The Making of Meaning
Bringing together applied psychoanalytic thinking and the visual arts to support emotional and mental wellbeing
About the article
The Making of Meaning published in Engage magazine features contributors from A Space, Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva), and the Opossum Federation of Schools & Educational Consultancy. The article uses the A Space and Iniva emotional learning cards to explore questions such as ‘What is “the self” and how is it formed? In what ways does it change over time? How does our experience of our worlds within and without influence our relationships with others and vice versa?’.
‘What is “the self” and how is it formed? In what ways does it change over time? How does our experience of our worlds within and without influence our relationships with others and vice versa?‘ These are questions which apply and resonate in some form or another for all of us. Since 2004, Iniva (the Institute of International Visual Arts) and A Space,an arts and therapies project, have explored these themes through the visual arts. Working together as Iniva Creative Learning, we publish a unique resource for children and young people, Emotional Learning Cards, which we use to deliver artist-in-schools projects and CPD workshops for gallery educators and therapists.
Each of our boxed sets of Emotional Learning Cards highlight specific themes designed to facilitate a better understanding of what makes us who we are and how we make sense of our experiences, bringing together the artwork of international contemporary artists with therapeutic commentary and questions. We move beyond commonly explored subjects by branching into discussion relating to difference, diversity, outsider / insider experiences, and how past histories (both personal and collective) shape the present. Using art as a starting point, the cards help facilitators and educators open up difficult conversations on challenging feelings, and complex family or cultural experiences. By openly exploring less talked about feelings and thoughts engendered by the artworks, we re-frame them as common to the human family, to be shared and thought about rather than labelled as embarrassing or shameful and denied or hidden away.
The silhouette of a Buddha is filled with Disney-style stickers, raising ideas about ‘East versus West’ and mixed heritage.
Our boxed set of twenty Emotional Learning Cards entitled What do you Feel? includes Gonkar Gyatso’s mixed media artwork The Buddha in our Times. The silhouette of a Buddha is filled with Disney-style stickers, raising ideas about ‘East versus West’ and mixed heritage. The commentary on this card also looks at the mental ‘stickers’ or ‘self-representations’ we carry in our minds, comprising many different experiences and influences, often dating back to childhood, and how these shape our identity whether we are aware of it or not. The subject of how our image of self is constructed and re-configured over time, ties in with an image by Juan Pablo Echeverri from our second set of Emotional Learning Cards, Who are you? Where are you going?
The subject of how our image of self is constructed and re-configured over time, ties in with an image by Juan Pablo Echeverri from our second set of Emotional Learning Cards, Who are you? Where are you going?
Echeverri’s series of photobooth self portraits entitled miss fotojapon plays with this idea. A simple art task can be introduced using Gyatso’s Buddha and Echeverri’s concept as a starting point. Whether working in a group or an individual setting, basic outlines of figures in varying sizes can be provided or made in the session. Young workshop participants can be invited to select a few figure-shapes and fill them in with words or questions, collages, drawn or painted images and stickers which represent different parts of themselves as well as past, present and future selves. It is helpful to make a ‘word bank’ available comprising words, phrases and questions relating to self representation such as ‘Who are we now? Who have we been and who are we becoming? How do family relationships and expectations shape identity? Should gender influence how we see ourselves? What does it mean to have a mixed heritage?‘ The end results can be mounted on foam board and displayed on a wall or framed to resemble Gyatso’s work. This easily accessible art task opens up a multitude of possibilities for exploring different identities as well as thinking about ‘self-talk’, that is, the ‘messages’ we give ourselves about ourselves, weaving in the idea of challenging negative self-talk and replacing it with a more balanced picture.
This art piece provides a way into thinking about who we let into our lives and who we keep out as well as the opposite – our experiences of being included or excluded.Shiraz Bayjoo
Bani Abidi’s photograph Intercommunication Devices in our Emotional Learning Card set How do we live well with others? documents intercoms commonly found on housing blocks or gated properties. This art piece provides a way into thinking about who we let into our lives and who we keep out as well as the opposite – our experiences of being included or excluded. This can take the discussion into how we perceive our own differences and those of others. An art task can be set, focusing on photographing mobile phones or downloading images of them, printing them on paper and adding in ‘text messages’ with questions or statements related to identity such as ‘What gives us a sense of belonging? What unites us? What separates us? What makes differences interesting? Who are we drawn to – are they similar to us or different?‘ etc.
Alternatively you can look at images of ancient clay cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia which represent a very early form of writing and create an art task based on making clay ‘mobile phones’ with text messages inscribed, perhaps featuring symbols or words. The clay tablets can be A4 size for ease of working and then photographed together in a grid to replicate Bani Abidi’s image. Or mobile phones can be made from papier mache and messages typed up, printed and collaged onto the papier mache ‘screen’. Again, you can make available ‘word banks’ on the theme of belonging and not belonging so that your participants or clients have a starting point. These word banks can be basic or more sophisticated depending on the level at which your sessions are pitched and the age group you are working with. Word banks are included at the end of all of our worksheets packs which are free to download on our website www.iniva.org.
Emotional Learning Cards in action
Using the Emotional Learning Cards as a point of departure, Iniva Creative Learning has developed an innovative artist and therapist in schools programme called ArtLab. ArtLab workshops deliver curriculum requirements for Key Stage 2 during the school term and have been created in partnership with Opossum Federation, which comprises three London primary schools and an international not-for-profit educational consultancy service run by Executive Head Teacher Prue Barnes-Kemp. Our aim is to use Opossum schools as a ‘laboratory’ to pilot different art tasks and approaches to emotional learning. From this we create resources which are made available for free via A Space and www.iniva.org. Artist Shiraz Bayjoo and A Space family therapist Camilla Waldburg have co-delivered a number of our ArtLab projects, drawing on themes running through our series of Emotional Learning Cards. Here all three are in conversation with A Space Director Lyn French, discussing ArtLab and the value of emotional learning through the arts.
Lyn French (LF): Shiraz, together we’ve designed ArtLab projects using Iniva Creative Learning’s Emotional Learning Cards. As well as leading whole-class initiatives on the theme of life values and their roots, you’ve supported primary school Art Leaders in making some arresting images which explore related themes.
Shiraz Bayjoo: I think we can do without the explanation as you have explained in the biogs and in the preceding paragraph: One of the starting points for all of my projects with young people is to introduce the notion of visual language to students, opening up conversation on how art can convey our sense of the world and communicate complex ideas and emotions. The Emotional Learning Cards provide a strong and diverse set of images that allow students to explore how different artworks might trigger particular feelings and ask questions of what is employed in each image to affect such a response. How can colours, forms, or symbols change the way we feel and ultimately convey an idea or message? This process teaches students to look closely and interpret their associations to, and feelings about, different images, and gain confidence in their ability to understand art, their own emotions, and their own making abilities.
This process teaches students to look closely and interpret their associations to, and feelings about, different images, and gain confidence in their ability to understand art, their own emotions, and their own making abilities.Shiraz Bayjoo
In the A-Z of Values ArtLab which I completed earlier in the year with classes of Key Stage 2 pupils at Newport and Dawlish schools in Leyton, the cards provided a good introduction to exploring the four British values of democracy; rule of law, freedom of speech, and respect and tolerance (now a compulsory part of the curriculum). Students were invited to select images from the Emotional Learning Cards set A-Z of Emotions set and assign a card to one of the values. They were asked to present a rationale for their choice, describing the feelings it evoked and explaining how the image expresses their understanding of the value. My own contribution to this set included ‘Insecure’,which features an archive image of a manatee, a breed of sea cow now facing extinction. The manatee is pictured on its own, its place in the world a vulnerable one, symbolising how we can feel if we are not shown respect and tolerance for who we are. The layered watercolour washes create an emotionally charged space which highlights how lost and lonely we can feel if we don’t have a community around us giving us a sense of belonging. Other works of my own which I showed the pupils included a similarly painted background within which I’d positioned an archival lithograph reflecting colonial histories and their impact.
Using key elements from my art practice, students participating in the ArtLab workshop series explored how colours and forms can create different emotional spaces that can be used to express different ideas, and in this case a range of values.Shiraz Bayjoo
Using key elements from my art practice, students participating in the ArtLab workshop series explored how colours and forms can create different emotional spaces that can be used to express different ideas, and in this case a range of values. The works were complemented with collage layers of symbols that students sourced from art books, newspapers and the Internet. In the pictured work, the value ‘Justice for All’ is illustrated. The student contrasts strong uses of colour with subtle brush marks, which enables a transition across an emotional field, moving from one of tension to a more relaxed peaceful centre. The symbols provide a narrative that allows the audience to read across the work and to interpret the value featured.
LF: Camilla, tell us about your role in emotional learning workshops using art as a vehicle for reflection and exploration.
Camilla Waldburg: I’m interested in how life values and emotional understanding have their roots in our experiences in our family. How we see our family, and how we imagine we’re seen by others play a significant role in our self-belief and in the way in which we engage with others. Tolerance and respect are vital in making both families and communities work regardless of race, culture or class. To encourage discussion about this, Shiraz Bayjoo and I have used Yinka Shonibare’s image from Emotional Learning Cards set What do you Feel? Shonibare’s piece features four fabric figures made to look like stereotypical aliens. It is called ‘Dysfunctional Family’ (1999), a title which brings up all sorts of associations. One way you could read it is as illustrating how easily we can fall into labelling lifestyles or even people as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’. Yet, there is nothing about the family in Shonibare’s work that suggests dysfunction – you could say that they are being described like this simply because of how they look.
Shirin Neshat’s photograph ‘Bonding’, of a woman’s hands inked with intricate patterns gently cradling a small child’s. It captures the way in which nurturing relationships are the foundation for cultivating tolerance and respect.Camilla Waldburg
I also like to use the card with Shirin Neshat’s photograph ‘Bonding’, of a woman’s hands inked with intricate patterns gently cradling a small child’s. It captures the way in which nurturing relationships are the foundation for cultivating tolerance and respect.
LF: Prue, as an Executive Head you have a seminal role in ensuring that emotional learning and the arts are embedded in the schools across your Federation and in the educational consultancy work you carry out. How do our Emotional Learning Cards contribute to this?
Prue Barnes-Kemp:The majority of my work here in the UK and internationally focuses on supporting educational leaders in mixed urban communities. The Emotional Learning Cards stand out for many reasons. First of all, they feature culturally diverse artists, which is vitally important; the whole school community needs to see themselves represented in the artwork we use to bring learning alive. The cards also explore themes which are absolutely central to creating cohesive communities and to living with difference. We’ve commissioned ArtLab workshop programmes from Iniva such as the A to Z of Emotions and the A to Z of Values which have helped teachers as well as pupils to look at key aspects of relationships and emotional life from different perspectives.
The Opossum Federation has also commissioned the Emotional Learning Card set A-Z of Leadership. As an Executive Head with the responsibility for training and supporting the next generation of senior leaders, I wanted a set of cards that would offer a creative way into discussing various topics and could be used time and again to explore a range of leadership themes and issues that emerge within our working lives. Effective dialogue and communication are essential for leadership success. These cards facilitate discussion in a unique and powerful way. Whenever I use them, they open up new levels of reflection and engagement. They now take centre stage in all of my seminar programmes here and abroad.
Art educators and creative therapists share a commitment to cultivating the skills that we all need in order to make sense of our emotions and our life experiences. This includes not just being able to name feelings, regulate emotions and recover from setbacks but to better understand how we relate to others. This naturally encompasses ideas of who we are and how our roles in life are shaped by social and family histories, political agendas and belief systems. The experience of difference in general will always be in the mix. In addition, the conscious and unconscious legacies of colonisation and slavery often make their mark, affecting what we perceive as our place in the world. Developing the capacity to think about ‘self’ and ‘other’, and how our differences boost our esteem or the opposite – erode it – ties in with the main objectives outlined in the NHS publication launched in March 2015 entitled Future in mind: Promoting, protecting and improving our children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing which sets targets to be met by 2020. The report makes a compelling case for on-going emotional learning. A sign of good mental health is the ability to tell our life story ‘as it is’, ups and downs included, with appropriate emotion and coherency and to be able to learn from experience. ‘Mentalisation’, which is a core component of meaning making, encompasses being able to stand back and observe ourselves and to ‘think about our thinking’ as well as having the capacity to imagine how someone else thinks or feels or what motivates the behaviour of others. This is at the root of compassion and empathy and is essential for developing higher level social and relational skills. Our Emotional Learning Cards support art educators and creative therapists in achieving these goals.
All sets of Emotional Learning Cards are available to buy online at www.iniva.org
Future in mind: Promoting, protecting and improving our children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing March 2015 This report by the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Taskforce was commissioned by the Department of Health. https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/children-and-young-peoples-mental-health-and-well-being-taskforce
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.
Shiraz Bayjoo, Artist
Shiraz Bayjoo is an artist whose work is shown internationally. He has undertaken a number of Iniva/A Space commissions delivering projects in schools alongside an A Space therapist. Shiraz is interested in ideas of nationhood and the exploration of identity and histories through using photographs, texts and artefacts stored in public and personal archives. His work explores complex colonial histories and relationships, enquiring into the challenge of ‘authoring’ nationhood or collective identity in the post-colonial world. www.shirazbayjoo.com
Camila Waldburg, Family Therapist
Camilla Waldburg is an A Space family therapist. She has worked on a number of Iniva/ A Space projects and contributed to our most recent set of Emotional Learning Cards, What do relationships mean to you? She is also a guest lecturer at the University of Roehampton.
Prue Barnes-Kemp, Executive Head Teacher
Prue Barnes-Kemp is an Executive Head Teacher responsible for Opossum Federation of Primary Schools & Educational Consultancy. She is also the Director of Essex County Council’s Virtual Leadership Academy. Prue speaks internationally and consults world-wide on the challenges facing leaders working in urban settings. Most recently she was a presenter at the 2016 International Conference in Australia entitledBuilding Practice Excellence: Creating a High Performance Learning Culture. Prue and Opossum have worked for the last four years in Chile after presenting at theInternational Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement discussing Leadership of Place and the importance of context in diverse communities. Prue is currently working on supporting and training aspiring and established school leaders across the UK and abroad. www.opossum.org
About engage Journal
Established in 1989 as the National Association for Gallery Education, engage is the membership organisation representing gallery and visual art education professionals in the UK and over 20 countries worldwide. As the UK’s most effective support and advocacy organisation for gallery education, we work through our members to promote access to and enjoyment of the visual arts.
First published in 1996, the engage Journal is the international journal of visual art and gallery education. Now a twice-yearly online publication, the contents of each edition follow themes linked to the visual arts and education, chosen through an open-submission process. The Journal supports engage’s mission to promote access to, enjoyment and understanding of the visual arts through gallery education. The Journal acts as a snapshot of current thinking on a subject, a repository of references, a source of practical ideas, and a forum for exchange between different parts of the art and museum and gallery community.The engage Journal features articles by academics, artists, researchers, curators, policymakers and gallery educators. The journal is available to read online by engage members and subscribers.