The work of Tim Rollins & K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) turns on the idea that art can be an instrument of education and achieve the emancipation of the individual through knowledge.
In 1981 the American artist Tim Rollins began teaching art at Intermediate School 52 in the South Bronx, New York, in an environment where social tensions, poverty, marginalization and crime were a regular part of everyday life. The young people’s learning difficulties convinced him it was essential to combine arts education with a practice of shared reading: from that moment he began to develop a teaching method that combined the study of the great classics of literature and social and political thought with the techniques of drawing and painting.
The following year, through the establishment of a permanent workshop called “Art and Knowledge”, Rollins founded the Kids of Survival working group, which has been attended by dozens of young people in the over thirty years of its activity. Its working method is based on the reading and analysis of texts of various kinds, from works of fiction and theory all the way up to music scores, which the group analyzes, discusses and interprets. From this shared process of learning the course passed to developing an image or iconography, with the group painting on the pages of the book read after they were glued to a canvas. Over the years, Tim Rollins & K.O.S. have produced pictorial series inspired by the Greek drama, by classics such as Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, Franz Kafka and Carlo Collodi, and the work of thinkers such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. All these texts are united by the image of an individual, whether a fictional character or historical figure, who has to undergo an individual process of development and maturation in order to find a place in society and combat injustice and oppression.
The work of Tim Rollins & K.O.S. gives relevance to issues present in certain key phases of contemporary art history: from Conceptual Art comes the use of the word as a means of expression and the idea of art as a self-reflective practice, and from the Arts & Crafts movements and the Bauhaus comes the principle of cooperation as the basis of education and the questioning of creativity as an individual and authorial fact.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (After M. Twain) belongs to a cycle of works inspired by the novel that the American writer published in England in 1884 and in the U.S. the following year, a classic of American literature that explores issues of racism, identity, adolesence and maturity, and which still gives rise to controversial interpretations. To produce this cycle of paintings the artists drew on the illustrations that accompanied the original edition, which Twain commissioned from F.W. Kemble. These images, which can be seen in the grid of pages that make up the painted ground, were enlarged and replicated until they attained, as in this case, a monumental scale. The book’s hero is Jim, the adult African-American slave whose friendship with the adolescent Huckleberry Finn lies at the heart of the novel and whom we here find portrayed as a hero alone, weary but proud in his greatness.
In the relationship established between the setting and the figure, between the original artwork and its pictorial reworking, we find the tension that animates much of the work by Tim Rollins & K.O.S., namely the exploration of the concept of transmission, meaning both communication and a sharing of knowledge, as well as a continuous transformation in the present of the legacy of knowledge from the past.