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How Important is Cultural Inclusion in Art Education?

Inclusion is more than just a cultural buzzword in the arts, where self-expression by artists of diverse genders, racial backgrounds, and sexual orientations creates a rich tapestry of contemporary culture. A field with longstanding roots in self-expression and creativity, the arts provide a platform for a range of creatives to share their unique viewpoints by utilizing a variety of mediums. When approaching topics such as cultural inclusion, being firmly rooted in cultural sensitivity through art education can prove key. How does art education rely on inclusivity to reflect multiple viewpoints? How can art education improve access to the arts for those representing a variety of viewpoints and cultural backgrounds? How does this reciprocal relationship between inclusion and art education improve the experience of art-making for artists while also enhancing how art fans appreciate and understand contemporary art?

We touched base with recent Art Elevated contest winner, artist Carlos Wilfredo Encarnación, who also works as an art educator. Hailing from Puerto Rico, Encarnación is currently based in New York City. We touched base with him to learn more about how art education firmly rooted in inclusion and cultural sensitivity can enhance an artist’s practice. Reflecting on his own background, Encarnación recounts how during his childhood in Puerto Rico he wanted to explore a range of artistic abilities spanning from dancing to arts and crafts. For this artist, this urge toward self-expression took precedent over a sometimes restrictive home environment. “In terms of my personal identity, being a feminine, closeted boy in (this) environment, I felt…pressured to show myself as “manly” as possible, and this meant not being too artistic. Nevertheless, I always looked for a way to express myself.” This freedom to express oneself holds a singular importance in the art world, where an artist’s identity provides a means for wide and diverse audiences to engage with the artist’s work and directly learn from their struggles and hard-earned success.

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Diverse avenues of self-expression are key for artists

Considering one’s own culture after a physical or psychological separation from “home” can serve as turning point for artists of diverse backgrounds. Encarnación recounts the resulting shift in his artistic practice  in the wake of his move to New York City. “In 2010 I graduated and moved from Puerto Rico to New York City. That decision was what made a big shift in relation to what I wanted to create,” notes Encarnación. “It was clear for me that I needed to reconnect to Puerto Rico, and from that moment I started a deeper search of my identity. I took a look back at my heritage and my roots by focusing my research on the Taíno people and their cultural contributions, specifically on how those (contributions) have transcended time, colonization and geographic barriers.”

Yet representing diversity in the art world has not always been fashionable. With the New Museum, the Whitney Museum,  and Brooklyn Museum alike all focusing their attention on solo exhibits by women artists and artists of color in the past two years, it can feel as though inclusion was always inherent to the art world. Yet this relatively recent explosion of opportunities for artists of color and artists across the gender spectrum has shifted, not only the art market but also what and how artists’ identity facts into their artistic practice. For example, Encarnación realized the importance of diversity and inclusion in art education while studying in the MFA program at The City College of New York, CUNY.  “In my graduate years, I took a look back at my heritage roots by focusing my research on the Taíno people and their cultural contributions and how those have transcended time, colonization and geographic barriers,” Encarnación reflects of his time pursuing his MFA. Receiving a master’s degree recently (within the past five years), Encarnación has been fortunate to pursue a higher arts education in an environment conducive to exploring one’s personal identity within a larger sociopolitical framework. “I am still digging and working on (understanding) my relationship (to my identity,)” observes  Encarnación. “These effects (experienced due to) my identity as impacts nostalgia, memory and sexuality: these (factors) are all crucial to my artistic process.”

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Carlos Wilfredo Encarnacion, “Cabezuditos” sculpture series. Various sizes. Ceramics. 2018

Art Education and Inclusion

Incorporating inclusion and diversity into art education doesn’t have to wait until higher education, it can be instilled in budding artists from a young age along with a deeper understanding of an artist’s relationship to the world around them. Young artists in elementary school can engage with art-making that speaks to them on a personal level and incorporates a unique viewpoint. By teaching young students that it is crucial to consider a wider array of viewpoints outside of one’s own cultural perspective, while also acknowledging how one’s identity impacts how one engages with the world around them, teachers can instill students with the foundations of a successful and insightful creative practice. Encarnación, an art educator himself, notes of his work teaching that there are three tools that he encourages his students of varying ages and backgrounds to embrace: organization, flexibility, and reflection. “I try to teach my students to be organized.  It is always important to have some kind of structure and order, that way they will know what to expect and where to go for guidance. Flexibility, on the other hand, works as a reminder for students to welcome all possibilities, to collaborate, to explore and experiment. Lastly, I think that reflection is another important quality for my students to learn… by reflecting, they have the chance to see and recognize how much improvement they have made. It also helps to establish what else they can do to go beyond the expectations.”

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Art Education that embraces multiple viewpoints is pivotal to artistic success

In addition to allowing the chance to engender a better understanding of how one creates works as an artist, inclusion is key to ensuring the art world remains a diverse ecosystem of variety and experimentation. Certain cultures have engaged with specific artistic practices – such as fabric-based artworks and clay/ceramic art – for centuries, if not for millennia. By expanding art education to incorporate curricula that teaches world art history, as opposed to a more limited view of art history in the global West, emerging artists can better root their practice in legacies more meaningful to them personally. “Every element incorporated into my work is the result of the reflection of who I am and where I come from.  My brush is like a magnifying glass, and I am constantly looking everywhere, to better understand myself,” explains Encarnación. “Re-visiting my memories of time on the Island, these memories work as an immaterial experience manifesting through my work and practice.  Without a doubt, my practice is the place that informs what I do and how to do it.”

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Carlos Wilfredo Encarnación lives and works in New York, NY. In addition to his work as an artist and his role as an art educator, he also collaborates with ArTech, a non-profit arts center, for upcoming community projects and art exhibitions, and his work was featured in the Art Elevated contest, a collaboration between Artrepreneur and Garment District Alliance featuring artworks posted on banners throughout Manhattan’s Garment District through October 31, 2018. 

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Audra Lambert

Audra Lambert is an independent curator and art critic based in New York, NY. The founder of Antecedent Projects (2014), a sustainable urban curatorial consultancy investigating site-specific heritage, and is Editor-in-Chief, ANTE. Mag. Lambert manages ART360 by Orangenius, an immersive, 3-D art viewing experience, and serves as Managing Editor, Artrepreneur.

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