Questioning Frameworks

Influenced by the educational ideas of Tagore, Bose, Bruner, and other similar-minded scholars, and inspired by the culturally specific uses of plant motifs in Indian street art and design practices, I launched a botanical art department in 2014 at the college where I teach. Seeking to engage students with the immense botanical presence within these practices, I used a rangoli image on the front page of the department’s website page (see image below). Rangavali, or rangoli, is a general term for various floor art practices seen outside residential homes in streets across different regions in India, where drawings are traditionally made by hand and often decorated with coloured powder, flowers, and leaves. 

However, I was shortly asked to remove the rangoli photograph by colleagues. They said that rangoli was not ‘botanical art’. This is because the image had deviated entirely from conventional understandings of botanical art practice. Even though plants are used aesthetically in rangoli designs, these floor art practices could not be considered instances of botanical art as they did not incorporate realistic plant portrayals (Sachdev 2019). 

I took down the rangoli image from the website page, but started to question the normative framework for botanical art practice in the context of India’s visual culture. This incident triggered my search for a pedagogical basis by which to approach floor art, and other similar forms of ritual and folk art and craft through which I had encountered plant imagery, as forms of botanical art practice. 


Pedagogy as Artistic Practice

Creating a pedagogic form is both my artistic and my research practice. I investigate ideas through the process of designing learning experiences and I test and refine concepts as I teach. Pedagogy is my art practice and the teaching experiences I design are thus my form. Influenced by the pedagogic ideals of John Dewey, these forms are shaped according to my ideas about what makes them aesthetic. Dewey (1934: 47) theorised that the impact of educative experiences is stronger when they include aesthetic encounters.

I believe that the experience of beauty, or the aesthetic in a pedagogic form, arises in interactions between teacher and students. This resonates with principles of relational aesthetics, an approach described by Bourriaud (2002: 113) as ‘a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space’. In citing Guattari’s question ‘How do you render a school class as an artwork?’ (102), Bourriaud poses the final problem of aesthetics – that of its use. Artistic practice in Bourriaud’s view always concerns a relationship with the other, while simultaneously representing a relationship with the world.

Giving students equal opportunities to relate to subject matter is one of the ways in which I try to achieve the aesthetic dimension while teaching. The aim is so that students are given a chance to access what is being taught on the basis of their learning preferences. Gardner, in his popular multiple intelligence theory (1983, 1999), suggested that individuals have different ways, or a combinations of ways, of relating to the world. He proposed eight different types of intelligence that influenced preferred ways of learning, namely, verbal, logical, visual, kinaesthetic, rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist. He encouraged educators to use a variety of techniques, tools, and modes of presentation that addressed multiple learning preferences, as this would ensure students the opportunity to choose the ones that suited them best. 

Thus, in order to make class content equally accessible to all learners, content and subject matter need to be presented through a democracy of experiences – be it the reading experience, a kinaesthetic performative experience, or an acoustic or visual experience. When we teach about a material or facilitate learning through it, we need to enable explorations with the material in different ways and through all sensual registers. We need to touch material, sense it, hear it, if possible, ingest it, waste it – these possibilities are all part of art-making. Providing learners multiple opportunities to relate to subject matter is thus critical to my pedagogy. This plurality – one that characterizes the field of art especially – comprises a specific aesthetic dimension that I value within pedagogic forms.    

Multiliteracy and Modes of Learning

The educational concepts of multiple literacies and multimodality are also relevant to pedagogical design that is inclusive of diverse learners’ preferences. Multiliteracies acknowledge that novel ways of textual interaction have emerged due to new multimedia technologies as well as the prevalence of diverse languages and discourses within an increasingly globalised educational context. The New London Group (1996, 2000) put forth the idea of a multiliteracy pedagogy, asking educators to incorporate multimodal learning resources in order to address learners’ multiliteracies. Particularly in light of the affordances of new technologies, multimodality refers to the rendering of meanings through combinations of varying modes such as image, sound, music, voice, body, language, etc. A multiliteracies pedagogy offers a breadth of modes through which a diverse learner group can make meaning of subject matter. These include written and oral language, and visual, audio, tactile, gestural, and spatial representation (Cope and Kalantzis 2015; New London Group 1996).

Gertrude Stein’s passage below (cited in Tomkins 1995: 4), poetically elucidates an acknowledgement of individuals’ varying learning preferences and modes of knowing:

 ‘It is not uncommon that two individuals, both very sociophilic, may be incapable of a sustained social relationship because of varying investments in one or another type of interpersonal interaction. Thus, you may crave much body contact and silent communion and I wish talk. You wish to stare deeply into my eyes, but I achieve intimacy only in the dark in sexual embrace. You wish to be fed and cared for, and I wish to exhibit myself and be looked at. You wish to be hugged and to have your skin rubbed, and I wish to reveal myself only by discussing my philosophy of life. You wish to reveal yourself through your view of the nature of man, but I can externalize myself only through communicating my passion for the steel and tape of a computer that almost thinks like a man. You wish to communicate your most personal feelings about me, but I can achieve social intimacy only through a commonly shared high opinion about the merits of something quite impersonal, such as particular theory or branch of knowledge or an automobile.’

The starting point for a person could be a material such as paper, or a mode such as video, or even an issue or concern. An experience of delight or enchantment, beginning with a visual, tactile, or intellectual encounter often then leads to a further depth of engagement. In aiming to provide equal opportunities to students, I also try to draw on their local and cultural frames of reference as these are easy for all learners to access – such as street art in the case of this research – a tendency that is testimony to the influence of critical pedagogy scholars such as Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux, who like Bruner and Tagore, emphasised that subject matter in teaching should relate to learners’ environmental and cultural surroundings. 


Imagining Possibilities

O’Donoghue (2020) invites reflections by scholars on their orientations, dispositions, and research stances in order learn about their values, beliefs, perceptions, and curiosities. He cites Mary Ann Stankiewicz’s views (188) that certain questions, ideas, and curiosities define the contours of a field from moment to moment, and the production and circulation of work within the field becomes the material for others to consult, respond to, be guided by, refuse, or depart from. He acknowledges that it is the types of projects that scholars enquire into, invest time in, and debate that shape what can be imagined for the field. Although this research originated in my curiosity about cultural differences in the mental processes by which a learner makes something visually available, or in their cognitive imaging processes that lead them to create an appearance (Florentini 2013; Feagin 1987), it is in encountering the evolution of rangoli and its translations with diverse media that I discovered the pedagogical value of this floor art practice. I saw it portrayed through real flowers, as stylized floral drawings, printed on vinyl stickers, and as coloured light projections on floors. Thus, while the cognitive basis for a learner’s culturally-influenced representational approaches has strong pedagogical implications, especially for art and design, this essay’s focus lies on aspects related to the use of diverse materials and the contemporary adaptations of this traditional floor art ritual – it is in questioning and debating these aspects that I was led towards a wider imagination of what botanical art practice could entail.