Welcoming African-American and Cambodian Art into the Classroom
Venet, Cheryl, Art Education
How do teachers welcome students into art classrooms? Smiling teachers greet students at the door.
Tables overflow with brightly colored and richly textured materials. Reproductions that teach art history and inspire creativity cover the walls. It looks inviting, but do the art historical
images on display establish a positive environment for all our students?
Until recently, art history in U.S. classrooms was limited to Western civilization masterpieces, sometimes irreverently referred to as the work of dead, white, European males. In increasingly multicultural classrooms, it is necessary to expand the historical canon by relating knowledge to cultures (Banks, 1998). Minority students need to be included fully in the curriculum; their self-esteem and ability to develop their talents are at stake (Stinespring & Kennedy, 1995). For each student to feel a sense of belonging, art teachers should research and select historical exemplars that reflect the arts and aesthetics of a variety of cultures.
National standards ask that all students in the United States "should be able to develop and present basic analyses of works of art from structural, historical, and cultural perspectives" and that "they should have an informed acquaintance with exemplary works of art from a variety of cultures and historical periods" (Music Educators National Conference, 1994, p. 19). Art historical inclusiveness requires a paradigm shift from ethnocentrism to cultural relativity. To understand a culture's art, it is necessary to understand its aesthetic, the philosophy that indicates salient features and functions of art within that culture. Furthermore, the art must be appreciated from the perspective of its creators. Definitions of art are culturespecific.
This article identifies the visual arts and aesthetic standards of two cultural groups represented in my art classroom: African Americans and Cambodian refugees. For 400 years, African-American artists reflected prevailing European or Euro-American ideas; honored their heritage as part of the African diaspora; recorded U.S. history from a Black perspective; expressed religious, spiritual, social, or political messages; or synthesized personal world views with any of these traditions (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1970; Klotman, 1977; Dallas Museum of Art, 1989; Driskell, 1995). In contrast to the multi-faceted body of African-American art, Cambodians, who began immigrating to the United States in 1980, have not yet produced a body of Cambodian-American art. Rather, they rely upon Cambodian cultural identity derived from its Golden Age, 600-1600 C.E, the only period of self-rule in its 2,500-year history. Its stylized temple sculptures are didactic narratives glorifying Hindu and Buddhist gods, goddesses, and mythology.
African-American Aesthetic Tradition
An analysis of African aesthetics is a prelude to the study of African-- American art. Though there are thousands of African-centered aesthetics, it is possible to describe dimensions of a general, Pan-African aesthetic (or Nzuri) with roots in the ancient Egyptian and Nubian cultures. At its center is the Life Force, an energy that flows through all beings and things and is manifested in three units: spirit, rhythm, and creativity. Aspects that interact with each unit are: meaning, ethos, motif, mode, function, method/technique, and form (Welsh-- Asante, 1993). This aesthetic sense is a bond between Africans and African-- Americans. In traditional African cultures, art is not created for arts sake, for collectors, or to be placed in museums. The form and function are one. Art expresses the life force, interwoven with daily activities and spiritual beliefs, the sacred and profane, mind and body, natural and supernatural (Welsh-Asante, 1993). Ancestors are commemorated, living elders are respected, for, after death, they will continue to influence deities (Klotman, 1977).
"Black American ethnic culture has its roots in the African aesthetic which presents the felt reality or expressive quality from any work of art with such intensity that it seeks to evoke movement or utterance... in the context of aesthetic response" (Hoard, 1990, p. 155). Characteristics of Black aesthetics include formal structure (the use of color intensity, form, and pattern), depth of feeling, and physical responsiveness (Franklin & Stuhr, 1990).
Art created by African Americans who worked within the European-- American tradition are designated mainstream (Logan, 1990; Klotman, 1977). Prior to the Civil War, few records exist of African-American artists due to prohibition against their education. Joshua Johnston, a light-- skinned, biracial, free householder, supported himself from 1796 to 1824 as a limner, a self-taught portrait painter. Others were representational landscape painters: Robert Duncanson (1821-1872), who studied in Canada, and Edward Bannister (1828-1901), who earned commissions from wealthy abolitionists. Bannister won first prize in the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876-until his race became publicly known, at which time the prize was rescinded (McElroy, Powell & Patton, 1989; Frye, 1993; Hoard, 1997). After the Civil War, legal barriers were lowered so that Blacks could enroll in art schools. As a result, African-American artists assimilated the major styles dominating late 19th-- and early 20th-century American art.
Art by African Americans who worked within the European-American tradition but began to illustrate the lives of Blacks could be labeled as 'blackstream' (Logan, 1990; Klotman, 1977). Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-- 1937), the son of a prominent Black minister, persevered against childhood illness and racism. His biblical subjects earned recognition at the Paris Salon. Later, he influenced African-- American genre painting with his portrayal of experience teaching youth in the Banjo Player (Mosby, 1995; McElroy et al., 1989).
As the Jazz age began around 1920, World War I and the mass migration of Blacks from the rural south to the urban north led to a renaissance in African-American arts. These experiences "cultivated an aesthetic spawned by the experience of slavery and seeded with the half-remembered fragments of an African past" (The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1987,
Alain Locke who wrote The New Negro, and W. E. B. Dubois who advised artists to represent their dual identities as Africans and as Americans, together energized writers, musicians, and visual artists. Artists felt a deep, spiritual kinship with their African pasts. African-American artists first adopted White stereotypes of Africans, as either savage or sacred. After artists made pilgrimages to Africa, these images were replaced with realistic portrayals (The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1987; Hoard, 1997).
Intellectuals and artists flocked to Harlem, New York, where the Harmon Foundation supported Black artists, offering exclusively Black exhibitions. Meta Warrick Fuller (1877-1968), who studied under Rodin, captured the pride and spirit of the Harlem Renaissance in her sculpture, Ethiopia Awakening. Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) narrated a stylized visual history while Palmer Hayden (1890-1973) presented a candid, controversial view of African-- American life. Some Harmon Foundation prize winners were able to study in Europe where they were influenced by contemporary styles. Among them, Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998), Hale Woodruff (1900-1980), and William H. Johnson (1901-1970) each experimented with abstraction (The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1987). Much African-American art combines subjects from Black popular culture with modernist styles (Driskell, 1995). During this period and continuing in influence, two philosophies co-existed. Blackstream artists employed mainstream styles with Black themes, while others, called Neo-African or Afro-centric, based work upon the African aesthetic and African art visual qualities using its symbolism, color harmonies, and patterns (Logan, 1990).
The next generation of Black artists was funded by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. Romare Bearden (1912-1988) studied under German Expressionist, George Grosz, and developed a personal style inspired by cubist collages, jazz music, and the Black experience. Jacob Lawrence (1917-2001) portrayed the lives and struggles of African Americans in a colorful, abstract style. Hughie Lee Smith presented urban alienation in cityscapes. Charles White (1918-1970) and Elizabeth Catlett (b. 1919) expressed the Black experience through sensitive, realistic portrait and figure drawings and sculptures. John Biggers (1924-2001) first depicted the lives and migration of poor southern Blacks, then incorporated African rituals, themes, and patterns in his work.
After World War II, the focus of the art world shifted from Europe to New York and centered upon a series of abstract movements that included African-American artists. Sam Gilliam (b.1933), Alma Thomas (1891-1978), and Joe Overstreet (b. 1934) used the African aesthetic components of color, form, and pattern to evoke moods in their non-objective artworks.
In the 1960s, the civil rights movement, the burgeoning inner city underclass, and Vietnam war led to the Black Arts Movement.
Black art is a didactic art form arising from a strong nationalistic base and characterized by its commitment to a) use the past and its heroes to inspire heroic and revolutionary ideals, b) use recent political and social events to teach recognition, control, and extermination of the `enemy,' and c) to project the future which the nation can anticipate after the struggle is won. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 1970, p. 4)
In Chicago, the Africobra group expressed the political power of Black ideology through public murals like the Wall of Respect. Their aesthetic was pragmatic-to change society. They helped establish an iconography of neo-African themes including the use of red, green, and black (symbolic of the blood, earth, and people) and the black clenched fist signifying Black Power (Dallas Museum of Art, 1990).
The attitude of contemporary African-American artists is postmodernist (Driskell, 1995). Faith Ringgold (b. 1930) and Michael Cummings (b. 1945) use symbols to communicate African-American perspectives in their story quilts. David Hammond (b. 1943) creates assemblages that place the viewer in an uncomfortable position of empathy. Martin Puryear's sculptures, variations on the theme of nature, have symbolic meaning. Betye Saar (b.1926) creates assemblages that communicate the spiritual quality of altarpieces. Her daughter, Allison, uses sculpture and mixed media to combine African heritage and contemporary American themes. African-American art is a label for a complex body of art representing a range of styles and aesthetic standards. African-American art is frequently autobiographical, illustrating Black subjects and expressing the artist's attitude about issues of race and ethnicity (Driskell, 1995). Shared pride in African heritage is the singular common theme.
Cambodian Aesthetic Tradition
To understand the Cambodian-- American culture of students, it was necessary to research the history and art of their homeland. Cambodia is smaller than many African countries, with a population 90% ethnic Khmer and 5% Chinese-Cambodian. During most of its 2,500-year history, the country experienced wars and occupations by foreign states. The one exception is the Golden Age, 600-1600 C.E., during which time ornately decorated Hindu and Buddhist temples were built in the Angkor region. Most Cambodian art since that time has been overshadowed by its past grandeur. Innovation was not valued in Cambodian art, which is restricted in subject and style. Recurring images are the sculptures of Buddha in his various forms and the main Hindu deities: Shiva, Vishnu, and Ganesh. Though similar to and derived from Indian sculptures, Cambodian art depicts little of Indian eroticism. Serenity, gentleness, and aloofness mark them as Cambodian (Meisler, 1997). The sculpted temple complex, Angkor Wat, represents Cambodian grandeur on the modern Cambodian flag (Meisler, 1997). In 1,000 years of creative production, no artists signed their work. When the Khmer god-king was defeated by the Thai in 1600, all artists and craftspeople were removed to Thailand and enslaved.
Cambodia was ruled by neighboring countries until it became a French protectorate from 1863-1953 (Meisler, 1997). When independence was granted in 1954, civil wars raged until the repressive reign of the communist Khmer Rouge gained power from 1974-79. Pol Pot's regime destroyed most artifacts of Cambodian culture. Ninety percent of teachers and professors were killed. Prior to Pol Pot, there were 380,000 artists and intellectuals. After Pol Pot, only 300 survived. After the holocaust, survivors were relocated to collective farms. Spouses and children were separated to eliminate family cultural support systems and opportunities for education.
Art has traditionally been a low priority in Cambodian culture (Ebihara, Mortland, & Ledgerwood, 1994). Since Cambodian art was religious, its expression became illegal under communism. While Vietnam conquered Pol Pot, peasants found refuge in Thailand camps. (The Cambodian Refugees in America, 1998; Ebihara et al., 1994). Today, ruled by a royal family after internationally supervised elections, native Cambodians remain desperately poor with 90% living in the countryside where they depend upon subsistence agriculture (World Art Treasures home page, 1999).
Cambodian immigrants began entering the United States after 1980 when churches across America responded to their plight by "adopting" families. Cambodian refugees were dispersed to quicken assimilation into U.S. society (De Silva, 1994). Over 180,000 Cambodian refugees live in the United States, including children born after their parents' arrival. The majority are of rural agricultural background with second- to third-grade educations. Most had lived in Thai refugee camps for 10-20 years where a generation was born without knowledge of traditional culture and art (The Cambodian Refugees, ERIC website, 1998). The majority of those in the camps had witnessed the torture and death of family members. Cambodian refugees typically encounter barriers of poverty, prejudice, and racism as they try to adapt to U.S. culture. They experience the disintegration of traditional family structure, role hierarchy, and social support systems while persistent cultural conflicts challenge long-held beliefs, values, and socialization practices (Chan, in Lynch & Hanson, 1992).
Interaction of three factors contributes to current inter-generational tensions: 1) a parental culture that emphasized absolute parental knowledge and child deference to that knowledge; 2) traditional standards for child behavior that are radically different than those of the host culture; and 3) relative lack of information on the part of many Cambodian parents concerning U.S. culture and society (The Cambodian Refugees, ERIC website, 1998).
The Cambodian aesthetic is religion-- based. Related to Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism, Cambodian philosophy emphasizes life's suffering, a belief in the unity of all life, equality, and spiritual perfectability. The Cambodian cosmology integrates science and religion. It includes animism in which magical spirits cause misfortune and affliction (Marcucci, 1994). Many believe that animistic spirits and Buddhist deities play a part in virtually every aspect of social and material existence (Smith, 1994).
Hindu art has a didactic purpose, showing how to live. There is a socially accepted "right way" of approaching objects that society designates as works of art. The role for audience members is to actively construct meaning (Smith, 1994).
The Cambodian-American aesthetic is illustrated by responses to mass media. Homes are filled with loud and animated human activity, conversation, laughing, and arguments. The television is a centerpiece, adorned with garlands, pictures, plastics toys, and statues surrounded by Buddhist posters and Hindu drawings of the gods Krishna and Radha and posters of Angkor Wat or other temples (Smith, 1994). Images such as Angkor Wat are used in new contexts with new meanings, to preserve the culture while adapting. (Ebihara et al., 1994). The Cambodian culture minister allowed a traveling exhibition of ancient Angkor sculpture because a whole generation is totally ignorant of its heritage. Immigrants are "de-culturized"-they don't know where they belong (The Arts Zone, 1998). Cultural art experiences may be therapeutic for refugee or immigrant children (Brunick, 1999).
African-American and Cambodian Aesthetics in the Art Classroom
A multicultural art curriculum that includes historical and aesthetic information about African-American and Cambodian cultures will reinforce the self-respect of students from those groups. Simultaneously, it exposes all students to various definitions of art and provides greater appreciation for a broad range of artistic styles and ways of life.
Though very different, there are common cultural characteristics or experiences shared by African Americans and Cambodian Americans in the following areas: 1) cultures represent a diaspora, having been displaced from their homelands through tragic events; 2) traditions of strong extended family support systems remain in spite of historically-- forced separations of family members, aspects of which include reverence for the elderly and children, with expectations of filial obedience; 3) suffering [is part of life], resulting from racism in the United States; 4) spirituality is central to culture as formal religion and as informal beliefs, which may include spiritism or animism; and 5) [there is] nationalistic pride and group identity, with a sense of "otherness" in U.S. society.
The following are common to both African-American and Cambodian-- American art and aesthetics: 1) art conveys religious and spiritual beliefs; 2) art combines form and function for pragmatic purposes; 3) aesthetic responses to art include physical and verbal participation; and 4) strengths and splendors of cultural pasts, once lost, are being revitalized.
Creating a Multiculturally Sensitive Art Classroom
Art teachers can teach about African, African-American, Asian, and Asian-American artworks. Students should consider various aesthetic theories: formalist (emphasis on elements and principles); mimetic (based upon the real or ideal); expressionist (feelings-based); instrumental/pragmatic (serves a cultural purpose); critical socialist (ideas expressed for the betterment of society); and postmodernist (personal, spiritual, or culturally-based). Students should interpret multicultural works from the perspective of the artist within the cultural context.
Beyond classroom study of art history and aesthetics, multiculturalism can be infused into art production. Using African-American and Cambodian art as exemplars, students can be encouraged to communicate personal ideas and beliefs that reflect their own cultural experiences instead of creating variations on another's theme.
One example, used in my classroom, reconfigured a traditional still life assignment. Each student collected cultural artifacts of personal significance, then composed an individual still life. Each artwork was unique. This assignment produced a range of works that reflected Cambodian, Korean, Chinese, African, African-American, Islamic, Israeli, Russian, and EuroAmerican cultures. Student writings explaining the personal symbolism were displayed with the artworks.
When art teachers research the artistic cultural background of their students, finding visual resources to use along with traditional EuroAmerican artworks, all students benefit. They learn to understand the multiple reasons that artists create and to appreciate the traditions of their ancestors and peers. New styles and meanings are added to their visual and aesthetic vocabularies. Finally, students discover that the need to express their own stories and the goals of the art teacher have become integrated. Everyone is welcomed, and everyone wins.
Editor's Note: Teaching Tolerance
A dear friend of mine is a Red Cross volunteer who was assigned to Ground Zero. I kept in contact with him as best as I could in the busy days following the tragedy. I conveyed words of support from mutual friends and inquired if he had any messages for them. He responded, "Some people have asked if there is something they can do. There is. Have some fun in my place. Do something nice for someone else. Volunteer work is good. And being a little more tolerant of others would also help a lot... " Tolerance and understanding are essential with so many people, all with their own hopes and beliefs, sitting in our classrooms and sharing this planet. For those unfamiliar with the resource, I recommend www.TeachingTolerance.org. The web site has material relating to the events of September 11, and the organization also publishes a fine periodical.
Banks, J. A. (1998). Multicultural education and curriculum transformation. In F. Schultz (Ed.), Multicultural Education 98/99, pp.83-93. Sliuce Dock, Guilford, CT: Dushkin/McGraw Hill.
Brunick, L.F. (1999). Art as a survival tool for immigrant and refugee students. Art Education, 52, 12-17.
Dallas Museum of Art. (1989). Black art ancestral legacy. Dallas: Abrams,Inc.
De Silva, C. (1994, April 20). New years greetings Cambodian style. Newsday.
Driskell, D. C. (1995). African American visual aesthetics: A postmodernist view. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Ebihara, M. M., Mortland, C. A., & Ledgerwood, J. (Eds.). (1994). Cambodian culture since 1975: Homeland and exile. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Franklin, P. G., & Stuhr, P. (1990). Black adults' aesthetic responses to selected African-American and African art. In B. Young (Ed.), Art, culture, and ethnicity, pp. 53-59. Reston. VA: National Art Education Association.
Frye, D. (1993). Workshop on AfricanAmerican art. Presented at Columbia Public Schools, Columbia, MO.
Hoard, A. W. (1990). The Black aesthetic: An empirical feeling. In B. Young (Ed.), Art, culture, and ethnicity, pp. 155-168. Reston. VA: National Art Education Association.
Hoard, A: W. (1997). Workshop on AfricanAmerican art. Presented at Columbia Public Schools, Columbia, MO.
Klotman, P. R. (Ed.). (1977). Humanities through the black experience. Dubuque, IA: Hunt Publishing, Co.
Logan, 0. L. (1990). Concepts and values of black and white art instructors affecting the transmission of the black visual aesthetic in historically black colleges and universities. In B. Young (Ed.), Art, culture, and ethnicity, pp. 247-267. Reston. VA: National Art Education Association.
Locke, A. (Ed.). (1925). The new negro: An interpretation. New York: A and C. Boni. Lynch, E. W., & Hanson, M. J. (Eds.). (1992).
Developing cross-cultural competence. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co. Marcucci, J. (1994). Sharing the pain: Critical
values and behaviors in Khmer culture. In M. Ebihara, C. Mortland, &
J. Ledgerwood, (Eds.), In Cambodian culture since 1975: Homeland and exile. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
McElroy, G. C., Powell, R. J., & Patton, S. F. (1989). African-American artists 18801987. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Meisler, S. (1997, June 29). They weren't always the killing fields. Los Angeles Times, p. 6.
Mosby, D. F. (1995). Across continents and cultures: The art and life of Henry Ossawa Tanner. Kansas City: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (1970). AfroAmerican artists: New York and Boston. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
National standards for arts education. (1994). Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference.
Smith, F. (1994). Cultural consumption: Cambodian peasant refugees and television in the "first world". In M. Ebihara, C. Mortland, and J. Ledgerwood, (Eds.),
Cambodian culture since 1975: Homeland and exile. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Stinespring, J. A., & Kennedy, L. C. (1995, January 1). Meeting the need for multiculturalism in the art classroom. The Clearing House.
The arts zone interview with Helen Ibbitson Jessup, curator of sculpture of Angkor and ancient Cambodia at the National Gallery of Art. (1998). Ovation, the arts network, http://www.ovation.com/artszone/ programs/angkor.
The Cambodian refugees in America. (1998). Http://eric-web.tc.columbia.edu. The studio museum in Harlem. (1994).
Harlem renaissance: Art of black America. New York: Abradale Press, Abrams, Inc. Welsh-Asante, K (1993). The African
aesthetic. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
World art treasures home page. (1999). Http://sunsite.nussg/SEAlinks/ cambodia-info.html.
Cheryl Venet is the Fine Arts Coordinator for the Rockwood School District in West St. Louis County, MO.
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Welcoming African-American and Cambodian Art into the Classroom. Contributors: Venet, Cheryl - Author. Magazine title: Art Education. Volume: 55. Issue: 2 Publication date: March 2002. Page number: 46+. © National Art Education Association Mar 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.