Statistically, the chances of getting your degree on your birthday are quite small. It's also rare for a student to obtain a master's degree after not completing any previous degrees. But Scott Eric Williams is used to being exceptional. Receiving his first degree cum laude on his 43th birthday on Monday (11 December), is the kind of achievement you'd expect of an artist who is known for doing things differently.
With only a matric certificate to his name, Williams' promotor, Prof Lize van Robbroeck of the Visual Arts Department at Stellenbosch University (SU), assisted him through the process of Recognition of Prior Learning to gain admittance to the Master's programme in Visual Studies, which is a degree by thesis.
His many years as a practicing artist, curator, and particularly as a community art teacher and activist ideally equipped Williams to pursue the topic of informal arts education for purposes of liberation, Van Robbroeck says.
“Scott worked very hard to bring his project to completion. He has earned all our respect for investing so much dedication and commitment into an excellent thesis while also supporting himself and his family," she adds.
One of the biggest challenges in completing his thesis was getting used to academic writing, Williams says. “I've always enjoyed writing as an accompaniment to the visual elements of my work. I've also written proposals for residencies and funding. I've been a contributor to the visual arts website ArtThrob and I've written for the University of Cape Town's Michaelis Gallery. But for my thesis, I had to wrap my head around the formalities and conventions of academic writing. It took me a while, but once I mastered it, the writing started to flow."
Williams has always been an avid reader and credits his mother, who worked as a librarian for many years, for instilling a love for books from an early age. “She encouraged literacy in our family and it sparked an interest in arts and culture. I've always gravitated towards the arts," Williams says.
He considered studying art after school, but his father did not consider it a viable career path. “I had a very short stint at the University of the Western Cape studying BComm Computer Science, but I abandoned that journey quite early on. Later, I decided to pursue art as a full-time career," he explains.
The idea to go back to university came when he held a residency at the GUS Gallery in Stellenbosch thanks to the Andrew W Mellon Fellowship. “I had productive conversations with Jacob van Schalkwyk who was a guest lecturer at the Department of Visual Arts at the time. He recommended that since I was doing a lot of educational work with children, I formalise my practice. I thought a master's degree would be a good way to cement my passions and also allow me to make my career sustainable, despite my age."
The second big challenge in starting an academic career later in life was time management, Williams notes. “I had to balance the commitments of freelance work, studying, reading, digesting the readings, making sense of it in writing, plus academic commitments like seminars. It was quite difficult to look for freelance work while working and studying. The funding I received ran out after two or three months and plunged me into a difficult financial situation."
Apart from his lecturers at SU, Williams credits the arts community's support for staying focused on his studies. “I'm lucky to have had a set of cheerleaders who helped me push through the hard times. Colleagues such as Lesiba Mabitsela and Dr Erica de Greef at the African Fashion Research Institute where I'm currently working, motivated me. Dr Anthea Lesch at SU was also a driving force."
The inspiration for the theme of his thesis, Drawing from the Past to Plot the Future: Freirian Methodologies for Socially Engaged Youth Arts Education in South Africa, came from the artists and activists who were products of the political unrest in South Africa in the 1980s, Williams says. He also drew inspiration from the American artist Mark Bradford who thinks of urban space in terms of artistic concepts. But his biggest inspiration is young people. “I'm inspired by the youth of colour of the Cape Flats and Cape Town – their tenacity, the beauty of their energy and their hopefulness."
Williams is an admirer of the revolutionary Brazilian philosopher and activist Paulo Freire, whose work has had a big influence globally on education and community development. Freire's goal was to eradicate illiteracy among people from previously colonised countries. Williams investigated how Freire's ideas influenced three organisations dedicated to arts education and empowerment in South Africa – the Community Arts Project in Cape Town; a group of artists called The Vakalisa Associates; and the District Six Homecoming Centre.
“While it's been understood that these organisations based their work on a Freirian methodology, there's never really been a formal study to investigate how those methodologies were manifested. My study was not just historical; I also wanted to determine if there were any lessons we could learn from Freire's methodologies and whether they have a place in today's non-formal arts education space," Williams explains.
His research has informed his work at the African Fashion Research Institute where he's a freelance curator and project manager. He recently developed an outline for a course called The Fold. Williams hopes to find more sustainable employment after completing his master's degree.
When he received his hard-won degree certificate, Williams dedicated his achievement to a very special group of people. “I hope that young people, whether they're artists or dream of being an engineer, a scientist or a doctor, can see that there was another young boy on the Cape Flats who had a dream and made it despite many challenges. Whether you're from Bellville, Heideveld or Mannenberg, just know there are alternative, non-traditional routes through the academic journey that allow you to be innovative. You just have to embrace the opportunities."
PHOTO: Stefan Els