In this unit I will bring together the study of African folktale and African art. As an art teacher, I look for opportunities to expose my students to original artwork. As part of this unit, students will visit the Yale Art Gallery’s African collection, but they will first study folktales and other stories from West Africa. By hearing and reading these stories they will be introduced to many new cultural and religious beliefs, such as spirits inhabiting nature and posessing special powers. Once the students become familiar with these, they will go to the gallery with some knowledge and background of the culture that created the works of art. They may even be able to find some of the characters from the stories depicted in the sculpture. The type of sculpture we will be concentrating on are masks and statuettes. The masks were wom as part of elaborate costumes and used in ceremonies, rituals, and dances to dramatize the myths and tales of a certain tribes’ history or cultural beliefs.
Africa is a very large continent, about four times the size of the United States. It contains over 21 countries and an estimated 2,000 different cultural or linguistic groups. Although many of the peoples of Africa still live as their ancestors did, in tribal communities pursuing agricultural and pastoral ways of life, there are many that have been influenced by industrialization and now live in large cities and modern communities like our own. Since most cultures did not have a written language they are largely without written histories. Instead these peoples have kept their cultural traditions and beliefs alive for thousands of years in their myths, legends, folktales, rituals, prayers, proverbs, and songs.
When Africans tell a tale, whether it be a myth, legend, or folktale, they do not simply recite it to their listeners, they use many dramatic techniques to bring it to life before their audience. The story becomes part of a performance wherein the storyteller uses different voices, clicks and other noises, dances, and elaborate costume to aid them in the dramatization. More often than not the audience is invited in to participate and become part of the drama. Many cultures, especially those from the forests and grasslands of West Africa, use various materials to sculpt images of their Gods and spirits to aid them in the storytelling and passing down of religious and cultural beliefs. It is not only the stories themselves but the costume, in the form of masks and statuettes, that we will be studying in this unit.
It is important to note here that masks were always seen in motion as part of ceremonial or ritualistic dances. The Africans did not create their art just for beauty or because they enjoy the creative process. African art always had a purpose or use and was kept sacred. Some masks were only used on certain days of the year or seen only by members of secret societies. It is only in recent times that African artists are beginning to use new techniques and materials and creating “art for art’s sake”.
When I first visited the African collection at the Yale Art Gallery, I became curious to find out more about the meaning of the images depicted in the masks and other sculpture. There are masks that resemble animals, strange combinations of animals and deities, as well as realistic human faces. I felt it would be more interesting and meaningful for my students to learn that much of the sculpture is inspired by the myths, legends, and stories of the ancient Africans. “To gain the maximum appreciation, a knowledge, for example, of the background of the sculpture or where it came from, deepens one’s understanding and one’s enjoyment of the artwork. The greater the knowledge, the greater the enjoyment.
I Students respond well to stories, especially folktales, legends, and myths that might tell of the origins of things we know in this life. Explanatory tales, though purely fictional, can be amusing as well as educational. Students will often retain information and ideas better when they can remember them in story form.