In the UK, ‘integration’ is all-too-often unfairly assumed to be a one-way flow of assimilation on the part of the outsider. School of Integration (2019), Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s contribution to this year’s Manchester International Festival, taps into the injustice and hypocrisy of this misconception, instead inviting us to consider integration as the two-way street it should be. An open-source project, the School welcomes more than 100 of the city’s residents, coming from more than 50 countries worldwide, to give classes at Manchester Art Gallery on a wide range of specialist topics – from music, food, language and mindfulness to cultural practices and history.
A self-named ‘artivist’ working between Havana and New York, Bruguera’s performances and interventions have regularly caused run-ins with the Cuban government over the censorship, harassment and detention of fellow artists and activists. She has been arrested numerous times and, last year, vowed to go on hunger strike to protest a proposed law that would limit artistic freedom. In Havana, in 1997, she stood naked with a lamb’s carcass around her neck, eating soil in tribute to the eradication of indigenous populations in Cuba; while in New York, 2011, she spent a year living in a small apartment with five illegal immigrants and their six children to witness their struggles. ‘I’ve been an advocate of art’s capacity to change the world, but it’s not that easy,’ she tells me. ‘It can [change the world], but we cannot do art only as a production process: we need to implement it in people’s lives.’ This is in keeping with the spirit of Arte Útil, a school Bruguera conceived in 2013 to address the use of art as a tool for social and political change.
It is safe to say that the School of Integration disrupts the conventional dynamic between immigrants and locals. ‘Often, immigrants are seen only as skill-based as opposed to knowledge-based,’ observes Bruguera. The School was an exercise in changing this perspective of the students. Each time I entered, I was greeted by a bell before taking my seat at a brightly-coloured table, with vibrant posters and table handouts, reminiscent of my primary years of education. This was no coincidence – Bruguera designed the rooms to coax out our inner children. Whether it was learning about Napoleon from the Russian perspective, unpicking communism in China, or getting a rude awakening about how Africa was carved up by the West, it felt exhilarating and urgent to witness knowledge flowing from local immigrant to local arts communities.
In a talk titled ‘There are no corners in Africa’, people realized the map we are taught is a colonialist lie that disproportionately conveys the size of the West. ‘Why is this map not in every school?’ one woman shouted from the back of the room, pointing at the more accurate depiction on the wall. The lunchtime slot in the School was always a cookery class, largely given by immigrant women from Manchester organization Heart & Parcel – an initiative that provides an environment for exchanging recipes and learning English. One afternoon, Rudo and Dudu, two asylum seekers from Zimbabwe, taught us how to make the typical dishes sadza and rugare, interspersing their cooking with hilarious anecdotes about their in-laws before finishing with a traditional song. Their positivity – in spite of the fact they are awaiting asylum and unable to work while they and their families are moved around between temporary accommodation – moved me and others to tears. Raising her hands as I expressed my emotions during our interview, Bruguera pointed out that, although ‘people think Arte Útil is about usefulness in a more practical matter’, art is, in fact, ‘not only useful: art is emotional’.
For our homework, Bruguera gave out a selection of questions from the British citizenship test, all of which had answers related to immigration, serving as a reminder of how foreign imports – from tea to celebrities – are framed differently according to their perceived Britishness. She reminded us that Prince Philip was born into Greek and Danish royal families, and that engineering firms in the UK recruited Indians and Pakistanis after World War II. As I watched Rizwana, a Pakistani immigrant, cooking chicken pulao, I spoke to a British historian who had failed to get full marks on the citizenship questions. In the company of this diverse team of professors, our tenuous hold on ‘Britishness’ was starkly apparent.
Amidst the bustle of central Manchester, Bruguera’s School provides a peaceful retreat: whether through learning the Japanese art of ikebana; practising life-drawing while listening to tales of teacher Leonardo, who was born to Bangladeshi parents in Italy; or being moved by the music being played by a student from Chile.
The School of Integration humanizes the faceless immigrants that the public are so often taught to fear, spurring a change of outlook. Bruguera’s ambition is that the programme will continue in some form, and encourages others to draw from her ethical guidelines to set up their own versions. If art, as she suggests, can really be a tool for social change, we can hope that this is just the beginning.
Main image: Tania Bruguera, School of Integration, 2019. Courtesy: Manchester International Festival; photograph: Michael Pollard
Neelam Tailor is a freelance journalist based in Manchester. She writes a column for gal-dem magazine and works regularly at BBC World Service and The Guardian. Follow her on Twitter @neelamtailor