Before Wes Taylor and MK Abadoo could co-teach their new course—Dance, Design, and Community Justice—they wanted to get to know each other.
Both have creative practices that are rooted in collaboration. Taylor, a graphic design and Art Foundation professor, is a lead artist in the Detroit-based Complex Movements collective, while iCubed fellow and dance professor Abadoo choreographs performance works using the anti-racist values and principles of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, Angela’s Pulse and Urban Bush Women. They wanted the same spirit of partnership to shape their teaching.
“Individualism is a manifestation of the dominant racialized culture,” Abadoo says. “This idea that well-intentioned individual choices will bring the changes communities need actually undermines justice-making. It takes flocking; it takes collective wisdom to do the work.
“Even in teaching practice, the dominant practice of a singular teacher limits our capacities as educators to facilitate equitable learning environments. Equity and justice require partnership—in leadership, learning and followership.”
Before the semester began, Taylor and Abadoo met to dance, design and collage together, building a foundation for their class and an embodiment of the sharing process they hoped to implement with their students.
Bringing together dance and graphic design students, the course introduced principles of community building as creative and artistic practices, and discussed how to establish intentional partnerships with clear objectives. They fostered bold and compassionate dialogue about power dynamics, and developed shared structures for mitigating them. With further guidance from Free Egunfemi, a local historical strategist and founder of UntoldRVA, they pulled issues from Richmond’s past into the present through publications, movement and interactive installations, and made connections to the contemporary media landscape.
“The students started to understand just how effective facilitation is,” Taylor says, “and how that can be a powerful tool as an artist.”
As Taylor and Abadoo were creating space for dialogue about racism, another graphic design professor, Nontsikelelo Mutiti, was challenging students in her Research as Practice topics course to uncover the voices that are often missing in contemporary design.
The exploration led to As, Not For: Dethroning Our Absolutes, an exhibition curated by MICA faculty Jerome Harris featuring his research archiving the work of African American graphic designers from the last century. Students designed the space and the installation, which included works ranging from W.E.B. Du Bois’ data portraits to magazine ads and Spike Lee movie posters, alongside student dissections of contemporary design textbooks.
“As a queer, transgender and mixed Asian student,” says Rin Kim (BFA ’19), “this class helped educate me to other designers of color throughout the diaspora and gave me invaluable resources about designers within my own marginalized identities. I think my practice is a lot more mature [as a result]. There’s a new care and consideration of all aspects of cultural production and research evaluation.”
While As, Not For brought certain voices to light, Mutiti says it’s still limited to the perspectives of a single individual. She wants to see hundreds more of these projects initiated by faculty and students around the country.
“Works produced from a range of cultural contexts and time periods can be included in the discourse around graphic design,” she says. “We need a more holistic image of what’s going on in the world, especially in this moment, when we have the capacity to travel like never before. We can access archives, glean things from the Internet and work out of our own experience to reflect the reality of the rich cultural production that exists now and in the past. Yes, we are in this location, but this location and our community is a lot more complex and there are a lot more layers.”
Image: MK Abadoo performs a collaborative work created during her shared practice with Wes Taylor. Steven Casanova (BFA ’15), VCUarts Communications.