Reflections on Teaching Art Across Cultures

Today’s guest post is by Todd Drake, a talented artist and facilitator of the“Re-entry: Using Art to Bridge the Study Abroad Experience” workshop offered through Melibee. Todd wrote this piece as he returned from a workshop in Dhahran. The invitation to teach abroad had come after his visit to Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the US State Department in May 2011. During both visits, he worked primarily with local Muslim women, to teach them photography and help them strengthen their visual voices.

Todd Drake with aspiring Saudi photographers.

A Woody Allen movie is playing on my satellite TV as I sit here and write in my Saudi hotel room. Erin Brockovich is coming on next. Earlier this week I took a coffee break with Mohammed and Miriam, my liberal Saudi friends. Mohammed had the new Galaxy Pad with him and filled me in on what was better about Google+  as compared to Facebook (circles.) Last night Mohammed took a shot of me talking to a male student, in the wings was a female student waiting to talk to me. He came up showing the photo on his LED screen saying “This is typical Saudi for you, a woman waiting to speak.” This clash of cultures, up to the minute modernity, together with practices brought along from a nomad’s tent, are what I find fills me with a sense of vertigo. (That and maybe the smelly crab I had last night with dinner.) I am meeting today with Mohammed’s family to discuss these same cultural issues. I have been asked to tape further interviews for possible use by “The Story “by Dick Gordon.  I am thinking of them as a kind of verbal self portrait.

Last night at the park, I was introduce to a handsome older man in traditional clothing. We sat and drank Arabic coffee together in a beautiful corner coffee shop. My students photographed us like paparazzi (their idea, not mine). I asked him what he was doing here at the summer festival and he said teaching story telling. Ha! I said that is what I am trying do with photography. Again, the mixing of old and new. We traded compliments and made peace signs for the photographers. He blessed me in Arabic, I him with a smile and hand shake, and we went on to see the Bedouin tent and falcons for more photo opportunities. In the tent, one of my students  (a women in full cover) asked for a photograph with me. We sat beneath the tent for a photo but she disappeared in the shadows. “Shucks”  she said. I noticed the good light was on the other side where two older men were seated. “They have the good light” I said. “Yes,” she said. “But we can’t ask them to move, they are men and old.” That sums up a lot things here. This society is filled with young, ever more educated men and women, while the strings of power are held by those who cannot be asked to move.

I am not sure what kinds of self portraits I will get from the women in my workshop. I gave them lots of ideas to consider that did not require showing their faces. We will see. It was interesting to see three times as many women at my workshop than men the second night. The women, in fact, filled their side of the room. I had three, maybe four, men on the other side. I pointed it out, ribbing the men for being shown up and watched one man blush as red as his head scarf.

Tonight, Donn Young comes in. I have sold his workshop and that of Zeeshawn (Bahraini photoshop professor) to everyone and hope they will be as warmly welcomed as I have been. One of the employees “handling me” commented that people were only disappointed that I was  staying for just three classes. I wanted to point out I was doing that only because they waited so long to book me that my calendar filled up, but I didn’t. “Maybe I can return,” was what I did say. I am willing to come back. I think the common language of art, and my comfort with teaching, makes these events so instantly comfortable for me. The eagerness of the students to learn is the greatest reward.  I hope the brief contact we have will give them something of value to think about. I know I am leaving with a wider vision of the world. The monolith that was Saudi Arabia has divided itself into as complex a tapestry as an Arabic carpet.

“Kick butt and take names” Erin Brockovich is coming on.  Bet some of my female  Saudi students are watching too.

About the Author: Todd Drake creates works of art that focus on building understanding between people both within the US and internationally. The US State Department has engaged Todd and his current exhibition to help build bridges between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Bahrain and to empower women in Saudi Arabia. He has authored and designed several books in collaboration with undocumented immigrants from Mexico to the United States. An experienced traveler and arts educator, Todd teaches studio art at the college level and was a 2004-2005 Rockefeller Fellow at the Center for Global Initiatives at UNC Chapel Hill. He is an artist in resident there and lives with his wife in the heartland of North Carolina.