Culture Clash: Why Gilda Edwards’ Africa-Inspired Art Didn’t Wash at Alpine Elementary School

Originally published in November 1996, few of the stories that I wrote for the Columbus Guardian received more letters to the editor than this one. We were still hearing from arts leaders around the country more than a month later, at the time that the
newspaper was sold to CM Media and promptly extinguished. 

Alpine Elementary School students scribbled wishes on paper in early October, asking teachers and parents to help them write phrases like “world peace,” and “to fly like an angel.” They talked about items belonging to loved ones who had died, which had meaning to them. They were to bring to these things to school the following week to attach to their newest art project, called “Mojos.” The small bags were to be worn as necklaces, decorated with personal objects that the children were to scavenger-hunt for: Photographs of favorite things, scraps from favorite clothes that they had outgrown, or a piece of a broken toy.

African in origin, and brought to North America with slavery, “Mojo” is an informal word the artist in residence chose to represent “Minkisi.” It is considered to be a type of medicine in African culture, which could come in the form of herbs worn around the neck, a soothing song – anything that can be used for healing or “making things better.” In the delicate and energetic environment of children, the Mojos were to hold a wish inside them and present a new way for the kids to communicate who they were to the outside world.

Artist Gilda Edwards had been hired with PTA funds to teach a residency at the Columbus Public School – one day a week for six weeks – as the elementary’s first artist to work in “found object” sculpture. Four days after she gave a her first presentation about her work and helped the children to begin making their necklaces, she was called by the art teacher and told not to return to the school.

On the first and only day of Edwards’ residency, a handout explaining the nature of the project and asking for parents’ help in finding the materials was sent home with the children. It seems that several parents had come in, called, or written letters to the school to complain about the Mojos, accusing Edwards of teaching “witchcraft” or “voodoo” to their children.

She has been paid for the time she spent on the school grounds, but not for the remaining days of her unfinished residency. The school has also agreed to pay her for her preparation time. But Edwards, a 41-year-old artist who has spent a great part of her career teaching schoolchildren, felt that the experience sullied her reputation. During her multiple exhibits around the country, and her residencies in schools, churches, and arts centers, she had never had anyone respond to her work in that fashion. She was offered no opportunity to refute the accusations and has no idea what the children or other parents were told about her sudden absence.

Edwards penned a letter to the school’s principal, asking those questions and defending her work.

“My art form is an interpretation of my culture, the culture of people of African descent, and I have done extensive research on the subject,” she wrote. “There is an abundance of scholarly material written about the African Americans have interpreted ‘African Art’ objects… I think we are doing a disservice to everyone in not explaining the true nature of these objects.

“I think my artistic integrity and reputation are being compromised… First, it is being compromised [by] the parents who… don’t understand the history of African American culture, my work, or what the proposed project is about. This project is not an evil thing. This project is no different than ‘dream catchers,’ ‘ojo di dijod,’ putting lost teeth under the pillow for the tooth fairy, leprechauns, etc. It all depends on the consciousness of one’s perspective.”

Several days later, the principal, Lois Arend, responded to Edwards. Arend feels the letter makes her case for the decision.

“I made that decision based on prudence and administrative judgment in relationship to court-established tests for academic freedom,” Arend wrote. “At no other time have I experienced the outcry of parental concern that came to me after your initial visit. In listening to those concerns the issue became the common good of the school over individual rights. For whatever reasons, it appears to me that the religious implications of this project overshadowed its cultural intent.

“If better communication could have avoided this controversy, I must accept responsibility for my own complacency. In retrospect, my more intensive involvement in the planning process might have allowed me to anticipate and prevent misinterpretations.”

Ultimately, Arend says, “there is a disagreement between Ms. Edwards and I as to what the issue here is.” While Edwards says that the decision smacks of censorship, Arend says that “the issue is maintaining a harmonious school environment. I am in no way doubting [Edwards’] credibility, and in no way would I ever attempt to suggest that she would not have the right to speak or use her art form in any way she wants to.”

It is a school principal’s job to act as the V-chip, or information filter, for the school environment. Alpine had no policy to deal with the situation because it was unprecedented and different from the district’s procedure when, say, a library book is called into question, because the residency was funded by the PTA. Arend says there is the possibility that a policy will now be created. Arend will not say how many parents actually complained, but adds that “there were enough parents complaining that I felt I needed to take action – enough to create disharmony, and that’s the issue to me.”

But it begs the question of how many students might have benefited from or wanted the program versus the number of mothers and fathers who objected to Edwards’ project.

Edwards takes allegations of witchcraft and impinging on the separation of education and religion very seriously. While she has been able to communicate with Arend about her frustration, she has not been able to confront her accusers directly.

“I think that they just didn’t know my work,” says Edwards. “The principal didn’t come to [my] presentation so she didn’t know how to defend me. I suppose that’s why she decided not to.”

Outside of the letters and a few phone calls, the issue of whether Edward was unfairly censored or not has not been formally addressed by the artist, school or school district. It has not been discussed at PTA meetings, or taken up with the Board of Education.

In September, Edwards had conversations and meetings with art teacher Carol Cruickshank to discuss her project proposal and her fee. At first, Edwards had just planned to create a found object “Buddy” sculpture in the school library, where children could each attach a small item to plywood painted black, with beads and buttons filling the gaps to give the feeling of a mosaic. Because there was the possibility that every child in the school could not participate in the sculpture project, Edwards came up with Mojos as a second option. The bags are present in all of her found object sculptures, which are deeply entrenched in African art and tradition. (See sidebar: “Out of Africa: The Origins of Edwards’ Art.“)

Yet, like an actor or any artist with a spry imagination, she pictures herself in the role of a person in Africa’s Congo or Yoruba culture – who often created art for functional or ritual purposes – as a creative exercise. She even knows things about Voodoo, which has its own non-harmful, deeply American history, although most people know it only from Hollywood films that depict it as evil. She is not a practitioner of any of the aforementioned spiritual practices, but a student of them. They are a part of her own cultural history, which she embraces. They give her the inspiration many of us find when we look intensely at our own backgrounds, and the values of our ancestors.

“I just feel sorry that I have to de-mystify myself,” she says.

A few days before her arrival to teach at Alpine, Edwards had submitted the handout on the two projects to Cruickshank, who, with the principal made some minor revisions. The finalized sheet said things like “Although Mojos are of African origin, all cultures have ‘objects of power’ for luck, healing, and protection. Maybe you can find others. Ask your parents for help.”

It even invited children to attach an object that represented their family religion. But it also suggested that kids bring a little bit of their own hair or fingernail clippings to use in the project and says “to activate our Mojo we will write our wish on a piece of paper and seal it inside… To add our own personal power to the Mojo we will attach objects that have special meanings to us.”

Although she can’t be sure, because she has only been able to speculate on what distressed the parents in the community, Edwards feels that those two things are what spurred them.

“In hindsight I can see why the hand-out is disturbing to some people. I put my trust in the principal. I thought she knew the community,” she says. “I wanted kids to look at things in a different way. You would never think that you could use hair in art. I thought that when you use it that way, t becomes a part of you.”

Parent and PTA member Patricia Burleigh was at the school the day that Edwards gave her presentation. She called Edwards a few days after the project was canceled to apologize and discuss the situation.

“I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, but at the same time I guess I just feel like something needs to be done one way or another,” says Burleigh, adding that she feels the situation is not yet resolved. “When the kids were making the Mojos, they were stuffing them with cotton, and one of the teachers asked Gilda ‘what’s the cotton for?’ She said that it was actually because slaves picked cotton. I felt that there was a real lesson that could be learned by making these and experiencing something from someone else’s background. I didn’t view it in any way, shape, or form as witchcraft. I felt it was no different than putting your tooth under your pillow for the tooth fairy, or carrying around a lucky charm… I don’t understand why people would just say this person is a witch. We should sit down and talk about it first.”

People for the American Way – the organization that tracks censorship in education and the arts – points out that books are often pulled from library shelves because schools have no policy to follow when a title is called into question, just as Alpine Elementary had no policy for concerns surrounding Edward’s residency.

The Ohio Arts Council coordinates 100 residencies around the state through its Arts in Education Program. Several mechanisms are in place to keep possible conflicts out in the open when an artist begins working with any given community. “Some art is very challenging, and not all of it is pleasant, so it’s always up to the educators as well as the artist to find a common ground for understanding,” says Joanne Eubanks, associate coordinator of the Arts in Education program.

In the OAC’s program, before an artist begins working in a school, he/she meets with community representatives that may include school administrators, parents and teachers to discuss the project. If, for any reason, the artist is to be removed from the site, he or she must be provided with a hearing to defend allegations of misconduct or objectionable content.

In her ten years of working with residencies, Eubanks has only seen two instances when the content of an artist’s work became controversial. “Both of these were really resolved,” she says. “It was a matter of parents not having enough information about the artist.”

While Edwards has not worked for OAC’s residency program, she has been honored several times by its competitive individual artists’ grants, professional development assistance awards and a residency at the prestigious Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California. She has also been chosen to create the awards to be given to recipients of the annual Governor’s Awards in 1997. Ken Emrick, the Individual Artist Coordinator or the OAC, has worked with Edwards many times over the years.

“Out of all the artists that I work with, Gilda is one of the most communicative,” he says. “She is well connected with her community and very aware of what’s going on in the arts. Artists tend to work in areas that have unique content – and Gilda has thoroughly researched and explored hers. If anybody could sit down and talk to a PTA to explain her work, she could.”

But that opportunity has yet to arise, because Edwards has been cut off from the parents and children at Alpine Elementary.

“If I was trying to convert the kids into anything, it was to make them a bunch of little collectors, really. To keep things that might become special to them and that they might find a use for later,” she says. “I think the bottom line is that they were afraid of the unknown.”

This story is © Tracy Zollinger Turner, it cannot be
reprinted without her express, written permission

A version of this story originally appeared in the
Columbus Guardian
newspaper on November 7, 1996.

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