Review: “Teaching Culture”

Review: “Teaching Culture”

By Sam Calhoun

The second panel, “Teaching Culture: Insider, Outsider, and In-between,” was held on July 1st, 2021 via Zoom and streamed over Facebook Live. It focused on the inherent difficulties that come from teaching cultural traditions, as one needs to teach both a skill set and a cultural context to people with varying understandings of the culture. In that same vein, it touched upon the challenges that come from teaching and performing cultural arts for a living in the United States. The panel encouraged the audience to think more broadly about where they fall in any community and what they can do to give back to it. The panelists included: Kormassah Bobo, a renowned performer of African dance and cultural ambassador for her homeland of Liberia; Alex Shaw, a percussionist, composer, producer, and teacher specializing in Afro-Brazilian musical traditions; Anthony Mendez, a musical director and percussionist of Puerto Rican Bomba and Plena music; and Putu Tangkas Adi Hiranmayena, an artist and music scholar who has been performing contemporary Indonesian music since the age of three. Dr. Brenda Dixon Gottschild, a performer, teacher, and emeritus professor at Temple University moderated the panel. 


A consistent theme touched upon was how often the general public fails to appreciate all facets of the artist’s experience. “I think it’s very important that people understand the work that goes behind us as teaching artists—those who are sharing their cultures with anyone, really,” said Anthony Mendez. For him, it was not just an art form, but a part of his livelihood: “We live it. We breathe it. It’s with us daily.” Mendez did not always have that strong cultural connection but had to actively learn it. In his opinion, the difficulty in teaching an outside student stems from the need to find that same background and connection. For someone not born into it, it takes years of careful practice to embody it.


Finding this passion and connection is key for outside students. Alex Shaw was born in the US and had to find a connection to Afro-Brazilian culture for himself through immersion in their way of life and traditions, through a desire to be educated correctly by teachers from the culture. For him, this “integrity,” as he called it, is a core value of art, especially for a non-native practitioner. “It’s a responsibility,” he said, “that comes with my privilege of having access to this information, these communities, and building my relationships with them.” In Shaw’s mind, for a non-native practitioner like himself, good intentions are not enough. It’s crucial for students and teachers alike to discuss their place within a cultural lineage. He would call this a reciprocal relationship, one built upon what you are willing to do to help the community. When to step up, and when to make space for others.
For those born into a cultural practice, like artist Kormassah Bobo, the greatest concern often stems from disrespect and others not valuing the amount of work that goes into their art form. During the panel, Kormossah would describe events she was hired for where her employers would ignore fairly basic concerns: places to change, what she was to do after her performance, or how she would get home. Some would even try to haggle her asking price. This led to her biggest concern regarding cultural appropriation and her artform: “My work, you may like it, but you don’t respect or value it.” In her view, this is an issue best solved through empathy and education.


There is a commoditization that comes with performing for a living, one that can be incompatible with practitioners and their art forms. A case especially true for minority groups living in the United States. Dr. Brenda Dixon Gottschild highlighted this fact by discussing how the American artistic community requires things to be packaged for sale. She has written extensively on African American influences on dance in the United States, as well as the exclusion of Black people from it, citing the controversy surrounding Black ballerinas in American ballet. She called this commercialization of art to be one the most difficult parts for teachers to overcome, particularly for those born outside the United States. Maintaining artistic integrity while balancing a need for income can then be a constant challenge.


Unfortunately, there is not one correct answer for the problems of commercialization and appropriation. Artist Putu Tangkas Adi Hiranmayena described cultures in terms of a mold—they reflect specific contexts and communities and cannot perfectly apply somewhere else. Certain aspects might align, but never the whole. This is why he feels as though being malleable is important. He went on to describe a concept in Bali, translating to “time, situation, and context,” meaning that you will find yourself in a different time, place, and context and one should adjust themself accordingly. Before he spoke, he played an Indonesian Gamelan-style rendition of a western heavy-metal song, performed by a majority outsider orchestra that he had taught. In Hiranmayena’s approach, there is a beauty in how loose cultural definitions come to reflect specific contexts and communities. 


As the panel drew to a close, the general takeaway was: teaching cultural artforms requires adaptability, discussion with your students, and artistic integrity. Becoming an artist, particularly for an artform one has no cultural connection to, requires discussion of one’s own privilege and where one fits in. It requires us to think about our place within a community, what we are giving back to it, and what we can do to ensure its longevity. We, as students, must honor where traditions come from and learn what it means to hold space within them. These relationships are nuanced. You have to know when it is time to lead, to advocate, and when to step back and let others hold space. We must all continue to learn and discuss these issues as well as recognize that we may not always make the right decisions. What is important is that we see this as a process, one that requires constant learning, reverence, humility, and respect for one another.