Westerners discovered African art near the end of the last century. Many European and American artists have emulated African art for its refreshing and simplified forms, yet have failed to realize that the works were produced to conform to specific aesthetic statements. Picasso, Matisse, and other artists were influenced by the geometric qualities and abstract forms of African sculpture. One can appreciate African art most by regarding it as generally intuitive and symbolic. People created these works to secure a relationship between themselves and unknown forces. African art springs from a thought process unfamiliar to the Western world.
In African art, ‘aesthetics’ is a term used to sum up the characteristics and elements clearly present in all arts objects. These elements, include, for example, the resemblance of sculptures to human beings, the luminosity or smoothness of an objects surface, the youthful appearance of sculptures, and the way sculptures portray a reserved or composed demeanor. Similarly, in Western art aesthetics is also the term used to sum up the search for beauty, balance, proportion and conscientious use of materials, in order to achieve good craftsmanship in art objects. (Bromer, Gerald F. Discovering Art History, 1981.)
In conclusion, African sculptures reflect the various traditions and beliefs of different regions. The political, religious and historical aspects of each region are evident in their artistic products. The similarities and differences however subtle, should help to provide my students with ample materials for their analyzation, drawings and designs of the world of African art.
I am an art teacher at Hillhouse High School, whose population is predominantly African American. Many of the students I teach come from regions that have direct links to African culture - the Bahamas, West Indies, West and South Africa. Due to this dominance of African ancestry, I felt students in Introductory Art classes would benefit from learning about African art and aesthetics from a different angle. In my classroom, routinely, I teach art assignments through a hands on experience. I give students information or history concerning some area of art, and then ask them to create something artistic and imaginative which is related to the material they have just studied. I have discovered through my participation in the seminar, “Art and Artifact: The Cultural Meaning of Objects”, that there are other creative and effective approaches to teaching art. This unit will take a interdisciplinary approach to teaching. It will bring together the history of African art and the meaning of African art aesthetics using a methodology involving description, deduction and speculation. The African art objects that will be analyzed, examined and focused upon in this unit for aesthetic meaning are as follow:
1. “Ibeji” Twin Statuette (19th c.) (fig. 1) Yoruba Civilization, Nigeria.
2. “Sowo Wui Helmet” (20th c.) (fig. 2) Mende Civilization, Sierra Leone.
3. “Aron Etoma Mask” (20th c.) (fig. 3) Temne Civilization, Sierra Leone.
These artifacts are on display at The Yale Art Gallery as part of the permanent African art collection so students will view them first hand. There will also be exposure to other art object included in this collection, but this unit will primarily concentrate on the elements of African art aesthetics and how they relate to these particular art objects.
The unit is designed mainly for students in Introductory Art Classes who have not previously had art courses on the high school level. The time period between implementation and completion for the unit will be approximately eight to ten weeks. To assist the teacher with effective implementation of the unit, I have provided student handouts that should be helpful with the activities. The first handout lists the elements of African aesthetics with definitions that describe what the elements mean aesthetically. The next three handouts are drawings of the three objects which are the major focus in this unit. Also included are a list of vocabulary words that relate directly to the activities, student question worksheet, videos that can be used for background information, and cultural music to establish motivation and the mood for the unit.