As appearing in SOURCE
Over the summer three Colorado State University faculty members took a group of students to South Africa to help preserve the art, history and customs of an indigenous community.
David Riep, assistant professor in CSU’s Department of Art and Art History, spent about five years with the South Sotho people while he was doing his graduate work; his doctoral dissertation was on the art of the region.
He decided to go back for a month with 13 students to take on a variety of projects.
Joining him was Associate Professor Patrick Fahey of the CSU art department and Constance DeVereaux, associate professor and director of the LEAP Institute for the Arts, a special academic unit at CSU that offers a master’s and undergraduate minor degree in arts leadership and administration. The students going on the trip were from LEAP and the fields of art and art education.
For Riep, chronicling the culture of the indigenous community became a passion after he and his wife traveled to the country for a friend’s wedding — and ended up staying for two years, working for a nongovernmental organization dedicated to helping the homeless and disabled.
“I wanted to learn about the art and art history of South Sotho people, and there wasn’t a book about this,” Riep said. “It didn’t exist.”
He’s been working to document their art-making processes ever since, and now he’s involved CSU students in the effort. Their trip, which took place form June to July, involved two courses: one on art history and a LEAP class about arts collaboration and community engagement.
Saving a museum
In one of the main initiatives, the team worked on a plan for restoring and improving a small museum atop a mountain in the area of QwaQwa that had been vandalized several years ago. The museum lacked proper environmental controls to protect historical pieces from external threats like light and bugs, so part of the CSU team’s work was to make recommendations on how to improve the facility’s ability to preserve cultural artifacts in a sustainable manner.
Riep said the museum is significant in part because it is the site of an annual “reinvesting” event in which the members of a local South Sotho clan recite the oral history of how they migrated to the area in the mid-1800s.
Goals for the museum included re-establishing it as a place for local schoolchildren to learn about their cultural history and making it a source of income for the impoverished community, where nearly 90 percent of the population is unemployed.
“That’s what makes it special to me, working with communities that don’t have enough resources,” Riep said.
The CSU students also met with local artists to document how various objects are made, including pottery, tapestries, beadwork, grass weaving and murals. In return, they taught the artists professional development and entrepreneurship skills like interviewing and resume writing.
“It’s not a one-way exchange,” Riep said.
The students also participated in local craft fairs, where set up stations for members of the public to make their own art and take it home.
Finally, they helped assess a new “Africa Meets Africa” curriculum being used in select public schools. It uses the history and art of local indigenous communities to teach fields like math, science and astronomy. The CSU team conducted an evaluation of how the teachers were using the curriculum and developed new materials that used indigenous mural paintings to teach geometry and beadwork design to understand algebra.
The students were also invited to teach art in an orphanage, a center for the disabled, and public schools, which typically don’t include art in the curriculum.
“The opportunity to teach in both schools and civic venues was a great opportunity for the art education students in the group,” Fahey said.
The students blogged regularly on their CSU Meets Africa website and posted on Instagram (@CSUmeetsAfrica) about their experiences, which included meeting with the clan’s king.
Riep said he hopes to make it a recurring trip, perhaps working with other clans in the area in the future.
A transformative experience
It was not DeVereaux’s first time to South Africa either.
In 2008 she worked with the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria and Tshwane Municipal Authority to form strategies for incorporating arts and culture into community planning. Since then she has worked with that university to develop master’s and bachelor’s degrees in arts policy and management. “We envision our experience in South Africa to be transformative for both our students and the community we work with,” she said. “The students brought skills they’ve already learned at CSU, but applied them in ways that they might never have imagined. They were enriched by the arts and culture of the artists and community members we worked with.”
Riep added that the relationships he forged with indigenous people during his previous visits to South Africa gave him special access to their customs that is rare for non-Africans.
“This was a way for me to show my gratitude,” Riep said. “I wanted to try to give back however I could. Telling them that their history is important to me and others is one of the main things that opened doors for me.”
College of Liberal Arts Dean Ann Gill and Professor Gary Voss, chair of the Department of Art and Art History, provided funding for the supplies that were used to teach art at the schools and other venues in South Africa.