What guides the selection of an artist’s thinking and working processes, and contextual information for a lesson based on that artist’s work?
From: Jennifer Childress
In this lesson on Emily Kame Kngwarreye, the lab teacher (M.A.) and I dug into a range of sources to learn about Kngwarreye. Her life experiences, imagery, inspiration, and cultural cosmology deeply informed Kngwarreye’s working methods and artistic outcomes – indeed they were inseparably intertwined with how she created her art. In Emily’s words, they were “Whole lot. The whole lot.”
The question the lab teacher had to wrestle with was how much could our students understand, and could they (or even should they try to) produce work that was informed by ideas from that belief system, without being disrespectful, duplicative, and/or shallow. Since this was a short lesson, the opportunity for 6th graders to learn about Aboriginal Dreamtime and Dreamings was limited. Fortunately, they had just completed a previous art lesson from another lab teacher on a different contemporary Aboriginal artist, Lin Onus, and already had some background on Aboriginal belief systems, the terrible treatment of Aboriginals in Australia, and their long struggle to gain civil rights. Even with this background, however, students had difficulty grasping the concept of Dreamtime as a past and present force, essential to the cultural life of Aborigines. It is such a non-Western concept that even we as teachers could only understand so much. That meant the struggle to understand, and why it was so hard would need to be discussed with students too.
Through our discussions, M.A. and I decided that Kngwarreye’s attitude towards sharing her art and teaching others about her culture provided an opening for this lesson to take place; and she would choose nature as a “neutral” source of imagery for the students. Kngwarreye saw the natural patterns and formations on the earth’s surface as visual evidence of her cosmology; nature could be an inspirational source for students from many different cultural backgrounds. Our lab school was a small urban Catholic school, which served a very diverse international population of students, not all of whom practiced Catholicism. The school’s curriculum encouraged learning about other religions and belief systems as well.
The slides included in this post have been excerpted from the research portion of M.A.’s lesson PPT. They capture much of the research that informed her lesson and eventual choices of working processes (the full PPT in PDF form can be downloaded here). It’s important to note that our research was much broader than what was selected for the PPT; the bibliography on slides 25-27 of the downloaded version provide many accessible sources for further exploration.
The lesson itself (starting on slide 28), contains a further reduced selection of contextual information – enough to help students grasp an essential facet of Kngwarreye’s work in the short 80 minutes they would have to learn about her and try out her methods of painting.
The research M.A. and I did together uncovered many topics that would have informed a much lengthier exploration of Kngwarreye’s life and work, suitable for an older grade level. What wasn’t included in her lesson PPT are these “hot topics”:
- The ancient roots – over 40,000 years – of Aboriginal culture and the renewal of that culture in the second half of the 20th Century.
- A deeper view into several centuries (including the 20th) of colonialism, labor exploitation, and genocide of Aboriginal peoples in Australia; and comparison to the treatment of Indian nations in our own country.
- Kngwarreye’s unusual background as a station (ranch) hand, an occupation she chose for herself instead of house servant, as most Aboriginal women were forced to become in the first half of the 20th Both occupations were little more than slave labor; but being a station hand gave Emily much more physical freedom.
- The wellspring of Kngwarreye’s work – interconnected forms of ritual practice, including song, music, dance, body paint, and sand painting.
- The cultural practice of using dots to cover sacred or sustaining information in art, not meant for the uninitiated (especially whites).
- A more in depth review of Kngwarreye’s artistic background, her multiple and innovative painting styles spontaneously developed as new media were provided, and some comparison to Western art and artists.
- The issue of ownership of Aboriginal artworks, the positive and negative effects of commercialization and fame on Aboriginal artists, including Kngwarreye; and once famous, the resulting claim of kinship to Emily by many who actually were not related by totem or blood.
- Kngwarreye’s ambidextrous artistry, and the impact of a stroke late in life that changed her technique, her palette, and her imagery.
Sources for these topics are included in the bibliography.