Me, My Selfie, and I: Reframing Self-expression in Middle School through the Work of LGBTQ+ artists Claude Cahun and Beauty Influencers of Color
Abstract: Me, My Selfie, and I is a month-long middle school curriculum centering student discussion about how queer artists of color have defined means of self-expression over time. Students write art critiques of one of the four self-portraits by French artist Claude Cahun. After a class discussion about Cahun’s intentions through art-to-self connections, students write artist statements that analyze Claude Cahun’s work and life. Then, students create an artwork that shows an aspect of duality in their own life. Students research queer make-up inflencers NeonMUA (Darius McKiver) and Juan Alvear. After a class discussion on the universality of body decoration, students create their own nail, face, or body art with an emphasis on process, documenting their sequence along the way. Now that students have created two works, they collaboratively curate art exhibits by writing proposals. An exhibition can be held online or in a venue in the community.
Through examining and reimaging the works of Claude Cahun, NeonMUA, and Juan Alvear, students rehumanize their own fundamental beliefs about heteronormity, through conversation with classmates.
Keywords: LGBTQ+ art, Claude Cahun, influencer, NeonMUA, Juan Alvear
Marriage and Equality
In the dominant structure, heteronormative children have been socialized to accept same-sex marriage. No longer is it a radical belief to condone the legal marriage of LGBTQ+ couples, in theory and practice. Merely accepting LGBTQ+ couples has become a tradition in schools, in line with multiculturalism and tolerance education. However, to simply accept or to express no public rejection of legal marriage collapses the entire LGBTQ+ spectrum into a monolith with a singular goal. Reducing the conversation to marriage leaves out students and their experiences, as most children are not of marriage age yet. The conversation about same-sex marriage fixates on couples, rather than their individual identities, reinforcing the notion that marriage equality in the United States is progress enough, that the “fight” is over.
Homophobia continues to permeate almost every facet of American education. Conversation on LGBTQ+ identity in the classroom is halted because they got their rights — what else do “they” need? Without acknowledging that every student has a gender identity and gender expression, mainstream discourse can be alienating to those sitting in your own classroom. A nationally representative survey finds that the median age at which LGBTQ+ adults first felt that they were something other than heterosexual was when they were 12 years old. Outward homophobia may manifest itself in hate crimes and bigotry. However, Americans continue to justify the denial of teaching LGBTQ+ history in schools, deteriorating social welfare programs for homeless, growing inaccessibility of affordable healthcare, and ongoing police brutality of queer youth, because of LGBTQ+ peoples’ biological difference. Black trans women are at the apex of intersectionality and face the most brutal treatment by society, with the highest rates of homelessness, joblessness, and outright discrimination.
This unit consists of lessons and artists I have explored with students. Studying artworks created by LGBTQ+ artists communicate the plight of LGBTQ+ individuals in a way a direct-teaching history lesson will not always be able to, as conversations and art creation have liberatory capabilities for students of oppressed groups, when provided a proper atmosphere to grapple with difficult ideas and hear from opposing points of view. Art classrooms also foster an environment where there is no “right” answer, rather, multiple entry points to achieve a similar understanding.
In this article, I will use the term “LGBTQ+” to refer to state apparatus and the term “queer” to refer to non-heterosexual and non-binary individuals. I will use the pronouns they/them for queer students and artists as it is gender-neutral and allows the artist to self-identify. I will refer to queer artists by their chosen name whenever possible.
I have taught art for three years at Herbert Hoover Middle School in northern California, fifty miles south of San Francisco. There are over one thousand students. There are three openly queer teachers out of the fifty. All teachers are required at the start of the year to go through the Out for Safe Schools program, from the Los Angeles LGBT Center, and receive training on how to be an ally to queer youth, taught by a queer-identifying school guidance counselor. Teachers can choose to wear an Out for Safe Schools nametag at all times, and students are taught by the guidance counselor that those teachers are trusted adults and are allies, at least challengers of homophobia in the classroom. In the hallways and in teachers’ classrooms, it is common to see rainbow flags. There is an annual week-long celebration for National Coming Out Day in October. Hoover houses a Gay Straight Alliance, called Rainbow Community, that meets weekly and puts together events such as fairs and parades for the entire school to enjoy. There are over twenty students that are regular members of the Rainbow Community. In my art class, artwork about queer identity is quite common. For example, in an annual project where students create a raised fist symbolizing what they believe in, at least ten of the 150 students will create one about their queer identity. The fist project finishes a week-long unit about Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics and contemporary street art works of Mexican-Zapotec artist Irving Cano, yet students always find a way to incorporate their queer identity in such a project.
In every sense, Hoover Middle School is on a pedestal as an accepting, LGBTQ+ friendly campus. Despite its comfortable status and a greenlight to teach LGBTQ+ centered art curriculum in my classroom, homophobia is ingrained in our society and even the homes of teachers and students. Students may be intentionally misgendered by other students and staff. History classes continue to leave the Stonewall Riots out of American History. Uniform rules are restrictive and reflective of heteronormative tradition. Online registrar and database print only students’ given name and gender, often require paperwork to be changed. Derogatory slurs are still the language of students when playfully insulting one another. Teachers may reduce conversation about homophobic slurs with students to purely punitive measures, or worse, ignore these actions as they do not actively pose a barrier to teaching. Queer students report finding home only at Rainbow Community, in classrooms taught by queer teachers, and nowhere else. A culture of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support can only do so much when homophobia is already part of school culture. In this unit, I don’t claim to solve these issues, but rather find avenues for students to talk about their own identity in a way that is not polarizing, but rather celebratory of students’ shared struggles.
Using Art Critique to discuss the works of Claude Cahun
Claude Cahun (1894–1954) was a queer French poet, essayist, literary critic, short-story writer, translator, actress, photographer, and revolutionary activist. They went through many iterations of their pseudonym before arriving at Claude Cahun in 1917. In French, Claude is a name that can refer to either a male or female. “The choice of a neutral pseudonym corresponds to [Claude’s] need for indeterminacy in identity” and much of their work explores this idea. Cahun was partly raised by their grandmother, and choose to adopt their grandmother’s last name, as well to feel affinity with their Jewish side. Flaunting their Jewish heritage in the wake of anti-Semitism in post- World War I Europe was brave act of defiance. It was also an attempt to further themself from Cahun’s father, upper-class intellectual Marcel Schwob and Mary-Antoinette Courbebaisse, Cahun’s mother who Cahun shared a troubled relationship with and was institutionalized for mental health issues for much of Cahun’s life. During World War II, Cahun worked as a resistance worker and propagandist against the Nazis, producing anti-German fliers. With their art making and romantic partner, Calhun attended German military events and snuck their fliers into the coat pockets, cigarette boxes, and onto chairs of German soldiers. Cahun’s upbringing mirrors much of students’ own lives because not only does Cahun come from a non-traditional family structure, their ethnic identity also plays a role in their self-perception. Cahun was not an activist in the traditional sense, as a community organizer or in any elected role, but worked in a way that mirrors some of the more unorthodox roles of activist that students may take on in their own lives.
Claude Cahun played with perceptions of themselves in artwork not to reinvent their identity, but to understand the very natural tendencies. “‘My role,’ [Cahun] wrote in an essay published after [their] death, ‘was to embody my own revolt and to accept, at the proper moment, my destiny, whatever it may be.’” Students have much to relate to Cahun, because as young people go through life, so much is out of their control — their housing, living, or financial status — all lie within their parents’ control. Schooling tries to place the focus on the small tasks children do have in their control such as learning, grades, abilities, responsibilities, relationships, and character. Students typically understand that they are in a period of development, arriving at whatever they are “meant” to be. Students spend a lot of time deciding what they will be when they grow-up, and there is increasingly more liberal education to help students think about mental health and to affirm that they already have character, morals, and values. Art class and artwork is a means to explore what they are.
Students also understand that they are a hybrid of different personalities. They understand that they may act differently around different groups of people; shy one day, outgoing the next. This is not unlike Cahun’s perception of themself. Self-portraits are important in school to help students learn realistic drawing techniques. They also act as a meaningful subject in learning basic drawing techniques. Some canonical artists in art education are studied best through their self-portraits, including Frida Kahlo, Vincent Van Gogh, and Grant Wood. In exploring and emulating Cahun’s compositions, students can express themselves in so many ways, not limited to gender or sexual orientation. For this unit, I have chosen four of Claude Cahun’s most known works to present to students, as works to examine, discuss, and inspire their next project.
Cahun’s most famous work is Self Portrait (1927), a black-and-white gelatin silver print photograph of themself looking outward from a mirror. Cahun is wearing a checkerboard jacket with a raised collar and a reflection of Cahun is visible from the mirror. In Self Portrait, Cahun is staring directly at the viewer. Scholars have interpreted this act as gender-blurring and undermining the normative patriarchal gaze. Despite the photo being taken almost a century before, checkerboard fashion has returned, via Vans.
Autoportrait (1927) is another monochromatic photograph of Cahun. This time Cahun is seated, legs crossed. Their hair is slicked down with two sections matted on their forehead. Cahun is wearing a skin-tight nude shirt, giving the impression that they are shirtless, along with boxing shorts and wrist wraps. Cahun’s lips are painted like a marionette doll. They are holding a dumbbell, and with this “Cahun adopts the paradoxical representation of a feminized strongman.” This is especially pertinent to female students who may feel the age-old pull between being “sporty” and “girly.” Scholars write that “Cahun’s androgynous self-portraits subversively articulated an active female subject who could take on male characteristics, perhaps as a means of participating in patriarchal power dynamics,” however I believe Cahun’s portraits speak more to allowing the artist portray themself in an authentic, unadulterated way.
Self-portrait (I am in training don’t kiss me) (1927) is another photograph from that series. This time Cahun is standing on stage, with the same outfit, in a mock dancer’s pose. Their right hand is placed on their head, and their right leg is bent in front over their right leg. “I am in training, don’t kiss me”, are words handwritten on their shirt. The composition is slightly eerie, but explaining the dumbbell and handmade shirt will help students see parallels in their own lives, as DIY shirts are not uncommon with children. The cheeky quote written on the shirt also begs the question — what exactly is Cahun training for? Again, being almost a century old, an ominous slogan tee is not at all outdated.
SELFPORTRAIT WITH CAT (1927) is another well-known photograph of Cahun’s. Most of the photo is dark, including half of Cahun’s face, to better contrast the half that is brightly lit. Cahun is holding a pet cat. A toy cat is at the bottom of the composition. Cahun is wearing gender ambiguous clothing though baring their arms. Children feel affinity to their pets and animal toys, even if such a photo is jarring at first, the teacher can contextualize it with a discussion about pets or attributes of dog people and cat people. These four photographs are Cahun’s own attempts to “convince [their] self and [their] entourage of the hybrid character of the self.” The duality of their persona can be boiled down to gender expression, but to fully engage with their work in an art classroom, it serves as a discussion of any type of duality present in students’ lives.
The art critique framework I typically use with students in observing Cahun’s work begins with students observing artwork that is projected on a large screen and printed out in color, in a clear plastic sheet, on every table. Students are free to shout out their initial impressions, followed by a silent writing time. Students then are invited to share in groups or aloud through a Writer’s Workshop-style sharing. Sentence frames and word banks provide English Language supports and should be displayed in various formats — on the screen, on a poster, read aloud by the teacher or to each other, on their paper, and digitally. To conduct the critique, I usually direct students to choose one of Cahun’s self-portraits to interact with through writing, using these frames:
1. When I see this artwork, the first feeling I get is __________ because __________.
2. In this artwork, there are __________ colors because __________.
3. In this artwork, there are __________ lines because __________.
4. If I was the artist, I would improve __________ because __________.
5. This artwork reminds me of another artwork, __________, because __________.
6. I think the artist’s deeper message in this artwork is __________ because __________.
Identifying themes may come natural to some students, however, honoring all opinions in a classroom whether right or wrong is important in this beginning stage of crafting artistic critiques. In an initial observation discussion, I would avoid answering questions that pertain to Cahun’s gender and allow it to remain a mystery with students. Labeling Cahun immediately as queer or fitting into a certain category may bring students into a different headspace, bringing in preexisting attitudes about LGBTQ+ issues that would affect the way they perceive Cahun’s portraits.
I use sentence #1 to honor the feelings and emotions of students upon seeing an artwork, because at first, I do think students would write that it feels “creepy” or “weird”. Acknowledging this initial impression is important, because a conversation about how feeling “weird” about the artwork is a normal reaction that Cahun probably expected when displaying their art. Interestingly, Cahun only participated in one art exhibition prior to their death and did not want to become famous. It was only until the 1990’s that Cahun’s work resurfaced due to renewed interest from some feminist and surrealist thinkers.
Students may pick up on the fact that this was the time of black-and-white photography, or maybe simply feel that the colors are to add to the eeriness. I use sentence #4 to foster principles of art creation is about constant improvement and even artwork done by professional artists can be improved upon. It also addresses some of the initial “creepiness” from sentence #1, so students can identify how they would hypothetically fix the composition. Put on a shirt? Fix their makeup? Come out of the darkness and use more light in their composition? Add an explanation? I use sentence #6 to see if students are able to grasp any kind of meaning what they initially see. I think students will write something like, “it’s important to be yourself because the main character is weird and they don’t care what others think” or “even if you aren’t like everyone else, it’s ok, because the artist is wearing stuff that doesn’t match.” Students naturally gravitate to a meaning of “be yourself” when it comes to art, especially when the art critique framework has been used many times in the past.
Following the art critique, I would follow up with questions that appeal to students need to relate. In children’s literature studies, students are taught to respond to thoughts, feelings, and intentions of characters in literature. I believe that students need to see themselves in fine artwork as well. If students are not similarly taught to make “art-to-self,” “art-to-art” or “art-to-world” connections, already a norm in reading classrooms, then they are not equipped with skills to critique art as with a sociocultural lens, nor grapple with influences of domination and subordination of when an artist makes an artistic choice. After using the basic art critique framework and supporting student voice through writing, I would use a circle-based discussion to help students make art-to-self connections.
1. In Self-Portrait, Claude Cahun shows themselves looking at a mirror. What do you see when you look at a mirror? Do you think sometimes a mirror can show you something else, other than yourself? (Future self, what others see, the best parts, the worse parts, what you don’t like about yourself)
2. In Autoportrait, Claude Cahun chooses to show the two sides of theirself, the side that likes doing hair and make-up but also the side that is strong, as you can see from the boxing clothes and weight. Can you relate? Do you also have two sides?
3. Claude Cahun made a shirt with a saying, “I am in training” that they wear in Autoportrait and Selfpotrait. If you could make a shirt, what would it say? What do you think Claude Cahun is trying to say with their DIY shirt?
4. Self-portraits are important, because for hundreds of years, people had to be photographed by somebody else. Clause Cahun, and everyone else in the world who has ever taken a selfie, is actually doing a brave thing. How could taking a selfie brave?
5. When someone takes a photo of somebody else, or draws another person, the artist has the “power.” What does that mean? How can a self-portrait or selfie photo be taking back the “power”?
Claude Cahun’s Selfies: intentions through artist statements
If there is already a culture of writing artist statements established in the classroom, I encourage the use of the same structure. Artist statements are important for viewers to better understand the art and is used by all working professional artists. If there isn’t one already in place, this is the paragraph that I have successfully utilized in the past with students in writing their first artist statements, along with the intent for each blank:
_____________ is an artist originally from _____________, but is now living in ____________. Inspired by _____________, _____________ created _____________. _____________’s artwork features colors like _____________ because _____________. In _____________’s artwork, you can typically find _____________ because _____________. The interpretation many of _____________’s artworks is ________________.
Full name is an artist originally from city, but is now living in city. Inspired by inspiration, full name created describe artwork. Full name’s artwork features colors like colors because reason. In full name’s artwork, you can typically find subject OR theme because reason. The interpretation of many of full name’s artworks is deeper meaning.
An example artist statement, slightly paraphrased, from ArtNet reads:
Born Lucy Schwob in Nantes, France on October 25, 1894 to a prominent Jewish family, she would later attend the University of Paris, Sorbonne. Her first recorded self-portraits are dated as early as 1912, when the artist was about 18. In the early 1920s, she would change her name to the gender neutral Claude Cahun, which would be the third and last time the artist changed her name… Claude Cahun was a Surrealist photographer whose work explored gender identity and the subconscious mind. The artist’s self-portrait from 1928 epitomizes her attitude and style, as she stares defiantly at the camera in an outfit that looks neither conventionally masculine nor feminine.
Students can come to answers on their own through research online or through hearing about Cahun’s life from the teacher. There is also a large selection of videos on Youtube on Claude Cahun’s life that would provide all the information to fill in such blanks. ArtFundUK has an especially succinct video on the basics of Cahun’s life. Students may also learn through direct teaching, though it is not as democratic of a process as working collaboratively to find “answers” together. Accepting variation, yet accuracy, in the answers is one way of supporting student voice and honoring student findings. The sentence about colors can be reworked to a different developmentally appropriate artistic element or principle.
Student project: Selfie
After writing an art critique and artist statement for Claude Cahun, students will create their own self-portraits. I would recommend black and white watercolor compositions, or photography, if the classroom normally allows photography submissions. They can choose to portray themselves in any way, as long as it somehow touches on the duality of their personality. Their sportiness and desire to do well in school? Their two friend groups that they constantly need to bridge? Their love for both hamburgers and hot dogs? It can be as serious as students want to make it, because even a duality between two favorite foods is a valid issue for a young student.
Students can choose to show themselves looking at a mirror and seeing the “other side” or even an honest look at the “dual sides”. Students are free to use Cahun’s portraits as guides or take the project in a different direction.
In my art class, there is always a written component that accompanies the project. Some possible sentence stems to support students in explaining their compositions for this project include:
1. How is your artwork similar to Claude Cahun’s? Mine is similar because ____.
2. Claude Cahun makes art about having two sides. My artwork is about having two sides because ___.
3. A lot of people go through an inner struggle, for example ____. I choose to show one kind of struggle though ___.
If your school emphasizes that assessment should be language or writing-focused, requiring student answers in order to turn the project in for a grade can be made a requirement. I would place these questions on the back of the rubric students expect to receive a grade. I also frequently ask students to write an artist statement about themselves to accompany their project.
Makeup and Social Media Influencers
Claude Cahun may be seen as a pioneer artist, but they did not create alone. Similarly, the pronouns they/them are not new, as Cahun and their close-knit artist circle in Europe in the early 1920’s were already using such pronouns to refer to themselves. Within the lifetimes of our students, queer creators have found a platform for to broadcast their artistry through Youtube. From Youtube, queer makeup artists and influencers have gained mainstream appeal, the most popular figures being Jeffree Star and James Charles. YouTube is a billion dollar corporation and video sharing platform that hit the internet in 2005. Most of the content on YouTube is uploaded by individuals, but large companies have slowly partnered with Youtube. Students in every classroom I have taught in are familiar with YouTube, if not spending a majority of their free time on this site. Outside of school, students are creators, follow influencer news, get entertainment, and learn from YouTube. As of 2016, there were more than 5.3 million beauty-related videos on Youtube and 86% of the top 200 beauty videos were made by beauty bloggers as opposed to beauty brands themselves. Since YouTube’s creation, there have been self-produced videos of people creating makeup looks, giving advice, and sharing makeup application techniques with others, fostering a large and vibrant, sometimes dramatic, online community.
Beauty influencers on Youtube and Instagram do more than just hold a dialogue through their work. They actively invite the viewer to take part in their art practice. The nature of social media and Youtube relies on commenters and viewer participation. Many beauty influencers are entrepreneurs, inviting younger audiences to create along with them. Many of them use their artistry to change policy or challenge norms for queer people. In deciding which of the thousands, of not millions, of make-up artists I wanted to students to focus on, I tried to find artists that were removed from online politics, refrained from using slurs and problematic language, and used their art to tell their own story, rather than “look pretty”. In this unit, I guide students through exploring the work of two queer makeup artists of color: NeonMUA and Juan Alvear.
Darius McKiver (he/him), better known as NeonMUA, is a North Carolina based makeup influencer. He identifies as a gay Black man and neurodivergent, as he is diagnosed with ADHD. On his Twitter page, NeonMUA shares his struggles living with ADHD. NeonMUA has over twelve thousand followers on Youtube and four thousand subscribers to his Youtube channel. NeonMUA encourages followers to be their authentic selves. “Don’t be afraid to create something that goes against the norm. We see so many people come into the makeup space trying to be the next James Charles or Jaclyn Hill, but the best thing to do is just be yourself and create the makeup that you like. That’s how I found my artistry.” This advice resonates with young students, as they share many of the same aspirations, and look up to the same heroes NeonMUA does. NeonMUA’s looks are simple and done in his home. He doesn’t use overly expensive products and keeps his beard and natural hair in almost every photo. He doesn’t fit into the category of “drag” or any binary. He is transparent about his technique and product use in all of his posts. His looks are created with clean linework from bright colors with a focus on playing with values.
Make-up artists like NeonMUA use their posts on social media to celebrate their own existence. Social media may be the only way an artist can be heard, as “traditional” outlets of become makeup artists grow out of reach for queer students of color. Going to cosmetology school, owning a salon, living in large cities, working on the looks of celebrities — these may be the goals of only ten years ago but Youtube has shown that recognition takes on a variety of forms. Now, Youtubers use their best canvas: themselves. For NeonMUA, his posts on Instagram and videos on Youtube simply say: people like me exist. He is a queer Black man that is interested in makeup. “Some consumers still have not grasped the fact that men in beauty is very real and has been real for as long as makeup has been around. As a black gay man, it’s still a struggle to find someone like me flourish in this industry, so no matter how long it takes or loud I have to be; I’m gonna work and fight to change that.” However, I believe that the students we currently work with want to see diverse faces in their media and prefer the nondominant narratives, hence the rapid popularity of queer beauty influencers.
Traditionally, there has not been mass-produced makeup products for people with dark skin. Makeup has changed from being an elusive department-store product used to hide imperfections in aging women or to experience with secretly, to a palette and art tool for young people of all binaries. Makeup is being used to explore color relationships, learn about yourself, and find self-worth. NeonMUA found it “frustrating to see people with very dark complexions (like fellow influencer Nyma Tang) having to use eye shadows to contour or bronze. This gave him the idea to develop Midnight, the darkest of the four palettes. The highlighter is a shimmery yellow-gold shade that will make your cheekbones shine like ya mama’s good jewelry. The deep burgundy blush is just the thing to add a warm flush to melanated cheeks. The contour is a cool-toned, dark brown hue that looks almost black in the pan, while the bronzer is a lighter chocolatey brown confection with warm undertones… Dusk to Dawn was [NeonMUA’s] way of doing what was ‘impossible’ and cater to those who have always been left out… [NeonMUA] want[s] the industry to see that major changes still need to happen, and if these big brands can’t do it, the indie brands and micro-influencers will.” NeonMUA is the kind of artist that in sharing his story, empowers young people to work for change, not be complicit, and create the space they wish to occupy.
Students of color can relate to the plight of NeonMUA. It is a common experience to buy “nude” colored clothing when it is a light beige color, or purchasing a makeup palette, where none of the colors show up on dark skin. NeonMUA shares the pain, as “even the Fenty bronzers don’t have a shade that is dark enough. [It] upset me because it’s clearly not impossible to create bronzers and contours dark enough when we can create eyeshadow shades that are dark enough to use as bronzers and contours. But she shouldn’t have to be using an eyeshadow, why can’t complexion ranges just cater to dark customers?… People will say, ‘It’s just makeup, get over it,’ but it’s not just about makeup. Even the hashtag for our campaign is #ItsBiggerThanMakeup, because it is bigger than makeup. Representation is about more than marketing. If you say you stand for something, you need to put in the work to back that up.” NeonMUA has also started a hashtag campaign where users can submit photos and collaborate with others. His plea for representation is part of a larger push for increased right and better opportunity for people of color. NeonMUA’s desire to see worth in products echoes the valid concerns of all students, who may have an issue deemed unimportant by adults in their lives, or society as a whole. Again, his hashtag reinforces the community and family aspect of his online persona.
NeonMUA has also shared valuable advice for starting out in the cosmetics industry. He has worked with his friend, Chicago-based Afro-Latina independent makeup brand Midas Cosmetics owner, Rico Nunez, in many collaborations. NeonMUA speaks fondly about working with Nunez, citing that “they’re in touch with their customers and a lot of them are owned by influencers or work super closely with them. Honestly, indie brands are killing it.” Students are familiar with “collabs” in shoes, makeup, fashion, and more. This is no different from beloved “artist collabs” between fine artists, simply renaming for a different time. The shift from supporting large corporations to now, smaller brands is seen in many industries, not just cosmetics. It seems that young people are calling for grassroots, community-centered products and services more than ever in the age of global outsourcing. Companies that continue to test on animals, rely on slave labor, or have unethical practices continue to receive negative attention.
The second artist I would spotlight in my classroom is Juan Alvear. Alvear has over thirty thousand followers on his Instagram, @byjuanalvear. His page is lined with his nail designs, all very different from the traditional red glossy nails meant for everyday wear. Alvear identifies as gay, is New York based, graduated from Cooper Union, and began experimenting with nail art as a junior in college. His first solo art show was January 2020 at the Treize gallery in Paris. His work mirrors the organic world, imitating plants and animals, with a dose of surrealism. Some of his nails are an eclectic mix of colors and shapes, some are shockingly long and resemble the grotesque curves reminiscent of the Guinness Book of World Records World’s Longest Nails. His nail designs are sculptures meant to incite wonder. Since Alvear’s background is in fine arts, he describes the nail making process as “making a nail is oftentimes just like making a painting… I see colors and textures and put them together to create something. I see both my nail sculptures and my paintings as ornaments of sorts: one exists to decorate the hand and the other for a space. He is influenced by what most artists are influenced by: natural elements and organic shapes in nature.
Alvear’s work also bridges fine art with performance art. Alvear recently created twenty sets of nails for pop singer Rosalia’s music video “Acute Cuture”. In the same year, Alvear was on stage with Icelandic singer Bjork while she sang to an audience, creating a complete set in just an hour live. Mainstream male artists have expressed their interest in nail art including Bad Bunny and A$AP Rocky. Alvear’s work may seem bizarre but I think the playfulness of it throws out the notion that nails should be done by or for women only. Above all, he values experimenting. “I think there should be more room for experimentation. The beauty industry is so tightly constructed around very specific expectations of how to wear something, instead of promoting playfulness and experimentation.” Selecting any of his works from his Instagram would work in instructing about the style and artistry of Juan Alvear.
Both Alvear and NeonMUA are part of a long tradition of body decoration on men. As early as 4000 BCE, men in Egypt used black pigment to create cat-eye designs. In the first century, men in Rome would apply pigment to their cheeks, lighten their skin, and nail their nails with animal and plant products. Nobility in 18th century France valued a white powdered face and wig. When talking about Alvear and NeonMUA’s work with students, I would use open-ended questions that do not reaffirm traditional gender roles. I would try to push all analysis to focus on elements of art like color, shape, line, form, and space. However, if homophobic comments do arise, it’s important to recontextualize the role of cosmetics in history without criticizing any limiting beliefs. Students only learn from what they hear and observe around them, so being open-minded yet knowledgeable is a recommended first step. Students don’t want to be proven wrong, they want to learn. Since students wrote artist statements for Claude Cahun, I would reuse this format with these two artists.
Some questions I would use to discussing their work is:
1. When people need inspiration, they turn to nature. What shapes or ideas from nature do you see in this nail/face design?
2. Often, art is about making something that didn’t exist in the world. How do you think that applies to these images?
3. How can you tell that NeonMUA is proud to be who he is? When you are proud about who you are, how does that show up in your artwork?
4. Some people don’t think nails or make-up count as real art. What do you think? Why haven’t nails or make-up been in art museums? Should they be in art museums?
5. Sometimes people make art to challenge what is “normal” or “ordinary”. What is ordinary about these images, that the artist is trying to do differently?
6. Artists often do “collabs.” In what ways did these artists “collab” with others? Can we envision an art project where we can collaborate with others?
Student project: Bodily Decorations
For this second project, students create any kind of body decoration. As they are probably familiar with face painting and tattoos, learning about NeonMUA and Juan Alvear simply widens those horizons. They can choose to show the design in many different ways, as it doesn’t necessarily have to be on a “body.” I would leave this as open-ended as possible, as you could get students who want to create a hair design, maybe a set of sculptural nails like Juan Alvear, or a bright make-up look. It could even be a face paint design of an animal or something silly for Halloween. For inspiration, you can talk about how artists connect to themselves by thinking about nature that they like, because there are many natural symbols that come out of organic shapes and symbols. An example is a bird for freedom, an ant for hard work, an egg for rebirth.
As followers of the content Makeup Youtubers produce, students know that working on a “look” is a process. It follows a logical sequence. I encourage students to track their progress in their creations. In my classroom, students are allowed to use their own cell phones to take pictures of every step of the creation process. Students without phones have the teacher track their progress. Once this becomes a routine, in my experience students actually prefer the teacher to photograph their art. I typically have students answer questions as part of daily work and recall that data to plug into a “Project Progress” Google document at the end of the project. All photos that the teacher has taken are stored publicly on Google Drive for students to access.
- To prepare for today, I needed these supplies: ____
- In this step, I _____.
- The next step will be ____.
- In this step, I _____.
- The next step will be ____.
- In this step, I _____.
- I decided it was complete when ____.
Possible sentence stems for assessment to support students in explaining their compositions include:
1. I decided to create a (make-up look/set of nails/tattoo/___) because ____.
2. A body art artist I am inspired by is ____. I am influenced by their designs because _____.
3. In my (makeup looks/set of nails), I draw most attention to the ____ because _____.
4. Something about my body art that is inspired by nature is ____ because ____.
5. This (did/did not) exist in the world before because _____.
Curating a community art show
By now, the students have interacted with various media: Claude Cahun’s self-portrait photography, NeonMUA’s face decorations, and Juan Alvear’s nail sculptures. Students have participated in over two discussions centered on self-expression and created a minimum of three writing samples: Claude Cahun art critique, Claude Cahun artist statement, NeonMUA/Juan Alvear artist statement, and progress tracking document. They have created two artworks: one focused on the dual nature of their personality and one self-decoration. Now, there is one more assignment, which culminates in a physical art show for public viewing.
The teacher should take individual photos of every student’s complete project and reduce the size of each image, so that multiple can fit into one page. I would provide this master copy to every student, so everyone has access to all the completed works. The exhibit will result in just five works being displayed, so students make decisions on which best will fit in their ideal exhibition. The number of works can be increased for equity of works displayed, but also if exhibition space is larger. I typically have students select fiveworks because our usual venue, a local public library, can only fit up to six works. I keep detailed records of which students have already been in previous shows or received accolades in the past to decide which student work to especially support in this particular exhibition (i.e. students that have never exhibited before).
This is a framework that I use to support students to curate an exhibit. There are five steps in creating an effective exhibition. I have broken down these steps into sentences that when combined, read as a cohesive ten-sentence exhibit proposal.
1. The 5 artworks are similar because __________.
2. The name of my exhibit is __________ because __________.
3. I would display the 5 artworks at __________ because __________.
I would display them in this order:
4. The reason I put __________ first is because __________.
5. The reason I put __________ last is because __________.
6. The reason I put __________ in the middle is because __________.
7. When someone goes through my exhibit, I want them to feel __________ because __________.
8. When someone goes through my exhibit, I want them to learn __________ because __________.
9. When someone leaves my exhibit, I want them to change __________ because __________.
10. Even if someone does not enjoy my exhibit, I want them to take away __________ because __________.
At the end of the assignment, I may review and select some of the most thorough exhibit proposals. We might vote on the most creative combinations. Whatever you decide, try to value equity of voice or choose students who don’t normally receive accolades in art or student identities that are underrepresented at your school. Putting on an art show can be more involved — students can do the hanging of the art themselves, decide where art should be, or come up with snacks or flyers to advertise the event. The possibilities are endless and there are many opportunities for community partnerships at libraries or community centers. Many organizations give grants to fund student-centered projects just like this.
Guidelines on holding discussions about self-expression in an art classroom
Protect your students
Despite the warm and inviting atmosphere a teacher may foster in the classroom, society is largely homophobic. Students need Safe Spaces guidelines to lead discussion. Everyone needs to adhere to a one-speaker-at-a-time rule. It should be safe enough to ask questions — and have student generated responses. Queer students should not feel like the limelight is on them. Hate speech should be addressed. Identities of students who are out should be respected. “Teachers need to be aware that in spite of their efforts to be culturally responsive in their classrooms, the dynamic and pervasive economic and political dimensions of the dominant culture will have considerable impact on what occurs. This is because the school reflects the division and discontinuity that exists in American society as a whole.” Don’t center the conversation on yourself with phrases like “I don’t know what it’s like to be gay…”
Listen to students
Discussions are important in the art classroom, not only to build a “family” atmosphere but also to give students many opportunities to share stories. Discussions reinforce the idea that the teacher is not the sole disseminator of knowledge in an art classroom. Students already come to the art classroom thinking that you are the art teacher because you are somehow the “best drawer” or that you have made more paintings in your life. Deconstruct that notion by allowing them to teach one another. “Curricular knowledge should be an interdisciplinary product of heterogeneous sources, and pedagogy should be organized around the thesis of the constructed nature of all knowledge… best facilitated by an open practice of knowledge production rooted in a plurality of methodologies and strategies of inquiry.” While you are sharing two makeup Youtubers, no doubt will students know a lot about other Youtubers as well, or even know more than the information you share as they are more up to date with Youtube news. Let students be the expert in any brainstorming or introductory session.
When student voice is centered, the classroom might not look like a traditional hand-raising and cold-calling type classroom anymore, where one answer is the right one. Teachers should always work to “develop tactics that foste[r] greater affective and intellectual receptivity to learning… respecting students’ widely divergent points of entry into race-gender sexuality-conscious knowledge.” A good way to track student comments is to write down what they say, project it in some way, or let students construct the knowledge that you would be direct teaching instead.
Deconstructing biases in what is considered “real art”
Students come into the classroom thinking that art created at school is separate from “real art”, or that only paintings done by masters are considered “real art”. Somehow, the work in our classroom doesn’t equal those done by Michaelangelo. By bringing in selfies and Youtube, you challenge this idea. In both selfies and Youtube, the creator is the artist and the creator does not need to take the traditional role of an artist. In fact, they can be a person of color, neurodivergent, or even queer. Continually reinforce that artwork is “real art” if it requires creative thought and effort.
Students are already interested in the art of body decoration, might it be makeup or Halloween face paint or tattoos. Teachers can play a part by letting students act as the expert on such topics and validating that knowledge. “What children have learned, and the ways in which they learned, from their own ethnic and sociocultural group must be valued, respected, and utilized by the culturally responsive teacher. Children are learning in many other ways; schooling is merely a part of this larger educational process.” Let children be the experts of the art they know best. At the very least, acknowledge that their interests count as art worth learning more about and make a conscious decision to design curriculum around them. “If art education continues to be offered as a highly defensive reaction to dominant culture, it is precluded from making positive contributions. But to seek an insider’s experience, with a collaborative model of production, to respect students for how they cope with the conditions imposed upon them, to acknowledge the perennial nature of dominant-culture content, and to recognize the changing political and social contexts in which cultural standards are established, maintained, and revised are first principles for a socially relevant art education. Such an art education would both earn the right and possess the potential to contribute critically to the meaning beliefs students form with dominant culture.”
Recognize that not all queer experiences are the same
While this curriculum highlights the identity three queer artists, it is not to say that all queer people are artists, or that all queer artists make art in a certain way. Queer students in your classroom may not identify with these three figures at all, and that’s ok. The projects are loose-ended on purpose, to give space to any student to create what they want. There can be loose guidelines, but the aim of this unit is to explore means of self-expression, rather than queer identity. Students might be excited to share their point of view as a queer student. Students might be ashamed or still in the closet. Students may even be repulsed by the artwork of the three focus artists. They may learn nothing from them, or take the project an entirely different direction. Your role as a teacher is to honor their narratives even if it doesn’t match your intended goal of LGBTQ+ acceptance.
Talking about non-dominant identities isn’t easy. It’s asking a lot — from students and from the teacher.
By having students to openly discuss, create, and collaboratively exhibit artwork, your curriculum “asks students to reflect on their emotional attachment to particular values, principles, and ways of being. It invites advantaged and disadvantaged students to openly scrutinize fears of losing friendships and familial bonds, chances toward economic and professional mobility, and a physical safety as a result of aligning with antiracist feminist praxis. Although the pedagogy of emotional engagement has no hard and fast rules, it is rooted in the counterintuitive proposal that the more educators foster emotional openness and relinquish affective rigidity, the more students will adopt self-reflective attitudes.” Teaching queer artists in a public school setting is a radical act that opposes the status quo. However, with this lesson, it doesn’t have to fixate on the gender and sexuality aspect only. Queer artists share a multitude of means of self-expression. We are merely learning and adopting a few of those methods.
Liberation for queer artists
This curriculum unit only addresses a portion of the complex history of art contributed by LGBTQ+ identifying artists. It barely skims the surface of the scholarship that exists on queer aesthetics. The use of discussion and counternarratives discussed in this unit are not to reaffirm that “queer people are just like us”, but to take an anti-heteronomrative anti-homophobic approach that “challenges the essential underpinnings of the [education] system, which has historically been grounded in White male privilege and seeks to deconstruct domination couched in the language of detachment and universality.” So much of artwork is rooted in this tradition without any questioning of its authority.
Instead of celebrating same-sex marriage, this unit is based on the idea that queer artists offer a different and valid perspective on how to express yourself. Though conversation, we dissect assumptions about LGBTQ+ people, and teach for transformation, instead of assimilation. Asking questions and thinking about ourselves is the first step in dismantling white supremacist heteronormative ideology that seems innate in schooling. Talking about LGBTQ+ artists and artworks is not to just compare and contrast “gay” and “straight” artists. It’s to question our fundamental beliefs and rehumanize some of the most oppressed groups in history, to have a conversation about self-expression and shared struggles — not just gender and marriage. The three artists in this unit offer “perspectives sustaining such conditions into the investigation and recording of our collective struggles and how we understand or define them. To do this work, [art classrooms] must participate fully in such public debates about structural oppression and submit its unique insights to discussion and action.” This work cannot be done without a teacher and an established culture of conversation.
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 Oberhuber, 41.
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