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Inspired by African Art.

For many people the art of Africa seems distant and unfamiliar. Are there persuasive reasons to introduce African forms to elementary students? My answer is an unequivocal, "Yes!" I have found that the artistic expressions of Africa have enormous appeal to children, teach vital art concepts, and enlarge our understanding of the role of art in human culture. The following statements explain.

1. African art provides dramatic evidence of the power of art to communicate. Traditional African artistic creations play a central role in embodying the culture of the people who make and use them. The shared language of visual symbols binds individuals to the group and communicates the history, values and wisdom of the culture. What better example of the fact that art is visual language?

2. Children respond enthusiastically. Perhaps they are captivated by the mysterious appearance of the masks, or by the power of the abstract forms, or by the inevitable reference to communication with unseen realities, but, at every level, from kindergarten to fifth grade, students seem transfixed by this unit of study.

3. Knowledge about the art destroys the myth of "primitive" Africa. As students learn of the intentional selection of abstraction and the meaning and power of symbols, they begin to move beyond our Western fetish for realistic representation.

4. African art is part of our cultural heritage. The "discovery" of African art propelled such titans of twentieth century western art as Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi into explorations of the expressive power of abstract form.

Understanding traditional African art

Africa is an immense continent, more than three times the size of the United States with more than 1,000 distinct language and cultural groups. Most of the examples used in this unit come from western and southern parts of Africa, an area encompassing several nations and hundreds of cultures. In spite of the great diversity, some generalizations can be made about artistic expression across these cultures.

1. Traditionally African art is inseparable from the daily life of the individual and the community. Ndebele women transform the walls of their houses into brilliant displays of geometric designs. The well dressed Yoruba woman goes about swathed in carefully crafted textile art. Masks and sculpture are conceived as vehicles of meaning at the heart of the life of the community, not as objects to be admired in themselves.

2. African art is a central and powerful means of communicating social, religious, political and economic messages to members of the culture and to future generations. A pattern woven into kente cloth indicates the social class of the wearer. The applique hangings of the Fon people tell of the heroic actions of their kings and are used with associated proverbs for the instruction of the young. The Gbona gla mask presides over judicial proceedings among the We.

3. Traditional African art employs an enormous vocabulary of symbols. Use of symbols makes possible direct and intuitive transmission of ideas and concepts, yet preserves elements of ambiguity and mystery. A pattern of repeated triangles suggests both individual self-control and the stability of human culture. The cross symbolizes not only the daily path of the sun, but also the cycle of living things: birth, middle age, height of power, physical death, and the passage through death in preparation for rebirth.

4. African art emphasizes essential form through the use of simplification and abstraction and is primarily conceptual. Dramatic reduction of realistic images to geometric forms serves to increase the visual impact of the art. The conceptual approach is well illustrated by a mask with twisted features, made to be danced in derision of a violator of some social code and signifying twisted character, not a deformed individual.

5. Traditionally, African artists and craftspeople use symbols and abstractions, not because they are unable to produce objects which mimic surface reality, but because, for them, visual reality masks and limits a world of other, more important realities.

A unit on African art for elementary students

As I sought to meet the needs of the academically talented and culturally diverse elementary students in Baltimore's citywide Center for the Gifted and Talented, it became abundantly clear that these students required more than a series of disjointed media experiments. I began to develop units, or groups of activities, based on a culture, time period or theme. The idea and inspiration for this unit grew out of a workshop at the Baltimore Museum of Art in which I became entranced by the forms and purposes of African art.

Introducing the unit

I introduce this unit by showing a selection of slide examples of African masks, figurative wood carvings, beadwork, jewelry and fabrics. Students learn that in most African cultures, people make art which is a part of everyday life, not set aside in museums. They view examples of traditional art used in a variety of ways: to express religious beliefs in ceremonies; to teach people how to behave; to communicate a people's history; and to proclaim the status of an individual. Students learn about the use of symbolism as a vehicle for meaning, and hear about some of the values which are reflected in the subject matter of the art. Finally, students view a small selection of slides of modern work influenced by African art and identify the similarities.

Although these seem to be weighty matters for elementary students, I have found it remarkably easy to communicate information by using stories and questions. For example, I show a mask with a collection of animal features, explaining that in traditional belief, every animal is a teacher. Each has a skill which is useful to humans, and the addition of parts of an animal to a mask is thought to add some of the special power of that animal to the ceremony in which it is danced. Students then try to identify the animals which are included and guess what power or skill of the animal is associated with the mask. To convey the purpose of abstraction, I show a dramatic mask with cylindrical protruding eyes, and a naturalistic carved ivory face and ask the children to select the one that is used for judging when someone has been accused of wrongdoing. Students always choose the abstract mask, saying it is more frightening and looks like it can see better.

Every class, kindergarten through fifth grade, participates in the unit. As each activity is introduced, I review or add African art examples for meaning, design and/or method of production.


Animals occupy an important place in African belief, art and folklore. People who, from time beyond memory, have lived in close contact with all of nature's creatures look to animals as models of desirable human qualities, as spiritual ancestors, as embodiment of spiritual forces, as legendary teachers, and as entertaining characters in folktales.

The spider, bird, leopard and chameleon are four animals which provide sources of power, inspiration and guidance. The spider is widely admired as a clever weaver, cunning hunter and expert escape artist. Countless tales of West Africa recount the spider's laziness and gluttony, skill at tricking the powerful, and evasion of punishment. (These stories were the basis of the Brer Rabbit tales.) The leopard, on the other hand, symbolizes authority over life and death in many cultures, and appears in connection with the rulers of West African kingdoms as a power symbol. The chameleon models both protective camouflage, usefulness in hunting, and the social skill of subverting individuality to the needs of the group. Birds, with their ability to climb into the heavens, are seen as messengers to God, and are therefore associated with healing.

Other animals are legendary teachers, as the "farming lion" of the Bamana people, or spiritual kin in extended family groups. Among the Bapede, a Bantu people, men greet each other with their totemic names, "Good day, Crocodile," "Good day, Elephant." Animals hold a universal appeal to children and provide motivation for a variety of activities and media experiences.


K-3: Students will select an animal whose habits or nature they particularly admire, and will create a paper bag mask' a stitching or a clay sculpture based on the chosen animal.

4-6: Students will study the features of an animal of their choice, seeking the essential forms, and will create an abstraction of the animal by simplification. Students may create a stencil or block for printing, or incorporate the animal form in a stitching, weaving or applique.

Fabric design

Traditional methods of creating and designing fabrics are so diverse and fascinating that I sometimes teach this area as a sub-unit entitled "Talking Cloth." As the name implies, the fabrics which inspire these activities communicate information about the wearer. Students easily relate to clothing as communication after we discuss items of apparel significant in our culture, such as the fur coat, the jean jacket, or the currently popular brand of shoes.

The following five types of cloth are particularly suitable as the basis of activities for elementary students.

Kente cloth is woven by highly skilled Ashanti craftsmen, working on narrow strip looms. The strips are sewn together to create lively compositions. Traditionally worn by the royal family and advisors, Kente cloth is often combined silk and cotton with brilliant colors and patterns. In former days, when wearing Kente was a royal prerogative, one could determine the exact rank of an official by the pattern woven into his cloth.

Adinkra, another Ashanti cloth, was traditionally worn to indicate personal or national mourning. It is made of strips of machine-made cloth sewn together, embroidered heavily at the seams and printed, using calabash shell tools, with symbols expressing ideas such as unity, good luck, the need for humility and service, and the power of God.

The Yoruba term Adira refers to two resist methods used in Nigeria to create patterned cloth. In adira eleko, a starch paste is applied through a stenciled pattern or painted on free hand. The making of the stencils from metal and the printing is traditionally done by men, the most expert of whom have created as many as 4,000 original stencils in a life-time. Women, however, apply the resist paste using palm leaf ribs or feathers. Patterns are handed down from mother to daughter.

The second resist method is tie-dye, done by tying, folding, and stitching. The elaborate patterns created in this manner have names such as "three-pences are scattered throughout the house," and "tribal marks with fingers."

Traditional Yoruba fabrics are dyed using indigo. Even when commercial dyes are available, blue is the color of choice because it is believed to be a cool, composed color, reflecting the cultural value placed on self-control.

The last form of fabric decoration, the applique banner, was used by the ruler of the Fon people as a symbol of power and courageous lineage. The banners were filled with brightly colored animals, plants and people symbolizing individual kings and their heroic feats. Each symbol had an associated proverb, so the banners not only recounted history but provided instruction for the young.


K-2: After viewing examples of kente and adinkra, students will use paper strips to weave a pattern of alternating colors, then use scrap tools to print a second pattern.

1-6: Students will use a squeeze bottle or a feather to apply a flour paste to fabric, using an original design based on plants or animals, and then dye the fabric to reveal the design. (Recipe: 1 c. flour, 1 c. water, 1 tsp. alum; blend, store in refrigerator.)

3-5: Students will study kente examples, then design and weave three narrow strips on cardboard looms, creating a pleasing composition by combining the strips.

4-6: Students will design and cut an original stencil, then print using a starch paste and dye.

4-6: Students will select three traditional adinkra symbols which express personal values, and will cut the patterns from inner tube rubber or box-weight cardboard and print in squares on paper or fabric.

4-6: Students will create an appliqued or fabric collage banner using symbols to tell about themselves and their families.

Folktales and fables

Throughout Africa, people young and old love to hear and tell stories. While providing an endless source of entertainment, few stories are told purely for the pleasure of the listener. More commonly, a well-told tale offers instruction about acceptable behavior, makes sly fun at the listener's expense, or presents criticism of those in power in a way which will not jeopardize the storyteller. Many stories present imaginative theories of the origin of natural phenomena.

African stories provide unlimited resources for activities, particularly with younger elementary age students. The tales may be told orally, following the ancient tradition, or read from numerous creatively illustrated books. The best of these preserve the rhythm of the original language and rely on patterns and symbols of the people among whom the story is told.

Students can respond to the stories in a variety of ways, from painting the imagined sequence of a tale to using the style of the illustrations to create a print. Here are some ideas.


K-2: After listening to the book Anansi, the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti (McDermott) and "air drawing" a variety of lines, students will use the rhythmic lines of the illustrations to create their own version of a trouble for Anansi. (I often use this activity as an introduction to line as an art element.)

K-4: Students will create large animal stick puppets based on the book Why Mosquitos Buzz in People's Ears (Aardema) and perform the fable.

3-5: Students will view a variety of examples of African masks, beadwork or weaving, then use typical design elements to illustrate an African tale.

Resources for teaching African art

Free loan audovisual programs.

The following resources are available by writing or calling the lending institution.

African Art, Cat. #015, slide/audio program, color. Reviews 77 slides, noting ritual use and style characteristics. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 20565, (202) 842-6273.

African Art in the Permanent Collection. Slides, with information on concepts and themes in African art. Department of Education, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 20560, (202) 357-4860.

The Art of West African Strip Woven Cloths, 12 minutes, 1/2" or 3/4" videotape, color. Describes production. National Museum of African Art.

Masters of Brass: Lost Wax Casting in Ghana, 22 minutes, 1/2" or 3/4" videotape, color. National Museum of African Art.

Slides from area collections. Check the art museum nearest you. Many have their own loan programs or permit photographing pieces in the galleries.

Teacher-made slides from personal collections and from books. Best of all, of course, is to bring in the real item, but if that is impossible, try making your own slides. I have found making slides from books most helpful in enlarging my slide collection. You need special lenses and an arm for stabilizing the camera. Ask around to see who might have these.

June Rutlege Heintz is an art teacher in the Baltimore, Maryland Public Schools.
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Title Annotation:teaching elementary school students role of art in human culture through African Art
Author:Rutledge Heintz, June
Publication:School Arts
Date:Feb 1, 1991
Previous Article:The Museum Art Education Library.
Next Article:Northeaster: Winslow Homer.

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