sessions for children and young people with more complex needs. Over the years, such creative workshops delivered in partnership with artists and other creative practitioners were gradually phased out, reflecting changes in education including in government priorities, school funding and curriculum aims. By the mid-2000s, one of the greatest challenges for the arts, cited in the Warwick Report on the Future of Cultural Value (2015), was national and local funding cuts, with Arts Council England cut by 32% and local government by 40% between 2010 and 2015. In tandem, head teachers increasingly saw the need for in-school wellbeing and mental health support for their students. Commissioning additional therapy services from A Space gradually took precedence over emotional learning through the arts initiatives. The emotional learning card sets remain as a legacy of the A Space Art Studio programme, continuing to support artists, therapists, and educators working in a range of settings to evolve important conversations around identity, difference and diversity.  

Towards a definition of emotional learning

Viewed through a therapy-inflected lens, the concept of emotional learning can incorporate psycho-social, socio-political, psychoanalytic, and relational perspectives. Developing emotional literacy is now seen as an ongoing process that centres on ‘learning from’ (i.e. learning from experience) rather than ‘learning about’. Building on Steiner’s five-point description (recognising feelings, developing empathy, managing emotions, repairing emotional difficulties and putting all these features together), emotional literacy is seen by therapists as incorporating ideas such as the following:

  • How uncomfortable feelings and difficult mental states can be projected onto others (commonplace examples include the bully who makes their victim feel vulnerable, and groups or individuals who project outsider feelings onto ‘outsider’ groups)
  • The need to deconstruct social conditioning and/or family/cultural norms, which perpetuate ideas of gender-based emotions (e.g. challenging what has become known as ‘toxic masculinity’ and re-framing feelings more generally so they are not aligned with gender)
  • Learning to recognise hidden feelings and getting in touch with them (e.g. recognising that becoming tearful can be a learned strategy to hide anger from ourselves and others, just as becoming angry can be away to distance oneself from more vulnerable-making feelings and so on)
  • How our sense of place in the world affects our self-esteem for better or worse (e.g. feelings evoked by seeing ourselves represented in wider society, being recognised and accepted for who we are and feeling we belong vs the opposite.) 
  • How emotions can affect our behaviour and thinking, and vice versa (including the role of self-talk in perpetuating unhelpful thinking, which in turn leads to low self-esteem, anxiety and/or depression)
  • Why some emotions are disowned or denied individually and collectively
  • How emotional inheritances and intergenerational trauma play out in families
  • How individual and collective pasts influence the present and can shape the future
  • Why issues of gender, race, class and culture can evoke strong feelings, and how our emotional reactions can be managed so that constructive dialogue is possible
  • How we address emotionally charged experiences more generally, both collectively and individually
  • The importance of channelling emotionally potent experiences into social action (an example of this would be the resurgence of Black Lives Matter following George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police in 2020)
  • Building the capacity to take individual and collective responsibility for personal and social actions that negatively impact and make appropriate reparation

The drive towards knowledge

Fundamental to the development of our identity and our ability to form meaningful relationships is the potential to be curious about ourselves and others. Psychoanalysts conceptualise this as an epistemophilic instinct (i.e. ‘the urge to know’), which is understood to be central to our capacity for thinking. The Curiosity Drive: Our Need for Inquisitive Thinking by Philip Stokoe (karnacbooks.com)

In common with many A Space therapists, past and present, my first training was in the visual arts. Given aspects of my family history, I was drawn to delving deeper into what makes us who we are, something that piqued my curiosity from a relatively early age. Looking back, I can see the attraction of the ‘blank canvas’ that art-making provides both literally and metaphorically. As a form of external container, it acts as a receptacle for conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings, which are ‘gathered up’ and ‘sifted through’ in the process of making.  A White Canadian by birth, my heritage includes maternal and paternal family histories of uprootedness, displacement, and in/voluntary migration. Belonging and ‘unbelonging’, buried memories and irretrievable stories, losses both known and unknown, and the search to ‘find/create’ the self all fed into my art practice, as is the case for many who gravitate to the arts. In time, this un/conscious ‘urge to know’ led to training in therapy, which felt like a natural progression.

Making art, freely associating to the artworks of others, and expressing oneself in therapy without censorship (as much as is possible) all involve unconscious processes which, although stimulating and enriching, can carry a degree of unease. We can’t know what might lie hidden in the strata of the psyche. In each instance, there is always the possibility that something repressed or disowned could break the surface. One could say that artists and psychotherapists offer the kind of space optimally suited for engagement in emotional learning, in which it is possible to stand back and ‘look in’ with curiosity and interest rather than judgement, fear or shame.

Mapping the origins of the emotional learning cards

Creating a space for free expression and experimentation, which includes artmaking and time set aside for reflective conversation, is one of the models used in art therapy groups. This became the structure A Space and iniva adopted when first introducing workshops jointly led by artists and therapists in the early 2000s. One of the earlier series we ran was in response to iniva’s 2003 exhibition Veil, which addressed the question of the veil in all its complexities and ambiguities. This culminated in a film made by iniva artist Faisal Abdu’Allah with A Space therapists and young people, entitled ‘This is Who I am ~ This is What You See’, which won awards from the Clore Duffield Foundation and the Chrissi Baily Foundation.

The A Space/iniva workshop programme at that time also included projects funded by the Arts Council’s Creative Partnerships scheme, which focused on meeting the aims outlined in the UK’s National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education’s report mentioned above, entitled All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education.   As these collaborations targeted only a small group of schools in the London Borough of Hackney, the idea of widening our reach became a more pressing aim.  

With this in mind, a colleague linked to London’s Central St Martin’s (CSM) College of Art (now part of the University of the Arts) and I ran a project with final year graphic design and illustration students to produce the first pilot set of emotional learning cards. The self-nominating students were tasked with creating images in response to texts I wrote based on themes A Space and iniva were exploring. iniva was shown the resulting sample set and invited to add a few images by artists who had worked with A Space. This suggestion sparked the idea of replacing the CSM students’ illustrations with images by iniva artists, and the emotional learning cards as we now know them began to take form. The CSM students also saw the advantages to using works by culturally diverse contemporary artists instead of their own illustrations and graciously stepped aside. It is essential to acknowledge their input as their involvement was an important step in the process.

Partnering with iniva on the creation of the emotional learning cards marked the beginning of the next phase of research and development, which focused on identifying the featured artists and contacting them, as well as the galleries that represented them, to obtain formal permission. The fact that the artists and galleries unanimously agreed to grant publishing rights was a strong vote of confidence.

Ideas from psychoanalytic thinking feeding into the emotional learning cards

Much of what we think and believe is influenced by childhood impressions based on spoken and unspoken messages picked up from those around us. These ‘messages’ take a simple form as children have only an initial grasp of language and do not have the cognitive capacity to understand contexts. For instance, the arrival of a new baby usually brings excitement and much interest from everyone in the family circle. The young sibling witnessing this may translate the experience into a felt sense of being ‘not good enough’, the ‘logic’ being that if they were, there would be no need for another baby. For some, this is a fleeting impression only. But for others, if there are frequent signs of favouritism or, more concerningly, neglect, then the core belief ‘I am not good enough’ could be formed. Another child experiencing a new arrival in the family may react with a surge of pride in being the ’big sister or brother’ (along with the inevitable jealousy all children feel around a newborn). Over time, they may form the core belief that they are a natural leader. These two examples are ‘surface descriptions’ only of much more complex processes involving the unconscious perceptions and associations each of the parents have in relation to their individual children. For instance, one child may be a reminder of a parent’s admired brother of their own, while another child could resemble a less favoured family member and so on. A book still considered a seminal text by Brazleton and Cramer entitled The Earliest Relationship (1991)discusses how parental fantasies, desires, expectations and associations are always in the mix.

Core beliefs that reflect society’s unconscious biases are also in the ether of everyday life and are picked up by children. Those relating to race and discrimination continue to be the subject of studies. A well-known piece of research, the Doll Study, was conducted in the 1940s by Kenneth Clark and his wife Mamie Phipps Clark. It centres on an experiment that makes available a Black doll and a White doll. Each child participant is then asked to pick the doll that ‘looks nice’ or that ’they’d like to play with’.

Shockingly, but unsurprisingly in 1940s America, the majority of the participating children preferred the White doll and attributed positive characteristics to it, while associating the Black doll with more negative characteristics. Others have since tried out the experiment and found that the preference for whiteness is not limited to only Black children in segregated schools in the mid-20th century, but also affects black children in integrated schools in the 21st century. 

As the Doll Study continues to confirm, what we see, hear and witness around us as children can be reinforced by external realities. Only relatively recently have school leaders taken on board the need to decolonise the curriculum and raise awareness of unconscious biases and prejudices. Decolonising teaching and learning relies on representing multiple points of view and, in the process, bringing unconscious prejudice and bias out into the open, something that is core to the practice of psychotherapy as well. Some of the key concepts from psychoanalytic thinking that tie in with these ideas and extend our understanding of what emotional learning can encompass, are outlined below:

Building an awareness of our inner thoughts and feelings: Our mind is often described as an ‘internal world’, which includes thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others, as well as creating and storing the meanings we give to our past and present experiences. Our internal world is always active and we continuously ‘talk to ourselves’ in our thoughts, something which psychotherapists refer to as ‘self-talk’.  Until we choose to pause and observe the content of our self-talk, it functions like a running commentary just outside of our conscious awareness. It is essential to learn to monitor and challenge it as it often includes cognitive biases that distort our thinking.

Cognitive biases are mental shortcuts. Two of the most common include confirmation bias and negativity bias. Confirmation bias describes our way of interpreting events looking only at selective evidence which confirms our view of ourselves and others. This can contribute to unconscious racism and prejudices. Negativity bias gives more weight to the negative and is hardwired in our brain as it was essential for our ancestors’ survival. Early human communities relied on assuming the worst so that they were prepared for danger. Our negativity bias can lead to overlooking positive feedback and focusing only on the critical, catastrophising about the future leading to high anxiety and avoidance of taking personal, social, academic or work-based risks, and seeing ourselves, others and life’s possibilities through a negative lens.

Unconscious biases more generally are also in the mix. Without knowing it, we can make value-laden assumptions about ourselves and others. This can lead to self-damaging perceptions (i.e. feeling ‘less than’, engaging in self-shaming, experiencing internalised racism or internalised homophobia and so on). Our perceptions of others can place them either in an unfavourable or an idealised light through co-comparison, a concept identified in psychology as social comparison theory (i.e. we are ‘better than’/ we ‘belong’; they are ‘the other’ or ‘the outsider’ / they ‘don’t belong’). Watching out for our biases and distorted thinking is another important component of emotional intelligence.

Understanding the dynamic relationship between our worlds within and without: Our day-to-day experiences in the external world are in a dynamic relationship with our inner world. Each is both shaped by, and shapes, the other. For instance, our ideas about how we are perceived by others can affect our interactions with them which, in turn, will colour how they respond to us. When this takes place outside of our awareness, it can reinforce unhelpful core beliefs such as ‘I am not good enough’ or ‘I am better than/they are less than’. Developing an understanding of this process means that we are better placed to recognise when it is occurring and question our perceptions, modifying or refining them in the face of more balanced thinking and reality testing.

Recognising that we all construct meanings out of our experiences: Part of being human is our need to create stories relating to the past and present that explain why things unfold as they do, why we feel (or felt) a certain way and why future possibilities can or cannot be counted on. These stories usually reflect binary thinking, defining people and situations as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘to blame’ or not and can become fixed narratives. Learning to step back and look at experiences from different angles can foster a more three-dimensional, layered understanding of ourselves and others, helping to cultivate greater compassion and empathy. We cannot change our personal history or some aspects of our life, but we can reframe our internal narratives so that the more emotionally impactful or limiting parts do not derail us and our self/other judgements are less harsh. 

Understanding the ways in which the past can influence the present as well as the future: The past encompasses our own experiences and our family’s history going back generations as well as what is recorded in history books. We form impressions of how ‘people like us’ have been seen and may continue to be perceived, for better or worse. This inevitably affects how ‘entitled’ or otherwise we feel, whether we have a sense of belonging or not, and what we might unconsciously assume we can aim for in life. As well, our own experiences in the more recent past can affect us in the present and even have a role in determining the future. An example of this is how we react to change. Those who have gone through a significant life event that was primarily unsettling or distressing may find the anticipation of an upcoming change triggers worrying thoughts, troubling feelings, and ‘flashback’ memories, strongly felt even if not consciously acknowledged. Change takes different forms such as voluntary or involuntary moves or alterations to the family composition due to bereavement, divorce, new step-members joining and so on. The impact of such experiences can make the thought of navigating change so anxiety provoking that commonplace transitions, such as transferring to secondary school, sixth form or university (always a time of both hope and concern), loom large. The underlying feelings can interfere with settling in and even derail our education, or stop us from taking the career path we’d like to. Learning to separate out the past from the present, as well as from thoughts about the future, starts with naming and processing the feelings left over from earlier experiences and modifying their impact on the here and now.

Understanding transference relationships: Another way in which the past can make itself felt is in our relationship with others. If, for instance, we have experienced a parent as primarily supportive and well-intentioned, we are more likely to assume that other authority figures (head teachers, line managers etc) will possess these qualities. The opposite is also possible: if a parent has been overly harsh or demanding or rigidly rule-bound, these attributes can be transferred onto other parental figures in later life. Such perception biases can affect how we engage with authority figures which, in turn, will influence how they perceive and respond to us. Sibling transferences will also be in the mix, affecting how we experience school or work peers and so on. Much of this occurs outside of conscious awareness. Learning about the obvious and more nuanced ways in which the past is re-presented in the present in such ways can strengthen emotional intelligence.

Understanding contexts: It is vital to learn to decode information that comes to us via taught classes, books or papers we read, social media, the arts and through conversation. Taking the context into consideration is essential. For example, whose version is captured in published accounts of historical events? From what perspective are these stories presented? What agendas might be influencing what is included and what is left out? Whose voice isn’t heard and why? These questions also apply to information we access in contemporary life. Decoding like this helps us to determine which views, opinions and ideas can be trusted. Having the capacity to use our mind to think for ourselves is part of contextual understanding, another important component of emotional learning.

Normalising feelings: None of us enjoy feeling anxious, angry, low in mood, sad, guilty, insecure, and so on. However, all these feeling states serve a purpose. Emotional learning involves being able to own these feelings and look below the surface to find their source. Greater understanding can help to regulate feelings. This takes ‘emotional muscle’ and like any muscle, it gets stronger the more we use it. If we buy into our feelings and treat them as the equivalent of factual information, then when we’re going through a difficult patch, we’re more likely to become pessimistic and lose motivation. Accepting that life is complex and learning to ‘think while feeling’ is a sign of emotional intelligence.

Developing the capacity to think things through: ‘Thinking’ may sound straightforward but it’s not. It involves letting go of easy shortcuts (blaming, rationalising, assigning ‘good/bad’ or ‘right/wrong labels’ etc) and being prepared to tolerate letting go of our preferred ways of seeing the world, ourselves, and others. Thinking can be stimulating and exciting, but it can also be anxiety provoking, upsetting, perplexing, overwhelming and even threatening. It may lead to the need to change our position or arrive at ideas that are at odds with our family culture or norms or how we want to see ourselves. However, if we become accustomed to thinking more deeply, we can view our thought processes with curiosity. Although more complex ‘higher level’ thinking can bring some discomfort, it has many rewards and is a core component of emotional learning and literacy.

Mentalisation refers to the capacity to ‘mentalise’, that is, to create a mental picture of another’s state of mind and their intentions as well as their emotional investment. This is particularly important when trying to understand each other’s differences or when miscommunication or conflict arises. Having the capacity to imagine ‘being them’ helps us better ‘understand misunderstandings’ and make sense of others’ point of view. Empathy is a positive offshoot of mentalisation. Both feature strongly in emotional intelligence. 

‘Thinking about our thinking’, as psychotherapists describe it, is something psychologists call ‘metacognition’. Thinking about our thinking encompasses an awareness of our thought processes and gaining an understanding of the patterns behind them. Metacognition takes different forms such as reflecting on our own thinking and what influences it as well as using our critical thinking and analysis for problem-solving and for challenging and balancing unhelpful self-talk.

As can be seen, these descriptions of psychoanalytic concepts have some overlaps including the importance of learning to use our mind to listen to our thoughts, observe when our feelings are triggered, watch out for patterns, and take an active role in developing psychological mindedness. When using the emotional learning cards, the educator/therapist can look out for opportunities to weave in ideas drawing from the basic concepts outlined above. For instance, in addition to reflecting on the artwork featured on individual cards, asking more general questions about artists and art-making can act as a bridge into exploratory conversation. Those posed below include a few examples of what the educator or therapist might wish to contribute to the conversation. These are just suggestions and are by no means the only direction a discussion with student(s)/client(s) could move in.

How would you describe an artist’s job? What are they trying to do with their artworks? (i.e. Is it their role to inspire, disrupt, educate, share common human experiences or reflect society back to us like a mirror so we can see more clearly? You might want to share some of your thoughts on what an artist’s role could be as well and how this has changed over time.)

Do you think artists draw mostly from personal experience, or do they reflect on the world at large? Has this always the case? If artists are using their own experience, what kind of life events or feelings might they focus on? (You can bring in some of your ideas e.g. artists’ work could be based on experiences such as migration, having a mixed heritage, retaining some of their parents’ culture while letting aspects of it go, trying to make sense of their identity and so on.)

What do you think is the most important reason for making art? Why? How might art change the way we see things? (Examples you might include could be using art to connect with each other through recognising something of our own story in what the artist has included in their art work (i.e. identifying similarities amongst our differences), to bring about changes in how we see each other so that we can live well together, to express emotions that are shared by us all, to foster understanding of each other and so on.)

How might an artist’s own background influence the subjects they choose to make art about? (As an example, you could share how an artist who is an immigrant might experience a sense of living between two cultures. Perhaps they have lost out on having a rooted sense of home but have gained from understanding how enriching different everyday life and world views can be.)

If we look at art from the past in a gallery or museum, what sort of people or places do we see in the pictures? Has this changed? (If they answer ‘yes’, go on to ask what is different and if there are other changes they’d like to see. If their answer is no, show them some of the emotional learning cards and challenge their view. More generally, questions such as this can be an opportunity to challenge fixed ideas of art being a picture in a gold frame hanging in a museum that has nothing to do or with ordinary life. It can also be worth mentioning that art has moved on from including only depictions of people or events considered important in some way.  For instance, contemporary artists may create installations or engage in performance, participatory events and social actions.

Looking back, who has been given ‘unspoken permission’ to make art? Who might have felt they had no right to make art? (Here you might want to explain that even without realising it, we can all imagine that some people are more entitled than others to have a voice or to be an artist or have high aspirations. This is a chance to talk about social class and how the meanings we give to our position within social systems can limit us whether because of financial disadvantage, lack of cultural currency, conceptions of gender or race etc. Discussion about ways in which we can challenge our beliefs and assumptions about class can be opened up.)

When moving from this general exploration of art and related themes into looking at specific emotional learning cards, more personal reflection can be invited through posing questions such as:

What does the image you’ve chosen say to you? What does it remind you of?  Do the colours used tell you anything? What is the overall emotional feel of this piece of art?

What personal thoughts or memories come to mind when you look at this artwork? What do you think the artist would like us to reflect on?

This artist’s birth heritage isn’t White British. Knowing this, what do you think they might be saying in this artwork about their background?

How would you describe your heritage? What would you most like people to know about your family history? If you were to make a piece of art that reflected you, what would you include? (and so on)

Conversations along the lines of the above foster a shared learning experience through role modelling reflective thinking and playing with ideas rather than looking for ‘right’ answers or trying to figure out what one ‘should say’. Using open ended questions and bringing in examples of one’s own can help guide the emotional learning process.

Conclusion

An important thread running through this exploration of ideas and themes associated with the emotional learning cards (co-published by A Space and iniva) is that there is always more than a single story, a single interpretation or a single ‘grand narrative’. In the recent past, one could walk around the main contemporary galleries in London and still see only Western-centric art. Today, the picture is very different with other voices and views now in the frame, something iniva has had a central role in bringing about.  Through supporting the early careers of emerging artists, now internationally respected, such as Yinka Shonibare MBE, Steve McQueen, Idris Khan and Sonia Boyce, iniva laid the foundations for a more inclusive art world, something which has ramifications that go beyond the field of art. Both A Space and iniva hope that our emotional learning cards will continue to build on this important legacy, opening up spaces for re-visiting, and re-imagining our relationship with the past, as well as the present in the service of living well with others.

Contributors

Lyn French

Lyn French, Director of A Space

Lyn French is the Director of A Space. She first trained in art (MA Goldsmiths) with a focus on conceptual art practice before completing an art therapy training and a psychoanalytic psychotherapy training. She was a staff member on the Birkbeck MSc in Counselling & Psychotherapy with Children + Adolescents for over 10 years and has co-edited two books in the field as well as contributing to the production of Iniva’s emotional learning cards.