Asian Art Therapists
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Asian Art Therapists

Navigating Art, Diversity, and Culture

Megu Kitazawa, Megu Kitazawa

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eBook - ePub

Asian Art Therapists

Navigating Art, Diversity, and Culture

Megu Kitazawa, Megu Kitazawa

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About This Book

This book explores Asian art therapist experiences in a predominantly white professional field, challenging readers with visceral, racial, and personalized stories that may push them far beyond their comfort zone.

Drawing from the expertise and practices of Asian art therapists from around the world, this unique text navigates how minority status can affect training and clinical practice in relation to clients, co-workers, and peers. It describes how Asian pioneers have broken therapeutic and racial rules to accommodate patient needs and improve clinical skills and illustrates how the reader can examine and disseminate their own biases. Authors share how they make their own path—by becoming aware of the connection between their lives and circumstances—and how they liberate themselves and those who seek their services.

This informative resource for art therapy students and professionals offers non-Asian readers a glimpse at personal and clinical experiences in the White-dominant profession while detailing how Asian art therapists can lead race-based discussions with empathy to become more competent therapists and educators in an increasingly diversifying world.

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1History Matters

Stories about Identity, Culture, and Art Therapy
Jayashree George
Psychology exhorts us to “Know Thyself.” Underlying notions of self-knowledge, the necessity of self-reflection undergirds theoretical concepts such as transference, countertransference, and projective identification whose relevance is found beyond their origins in psychoanalysis. Self-knowledge is also a cornerstone of ethical practice. It is in the spirit of such a reflective practice that I present stories about identity, culture, and art therapy as a cis-gender, South Asian, female family art therapist-educator.
“Is my art Indian?” I asked, during my first semester in the art therapy program in the United States. I had asked the rhetorical question out loud when I was in the company of my friend, who was White, as I mused about my art products. It sounded nonsensical. My question/concern was embedded in the context of all that I had just experienced in my studies over the past 5 years in Fine Arts in India. My friend responded, “Look at yourself in the mirror.” It was awfully glib—“If you are from ____ (India), your art must be ______(Indian) as well.” There was a context to my question, and it seemed misplaced in the context of the United States. It is this context that underlies my identity as it was shaped in India before it encountered further re-shaping in the United States. The rest of this chapter is an unpacking of these contexts.
When I was 15, I had my debut performance in Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance, at the House of Soviet Culture in Mumbai, India. About three quarters of the way through the performance, I remember being on stage, seated alongside the two chief guests for the event. In their speeches, I heard them both talk about “India's hoary culture,” and I wondered, “What does ‘hoary’ mean?” I made a mental note to look it up after the performance. But even more, I wondered, “I know I am a dancer and I am Indian, I have learned Indian dance. That's a part of our culture. But, what does culture really mean? They have said the word ‘culture’ so many times! What IS Indian culture?” At 15, I did not realize how much I had been swimming in culture, that only getting out of it could help me articulate to myself what culture in all its layered meanings could represent for me. The rest of this chapter will elucidate these layers. By the way, I looked up the word “hoary”—in short, it means “ancient,” “venerable,” and it is a reference to grayish-white or silvery hair, referring to a person's advancing years. I decided that “ancient” and “venerable” were apt descriptions.
Barely 3 years later, at 18, I was standing in line, struggling to get admission into college. I had good grades. There was no reason to not get in, or so I thought. I had moved from one Southern State in India to another. Suddenly, my being Brahmin, one of the upper-caste groups in India where casteism is practiced with fervor even today, was a problem. India had made a decision to have quotas for lower-caste individuals, who had historically been oppressed, in order to level the playing field for all. This point was lost on me. All I knew at my young age was that I did not get accepted and I felt elbowed out of the way by the quota system.
The vigor of caste-based discrimination in India, despite laws prohibiting it, and the fervor of Brahmins (upper-caste individuals) feeling victimized by the laws, is only matched by White supremacy in the United States. In Mumbai, in Western India, it was different than in Chennai, in Southern India. I had felt relatively removed from caste-based consciousness in Mumbai, while in Chennai, I was thrust into the thick of it. I felt a lot of self-pity and righteous indignation. In 2019, news about the college admissions scandal broke in the United States where ultra-rich parents had invented all sorts of ways to get their children into high-profile schools because they felt that affirmative action had precluded access for their children (Taylor, 2019). There appeared to be no difference between my lack of caste consciousness so many years ago and the current elitism of the ultra-rich: one was caste-based supremacy or being “too Brahmin,” the other was classist, or being “too rich,” and where classism exists alongside racism. I had come into contact with the caste aspect of my identity and the unearned privileges I had inherited even as I was blind to these inheritances. Caste is part and parcel of Hindu culture even as laws forbid it. In fact, I remember going to a meeting at the Theosophical Society, a venerated place in Chennai that had been avant-garde in its time for its support of Indian independence from British rule. The leaders discussed how Brahmins were now being victimized, a dominant narrative that marks Indian politics today. This is not unlike the contemporary narrative in the United States of “the-war-on-Christmas” and saving “Real-America” for “real-Americans” which is code for preserving White supremacy, including preservation of Christianity, which goes against the core of “e pluribus unum” (out of many, one), the motto of the United States.
History matters. It informs the things we do in ways that feel “normal,” or “natural,” and makes us perform in automaticity, more than one would like to admit. For example, the story of my opportunity to learn dance could be told in two ways. In the first narrative, I could say, “I did not realize that my opportunity to learn dance was a part of reformation in post-colonial India where the ravages of colonialism had, on the one hand, killed the feudal patronage of the arts, especially dance and the performing arts, which were caste-specific. On the other hand, the British rule did attempt to put an end to casteism, but the British lived their class-saturated lives, equivocating about equality.” This might be seen as a colonial retelling. Another way to tell the same story using Sreebitha's (2014) analysis is thus: “I did not realize that my opportunity to learn dance came as a result of the appropriation of sadir, a devadasi (lower caste) dance form, that was appropriated by upper-caste women to be taught to upper-caste women while they ‘destroyed the very art forms they have borrowed from’ (Sreebitha, 2014, p. 7).” Even as the British were trying to end casteism, reformation was being dictated by oppressor to the oppressed. And, it is also true that there was caste oppression within the Indians, a practice that dated back centuries. The second narrative problematizes what one might have taken for granted in the aforementioned colonial retelling. I was learning that culture is, in part, tied to place, its history, and the ways people sorted themselves by creating socially dominant methods for the sorting. Thereby, the products of culture are practiced in ways that may or may not be obvious in terms of their historical roots. The irony of my learning dance was that my first teacher was a Muslim woman, who was married to a Sindhi, and who learned a Hindu dance form that was appropriated from sadir, by an upper-caste woman, Rukmini Devi Arundale, who was married to a White, British man.
To some extent I was able to answer the questions I had for myself about Indian culture by studying Indian art history as a part of my education in Fine Arts in undergraduate and graduate studies. I finally began to understand the intricate connections between literature, music, dance, and sculpture in Hindu South India. It took leaving India for me to encounter Indian culture and historical heritage in ways I couldn't quite fathom while I was immersed in the ocean that is Indian culture. Even as I write this, I wonder, which Indian culture? Hindu culture? Brahmanical culture? Middle-class culture in South India? Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say, “my Indian culture” which is Brahmin, middle-class, Southern, urban, mixed a little bit with Catholic traditions from being in Jesuit institutions for the entirety of my education. And this means that I have no authority to speak for any other Indian on the basis of caste, religion, community, geographical location, or indigenous heritage, for India is an extremely diverse people.
Five years after art school in Southern India, I found myself in the United States, studying art therapy. In art school in India, while we were studying modern Indian art in the late eighties, we were told to inquire about what was Indian art. Traditional Indian art had fallen into disuse during British rule (including the rise of the East India company) that lasted from the mid-eighteenth century until 1947. The British period was governed by a legacy of watered-down neo-classical art that had primacy over traditional Indian art that was seen as “primitive,” “vulgar,” or otherwise savage. Revival of Indian art from the 1920s focused on the question of defining Indian art. Was it traditional, as in pre-British? Was aping the West not Indian? Did the themes have to be Indian? Was art that was classical not as important as art that dealt with the urgency of social issues that needed representation? Even more fundamental was the question, “What constitutes our voice as Indians, especially after being colonized for over 200 years?”
During British times, traditional Indian art was seen as inferior by the British. In fact, just recently, an exhibition of “Company Paintings” at the Wallace Collection in London, curated by William Dalrymple, was reviewed by Verma (2020):
Paintings commissioned by patrons of the East India Company during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries … focuses on artists who were previously neglected …. It seems remarkable that work of such brilliance has been neglected—but their labelling means they've been caught in limbo, as Dalrymple tells BBC Culture, “They're toxic to both India and Britain—to India they're not Indian enough, they reek of colonialism, and for Britain there's an embarrassment around Empire. After the collapse of Empire, the British put this thing in a trunk in the attic and forgot about it.”
Therefore, when I shared my concern during my first semester in the graduate art therapy program in the United States, “Is my art Indian?” it referred to all this history and being out of context, it sounded like nonsense! In the early years, I was cast as decidedly “Indian” in America. I was not my localized identity but subsumed under all-of-India. I realized later that I was trying to convey to my friend that I had been steeped in an identity struggle in India on account of my identity as an artist and that the struggle was about post-colonial identity. I hadn't even begun to think about my identity as an Indian in the United States. I was nowhere close to my re-definition as “Indian-American” or “South-Asian-American.” Nor had I really begun to unpack my Brahmin identity and its ramifications.
To this day, when I paint, I am self-conscious about my artistic style and technique: how much of it harks back to tradition, of which I was never really a part, except by osmosis, and how much of it is Western, on account of my education? And, it hits hard when I take my work to a gallery and hear a comment like, “It's too ethnic. It won't sell.” I also hear comments from fellow Indians who say, “That's cute,” when my art is decidedly Indian. In this identity it is hard to win—either I am not Western enough, therefore ethnic, or too Indian even for Indians. Examples of this are two pieces of artwork, Figures 1.1 to 1.3. And then, I am faced with how much of me is Indian, in terms of ethnicity and how much of me is American as I negotiate my hyphenated existence as Indian American. All three paintings deal with activism to agitate against the poaching of elephants in Asia and Africa.
Figure 1.1
Figure 1.1Shree Ganeshaya Dhimahi. Acrylic on canvas by Jayashree George.
Figure 1.2
Figure 1.2Under Ganesha's gaze. Mixed media by Jayashree George.
Figure 1.3
Figure 1.3The detail of Under Ganesha's Gaze by Jayashree George.
In considering identity, I found that there are two meanings of it, among various others, that are prevalent in the world of mental health. One meaning has to do with a generic one that may have more to do with one's role or experience of a state, for example, “I am a parent,” “I am a mother of a child with autism,” “I am depressed,” and the like. The other meaning has to do with societally conferred identities, such as race/ethnicity, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, class, etc. It is the latter that I wish to describe. Some authors (Rowe et al., 1994; Sue & Sue, 2008) have suggested that there is a trajectory of minority identity development that moves from unitary identification with one's racial group and ends with a bi- or multi-cultural identity where the individual maintains identity with one's racial/ethnic group and also enjoys an easy relationship with the dominant racial/ethnic group. The key appears to be movement from conflict to harmony and this highlights the acculturation process that values harmony over conflict.
In my experience, I had my identity consolidated before I left India, even as I struggled with the constituent elements of it. When I came to the United States, I found no need to acculturate in the method laid out by the racial and cultural identity development (R/CID) models. I neither flocked to solely South-Asian saturated groups, even as these were available to me quite readily, nor did I disavow South-Asian groups. I did not experience the yearning of wanting to fit in. I was never quite enamored of the United States and moved only because of familial pressure. The American dream was alive for my siblings but seemed nonsensical to me. When I finally decided to stay, it was for pragmatic reasons. I found that my exploration of the differences and similarities in the power structures of Indian and US societies helped me articulate to myself the values by which I would live. Perhaps my facility with language cushioned my acculturation process; however, I am not convinced that a harmonious co-existence with the dominant culture is necessary. What I think might be more valuable is to have critical thinking such that there is greater bandwidth among dominant and non-dominant groups to be able to deal with conflict and difference. Conflict is not necessarily synonymous with disharmony. Harmony that fords conflict is hard won and might actually create stronger bonds as a result of being able to withstand truth telling.
George et al. (2005) write that it is much easier to identify ourselves as victims rather than as oppressors. It is in such examination that we may consider racial and ethnic identity models. In particular, Shin (2015) critiques the R/CID models. While noting their significant contribution and early intent to destabilize universal models of identity, he also notes that these models have fallen into the same canon of universalizing all racial and ethnic identities into one trajectory toward “healthy integration, which includes the acceptance of one's racial/ethnic background as well as a respect for the cultural norms of other groups” (Shin, 2015, pp. 12–13). The hint of assimilationist ideas in the form of “Let's all get along together” seems to hover in the framework. Missing are the jagged trajectories of development in the contexts of Native American genocide, slavery, or the various immigrant contexts, which, Shin says, “leads to implicit pathologizing of the diverse range of life trajectories experienced by individuals” (p. 16) and delegitimizes their justifiable anger. Shin takes pains to clarify the usefulness of the models while also critiquing them and offers an example of one such misuse by a fellow professor during a discussion about a student, noting his place in his ethnic identity development.
Sue and Sue (2008) cite critiques of White racial identity development models, which similarly flow from a state of naivete toward a state of “autonomy” (Helms, 1995) or “integration” (Rowe et al., 1994; Sue & Sue, 2008). Noting the languaging in the end states of each model, we hear familiar refrains of “comfort,” “recognition,” and a “getting-along-togetherness” that hint toward assimilation (subtext: minorities are digestible) and...

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