Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Wearing our Culture" project with the Waltham Family School

This semester my Engaged Anthropology course has been partnering with the Waltham Family School (WFS) in a project we are provisionally calling, "Wearing our Culture, Wearing Ourselves." The Waltham Family School is a family literacy initiative funded through the EvenStart program; about 35 new immigrant adult women, and at least one of their pre-K children are in school together, four mornings a week. (Three mornings a week they are in separate classes, and then on Fridays they come together for interactive literacy). We've worked with the WFS students and teachers in the past on various small projects, but this time around we decided to try something a little more ambitious. Inspired in part by Terry Turner's classic essay, "The Social Skin," we are working with the women as they document their memories of clothing items and as they expore the imaginative possibilities of clothing symbolism as they reflect on their hopes for themselves and their families.

This past Tuesday we met with the women and their teaches at the Rose Art Musem, to view and discuss contemporary art works in which clothing imagery is prominent. Among the works we discussed:
  • Chie Fueki's lovely "The Nature of How We See", based on an imaginary "super-hero" soccer uniform she made for herself (emerging out of her girlhood in Brazil, when she was not allowed to play soccer). [I have posted a video commentary on the painting, which is visible at the start of this post.]
  • Florine Stettheimer's elegiac "Music" (1920) featuring four stylishly dressed women grouped around a piano.
  • Yayoi Kusama, Blue Coat, 1965; a three dimensional work reportedly inspired by the artist's hallucinatory visions.
We heard wonderful readings of the paintings. One woman suggested that the four women in the Stettheimer were in fact one person, since hearing music calls forth multiple aspects of onself.

We then shared children's book in which clothing objects feature prominently and talked about short stories we might write.

At the end of the morning visit, we gathered on the staircase and made pastel drawings inspired by what we had seen. One women drew the dress her grandmother had drawn the day she died; these colors to this day always remind her of her beloved grandmother.

We're feeling our way forward with the women to see how this project will develop. Tenatively, we forsee a collaboratively authored book featuring art and text by the women (and perhaps the Brandeis students) exploring memories associated with garments as well as imaginary clothing, as well as short stories on clothing themes. We'll report on the project at our upcoming symposium on the Pedagogy of the Imagination to be held on April 1 at the Rose.

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