Aesthetic responses as a de/colonial method by Fran Martin and Fatima Pirbhai-Illich


“ The creative process is an agency of transformation. Using the creative process to heal or restructure the images/stories that shape a person’s consciousness is a more effective way of healing. When you allow the images to speak to you through the first person rather than restricting these images to the third person (things of which you speak), a dialogue – rather than a monologue – occurs.” (Anzaldúa,  2015, p. 35)


A few years ago we started using aesthetic responses in our research, and as an approach to assessment in an Initial Teacher Education course in Canada. We first talked about this at Exeter in a CEEN Creative research methods seminar on October 30, 2019, where we stated that “We regard our de/colonial praxis as a critical inter-relation that is post-oppositional and incorporates a politics of refusal” (Pirbhai-Illich & Martin, 2020). There are a number of ideas in this statement that need unpacking. Why do we write de/colonial with a slash? Why do we talk about de/colonial praxis rather than decolonising the curriculum? What do we mean by a critical inter-relation that is post-oppositional? And what is a politics of refusal!


It is quite a task to explain these in the limited space of a blog without over-simplifying them, but we feel it is necessary to do so since it is the ways these ideas work together that underpin how and why we use aesthetic responses and why we refer to this as a de/colonial method.




There has been a proliferation of articles, seminars, courses, activism and strategic plans in higher education that incorporate the term ‘decolonisation’. One of the most notable aspects of this proliferation is that it is accompanied by a proliferation of interpretations of the term and what it might mean in terms of practical action.  In some respect this is to be expected because one of the key features of decolonisation is that it will take different shapes depending on the context – it is a process that has to be directly connected to, situated in, and responded to, the specific ways in which colonisation has played out at a local scale. However, there is also the risk that the proliferation of activity is more about performativity (the desire to be seen to be doing something) than about genuine personal and organisational change. Here we therefore set out how we understand the term and why we write it with a slash.


Following Bhattacharya (2018) we use the slash between ‘de’ and ‘colonial’ to indicate that there is ‘… no utopian decolonising space that is separate from colonising spaces because we are all, always already in ‘relationship with colonising discourses and materiality’ (p. 15). This signals to us that it is imperative to understand what those colonising discourses and materiality are before we can begin to find ways of ‘de-linking’ (Mignolo, 2007) from them.


Coloniality, colonial discourses and materiality.


Colonialism is the Western imperial/colonial expansion from Europe across the world with the intention of acquiring full or partial political control over other countries, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. It is the practice of domination, of the violent subjugation of one nation by another, conquering its population and forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people.


Coloniality is the underlying logic of all Euro-Western modern/colonial imperialisms (Quijano, 2007) that is the ongoing legacy of colonialism. It is a knowledge system that classifies phenomena on the basis of ‘objective’ characteristics, putting them into categories that are arranged in a hierarchical structure. Coloniality is perpetuated through institutions of power (e.g. legal systems, education) which privilege Euro-Western ways of being, doing and knowing on a global scale (Grosfoguel, 2011). Grosfoguel (2011) identifies 15 ‘entangled, global hierarchies’ including:


  • a racial/ethnic hierarchy that privileges European people over non-European people
  • a gender hierarchy that privileges males over females
  • a sexual hierarchy that privileges heterosexuals over LGBTQ+
  • a spiritual hierarchy that privileges Christians over non-Christian/non-Western spiritualities
  • an epistemic hierarchy that privileges Western knowledge over non-Western knowledges – a hierarchy that is institutionalized in the global university system
  • a pedagogical hierarchy where Cartesian western forms of pedagogy are considered superior over non-Western forms and practices of pedagogy


A discourse refers to the way language is used to shape what and how we think about our lives, our relationships with others, and society. In the process of classification and labelling, a discourse creates objects and thus impacts on people’s lives – how they see themselves, how others see them – making it discourse material. Colonial discourses are oppositional  because they put White, Western, European peoples and cultures (who are positioned as rational, modern, advanced, and civilised) in opposition to non-White, non-Western, non-European peoples and cultures (who are positioned as magical, exotic, violent, backward and uncivilised) thus rendering difference (to the Euro-Western standard) as inferior.


De/colonising our praxis as educators.


The analysis of colonial ways of being, doing and knowing we have described above provides us with a way forward for understanding how we can begin to move into de/colonial spaces in which to theorise and practice. We describe this as a post-oppositional (Keating, 2016; Bhattacharya, 2017) space that involves a politics of refusal, because we refuse to continue dividing the world, through our praxis, in binary, oppositional, either/or ways. Our use of the term praxis is an example of this, as it represents our understanding that theory and practice are not separate entities; they are inextricable entangled, always already in relation with each other in the same way that decoloniality is always in relationship with coloniality. Therefore, although we refuse to continue engaging in oppositional praxis, we do not reject coloniality because that would be tantamount to refusing its existence. Rather, we understand that merely by being alive we embody coloniality because we have each, in different ways, had our identities shaped by it. We also understand that, because there is no utopian decolonial space, we are complicit in perpetuating the systems and structures that uphold colonialism while also, at the same time, seeking to disrupt them.  It is for this reason that our praxis is conducted in a space of critical inter-relation, which aims to de/colonise educational relationships rather than decolonising the curriculum.


We focus on de/colonising educational relationships because it is these that support systems. Social and educational systems do not act separately from the people who uphold them. If a system is perpetuating harm it is only doing so because we are complicit in those harms. If the system is objectified as external to our own complicity, it makes it possible to see it as separate to us, to vilify it and want to change it as if it creates harm without our involvement – another, better system is all that is needed. If we do not acknowledge our complicities or change our own habits of mind and being and the ways in which we are implicated in the system, then we will carry those habits of mind and being with us. De/colonising our praxis and, through our roles as teacher educators, working with pre-service teachers to de/colonise their praxis, involves:


  • Raising awareness of, and developing an understanding of coloniality;
  • Identifying and acknowledging our relationship with, and complicity in, colonising ways of being, doing and knowing and how this influences our identities and practices;
  • Pluralising (and thereby expanding what is considered legitimate) the range of perspectives and knowledges we draw on to help us reflect on and expand our beliefs and worldviews
  • Grounding these in post-oppositional pedagogies


Aesthetic responses as a de/colonial method.


As explained above, coloniality permeates every aspect of being human. Through the hierarchies of knowledge and language, it colonises the mind; through the hierarchies of race, sexuality and gender, it colonises the body; through the hierarchy of spirituality, it colonises the spirit (Seifert, 2018). Therefore, our praxis uses a mix of knowledges that engage all three levels of mind, body and spirit, placing them in conversation with each other through a process of critical intra and inter-relation. Here we demonstrate how this affects our assessment of pre-service teachers in an Initial Teacher Education degree in Canada.


The course that we teach is in the final semester of the programme. The pre-service teachers come to the course with a script about themselves as ‘good’ people, as caring teachers. When the work we do with them reveals the ways in which they are complicit in the harms that coloniality continues to wreak they display a range of emotional responses including being confused, angry, fearful, in denial and in a state of paralysis. Working with and through these emotions is described by Anzaldúa (2009) as ‘shadow work’ – work that requires the development of ‘shadow literacies’[i] (Bhattacharya, 2017).


Doing shadow work requires a revolution within where darkness is not met with fear, but understood, articulated, explored, and shared with the world, enabling us to create healing images for ourselves and for our families, our communities, our nation . . . and perhaps the world (Bhattacharya, 2017, p. 113).


Our intention, rather than engaging in a ‘blame game’ where students feel attacked for something they do not feel responsible for, is to challenge the shadows of [their] family, community, and nation that they have inherited, and to do so ‘with honey’. Working ‘with honey’ involves an orientation of humility, of love, of sharing of our own selves and wounds as an invitation for pre-service teachers to do the same. Crucial to this is the fostering of a safe space. We show our vulnerability and approach relationships with an open heart “ holding a safe space and offering unconditional positive regard and support to others who are walking through their own dark forests” (Bhattacharya, 2017, p. 117).


We therefore began embedding arts-based, aesthetic approaches into the course assessments. Pre-service teachers were asked to create two aesthetic pieces, one mid-semester and one as their final assignment, choosing any arts-based medium to demonstrate their embodied emotional, intellectual and spiritual responses to their experiences of the course. They were also asked to provide a written explanation of each aesthetic piece, making reference to course content, readings and the tutoring experience[ii]. An example of one pre-service teacher’s mid-semester and final aesthetic responses can be found at the end of the blog.


For us, the use of aesthetic responses is de/colonial in several respects. It views the world as interconnected, interrelated and interdependent and is an alternative way of engaging pre-service teachers in reflective practice that moves away from the compartmentalization of individuals, communities, disciplines and knowledges. It is a relational, holistic approach that engages mind, body, and spirit as the pre-service teachers express their embodied responses to the course through art. It blurs the boundaries between academic and everyday knowledges, inviting individuals to bring what they know into their work as they grapple with the ways in which they embody coloniality, and explore their relationships ‘between self and other, self and community, and self and disowned part of the self with respect to social justice work’ (Bhattacharya 2017, p. 111).


We have found that aesthetic responses support pre-service teachers in sticking with their discomfort, exploring it and thus disrupting the dominant narrative that they have embodied for so long. Only then can there be a path to healing –  between themselves and their relations with others. Our role, as guides / educators (at the living centre) is to enable the journey but not offer solutions or do the work for them – they become their own teachers at this point.

Mid-semester aesthetic response

The light bulb is a symbol of knowledge and thought. The glass enclosure represents the education system and its boundaries. One boundary that challenges me is education and teaching’s non-neutrality and that I might unconsciously exclude children who do not share my ways of being as a middle class, white, settler-Canadian. The light bulb is my own space as an object/relation model. But the boundaries should not be solely determined by me – a relational space creates an environment for students’ identities and knowledges in a way that fosters agency and relationships. With this in mind, the globe of the bulb is breaking to symbolise the disruption of my own Eurocentric norms. This is a reflection of my developing openness and understanding of more holistic approaches to learning. The honeybee trapped in the bulb symbolises personal power and community. I have come to learn that power will be in all relationships and therefore will be present in my teaching. I am learning to recognise that I can use power positively to equalise relationships in the classroom through co-constructing meaning with and through my students’ funds of knowledge. Likewise, the roots symbolise my own networks of funds of knowledge, but also serve as a reminder to delve deeper when connecting to others. Lastly the colour scheme I have chosen is shades of yellow, black, grey, brown and a hint of blue. Yellow represents my own enlightenment as I develop an awareness of this new knowledge; the darker shades symbolise the tendency to understand differences as distinctions.


Final, end of semester, aesthetic response

The light bulb remains a symbol of knowledge and my learning in this course and throughout life. It is now illuminated with a bright white light that shines through the translucent paper representing the process of my teacher beliefs and ways of being and doing expanding to include more holistic approaches to learning. It continues to represent the education system and its boundaries and the bulb continues to break but does not shatter because my privileges and norms may continue to be unintentionally concealed from me. The translucent paper illustrated the disruption of my Eurocentric norms and the use of my own identity to start incorporating relational and decolonial pedagogies in my everyday teaching. The honeybee is still trapped but its new position symbolises my longing to share power with the students rather than using my power to unknowingly silence my students’ voices. I recognise that power will be present in all relationships and that I can have a role in sharing and distributing this power. With this in mind, flowers have blossomed from the roots in my drawing. This network of plant growth symbolises my own funds of knowledge and how they might connect to students’ funds of knowledge. The splotches of colour that surround the light bulb represent what it means to be literate – not simply the ability to read and write, but also environmental, racial, emotional, technological and many more literacies. Lastly, critical literacy is a social practice; it is part of our everyday lives as we “read” the world around us. I want to challenge myself to act on these new understandings and to be more successful in developing meaningful learning experiences that evoke engaged responses from my students.




Anzaldúa, G. E. (2009). Speaking across the divide. In A. Keating (Ed.), The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader (p. 282– 294). Durham, NC: Duke University.


Anzaldúa, G. E. (2015). Flights of the imagination: Rereading/rewriting realities. In A.

Keating (Ed.), Light in the dark: Luz en lo oscuro: Rewriting identity, spirituality, reality

(p. 23– 46). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Bhattacharya, K. (2017). Walking through the Dark Forest: Embodied Literacies for

Shadow Work in Higher Education and Beyond, Journal of Black Sexuality and Relationships, 4(1), p. 105-124.


Bhattacharya, K. (2018). Coloring Memories and Imaginations of “Home”: Crafting a De/Colonizing Autoethnography, Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, 18(1), p. 9-15.


Grosfoguel, R. (2011). Decolonizing post-colonial studies and paradigms of political-economy: Transmodernity, decolonial thinking, and global coloniality. TRANSMODERNITY: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World, 1(1), 1-37.


Keating, A. (2016). Post-Oppositional Pedagogies, Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy, 26(1), p. 24-26.


Mignolo, W. D. (2007). Delinking, Cultural Studies, 21(2), 449 – 514.


Pirbhai-Illich & Martin (2020). Beyond Possession: De/colonising the Educational Relationship in Higher Education. In Kumalo, Siseko (Ed). The South African Epistemic Decolonial Turn: A Global Perspective. South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.


Quijano A 2007. Coloniality and modernity/rationality. Cultural Studies, 21(2-3):168–178.


Seifert, M. (2018). Performing the Hyphen, Revista Brasileira de Estudos da Presença, 8(4), p. 691-718.


[i] Bhattacharya defines emotional and shadow work literacy as ‘the idea that by connecting with the  [students’] heavy emotions, we [the students and us] were able to use these heavy emotions to journey into dark spaces within ourselves that were wounded from being dehumanized’ (2017, p. 114) by coloniality.

[ii] Each pre-service teacher worked with a student of First Nations Descent for an hour a week between weeks 5-12 of the course, using culturally responsive and de/colonising pedagogies.