Weaving the silken threads

15th September 1995 at 01:00
Non-western influences are a key element in children's experience. Pam Cooley learns how two teachers and one London authority have encouraged pupils to explore art from different cultures.

Seventy per cent of our children are from an Asian background, and naturally our art reflects this," says Val Jones, head of art at Shireland High School, an 11 to 16 comprehensive in Smethwick. "But we don't offer alternatives to western art here just because many of our pupils are from different cultures. Art draws on loads and loads of influences and sources. We recognise and celebrate every culture."

Both Val and her deputy Gill Pugh are artists who manage to paint as well as teach full-time and their interests in different world artists and media has a spin-off in school, not least in the research and visual aids they provide.

A gaggle of vividly clothed puppets hang in corner of the art room and on the wall a multi-ethnic collection of masks. "I always go back and explore the cultural roots of mask making," says Gill. "Where does it come from? How does each culture use it? Why has it got to the point where it is detached from the religion in which it originated? I do it through pictures and slide presentations, getting the children to talk about these sorts of things. When they see something they really like within a culture they build it into their own work."

On another wall observational drawings of fish are the basis for the batik Japanese wind socks on artificial silk being made by the whole of Year 8. When Year 10 were making a collection of pottery heads to be put in the multiracial garden being created in a corner of the barren playground, they considered different ways of looking at the human head, bringing in Egyptian, Greek and African cultures.

The method of integrating non-western and indeed all cultures so successfully into the art curriculum at Shireland High has a great deal to do with careful planning of termly programmes of study, research and resources. The department, and in particular Gill, make their own study booklets and visual aids and, says Val, "We scrimp and save - we are not well resourced in terms of capitation. Five years ago this was supplemented massively by a Sainsbury's award for art education, but our main source of running costs at the moment is our partnership with the University of Central England which sends students to do their teaching practice and group induction here".

Generously, she adds that it isn't only the money that these students bring but also a richness and variety of approaches. For both parties, it must be a very fair exchange.

With funding from the London Arts Board, matched by some local authority money, art and design adviser Julia Page launched Phase 1 of Enfield's Multicultural Artists in Schools Project in 1991. Four infant and primary, two secondary and one special school took part in Phase 1 with five artists from Panchayat, a multiracial association of professional artists directed by Shaheen Merali. The usual arrangement was for an artist to work in a school for one day a week for six weeks.

Each phase of the project is a natural progression from the one before. "The first phase worked so brilliantly for children with special needs that it became quite clear where we ought to go next." says Julia Page. Primary and secondary pupils from the authority's five special schools took part in phase 2. The LEA entirely funded the following phases. Phase 3 concentrated on primary schools with a high proportion of children with special educational needs and phase 4, which ran last term, explored good practice with bilingual and other pupils on the development of visual literacy.

Schools interested in taking part received an introductory booklet describing all aspects of the project, including each school's responsibility to nominate and support a member of staff to liaise with the artist, evaluate the work and produce visual and written documentation, which includes details of the school, how they worked on the project, outcomes, and cross-curricular links.

At a "twilight" meeting with the co-ordinators, artists were allocated to schools according to particular needs. "We focused on areas that would enrich mainstream work in schools," explains Julia. After this meeting all further planning and arrangements were made by the school with the artists.

One of the keys to our success is that we can send in good, tried and tested artists," says Julia. "The philosophy is that the teacher learns from the artists and can continue that work which takes root and becomes embedded in the curriculum. It is not a one-off jolly!" Several schools opted to be introduced to Indian and Javanese batik techniques. The inherent beauty of batik lies in its irregularity of design and colour, making it possible for every child to make a satisfying piece of work. At Tottenhall Infants School to large silk batik panels of portraits of their classmates made by very young pupils are the pride of the school. Initial anxieties about using the hot wax involved were discussed with Shaheen Merali who adapted his techniques to suit the situation. There were no accidents.

At Hazelwood Infants School six and seven-year-olds were divided into three groups to work with Fahmida Shah, taking a popular children's story as the basis for a many- textured wall handing of African animals, huge glowing pastel drawings and delicate paintings on silk. A vital part of the project in a school which counts 23 mother-tongues among its pupils were the diaries in which each child recorded what he or she was doing.

West Lea School for emotionally and physically delicate children took part in phase 1 with Shaheen Merali. Using a silk batik process to explore the topic of "Homes and Houses", vivid and expressive pictures were produced that now line the school corridors. A class of mainly nine-year-olds working to traditional music heard about different foods and religious customs. Shaheen Merali and art teacher Sue Thomas wore traditional clothes while they worked with the group.

These are just a few examples from this highly successful project. Over the four phases, paintings based on pattern and colour in Indian art, the imagery of plants and animals from around the world, relief sculptures and masks and models with Caribbean and Indian links, and puppetry reflecting different cultures are among the variety of work undertaken at primary and secondary level in 20 schools. Julia would now like to focus on schools with refugee children on their rolls, and phase 5 is under consideration.

o Resource packs for phases 1, 2 and 3 of the Multicultural Artists in Schools Project are available at Pounds 6 each from the London Borough of Enfield Advice and Development Service, PO Box 56, Civic Centre, Enfield EN1 3XQ. Tel: 0181 967 9250

o Panchayat can be contacted at 35-37 Folgate Street, London E1

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