Calling for Better Curated Spaces for Knowledge Production

Compartmentalized Curatorial Strategy and The Hidden Curation

When we think about the notion of curating, a number of associations come to mind, most prominently, museums and exhibitions. Having become specialized (and therefore largely unexamined in most disciplines) within the field of art practice and display, it becomes of essential importance to address the curatorial strategy that exists in every strata of society, and how it is that this extremely creative (and often dangerous) practice of contextualisation plays into our absorption and understanding of the world.

Colonial Curation and Decolonization

In recent times, university students across South Africa and abroad have created activist spaces in order to address the urgent matter of the decolonization of our institutions, and of larger society. One focus of this activism has been in response to institutional education, and the fact that the information we are receiving (and the very fact that we are expected to ‘receive’ knowledge!!?) marginalises local knowledges, and is rooted in and reproduces a Eurocentric- colonial- approach. These arguments are well documented, and hugely fundamental in pushing forward to an education that reflects its learners’ experiences, and centres itself around achieving a collaborative and pliable critical consciousness that makes the reproduction of our current status quo impossible.

Common institutional response to the call to decolonize curricular is simply to insert Black writers into the curriculum, Black lecturers into positions of authority, and more Black students as learners in the space. Of course, these interventions are important, but we feel that what is not perhaps being addressed is the pervasive curatorial strategies at play within our education systems, that are far more difficult to articulate and pin down, but provide the lens through which we are able to experience and internalise knowledge…

What might help us here is to think toward a critique of colonial education’s hidden curation.

Critical pedagogues in the 1970s and 1980s such as Henry Giroux and many others developed and critiqued the notion of the hidden curriculum which, quite simply for our purposes here, refers to the ways in which power operates in coded and subtle ways to shape education spaces. This would include elements such as how a teaching space is physically arranged and how those within the classroom are expected to interact with one another. The notion of the hidden curriculum becomes useful because it insists on us recognising that learners are learning much more than what is in ‘the curriculum’ (which is often spoken about and understood to be nothing more than dead content that the teacher then deposits in the students empty heads).

Similarly, people are taught many things beyond the content of the curriculum. For example, in a mainstream South African school, you are taught that there are two sexes, a notion that conflates the designations ‘male’ and ‘female’, with ‘man’ and ‘woman’. The two ‘sexes’ must be separated for society to function properly. You are not necessarily explicitly taught this in class but when you stand in line to go to assembly or go to the toilet you are reminded, subconsciously, of this aspect of the hidden curriculum. You are conditioned to function ‘correctly’ in a heteronormative society. This aspect of the curriculum could be policed by oneself, the teacher or one’s peers and it has traumatic and devastating effects on many people especially people whose sex, sexuality, and/or gendered identity does not conform to heteronormative ideas about women and men. These notions, it must be acknowledged, are some of the most central to what is ‘hidden’ in curricular, for more than course content, these are the ideas that inform the way everyone is forced to navigate, or navigate around in society in general.

Another example that we could use to show how the status quo is reproduced through curating education spaces is in divisions of labour within a staff body at a suburban school – some people do manual work and maintain the physical upkeep of the school – ‘the cleaners’, some people do intellectual work – ‘the teachers’. This – the separation of manual and intellectual work – is assumed to be a natural division within the school setting and within society, and the hidden curriculum operates here to instil the myth that some people are not intellectual beings, therefore have different needs, and need and deserve less money than those of us who do ‘intellectual work’. At UCT, these divisions are designated too, and are representative again of society at large. Intellectual work chooses its daily demeanour, its daily dress code, its approach to studies and research, while manual work is controlled in the way it must do its work, the clothing it must wear, and how it conducts itself within the institution.

Perhaps these selected observations do not portray the largeness of what curatorial strategy entails. The hidden curriculum is hectic.

So what’s the hectic hidden curriculum; the multiple ways we are taught to internalise and reproduce the dominant social relations of society. What we are proposing here, is thinking about it rather as the hidden curation. Why? Because of how it is named, there is a way in which the hidden curriculum or, more importantly, the relations of power that hide it, can stay hidden. When we say there is a curriculum that is hidden one could assume that it operates of its own accord. That it is a faceless, impersonal force for which its functioning, no one can be held to account. However, if we insist that the hidden curriculum is in actual fact curated, that it is actively curated, we can develop a more grounded critique of the power relations that hide it.

By insisting on ‘curation’ rather than ‘curriculum’ as the hidden thing, we collapse the assumed separation between content and pedagogy: It is in the curation of education where they combine and operate. We are also able then to trash the absurd assumption that the hidden curriculum operates of its own accord. Check it out: when a philosophy lecturer at a South African university insists that first year students all have to learn Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, that they are the basis of a curriculum, they are making a very active, conscious curatorial decision to exclude philosophical thinkers such Oyeronke Oyewumi, Credo Mutwa and Rabindranath Tagore and of course many others. Not only this, but the way all aspects of the classroom/ lecture theatre play out, are in a constant dance with the dominant content, creating a context in which politics of the learning space play out. When Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, or Monet, Duchamp, and Pollock inform the origins of our knowledge, those for whom these thinkers play naturally into the discourse, or curation learned at home, feel free to answer and ask questions. For those who are forced into a paradigmatic shift by thinkers whose trajectory does not match theirs, there is silence and erasure. The curatorial strategy of education can be silencing.

Curation is political and it has a political actor – a curator, the designation of implies a position of power in relation to a particular space. In the above case, the philosophy lecturer who insists that all philosophical knowledge comes from Greece, is the curator – the political actor who must be held to account.

Colonialism complicates curation of a space. As we see with much of the art world, the adoption of the white cube has become the dominant way to display art. If we are to understand the context of the white cube, as ‘neutral’, then we have been fooled into the naturalization game of the colonial art context, that attempts to veil the long and violent discourse that has lead to our display strategies of today, and tells us that the context we are viewing art in is clean, and ‘unspoilt’. Ha! I (the T Gamedze) have written a little bit about the meaning that the context of the white cube gives to the content, or work of Black artists. The white cube is undermining, playing into a system of power- the art market- that is very much still owned by white buyers and sellers, consumed by a white audience and critiqued largely by white intellectuals. Herein, the work of Black artists becomes appropriated in such a way that it can be understood and consumed by whiteness itself, and functions therefore as a product that is representative of ‘diversity’, ‘transformation’, and other such liberal buzz words.

To draw the parallel, we seem to have been made to believe that formal education spaces operate in the same way and that ‘transformation’ as a strategy just seeks to put black writers onto the old white wall, and insert black learners and teachers into the white cube. We encounter an appropriation game, where the curatorial strategy of the learning space does not allow the knowledge to make it outside of the classroom into the places we are actually trying to learn about. We look upon what could potentially be useful knowledge but it circulates within its bounds, much like fine art in the art world.

Colonial curation is not only slowly violent but it is boring. It teaches knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and its style of dissemination and formation relies on its circulation only within other formal intellectual circles. While it welcomes institutional critique, it’s white-cubeness traps knowledge, and distinguishes between different types of knowledge, prizing one, and disregarding the rest. Perhaps one of the worst aspects of such curating is the fact that the knowledge selection process continues to choose to teach the knowledge of the ‘academic’, whilst erasing all other knowledge possibility within the classroom. If we understand people as, say, artworks, it becomes evident that every person is coloured and shaped by particular knowledge and experience, that would overall add to a pool of knowledge production more likely to provide inclusive context of both the classroom, and lived experience outside of the classroom.

If the university’s project is directed at knowledge production, it seems the responsibility of the institution is to cleverly curate and facilitate spaces that are accepting of all knowledges, and are simultaneously willing and able to be constantly reformed by this circulating, and ever expanding knowledge. So, while it is of course useful to insist upon learning work that has previously been marginalized by a colonial strategy, what might be of more use, when we think about ‘decolonising’ curricular, is in completely re-shaping the mechanisms for knowledge production, and being able to get rid of systems of learning that are formed on the basis that the reproduction of society is a legitimate goal. In this sense, what we would like to bring to the forefront of the conversation is the idea that all learning is curated, and the curator of learning is not ever to be mistaken as a neutral party.

Gamedze and gamEdze are great friends and siblings, interested in imagination as a central struggle for liberation.