Visual and Verbal Arts of the Akan and Transmission to African-American Culture

By Hanna, Emily; Eubanks, Paula | Art Education, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Visual and Verbal Arts of the Akan and Transmission to African-American Culture


Hanna, Emily, Eubanks, Paula, Art Education


INTRODUCTION

The visual and verbal arts of the Akan people of West Africa are closely linked. Art objects instruct Akan people how to five through symbols that refer to proverbs or other wise sayings. Art in the United States communicates cultural wisdom, too. We can better understand the Akan and American cultures by examining and comparing the role that the arts play in communicating wisdom in both cultures. Art of African-Americans presents a rich source of examples to make the comparison with art of the Akan peoples. Such art is distinctly American, yet because of its ties to the West African culture, it helps us make comparisons and see cultural links through art

In this instructional resource, which is designed for middle school students, we compare values of Akan and African-American cultures and works of art that embody these values. Activities and questions help students discover similarities and differences in symbols and their meanings, in cultural wisdom and how it is expressed, and in ways that values are communicated through the visual arts.

About the Akan People

The Akan people live in the southern coastal region of West Africa, in the present-day countries of Ghana and C6te d'lvoire. This region was named "Gold Coast" and "Ivory Coast"by foreign traders because of the abundance of those precious substances found in the area. The word Akan is the name of a language family and a broad culture that includes many ethnic groups, such as the Ashanti, Fante, Baule, and others.

Many West African cultures prior to colonization, including the Akan, were primarily oral in their communication. In oral cultures, history, literature, poetry, and proverbs are memorized and recited, and great emphasis is placed on the capacity to speak eloquently and truthfully. An educated Akan person is expected to learn many proverbs and be capable of offering a fitting and helpful saying in any situation. Akan artworks are decorated with visual symbols that refer to proverbs and can be "read" much like a written text. Akan symbols and sayings remind people how to live, see, love, work, and worship according to the ancient wisdom of their culture.

QUESTIONS AND ACTIVITIES

The Akan communicate their collective wisdom and cultural values through their proverbs. Proverbs are also prevalent in the United States and encapsulate values in our society. Many proverbs come from the Bible, and some seem to have evolved from popular wisdom such as, "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade." Other proverbs have authors such as Benjamin Franklin who said "A penny saved is a penny earned"; H. Jackson Brown, Jr. who said "You can't stuff a great life into a small dream"; and John F. Kennedy who said "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country." Some proverbs have origins in the many cultures that make up the United States, such as the Japanese saying "Good criticbad worker."

Make a list of proverbs and analyze them. How many of these refer to consequences? How many involve comparisons? How many describe attitudes? How many do you think offer questionable advice? Do any of them have visual symbols that communicate the meaning of the proverb? Who creates proverbs? Select a proverb and write a song or poem that communicates the message. Create a symbol that is a reminder of the proverb.

Proverbs are often about consequences. Using one of those proverbs, make a fold book or draw a comic strip that explains the proverb in terms of cause and effect without explicitly stating the proverb. Trade these books and match them with the proverbs they illustrate.

About the Akan Crown

Chiefs crown, 20th-century, Baule people, C6te d'lvoire Black velvet, wood, gold-leaf

3 1/4 x 7"

The Birmingham Museum of Art Gift of Ellen and Fred Elsas

Most Akan groups, including the Baule, are governed by kings and chiefs. This traditional form of leadership today co-exists with the leadership provided by the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government in those countries. …

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