Can a student connect with and understand an artwork from Africa without any contextual information? One of the biggest struggles in teaching art from other cultures is that it is not so easily discussed and interpreting through our Western lens.
In my recent online workshop, How to Talk about Art with Kids, I asked the participants how their questioning strategy might differ between these three artworks.
The participants said that they would focus more on emotion and story for the first artwork, the elements and principles of art for the second artwork, and the history and use of the object for the third. Each artworks lends itself to a different type of discussions, but I believe that any artwork has a meaning already in it that we (and our students) can discover through enough looking and discovery.
The third artwork, while it may seem so different and foreign, can be interpreted by a group of students to determine its meaning, function, and purpose just through close looking and targeted questions from the teacher.
With my middle school students, I have recently begun a unit on African sculpture. We will be looking at all sorts of different sculpture from around Africa before we make one culminating time-capsule-ish artwork that pulls together big ideas from multiple types of African sculpture.
(This lesson will be in The Resource Library when I finish it up with my students, FYI, if you are interested in the full thing. You can also download a free PowerPoint with the slides relevant to this post here).
We started the unit with some of my favorite artworks from any time or culture, the Nkisi N’kondi power figures from the Kongo people of West Central Africa. These sculptures are truly captivating and exciting to anyone who sees them. From other teachers catching a glimpse at my copies in the office to the first reactions of the students to subs passing through, everyone stopped in their tracks to look more closely.
See if you can figure out what these sculptures were all about on your own before reading on.
- What’s going on here? Describe the sculpture–its contents, proportions, and pose.
- What do you think the nails are for? Were they placed there by the artist all at the same time or were the hammered in over a longer period of time?
- How do you think this sculpture was used by the people who made it? What was its function?
- What is the personality of this person? What is he doing?
After discussing the work and developing ideas about it, I invite my students to stand up and put themselves into the pose of the figure as well as mimic the facial expression of the figure. It’s a pretty hilarious activity, but in all of my classes that did this, at least one student came to a conclusion that is close to the object’s original meaning.
After asking how they felt (after giggling about how they feel like they might be pooping), many students said they felt powerful. One 9th grader said he felt like a teacher getting onto a student, and a 6th grader said she felt like a parent getting onto her child.
I asked the students what it would feel like to be on the other side of that stance. What if this person were standing in front of you like that; how would you feel? Students said they would feel smaller, intimidated, or that they had done something wrong.
After the activity, I explain to the students the actual meaning and function of the artwork. Nkisi N’Kondi means “hunting spirit,” and its job in the community is to be an enforcer–enforcing laws and treaties, sealing vows/promises, and getting rid of evil. The students who felt like they were a teacher getting onto their students were right!
Important medicines, ancestral earth, and other things were placed in stomach to give it the power and bring in the hunting spirit. In most cases, the hole was covered with a shell or mirror. When a promise or treaty was made, community members would drive a nail into the sculpture sealing the vow. If that promise was broken, the Nkisi N’kondi would hunt down the wrong-doer and punish him or her for his misconduct.
To spend some more quality time with the art as well as practice drawing skills, I had my students draw the Nkisi N’kondi.
We also looked at and discussed Congo artist Trigo Piula’s usage of the Nkisi figure in a contemporary painting.
We will use elements of this sculpture, the Benin relief sculptures, and others to create one artwork that explores what fuels us as individuals in the way that the medicines and other items placed in the Kongo sculpture gave it its life.