Re-Thinking Representation: Applying Paulo Freire’s Ideas to Memorials

August 31, 2013 at 10:04 pm Leave a comment

Detail of Ida Wells-Barnett plaque, Extra Mile: Points of Light Volunteer Pathway, Washington, D.C.

Detail of Ida Wells-Barnett plaque, Extra Mile: Points of Light Volunteer Pathway, Washington, D.C. Photo by author, 2010.

Lately I’ve been considering how Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed* can help me to study memorials.  The book isn’t about visual representation and it isn’t a typical source for art historians.  However, it is prominent in educational literature and many of the author’s thoughts apply to the contentious world of visual culture.  Freire (1921-1997), a Brazilian educator, argued that a restructured educational system rooted in collaboration, critical reflection paired with organized action, and real-world issues could empower people to fight social oppression.

Of his many important ideas, his perspectives about research have strengthened my interests in inclusive, participatory approaches.  Similar to his suggestion that teachers and students work in a dualistic manner (both groups instruct and learn as they critically assess problems), Freire proposes that researchers work as partners with people “who would normally be considered objects of that investigation.” (87)  He identifies these people as co-investigators and suggests that the researcher include their views in the evaluation process.  For Freire and sociologist Maria Edy Ferreira, the purpose of the research shouldn’t center on studying people.  Instead, researchers should seek to understand people’s situation or experiences in the world. (91)  To conduct research cooperatively, Freire encourages researchers to focus on understanding through sympathetic observation.  This approach forgoes dictating to the participants.

As I discussed in my previous post “Learning through Participation,” I employ collaborative, socially based methods for my study of lynching memorials.  One of my main challenges involves addressing current criticisms of therapeutic memorials (“victim memorials”).  In addition to considering the role of sentimentalization and art historian Kirk Savage’s useful historical discussion of “victim memorials,”* I believe Freire’s work will help me to reveal the political dimensions.  His attention to how oppressed groups can work together to improve their condition will help me to dismantle censures such as “Why are these people getting a monument? Why is their pain more important than the pain of someone else?”  Freire’s arguments could help to enrich memorial scholarship by identifying the assumptions of these perspectives.

References:

*Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin Books, 1993, 1970.
*Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 236-244.

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Entry filed under: Art, Art History, Memorials/Monuments. Tags: , , , , , .

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