Welcoming African-American and Cambodian Art into the Classroom

By Venet, Cheryl | Art Education, March 2002 | Go to article overview

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. …

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