Out of Africa

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Stuart Frost highlights artefacts that can be used to illuminate rich cultures and histories

The wonder, beauty and strangeness of what is unfamiliar can create powerful and memorable experiences for children. Art and artefacts from other cultures, whether African, Asian, Indian, Native American or Islamic, can inspire and challenge us all.

By exploring the artistic traditions of the world we can encourage children to question their own preconceptions and appreciate diversity.

Work by contemporary African artists such as Sokari-Douglas Camp or Kester, whose Throne of Weapons is made from Russian, European and American weapons collected under amnesty since the end of the civil war in Mozambique in 1992, can be equally valuable starting points for discussion.

It is worthwhile to look at bold and surprising modern and historical works because the misrepresentation or stereotyping of African culture has a long history. The Society for the Suppression of the African Slave Trade produced a medallion that bore the slogan "Am I not a man and a brother" and depicted a kneeling African man, semi-clad, passive, powerless and pleading for help. The image (above) is more complex than it first appears.

The people who produced it were plainly well-meaning, but they perpetuated a very partial picture.

Objects like these can be useful in introducing concepts such as stereotyping, slavery or racism, but without a counter-balance there is a danger of distorting the past. For example, discussion of Africa frequently arises in relation to slavery, colonialism or empire in history at key stage 3. Media and news coverage of the African continent tends to focus on civil war, famine and AIDS and this can further contribute to an overwhelmingly negative and misleading impression.

The rich culture of Africa can also be used in Art and Design. As well as inspiring pupils' own art, objects can be used as sources of evidence for the vibrancy and diversity of Africa before slavery, or exploring the development of empire and colonial rule - a part of the Britain 1750-1900 unit at key stage 3.

In contrast to the medallion, the 19th-century wooden funerary screen from Nigeria (bottom) brings an African perspective on trade with Europe. The screen is a memorial to an ancestor of a clan trading house of the Kalabari people. From the 15th century the Kalabari of the Niger delta were important traders between the interior of West Africa and Europe. Ivory, palm oil, pepper and slaves were traded for European goods such as brassware, alcohol and gunpowder. The ancestor wears a ship headdress; it symbolises the overseas trade, including slaves, from which the Kalabari profited.

The Asante of Ghana also traded with Europe. They imported flintlock "Dane guns", using them in the 18th and 19th centuries to create an empire and supply captives for export. The subsequent conflict between the Asante and the British Empire is reflected in objects such as splendid gold pipes and jewellery.

A further aspect of Africa's relationship with Europe is the extent to which objects were taken away and put in places such as the British Museum.

The Nigerian parliament recently passed a resolution for the museum's collection of Benin brass plaques to be repatriated as part of the country's cultural heritage. The case for repatriation is an issue many children enjoy debating.

A study of art from non-Western cultures can extend children's understanding of art's purposes. This brass head (right) commemorates a queen mother and was made in the 16th century in Benin, Nigeria. It was made to be placed on the queen mother's altar after her death, fulfilling a religious function rather than an artistic one. Indeed, in some cultures there may be no equivalent for the English word "art".

But much of the Western art we admire today for its beauty was also created for religious purposes. For centuries the art of the Christian world was intended to inspire awe and to teach. So art from other cultures can help to illuminate our own past as well.

Stuart Frost worked at the British Museum and is schools education officer at the Victoria amp; Albert Museum, London. For more information about the objects here and the British Museum's African galleries, visit: www.thebritishmuseum. ac.uk compass

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