The children's excited voices lead you to a tiny classroom in the basement of Yokohama Yamate Chinese School, which is comprised of kindergarten and first through ninth grades. This classroom could never be described as tidy. Instead it is filled with all kinds of chaotic materials. Actually, this messiness represents Mrs Wang Jie Zi's teaching philosophy: 'It's important to keep the room like this so that the students are not afraid of making a mess!' This is where the kids' creativity explodes. Mrs Wang continues, 'I want the kids to learn how to work from their own ideas. It's a survival skill in today's society.'
Mrs Wang's art class sometimes takes field trips into the world outside. The most publicly noted program she has organized is probably the collaboration with the curators of Yokohama Triennale 2005. Called the Kid Curators' Tour, a voluntary group of her elementary and junior high-school students led tours for general visitors around the Triennale. Instead of overloading the kids with background information about the works on display, Mrs Wang encouraged them to pick their favorite works and describe what they saw and felt. Through trial and error the kid curators developed unique ways to talk about artworks in public. After giving a few tours, the children's personal responses were developed into questions about the artists' motivations and their intentions behind the works.
Among the many works in the Yokohama Triennale, it was the work by Kenyan/German artist Ingrid Mwangi (today a.k.a IngridMwangiRobertHutter) that seemed to grab the hearts of most children. Titled Splayed (2004), the three-channel video installation showed the artist carving words into her forearms with a scalpel. In contrast to this painful act, the artist's face, as seen in one of the three monitors, was surprisingly calm. It was probably the physical sensation that the kids were able to relate to, and they began to wonder about the disparity between the imagined pain in the forearms and the passivity of Ingrid Mwangi's emotionless face. What's happening to the woman in the work?
It is two years since the Yokohama Triennale and, learning that Mwangi was returning to Japan for a symposium Artists Summit, Kyoto, and for the exhibition 'GOTH' at Yokohama Museum of Art, Mrs Wang sent the artist a letter from the kid curators, hoping she would be interested in meeting the students. She certainly was. On 8 December, Mwangi visited an art class of 8th graders in the basement of the Yokohama Yamate Chinese School.
A program for the two-hour workshop was carefully planned out by the students — from greeting the artist with a traditional Chinese lion dance to farewell flowers and singing traditional songs. To start the workshop, the students asked Mwangi politely in three languages — Japanese, Chinese and English — to give them a short speech. The artist paused for a second, stood up and began walking around the classroom to greet each student with improvised body movements. This totally broke the ice. 'See, you can use your body to communicate!'
The students had prepared questions for her: 'Where are you from?' ; 'Have you been to China?' ; 'For you, what does it mean to be an artist?' Mwangi carefully answered every question and at last said, 'an artist listens, feels, and watches carefully.' The students also asked Mwangi to teach them a game that she used to play as a child, and in exchange they showed her a typical Japanese field game. There was much playing, smiling and singing. The students had dreamed of meeting this artist for the past two years and enjoyed sharing the day with her.
After the workshop, while having lunch in Mrs Wang's classroom, Mwangi said to Mrs Wang, smiling, that she would not recommend that the students become artists because it's difficult to make a living as an artist. But the children at this school are learning the skill of careful observation, which will help the children in a larger way. This is a radical shift in Japan's art education. These students are not being taught to passively follow a teacher's instructions while drawing a realistic picture, but instead to critically see and develop their own voices. Many artistic possibilities are being explored in Mrs Wang's tiny art classroom.
- Sat, 1 Mar 2008