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Teaching about African art.

The multicultural education paradigm seeks equal learning opportunities for students from minority cultures in American classrooms. Within this framework of art education, some proponents of multiculturalism have suggested the integration of African art into the curriculum. But what criteria should art teachers use in selecting examples of African art for instructional purposes? I will attempt to address this issue by describing the nature and structure of African art and by making suggestions on how to integrate the art forms in the art curriculum.

Nature and Structure

The term "African art" refers to aesthetic objects produced by the distinct people of cultural groups who inhabit the continent of Africa. African art is as diverse in style and content as the various groups that make up the continent. However, for several decades, various forms of African art have been lumped together by Western observers who perceived the works as a body of cultural artifacts consisting of magical objects and fetishes. My review of articles describing classroom activities using African art shows an emphasis on African masks, and ritual/ceremonial sculptures. African art is so much more than this.

Pre-colonial (Traditional)

The phrase "traditional African art" is used in reference to works of art produced in Africa during pre-colonial and colonial eras as well as art created today which follows those established practices.

Most of traditional African art is made of materials that have a relatively short life span, such as wood, clay, fiber, and animal skins.

The body of traditional art entails ubiquitous items such as figurines, pottery, textiles, and jewelry, most of which were produced for domestic and religious purposes. Through rituals, traditional African art was used to communicate beliefs about life and after-life. Special objects were crafted as part of the paraphernalia for ceremonies involving birth, rebirth, puberty, marriage, coronation, worship, and death. For precolonial Africans, rituals fostered purity, harmony, balance, unity, and prosperity within the community. Apart from their earthly functions, rituals were regarded as a medium for the acknowledgement and placation of the metaphysical powers of ancestors.

The royal institutions and traditional religions that sustained the production of pre-colonial African art came under attack with the spread of foreign religions like Christianity and Islam around the latter part of the fourteenth century. In spite of their demise during this period, aspects of the traditional art forms are still practiced throughout Africa and beyond. This continuity may be credited to the diligence of the apprenticeship systems and artists' guilds.

Colonial African Art

The colonization of several African nations by European powers around the 19th century resulted in paradigmatic changes in the artistic activities of those societies. Artists who produced commissioned works for traditional institutions, such as royal palaces, had to seek alternative livelihoods. Many became innovative by producing utilitarian items for the masses. For example, Benin court bronze casters gained the freedom to produce commissioned works for members of society after being sworn to secrecy on the processes involved in royal casting. A major transition that occurred in African art during colonization was the expansion of production techniques, which resulted from importation of new art materials and tools (such as oil pigments, canvas, and bristle brushes) from Europe.

Post-colonial African Art

Post-colonial African art may be grouped into three major categories: traditional, urban, and international. These three modes of production usually share common sources of inspiration and the artists' works often shift back and forth from one category to another. Traditional art forms have managed to retain their essential characteristics in contemporary African art because of the artists' abilities to adjust to rampant socio-economic, religious, and political changes.

Traditional African Art

Today, traditional African artists adhere to techniques, forms, symbols, and icons established during the pre-colonial era. Works are inspired by folktales, proverbs, adages, myths, and legends. Forms, tones, and texture in African artworks are expressions of the peoples' perception of the world around them. As a result, the works are often used to evoke order, tranquility, and continuity in community life.

Urban African Art

Urban art evolved in Africa with the development of metropolitan communities in the colonial and post-colonial periods. This art usually depicts aspects of everyday life activities in the urban dwellings. The artists' ideas are rendered in colorful panel paintings, transit art, sculpture, and photography. Most of the urban artists are self-taught and they produce works on commission and for personal gratification. Their realistic and semi-realistic depictions of urban life have become important features of city life in Africa.

International African Art

Most international African artists received training in the arts from institutions of higher learning, either abroad, or styled after Western schools. The introduction of Western-style art instruction in Africa can be traced to the integration of modern art into the high school curriculum starting in the 1920s. The introduction of modern education in combination with the importation of new tools, materials, and ideas in the arts eventually led to the development of new modes of production and expanded audiences in African art.

The international artists have been able to put both past and present in perspective. They often temper their formal education in fine art with some degree of interest in traditional art forms. They value the importance of sustaining their artistic heritage while recognizing the opportunities presented by an increasingly connected global audience. International African artists often work in a variety of non-traditional media, such as painting, printmaking, plastic sculpture, and cartoons. As a result of their independence from conventions, the artists are usually individualistic in their stylistic approach. While they are influenced by both Western and traditional African art styles, they are not confined by any of them, as they often combine various approaches to suit their purposes.

Integrating African Art

As the second largest continent in the world, the size of Africa makes it impractical, if not impossible, to include all of its diverse artistic cultures in the art curriculum. Instead of the prevalent approach of using randomly selected masks and religious icons, art educators may find it more productive to use structured methods to integrate a broader scope of African art in the curriculum.

The Conceptual Approach

In the conceptual approach, the exploration of art concepts may be broadened beyond mainstream content to include many examples of African art and generic concepts that are applicable to all ethnic groups. This approach would introduce exemplars of African art through generic concepts such as place, identity, spirituality, consumption, communication, symbolism, and change.

The Thematic Approach

As in the conceptual approach, the thematic approach to art instruction is pluralistic in structure. Instruction is organized around themes that characterize the human condition, and that are pervasive across cultures and ethnic groups over time. Themes might be based on commonalities such as telling stories, remembering the past, social bonding, celebrating life cycles, and seeking meaning and purpose. Instruction materials and African artworks are selected to buttress the universality of these themes.

Focused Inquiry

Despite conceptual and thematic commonalities across artistic cultures, more profound knowledge about African art is acquired through focused inquiry. Informed knowledge about the contests of production is vital to understanding works of African art. Because African art is essentially inspired by specific cultural practices, an in-depth knowledge of the culture would facilitate understanding of the works. Teachers can guide the collection of contextual information about African art through focused research of publications and on the Internet. Parents of immigrant African students may be invited to the classroom to share knowledge of African artistic cultures. Art teachers may also invite immigrant African artists to their classrooms through the Artist-in-Schools programs. Such visits may be scheduled as workshops or extended artist residencies.

The Interdisciplinary Approach

The interdisciplinary approach of combining art historical and anthropological methods of inquiry in the study of African art enables art educators to examine the socio-cultural contexts in which the works of art are produced and utilized. This approach facilitates the study of a broad range of factors, such as artists' profiles, aesthetics, media, style, iconography, patronage, training, and continuity. The interdisciplinary approach is especially suitable because African art has not been properly documented in written form. Despite their problems of accuracy, direct interaction and oral history remain the most important sources of knowledge of African art.

Christopher O. Adejumo is an assistant professor of visual arts studies and art education at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas.
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Author:Adejumo, Christopher O.
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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