Reflections on Identity
About the article
The following article was published in in AD Magazine (National Society for Education in Art & Design). It features Lyn French, psychotherapist and A Space Director, in conversation with Georgina Evans, art psychotherapist and lecturer, about their experience of delivering art and therapy-informed workshops designed to provide a safe space to talk openly about identity and difference.
Lyn French (LF): Georgina, we’ve both facilitated creative learning workshops using Emotional Learning Cards to explore the kinds of experiences, beliefs, unspoken messages and unconscious biases which shape our perceptions of ourselves and others. These workshops place emphasis on the ways in which gender, culture, race and class influence how our identity is constructed and how power dynamics impact. The ICL workshop programme which has been running since the early 2000s uses applied ideas from psychotherapy to create a unique experiential space. Participants are encouraged to make deeper personal connections through the exercises we facilitate and by representing their own experiences either literally or metaphorically in the art they make. A card that continues to capture the imagination when I’ve led the workshops is Aya Haidar’s Peregrinations (2008).
Haidar has sewn an outline of a map inside each shoe. The threads lace across from one to the other, perhaps symbolising bringing more than one world together.Lyn French
Haidar has sewn an outline of a map inside each shoe. The threads lace across from one to the other, perhaps symbolising bringing more than one world together. It can also represent how we create internal ‘maps’ made up of the stories we’ve been told about who we are, narratives which are inevitably coloured by our family history and our parents’ sense of ‘insiderness/ outsiderness’. Our experience of ‘self’ is consciously and unconsciously influenced by our family’s perception of their place in the world. Like Haidar’s shoes, our storylines may become entangled which can be enriching but might also make it harder to define who we are or work out who we might become.
Georgina Evans (GE): I find the themes featured in the Emotional Learning Cards represent complex individual and collective experiences making it possible to facilitate conversation around perceived difference as well other sensitive issues. Participants seem to welcome sharing stories of their own journeys. It’s interesting to see how the group can identify with each other’s challenges and feeling states even if their personal story is very different. We all know that identity is a social construct but, in everyday life, there are not many opportunities to think more deeply about what this means. We can re-write our internal ‘scripts’ and re-frame the stories passed down to us as well as those we’ve told ourselves however to do so, we need to identify and de-construct the storylines we’ve inherited and process the emotional content.
LF: Talking about difference can be uncomfortable and unsettling especially as we are all still processing the multi-dimensional legacies of colonial history. This brings to mind Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010) by Yinka Shonibare (MBE) which is one of the images from the card set How do we live well with others?.
Intriguingly, the ship’s sails are sewn out of the kind of brightly patterned cloth that we commonly associate with African dress. Perhaps Shonibare is encouraging us to think about what can result when two very different cultures come together.Lyn French
Intriguingly, the ship’s sails are sewn out of the kind of brightly patterned cloth that we commonly associate with African dress. Perhaps Shonibare is encouraging us to think about what can result when two very different cultures come together. History is full of examples of the more powerful culture taking control. This notion is reflected in personal relationships too – those born into privilege, whatever form it takes, can unconsciously assume a position of perceived entitlement.
GE: When I lead workshops I note how binary constructed social frameworks of race and class – as well as gender and sexuality – can be understood to serve and maintain dominant power structures. Discussions frequently focus on how these constructs impact each of us differently – be this in terms of privilege, prejudice, opportunity or constraint. Moving between personal image-making and group dialogue allows for a more complex exploration of both individual and shared socio-cultural experiences. This can be thought about in ways that avoid what Stuart Hall, the pioneering cultural theorist, described as ‘wars of difference’ (e.g. ‘my disadvantage is worse than yours’) and also homogenisation or universalism, where our political differences are minimised or disallowed.
LF: Another card which often draws attention is Christian Thomson’s Hannah’s Diary (2008) from the card set What do relationships mean to you?. As an Aboriginal Australian, identity, sexuality, race, and memory are key themes in his work. In 2010 Thompson made history when he became the first Aboriginal Australian to be admitted into Oxford University in its 900-year history.
The need for reparation can be seen in many liberation struggles around the world such as Black Lives Matter, Kurdish, Catalonian and Scottish calls for independence and LGBTQI activism.Georgina Evans
GE: Yes. This calls to mind Reni Eddo-Lodge, who has said we’re in denial about racism in the UK although there is a growing awareness of this now. Workshop participants of all cultural backgrounds are often keen to express and hear about some of the nuances of institutional or structural racisms and to understand how racism affects us all differently. Discussion can turn to how power structures are often established and maintained by sociocultural frameworks of meaning that promote the agency of some over others – for instance, white people in racism, men in feminism, the economically privileged in classism and the persistence of heteronormativity. We are all aware of how these mechanisms operate and discriminate. The need for reparation can be seen in many liberation struggles around the world such as Black Lives Matter, Kurdish, Catalonian and Scottish calls for independence and LGBTQI activism.
LF: When writing the text for the Emotional Learning Cards, I was thinking about how everyone’s life stories intersect with and are moulded by known and unknown family ‘scripts’, the social and political climate of the day and past histories. For me, Stuart Hall’s book ‘Familiar Stranger’ written with Bill Schwartz and published after Hall’s death captures this notion. Hall says, ‘I was born and formed in the closing days of the old colonial world. They are the conditions of my existence. This is, as I see it, the starting point for narrating my life, the source of a curious, unreachable and abiding unease.’ He says that ‘much of my life can be understood as unlearning the norms in which I had been born and brought up. This long, continuing process of disidentification has shaped my life.’
GE: As therapists, and I would say as artists too, we know there is a dynamic relationship between internal shifts and external change. We need to be able to have open conversations with others which draw from lived experience. As the Emotional Learning Cards compellingly illustrate, many contemporary artists focus on the kinds of themes which we’ve been discussing and their work provides a unique way in.
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.
Georgina Evans, Art Psychotherapist and Lecturer
Georgina Evans is an artist and qualified Art Therapist. Born in Nigeria and being of mixed heritage, Evans’ creative practice involves a process of self-enquiry, exploring ideas relating to how our identity is shaped by conscious and unconscious influences.
Evans has held several professional roles including working as Sessional Therapist for A Space in schools, Art Psychotherapist and Trauma Counsellor at Women and Girls Network, and Lecturer at University of Roehampton. She is adept at linking themes explored by therapists to those highlighted in PSHE lessons.
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