Category Archives: Arts

New toolkit and board game to strengthen Indigenous culture and language

A new Teaching and Learning Toolkit was recently launched, based on Kew Gardens’ Richard Spruce collections from the Rio Negro Indigenous Territory in Northwest Amazonia, one of the outputs of Professor Luciana Martins’ research project ‘Digital Repatriation of Biocultural Collections’.  Here, she shares details of the event and its importance for Indigenous communities.

pic of toolkit and boardgame

  • Can you share details of the event and who it was aimed at.

The event was the launch of the teaching and learning toolkit, composed of a book, A Maloca entre Artefatos e Plantas: Guia da Coleção Rio Negro in Londres (São Paulo: ISA – Instituto Socioambiental, 2021) and board game, A’pe Buese – Aprender Brincando (São Paulo: Instituto Socioambiental, 2021); with illustrations by the artist Lindsay Sekulowicz.

The launch coincided with the meeting of knowledgeable elders at the São Pedro community in the upper Tiquié river in the Northwest Amazon on the occasion of the inauguration of their longhouse (maloca), the centre of their cultural life; and was attended mainly by teachers at the Indigenous schools from the neighbouring communities, with the participation of the Indigenous researchers who visited the European collections.

Attendees at toolkit launch

  • What was the rationale for the teaching and learning toolkit?

This project, funded by British Academy Knowledge Frontiers and Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF QR), forms part of a UK-Brazil research programme that aims to reanimate the objects collected by nineteenth-century botanist Richard Spruce in Amazonia (currently housed at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the British Museum), linking them with the knowledge of Indigenous peoples (partners in Europe include Birkbeck, RBG Kew, the British Museum and Berlin Ethnological Museum; in Brazil: Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro, the Socioenvironmental Institute-ISA and the Federation of the Indigenous Organizations of the Rio Negro -FOIRN).

The teaching and learning toolkit, associated with these collections, was co-produced with Dagoberto Lima Azevedo, a Tukano Indigenous researcher and translator. It includes a guide for the collections, with scientific and indigenous information about a selection of artefacts, including a broader historical overview of the Upper Rio Negro region in the nineteenth century, European collectors and their collections, and a lesson plan; and an innovative board game that asks players to combine plants and animals used for creating particular artefacts, going through a path by the different habitats where these raw materials are found.

launch of toolkit

  • How do you envisage it being used?

Targeted principally at secondary-level Indigenous schoolchildren, the toolkit aims to enable pupils to have fun while learning about their biocultural heritage kept in European museums. We aim to ensure that the knowledge and skills associated with traditional craftsmanship are passed on to future generations so that crafts can continue to be produced within their communities, providing livelihoods to their makers and reflecting creativity.

  • How does this directly link to the original research?

In the concluding session of a project research workshop at Kew in June 2019, Indigenous researchers highlighted the need to produce, in addition to a proposed project website, printed pedagogic materials to be used in community schools in remote regions, where WiFi and electricity are scarce and unreliable. Responding directly to this identified need, the project plan was revised to include the production of this teaching and learning toolkit based on the biocultural collections. The production of this toolkit in Portuguese, with all the main terms translated into Ye’pamahsã (Tukano) language, fits within the larger context of current linguistic projects in Northwest Amazonia, which aim to strengthen and enhance Indigenous languages.

The online guide is available here and it is hoped that the project website will be launched by the end of November 2021.

Further details of the research can be found here.

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Life as an Indian scholar in London

MA Journalism student Vimal found studying in London a totally immersive experience, so much so he wrote a book about it. Here, he uncovers his own story and shares perspectives on the differences between the media in the UK and India, with a personal take on the COVID-19 pandemic news coverage. This is his #BBKStory.

Vimal Chander Joshi

In 2020, Vimal published his first book though he refutes any notion of being the main character in the story: “I am not Ajay but our experiences are closely linked and all the places Ajay visits are places I’ve either visited or lived in.”

Gentlemen: Stories from London tells the story of Ajay Vashishth, a young man from Delhi who comes to London and lodges in different parts of London including Bexleyheath, Ilford, Southall and Golders Green. Even with the exclusion of the Bloomsbury location, where Vimal would have spent much of his time while studying at Birkbeck, you’d be forgiven for assuming he and Ajay are one and the same.

However, Vimal insists not and divulges the details of his own upbringing, sharing aspects of life within a middle-class family, having a lawyer for a father and a grandfather hailing from Punjab, with family members keen for him to follow a ‘conventional career path’ in either law or medicine. With gentle resistance and with more creative inclinations, he pursued his undergraduate studies in commerce at the University of Delhi then decided on journalism at postgraduate level.

In 2019, his academic transition took him to Birkbeck and a city he’d never visited before. “It was the first time I’d been to London. I enjoyed the opportunity to visit places. I would see people wearing a coat and tie with office bags and a newspaper in hand.”

He accepts that the pre-pandemic period presented him with his best chances of socialisation saying, “I attended all workshops and events which were either very relevant or marginally relevant. I would go and meet people from other departments and would attend most of the events. I never skipped any classes. I would go out with friends. I went to the library as much as I could, including at Christmas. I even met friends from my country.”

Studying an MA in Journalism was a logical choice. He’d always liked writing and was fascinated by India’s booming television industry and the increasing acceptance of a career in the media. Prior to his studies, Vimal had spent ten years working in the media, primarily in India.

He has noticed subtle differences between the news in the UK and India, “The biggest difference is the way in which newspapers are heavily subsidised in India. I couldn’t imagine spending the two pounds or so on a newspaper in India. Of course, the newspapers in the UK can be found across the world but Indian newspapers are less likely to have that international reach.”

With a pandemic still in effect and with India having faced the brunt of it earlier this year with the Delta variant of the virus, Vimal shares his own personal reflections of how the media has handled the coverage: “I felt really pained watching the Covid-19 news. I was there when Delhi had one of its earliest lockdowns and I watched how the media covered the evolution of the virus and the spread of the variant. The media has an important part to play in exposing the pandemic but there needs to be accountability and the true picture should always be reflected. But we should also balance that because the reality of the situation can also spread panic.”

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Overcoming alcohol and drug addiction to achieve a Master’s degree

Azad Ashim Sharma graduated in April with an MA in Creative and Critical Writing. Here he tells his remarkable story of life growing up, his battles with alcohol and substance misuse, starting a publishing company, and his aspirations for the future.

Azad Ashim Sharma celebrating on his graduation day

My childhood was strange in a way. I’ve come to look at it not through rose-tinted glasses or nostalgia, but through a sense of compassionate inquiry. Being raised in an intergenerational home deep in South London, I was co-parented by grandparents, who were political exiles from apartheid South Africa. My grandmother was a political activist and our family in South Africa are quite close to the anti-apartheid liberation movement.

Our family home was always busy: my younger brother is autistic, so we had a large care team. During my school years, I attended two local independent schools, and my brother, who is severely autistic, was home-schooled. I was bullied at school, which was really quite traumatic for me at the time. I sought solace in music and art from a young age and my most special childhood memories are of attending exhibitions with my mother.

My family’s love of reading certainly made its mark on me, as I went on to study BA English at the University of Sussex. After finishing my course, I knew I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree in Critical Theory at Sussex. Whilst I was on track for a distinction in 2015, my mental health deteriorated. I had returned to London to look after my brother who was unwell and under-supported due to austerity. I came home to support my mother with his care and all three of us were also trying to cope with the grief of losing our grandmother a couple of years before that. What started off as something I did socially spiralled out of control into alcoholism and drug addiction. I had to drop out of my Master’s degree to contend with that dark patch in my life.

I’d always been writing poetry at Sussex and this continued during this difficult patch. I published my first poetry collection in 2018, exploring islamophobia and racism in the time of Brexit Britain. In 2018, I received a surprising invitation to read at a poetry festival in India. Reading outside in Delhi, surrounded by flora and fauna in the pleasant hazy sunshine, I had something ignite in me that made me think, wow I want to do this for the rest of my life.

When I got back to the UK, I applied to Birkbeck because I knew several alumni who recommended studying there. I managed to get sober by the time I submitted my application. For a period of nine months, I was totally integrated back into normal life. Approaching a year at Birkbeck and filled with so much energy, I founded a publishing company with two friends called The 87 Press, named after the number of my family home. Our company mission was to change the landscape of publishing, by advocating for fairer trade and more smaller presses in bookstores, but also a more clearly defined representation of under-represented writers. We started off very clueless as to what owning a company would entail, but thrived off the energy of hosting events, publishing books and visiting universities to hold creative writing workshops with students, offering them the chance to get their work published.

Everything was going really well for me, but I was growing wearisome of being ‘that guy’ that always has the lime soda. So, I started walking out the door of sobriety again. I suffer from depression and anxiety too, and everything was taking its toll. During this time, I also met the love of my life who’s stuck by me through all of this recent drama. Both her and my family have been steadfast and invaluable supports.

At the beginning of 2020, I felt really disorientated with everything going on. I needed some counselling, so I signed up to Birkbeck’s counselling service. My counsellor was wonderful and compassionate, and really listened to me. I’ve now been clean for over a year – it’s not been easy, but I’m pleased that now sobriety is my normality.

My ultimate career goal is to become a lecturer, so this autumn I’m pursuing a PhD in English and Humanities at Birkbeck. I got the news that I had been awarded funding for my PhD on the day I was a year clean, which is serendipity to the max.

I plan to continue with The 87 Press during my PhD. We’ve just published our 15th book and it’s such a joy – it continues to surprise me what our initiative can do and the people it can reach. After my PhD it would be a dream to become a lecturer at Birkbeck and have the opportunity to give back. Birkbeck really is a place that gives people second chances in life.

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Understanding the ‘Global News’ Paradigm

Birkbeck’s William Richards reflects on this School of Arts event exploring the evolution of English-language journalism.

In an era of ever-increasing digital compartmentalisation and division, what really is global news?

This was the question asked by Dr Justin Schlosberg, Senior Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media & Cultural Studies at a fascinating talk entitled ‘The Global News Paradigm’.

Hosted online by the School of Arts on Monday 25 January, the event began with the hypothesis from Dr Schlosberg that global news is in flux and in content evolution. For better or for worse, broadcasters steeped in the Western liberal tradition of professional journalism have faced increasing competition from English-language news channels around the world.

Throughout this talk, the hegemony of the BBC and CNN was analysed in the context of its rising challengers; the likes of Al Jazeera English and RT (formerly Russia Today). Indeed, says Dr Schlosberg, this raises all sorts of complex and critical questions about the nature of journalism as a fundamentally truth-telling practice, and the potential impact of disinformation and counter-disinformation on global news agendas.

Seeking to evaluate these questions, Dr Schlosberg carefully examined and discussed the ways in which international news stories have been covered by competing English-language news channels.

It is often very easy to get carried away by buzzwords of ‘Fake News’ or ‘bias’ when discussing the media in this day and age. Nevertheless, what constitutes stories of importance within the contact of ‘Global News’ remains open to to debate and interpretation.

A recording of this event is available to watch on YouTube.

A big thank you to the School of Arts and Dr Justin Schlosberg for his presentation. We look forward to hosting similar, thought-provoking talks in the future.

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