We heard about the Anne Frank + You exhibition from artist Orly Orbach and so we decided to go along with a small group of African Diaspora Kids who wanted to learn more.
It brings Anne Frank’s voice firmly into the 21st century, and provides a platform for open dialogue on issues of prejudice and discrimination within our society today. The exhibition encourages fact-finding, reflection, and self-exploration. The Anne Frank Trust are using education to create a society safe from prejudice and discrimination.
"We are all living in a postcolonial world", one of my anthropology tutors recently remarked. Likewise, a museum curator from the Netherlands commented on how we are all implicated in postcolonial history. But the reality is that some of us live with our history more vividly than others, and confront it much earlier.
A couple of years ago I was invited by Grace Owen, founder and director of community organization African Diaspora Kids, to co-lead a workshop for Black History Month. Grace researched the content- African symbols that relate to different geographies, which I translated into a biscuit-making workshop, where children created and consumed these symbols, learning about their meaning through tactile and sensorial engagement with objects.
This was a learning and empowering experience, not just for the children, but for myself. Working alongside Grace, I became aware of the importance of teaching history in an embodied way. This is more than a useful pedagogic technique, “where bodies are seen as potent resources for learning” (Eileen Hooper-Greenhill 2007). It is also a way of producing certain kinds of knowledge, that should not be detached and objective, but deeply rooted in personal experience, and communicated through personal, embodied means.
This autumn I was invited by the Anne Frank Trust to create a participatory artwork as an extension of the exhibition Anne Frank + You. This seemed like a daunting task, especially since participatory art is usually conceptualized as a positive experience, and the work is linked to a very painful and difficult history. My way into creating the content was to re-read Anne Frank’s diary. I went to my local library, and asked where I could get hold of a copy.
“The Jewish interest section”, I was told. I found this truly depressing, as I imagined this book to be relevant to a broader audience. To my surprise, copies of her book popped up on different shelves, and as the only companion to a book about Queen Victoria in the children’s biography section. But this brought to light a reoccurring problem- how do we share these histories that have been divided and kept apart? Shouldn’t these histories belong to all of us? And how do we teach them to children?
The exhibition Anne Frank + You confronts themes of the Holocaust head on: prejudice, antisemitism, discrimination, racism. Historical and contemporary themes. And so I invited Grace to bring along a group of children, and presented the participatory artwork to them: a book-shelf installation compromising a series of prints based on Anne Frank’s writings. Using the technique of frottage, the children created their own rubbings of the artworks, discovering the content as they produced the images. Much like our earlier biscuit-making workshop, the activity was tactile and sensorial.
It required the physical efforts and willingness of the children to discover Anne Frank’s writings. The workshop was a way of activating, personalising, and pausing at moments of history together, in a way that makes learning history a memorable, shared experience.
In frottage, the artist takes a pastel or pencil to make a rubbing over an uneven surface of a printing plate. There is an element of chance and intention, and the active search for meaning. The drawing can be left as it is or used as the basis for further refinement. For me, this is currently a good metaphor for heritage-making. It is not about the reproduction of knowledge, but the choices you make of how to piece the past together, and how to make new connections.