A Message from NSEAD President Marlene Wylie

In this message (originally published in AD Issue 36), Marlene talks of her journey though art education and her hopes for her term of office.

NSEAD was formed in 1888, and approximately ten years later HRH Edward Prince of Wales (later to become King Edward VII) became Honorary President and then its Patron. With this in mind, I ask myself, what does it mean for me to be President of NSEAD 2023? 

This profound question is one I hope to make a response to, in part through my ongoing reflections of lived experience and professional journeying as an artist, designer, educator and consultant. 

Twenty-five years ago, at the start of my teaching career, it would not have crossed my mind that I would consider responding to the call to serve as president of an organisation so rich in art education history, and one I regard as the pinnacle of art education expertise and professionalism. 

As a child of the British Empire, a child of the Windrush generation and 135 years since NSEAD’s conception, I/we now live and work in an entirely different reality – a diverse society of post-colonial complexities, sensitivities and very different expectations. 

My sense of self, like most of us, is complicated. The threads of migration, colonialism, minoritisation and assimilation are sewn intricately into the very fabric of my being and are made manifest in my work. My passion for the visual arts has always been, in my view, an integral part of my life and a means by which I could be acknowledged and validated. Through the lens of intersectionality, in my case class, race and gender, many of us might also be able to identify with the realities and struggle of pursuing that which gives life and joy. 

As I grow in knowledge and understanding, unpicking and reforming patchwork pieces of life, I am in awe of what my beloved parents wrestled with in their journey to create a life of opportunity for me and for my siblings. It was and still is complicated and challenging to pursue a professional life in the creative world and, with this acute awareness that my parents, all those years ago, were deeply concerned for my future and wellbeing, particularly as a result of their own experience of life between two islands. 

I had the ultimate experience of expressing my profound gratitude to my elderly Jamaican parents for their permission and support to pursue that which has given me a rich life, despite the overwhelming odds, at a visit to the seminal Life Between Islands exhibition (Tate Britain, 2022). Never had we visited an internationally renowned art gallery space where people who looked like us filled the space and were being acknowledged and celebrated. 

I am deeply grateful, not only to my parents, but also to the committed teachers, lecturers, friends and colleagues in my life who, over the years, have been part of my journey and who invariably went the extra mile with me. How deeply grateful I am that, despite many odds, I can testify to divine intervention and the power of community. To have achieved what for me has been self-actualisation is truly borne out of the spirit of Ubuntu, an ancient Bantu word meaning ‘humanity to others’. I have often seen Ubuntu used to remind us of the concept that ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’. How true in relation to what NSEAD stands for and what I have experienced. 

I make this reference because I believe my presidency is a manifestation of many years of collaboration, rich fellowship, support and encouragement, as well as high-quality communal professional development through rich conversation and dialogue. ‘Belonging’ to the NSEAD membership body has provided me with life-long friendships and colleagues that I admire, not only for their professionalism, expertise and goodwill, but for their humanity. I am a passionate advocate of our community because it does indeed enable, promote, connect and protect in the truest sense. 

My professional practice would not be what it is as an art educator and consultant without the work of NSEAD. Over the past 25 years of membership (on reflection just over half of my lived experience) has been touched in the main by the work of NSEAD’s like-minded and impassioned creatives who have devoted themselves, their gifts and talents to developing high-quality art education. 

My sense of self has evolved profoundly over the past few years. My professional work and life have developed as a result of deep and prolonged reflection and research into race and identity. This continuing preoccupation has resulted in the realisation that my parents, who continue to be an inspiration, grow older and will one day leave a rich legacy of grit and determination. Their work of assimilation has been outstanding. My ability to code switch and assimilate is well practised, but it has been achieved at a cost, one which I continue to explore through the unlearning of much of my educational experience as a pupil, student and educator. It is my belief that we can no longer continue to allow the losses to creative identities and cultural capital we have seen over many lifetimes. As a community, we cannot afford for future generations to fall short of reaching their potential through lack of questioning and creative exploration. As art educators we are powerful, our ability to enable every child to see their authentic selves through inclusive practice holds the key to unlock many of the issues that thwart us today in 21st century Britain. 

As President of NSEAD 2023–2024, I am encouraged that, as a Society, we recognise that we have a duty to be part of true continued change. My greatest burden at this point in my life and career is making a lasting difference to art education so that all can see themselves represented. Often, being the only Black person present around the table has been my experience for much of my creative and professional life. My journey as an artist, designer and educator has left me with complete conviction that we have to support one another in understanding where we are in terms of our racial literacy, and recognise that we have much work to do to challenge the current colonial and Eurocentric educational landscape. We are aware that we have reached a tipping point in ensuring that we up our game in working towards achieving our mission as originally conceived in 1888. Improving art education for all is still our aim. As a result of new insights, academic research and lived voice, it would be true to say that this endeavour will be forever ongoing as we respond to shifts in our thinking and experiences. We could say that there are many priorities in our work, and that now one of our imperatives is to address how we can seek to be an actively anti-racist community at this time. Join me and other inspirational art educators, researchers and academics on this journey of inclusion, equity and diversity. Together in the spirit of the Nguni Bantu ubuntu philosophy we can continue in our mission to advance art education, for everyone, through our conversations and actions in 2023 and beyond

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