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Identity lessons
Visual Arts Research. 40.1 (Summer 2014): p40+.
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What is your favorite food? What is your favorite game? What is your favorite sport? Your favorite hobby? Your favorite thing to do? What are you most proud of What do you Like best about your family? About your friends? About your school? About your country? ... Think of different groups you belong to: school, family, city I state I or national ... Create a mask that reflects an exaggerated identity based on what you listed.

The students, using the "big idea" of identity, collected digital images to create an artwork that represents their own identity.

To gain a better understanding of themselves, students will create a list often metaphors that represent what makes them who they are. They can be drawn from personality traits, hobbies, passions, goals, or other things that contribute to making them who they are. From the ten they've listed, they will choose two to incorporate into a cohesive composition. (1)

Identity is a recurring theme in art and visual culture education classrooms. In his development of the concept of "vernacular cosmopolitan," Homi Bhabha (1994) suggests that rooting identity in ethnic or national background is essentializing. It is not just ethnicity or nationality, but any elemental belonging.

Can this be? It's not that culture and cultural differences don't exist; indeed Bhabha talks about "cultures of survival" (1994, p. 247) among peoples who have been displaced or subjugated. The "right to narrate" is important in developing identity, but tied to national and communal identities (Bhabha, 1994, p. xx). This recognition suggests that identity is fed by the environment in which it exists. Bhabha writes about "the predicament of minoritarian 'belonging' as a problem of ontology--a question of belonging to a race, a gender, a class, a generation that becomes a kind of 'second nature,' a primordial identification, an inheritance of tradition, a naturalization of the problems of citizenship" (1994, p. xvii). While here he is talking about belonging to a nation, the implications are broader than citizenship alone.

Many people feel, or at least want to feel, that they belong to and identify with a group or groups. Nationality, ethnicity, gender, race, age, religious affiliation, and other "roots" represent a wealth of experiences and ways of knowing that are important to one's sense of self. Yet, locating identity in any one of these ignores the differences between individuals of those groups and within the individual who may identify with different groups at various junctures in his or her life.

Perhaps agency, as Bhabha suggests, is a better topic of study than identity. Agency positions a person to act on his or her world critically, and develops from intersubjective experiences. It is contingent, and not necessarily rational. Agency must develop from what he calls the "time-lag" between the occurrence of a sign, or when it appears, and its being understood ("its discursive eventuality," in Bhabha's terms, p. 263). In this time-lag, meaning and agency are negotiated, and understood as incomplete. This signals individuation itself "as a position that is an effect of the 'intersubjective': contiguous with the social and yet contingent, indeterminate, in relation to it" (p. 264). This concept of agency leads back to the vernacular cosmopolitan, involving "a political process that works towards the shared goals of democratic rule, rather than simply acknowledging already constituted 'marginal' political entities or identities" (p. xviii). Rather than think from a "minority" or "majority" perspective, rather than preserve cultural identities,

   the vernacular cosmopolitan takes the view that the commitment to a
   "right to difference in equality" as a process of constituting
   emergent groups and affiliations has less to do with the
   affirmation or authentication of origins and "identities," and more
   to do with political practices and ethical choices, (p. xvii)

Bhabha's idea of the "vernacular cosmopolitan" is more of a proposal, an aspiration, than the origins of the individual or of agency.

Aspiration and change are central to the development of how art and visual culture educators conceptualize what they teach, for acts of education are inevitably rooted in change. It is my contention that too many art lessons settle on the "identity" of the learner/participant, without exploring possibilities for variations, divergences, and migrations within an individual's identity and his or her interest in and ability to act on and with the world. Identity lessons fail to consider that identity is similar to musical styles; that, like music, it doesn't develop from one localized spring but from contact, from jamming together. Too often, "big ideas" behind art and visual culture lessons reinforce essential "belonging" and "primordial identifications" (Bhabha, 1994, p. xvii), or are focused on the individual discrete from the group. Too many lessons fail to talk across ways of being, across individual, cultural, and group variances, and fail to encourage "political practices and ethical choices" that ultimately guide who a person is and becomes.

Rather than push learners to a conclusion, to expressing their love of soccer and their brown hair, I'm suggesting teachers leave a space for a time-lag, that they not push students toward identifications, but rather explore what happens outside the sentence, outside syntax, outside the logical and sequential, that is indeterminate and even contingent. Placing ourselves, our learners, and learning itself at intersections of the narratives of a broad range of histories suggests the "vernacular cosmopolitan," the possibility of citizens who become border crossers (Garber, 1995) exploring margins of thought, possibility, and their participation in democratic rule.


Bhabha, H. K. (1994). The location of culture. London: Routledge.

Garber E. (1995).Teaching art in the context of culture: A study in the borderlands. Studies in Art Education, 36 (4), 218-232.


(1.) These are drawn from a sampling of lessons implemented by thesis and dissertation writers at different universities.

Elizabeth Garber

University of Arizona

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Garber, Elizabeth. "Identity lessons." Visual Arts Research, vol. 40, no. 1, 2014, p. 40+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 20 Nov. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A379198209