Behind the mask;Music and the Arts

12th February 1999 at 00:00
Bernard Adams - and a class of 30 - are fascinated by one woman's African art collection.

How can you keep a Year 6 class agog for an hour-and-a-half, draw several cross-curricular themes neatly together, and inspire a series of thoughtful questions and some excellent drawing?

Answer: ask an African art expert to come into the class with about 30 artefacts and a fluent way of linking the objects with the societies that produced them.

The expert is Monika Wengraf-Hewitt, and the class I watched was at Normand Park Primary School, Fulham, south west London.

Monika used to run a gallery of African art and has built up her collection over many years. Before the children come in, she places masks, weapons, animal and human figures made of wood and clay, on the tables.

From the start, the 10 and 11-year-olds couldn't resist touching them. Monika begins with a map of Africa and explains that what is now a yellowy, sandy area was once much wetter.

She introduces the Bushmen, hunter-gatherers who lived in what is now the Sahara and in southern Africa, whose rock-paintings were the beginning of African art.

She explains tribes and their traditional dress and gets rapt attention for her description of how tribal marks on the face are made by cutting the skin and then raising or indenting it.

She shows a series of Ivory Coast masks and explains why the teeth in one have sharp points: it was quite normal for the corners of teeth to be knocked off to make a young girl more beautiful. (Slight intake of collective breath.) Then comes an explanation of why girls were valuable in some African societies: men had to buy their wives and older men could have more and better ones because they had more money. Girls, though, didn't mind about their husbands having more than one wife - there were more people to help with the household and agricultural chores. More rapt attention and intakes of breath.

Monika keeps questioning the class - what are African deer called? Eventually they get antelopes and gazelles. Then she goes on to spirits and draws parallels with Christian saints.

She comes now to an ivory war-horn, then to an altar piece which still bears faint blood stains from animals which have been sacrificed on it; next to a mother and child statue which serves as a water bottle, and a cup from Tanzania which stands on little human legs; then on to a hunting whistle (duly whistled and its use explained), and finally some human figures with outstanding belly buttons (being fat is seen as something admirable).

The talking and the questioning stop briefly while the pupils draw what they have seen. Monika shows them what other schools have done and gives some helpful hints.

Then it becomes more informal - some drawing, some asking questions such as at what age do the Bush people start having babies? How old do you have to be to get married? (These come from girls.) The boys are told to be careful of the weapons they are drawing.

Class teacher Maria Chappel is full of praise for the student teachers, Jemma Staple and Adele ross, who arranged the class and says of the visit:

"It will help with geography - studying a distant locality and other cultures. In terms of art we've had a long look at some original artefacts, and we've heard how the objects were made which is useful for design and technology."

Syllabus or no syllabus, 30 children, one journalist, one photographer, and three teachers have been fascinated.

Monika Wengraf-Hewitt can be contacted on 0181 874 2982.

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