Inspiration of Africa unmasked

17th November 2000 at 00:00
Sally Mckeown reports on a project that combines ICT and the arts

Earlier this morning, I took digital photos of you dressing up, dancing and wiggling your bottoms. I'm going to give these to our web designer and next time you look at the website, you'll see yourselves there." Tony Minnion from the arts organisation Cloth of Gold is used to getting the attention of children such as these pupils at Raglan Road primary school. As artist-in-residence he is introducing them to the delights of the web.

The project, Inspiration Africa! brings together 12 schools, the Horniman Museum, Cloth of Gold, African and Caribbean storytellers, writers, musicians, poets and a web designer. The aim is to find out about the culture and artefacts of Africa. The children are assigned a key object and a theme as a stimulus for their own art work and use one of the items from the African Worlds exhibition at the Horniman. The results will be added to the project website.

The children in Year 2 have spent the time before break trying on costumes and listening to a story from Oyusola Oyeleye, a Nigerian story teller and writer. They have also seen instruments and artefacts from the museum's handling collection and learned a traditional African song.

Thirty children are assembled in the computer room with their class teacher Wendy McGregor. Raglan has a superb computer room: 21 machines linked to a master console, which means that Tony Minnion can give the children a guided tour of the website and show them work completed earlier in the project. The children learn a lot of terminology, ranging from internet to "thumbnail". They discuss where you can access the web and share their favourite sites, ranging from the BBC and Blue Peter to The Simpsons.

Mr Minnion shows them work produced by some of the other schools taking part in the project. New Woodlands, a school for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties, produced two umbrellas and a deckchair. They started with an African stool and the theme of their project was respect. Sandhurst junior school explored a Mende mask from the exhibition. Their theme was beauty and they each produced a head-dress representing their projected adult selves. Kemnal technology college explored a Nkisi power figure; their key word was power and they created their own "power book".

Class 2 becomes keen to see their own object. Tony Minnion calls up on screen a picture of a Bwa plank mask and asks them what they think of it. "It looks like a snake," says one girl. Others say "someone doing a handstand", "a dinosaur's foot" and "a face with a clock nose". Perhaps the best reaction comes from Fergus, who has been thoughtfully chewing his tie for the first part of the lesson. He is so stunned when he sees the mask, he nearly chokes.

Sheila Humbert fromthe museum explains that the mask is really big and very heavy and that only the bottom part covers the wearer's face. It is designed to make young men appear twice their normal height and the dancer has to go into training for six months to build up his neck muscles before he is able to wear it. In ceremonial dances, he has to lower his head and let the mask touch the floor before lifting it again. The plank mask is made from a flat piece of wood, which is carved with a knife or chisel to create patterns and symbols that closely imitate the markings of snakes and other African creatures.

The children's brief is to work from the Bwa mask and design patterns that they will then print on to fabric to make into a kite. They will be going to see the actual mask in the museum the following week. The last part of the lesson is spent filling in a simple template form and e-mailing it to web designer Jacqui Callis. This is to record what they have liked and remembered about the different items they have seen. The template forms are an integral part of recording progress. They are short and simple but give the children a focus for their ideas.

The next part of the project at Raglan is for each child to contribute an image to the Inspiration Africa! Virtual Banner - a collaborative piece of work that features images from all the children taking part in the project over the two years. The 12-metre banner is being designed on specially written software and will be screen printed at the end of the project. The class will also screen print some fabric for their wind sculpture, as well as write poems and design interactive pages for the internet. Amid the technology there will undoubtedly be a lot of singing and dancing as well. project7.html Horniman Museum (closed between January 22 and April 30), tel: 020 8699 1872.Sally McKeown is a professional officer at the British Education, Communication and Technology Agency (Becta), which is running a project with Jubilee Arts on how technology can support music, art, dance and drama and is commissioning case studies. Details:

* The Bwa people, who live in central Burkina Faso in Africa, use plank masks to depict their religious laws in ritual dances. The masks portray the spirits of the wilderness who intervene with the forces of nature to bring health and well-being to the community. When the village elders commission a new mask, the patterns are described in detail to the artist. The symbols have different meanings, which can vary between villages. Small black triangles, for instance, depict antelope hoof prints and a hook is the beak of a hornbill, thought to be a magical bird. The masks weigh more than 25 kilos each and are also used during initiation ceremonies

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