November 23, 2010

Rethinking Multicultural Art

I heard a quote "to read is to travel without moving an inch." I don't consider myself an avid reader but I am an art lover. Another quote I live by "What is a book without pictures?" from Alice in Wonderland. For me the world is written in images. Good pictures (and a little reading) has taught me about people, places and times I will never be able to travel to. I left the U.S only one time. I went to visit a good friend in Venezuela. Venezuela became more than the pictures of rain forests from travel brochures. It became gooey cheesesvivid fruitssalsa dancingboys cat callingheat and rainrich and poorweaving motorbikeslush Amazon plantsmodern art museumsgiant reptilesprivate boats and villaslaughing and talking in a language I didn't understand. Venezuelan culture was rich and alive and so much more than a travel description from a Sandals resort. 

Because of this one experience, every time I introduce the a cultural art unit I am shaking in my clogs.  I worry about showing a one sided view of a complex group of people.

For example, near Puerto Rican discovery day (November 19th) I usually show a real Vejigante Mask and we talk about the festivals.

 We draw our own Vejigante Masks. For my Puerto Rican students this lesson might be enough. They are engrossed in the culture everyday. But for my other students, this lesson falls short. The thing that they take away from the lesson is the haunting Vejigante character and the colorful festival but nothing about the kids they share the playground with. I started to feel like I was making the divide at my school bigger than it already was by showing just one exotic part of the culture. My teacher friend must have sensed how I was feeling when she lent me a calendar of all types of artists from Puerto Rico. So this year I put the annual Vejigante Mask on hold until I can find a more meaningful and modern way to incorporate our students' culture into art class. This is the dilemma we face as art teachers. How do we make cultural art projects that don't trivialize or narrow our students' view of the world when our goal is to expand and explore our own views?
Please share your ideas. 

Here are some of mine.
1. Discuss how people from many cultures use the same art form (example masks)
2. Show working artists. Modern artists.
3. Show MANY examples and include different media like music, video, images.


kthomas said...

This is a very tough dilemma for the art teacher. I have learned in my grad classes that it is sometimes best to have someone from a specific culture come in to discuss/teach aspects of their culture to the students so that it is more meaningful and sincere. You could ask around the community and see if there are any local residents or parents that would be willing to come in to help!

xinme said...

I would say it depends on your goal . . .

If it is to really teach students about the culture of a particular people group, then you would need to immerse the students in a variety of aspects of that culture, just as you were in your Venezuealan experience. (Kinda hard to do, of course!)

If it is to teach students about art, I'd say your own number one is the way to go :)Students will learn something about culture, but the focus will be on the specific type of art.