In late spring of 2020, there were renewed uprisings across the globe for racial justice. A 12-hour flight from Vancouver away in Antwerp, Belgium, alums Julia Dahee Hong (BFA 2015) and Felix Rapp (BFA 2016) have been working on holding the institution they attended for graduate studies accountable for change. Julia and Felix have graciously shared their experiences at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp and what antiracist work they’ve embarked upon in the Eurocentric landscape.
Julia and Felix met at Emily Carr University, where they were both enrolled in the photography department. Graduating only a year apart, the two were both accepted to the Royal Academy’s MFA program where they attended from 2017-2019.
After graduating from the Royal Academy, Julia expressed that she was happy to close that chapter in her life but as the protests for racial justice picked up, it became necessary to share her experience. “During the first wave of the lockdown here, I did go to the Black Lives Matter protest here in Brussels. It was very intense. This was the first time I had been on a train since the pandemic hit and the train was full of people going,” shared Julia.
After the protest, Julia’s attention was called to social media where the Royal Academy had made an Instagram post in support of the movement. The image was white with black text that read, DEMAND ANTI-RACIST EDUCATION. Julia explained how the post missed the mark and was quite quickly inundated with comments from the community of people who outpoured their pain and outrage at the institution for its out of touch curriculum, racist assignments, and upholding white supremacy, as well as many students pointing out that faculty disturbingly refers to students of Asian heritage by numbers instead of names. Julia was one of the first people to call attention to the hypocrisy of the post.
“That post really prompted the comment section to criticize the institution and share their own experiences. We’ve both had our fair share of both first- and second-hand experiences here. Coming from Vancouver, we were both shocked at the state of which the education happens here,” said Julia. “The overt racism runs rampant. I was happy that my education ended in 2019 and I believed that chapter in my life had ended but it became important to share my own experience quite opening because experiencing what I did, I know other people did as well.”
“Julia and I met up after the protest and the experience was quite emotional,” Felix continued. “To go home after and see this post on Instagram, where people were sharing their experiences with violence, and not only racial violence but homophobia and misogyny among others. These things were quite prevalent. Right away people were outpouring and expressing their pain.”
That post really prompted the comment section to criticize the institution and share their own experiences.
“I came back from the protest feeling both hopeful and hopeless. I was overwhelmed by the thoughts around how I am one person, what can I do?” said Julia.
The immediate reaction was to jump in to the comments on Instagram, which quickly turned into a barbeque of the post. “As more people expressed their opinion, it became easier for others to speak up,” said Julia, who shared the post with as many people as possible. Aside from calling attention to the absurdity of the post itself, Julia began madly writing every living soul she could find through Instagram that was connected to the school. There’s something to be said about putting your neck out that way, but Julia said: “As an alumni, there was nothing to lose.”
The initial sense of community was very powerful.
Julia and Felix explained that a large issue within the institution is the lack of solidarity among students when it comes to discriminatory behaviour, especially racism. “Even during our first day there, we were at an event hosted by the spouse of one of our faculty members,” shared Felix. “At the dinner table, their spouse who is from South Africa said and I’ll paraphrase this: ‘colonialism wasn’t all that bad because it gave people jobs and infrastructure’. It was the most abhorrent comment I had heard in my entire life. It was neglectful and ignorant. This was the preface for us entering the Royal Academy.”
“I cried that night,” Julia noted.
“The way art exists in Belgium is very different than Vancouver,” explained Felix. “Part of that difference created a resistance. That said, we both learned a lot, but I will say that the Canadian discourse is very different when it comes to making and producing art. Within the Royal Academy, the idea that art is beauty is paramount whereas talking about the meaning behind it is more irrelevant. The objects you make are of the utmost importance.”
In terms of cultural context, especially the way art history was taught at the Royal Academy was incredibly Eurocentric. “It relies a great deal on the modernist attitudes on othering, the exotic, and these are things that are being taught without any regard to contemporary context,” said Felix.
The way art exists in Belgium is very different than Vancouver. Part of that difference created a resistance. That said, we both learned a lot, but I will say that the Canadian discourse is very different when it comes to making and producing art.
The pair continued to illustrate the evening and how sitting at this dinner table with twelve other students put into perspective the environment they were now in. “There wasn’t this overwhelming indifference to that comment,” emphasized Felix. “There were people defending it. We were very disturbed that you could even hold that perspective. How we reacted to things versus those who came from a Eurocentric background was wildly different.”
Aside from what was evident in both their experiences and the comment section on Instagram, the duo pointed out that they knew much more goes unaddressed or unheard.
“The Instagram comment section has become a last resort in many ways. I think that’s a terrible situation to be in,” said Felix. “It became clear to us that if we reached out to people, even just starting in their direct messages – which seems like an inappropriate way to organize, but it was a place to start.”
Felix and Julia pointed out that unfortunate that action has to take place on social media and the missed opportunity that the institution isn’t facilitating this contact, reaching out to people, or initiating change. “We took on the labour of this work ourselves and provided a platform for people to share their thoughts named or anonymously,” said Felix. “We gave them an unlimited space to discuss these topics.”
Julia explains that they did get in touch with the person who posted the image on Instagram only to learn that it was a social media manager who did it on their own volition and it wasn’t a decision the school made. “Our school didn’t make a statement at all,” said Julia.
Julia and Felix, along with their two peers, Evi Olde Rikkert and Justin Somjen, decided to mobilize and take on the work. “We built a survey on a free survey platform. The survey had five simple questions,” said Felix. “Julia reached out to as many people as she could, those she knew and those she didn’t and prompted them to fill out the survey.”
“We all divided the labour,” said Julia.
Felix explained that by mobilizing so quickly it worked in their favour by gathering steam on the heels of the insensitive post by the institution.
The five questions they asked in the survey were:
1. Have you experienced / been witness to problematic behaviour, discrimination or racism at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp or AP? If you feel comfortable, please elaborate.
2. Have you been asked by the school about your experiences, cases of discrimination, or racism?
3. Do you feel safe talking about these experiences with faculty?
4. Can you recall any positive initiatives led by the school regarding this issue?
5. Do you have any suggestions or demands for improvement?
“We felt like we were providing them this resource, a handbook that they can refer to so they can do the important part of the work: implement some changes,” emphasized Julia.
The survey gave people the ability to continue the conversation that began on Instagram. 49 students responded, many with long and emotional anecdotes. “The majority of which are very strong, very damning experiences,” said Felix.
The report also included the small percentage of people who didn’t see anything wrong with the university or the actions of faculty members.
The group presented this handbook to the administration of the Royal Academy along with an open letter explaining how this came about and what they felt the institution could do. The letter detailed that the post on Instagram that read “DEMAND ANTI-RACIST EDUCATION” was a catalyst for the alumni to organize among themselves and provoke change.
“We also mentioned in this letter that it was time for the Royal Academy to do their share of the work. That although we had provided this information, the institution was responsible for utilizing it to makes structural changes,” said Julia. The quartet demanded transparency as well. “We sent it directly to the dean of the university and the head of every department, many of which were called out directly in many of the accounts,” said Felix. Administration at every level, support staff and faculty were also made aware of this.
The group received a single response one day later from the dean. “It was emailed privately,” said Felix. “None of the other members of the institution were included in this response. That response basically said that we might be surprised to know that the institution is already doing a lot of work to address racism at the school.” The email also made mention that they were compiling data with a program they started a year ago. “It was the first time I had heard of any of this,” said Julia. “His response to our email was ‘we’re already doing things and these things take time’. Essentially, defensive excuses and a lack of transparency.”
We felt like we were providing them this resource, a handbook that they can refer to so they can do the important part of the work: implement some changes.
At the time of this interview earlier this year, Felix and Julia were working alongside a PhD student and Indo-Brazilian artist, Vijai Maia Patchineelam, to publish this information as part of his thesis book, which would become published by the university itself. “A trojan horse, if you will,” said Julia.
“In reflection and to tie in with our experience at ECU, it felt like the student body in Vancouver was more involved in these topics unlike Antwerp. A precursor to all of this was Magnolia Pauker’s class, Intro to Cultural Theory 201,” said Felix. “I want to emphasize how critical that course was in opening up this discourse. It really felt like all the students were engaged with the ideas and actively seeking more topics to explore just from opening the door to these resources.”
“These survey results and forms of expression are one of the main reasons we did this externally,” said Julia. “We were able to provide a safe space outside of the school.” Julia explained that the group recognized that for the university to implement the changes, the ask had to come from the outside. “Our handbook clarifies what problems exist and how it affected students,” said Julia. “None of us are paid to do this nor are we the people with the institutional power. It hit so close to us that it was important we began this work. What we did is a tiny fraction of what could prompt an actual change in the school.”
“In the letter we wrote, this was an example of the work an institution should be taking on. We were setting a precedent for the basic points of contact institutions should have with the community,” said Felix. “Without this type of infastructure for communication, the invisibility of this violence continues. It was a way in which we could do something. I hope that the institution will pick up where we left off and figure out why is there such a huge disconnect, and where is the communication?”
And if that happens?
“We could look back and say it was worth it,” said Julia.