Eye-catching publication ignites discussion about racism, diversity and inclusivity at UH Mānoa
Last summer the Black Lives Matter movement spurred national debate and internal reflection among businesses, governments, and other institutions. The same was true for academic departments in the University of Hawaiʻi system.
"Why has the University of Hawaiʻi Art Department ignored a conversation that is on the mainstage of global art dialogue?"
That's the question posed by an informational newspaper released on Indigenous People's Day, Oct. 11. "Decolonize" is in large print, with text and graphics outlining avenues for change in the art department.
Listen to the extended story from The Aloha Friday Conversation on Oct. 29, 2021.
"I just didnʻt expect it would have this broad impact, especially across the student body, across disciplines, that it has been having," said 2020 MFA graduate Rebecca Goldschmidt.
Goldschmidt is one of the organizers behind the newspaper, which began last year as a letter from 25 recent graduates of the art department.
"We've had alumni reaching out to us just to say, 'I'm sorry that this hasn't changed.' We had someone from a class in the '80s say, 'This is the same stuff we were working on then!" Goldschmidt said.
Goldschmidt says the organizers want the art department to address a number of issues. Among them, getting a faculty that is not primarily white and Western, actively pursuing diversity and inclusivity, encouraging culture and gender sensitivity, making cross-disciplinary work easier within the UH system, and engaging more deeply with the wider community.
They also want to see clear processes for solving problems.
"One of the upsides of this conversation is that it has given us a starting point," said Chinese art historian Kate Lingley, chair of the UH Manoa Art Department.
She agrees department faculty have been struggling with those issues and others.
"What are concrete steps that we can stake to institute change now? One of the things that came up in the discussion Friday was that we can't change everything without first learning. So that is underway," Lingley said.
There is a resolution to pursue added anti-bias training, and to articulate values and ideals. There's a group looking into anti-bias teaching methods and critique practices, and how to expand cross-disciplinary study.
Lingley says one of the problems stems from a lack of staff. When she joined the art department in 2004, there were over 20 faculty members. Now there are 16, plus a gallery director, and all cover for support staff that have been lost.
"Budget cuts to Mānoa and the hiring freeze over the last few years have been a bit of a roadblock to substantive change. We're very disappointed, for example, that our Pacific art history position remains unfilled. Bringing in someone with that expertise would offer the opportunity to address some of the issues brought up in the letter," Lingley said.
Lingley says that when faculty leave a position for any reason, a new request and justification must be made for the position before any new hiring can take place.
According to Lingley, recent UH hires have occurred largely to satisfy accreditation requirements. Last year, the Mānoa budget committee proposed the art department stop accepting new art history graduate students.
"One of the things that distracted us last year was the proposal on the part of the Mānoa budget committee to stop accepting students for a time in our graduate program in art history. It seemed like it might be the first step in cancellation," she said.
Lingley points out that small programs in universities must continually justify their existence.
"Art is so often the canary in the coal mine when universities are cutting. People say, 'What use is it?' But since we're talking about social justice, let's talk about access to education as a social justice issue. UH students, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, deserve to have access to art, and to learning about art, and to practicing art. We want to keep these programs going because otherwise then the only people who get to study art are the people who can afford to go off-island."
The art department is facing budget cuts and possibly an existential crisis while trying to move forward. Lingley says any progress will take time.
"There are bigger problems about the way in which the university is funded and the way in which tuition dollars are allocated which are maybe bigger than this conversation, but it is possible that voices outside the university would speak louder," she told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
An art faculty member is looking into how a facilitated discussion between critics and art department faculty could work.
Simply as an art piece, the recent broadsheet deserves recognition. The word "Decolonize" is in large print, with text and graphics presenting arguments in surprising and persuasive ways.
Thad Higa designed the eight-page spread, which is also signed by C.F.T., who otherwise remains anonymous.
On an inside page, in red, Higa ran this line over and over: "I am constantly learning and unlearning my ideas of white supremacy and racism."
"What does it do to you to read that over and over? What does it mean to put in the work to that?" Higa asks.
Higa calls that the real question we all need to ask ourselves. The "Decolonize" newspaper does have people talking, at least, according to Goldschmidt.
"We've had current students say that in student housing they're gathering and meeting and talking about the issues. I've had people say students who are in ROTC were using some of the language and referring to the newspaper. Every other day we get a message or two that's 'Hey, I just saw this, or I just saw this poster or I picked up the newspaper, I had no idea,' and stuff like that," Goldschmidt said.
"And I think that's the most powerful thing that has done. It has tied together some of the issues that other people are thinking about in their departments, in their disciplines. What is it the university needs to make these kinds of changes? So that's the most powerful part about it."
Read the complete publication in the box below.