Teaching cultural exchange is a great opportunity to collaborate with your art teachers and create multi-disciplined projects! There are different ways to go about it. One could recreate a historical artistic exchange by directing research into the original cultural expression and the newer, adopted art form. One could demonstrate the concept by taking a historic art form and making it anew with today’s cultural iconography. One could assign the design of an edifice that is blending cultures or build a model of an historical example that demonstrates cultural borrowing.
The Museum of Russian Iconography did something like this for field tripping students of Clinton Middle School. In their blog post, “From Field Trip to Exhibiting Artists: Clinton Middle School & MORI Partnership,” the museum blogger Julia Metzidakis explained the field trip, art-making, and exhibition for the middle school students. Each student was encouraged to pick their own subject for the icon portrait. Below, is an excerpt from the blog sharing some of the inspiration students used to pick their subjects:
“I picked JK Rowling because I admire her. She overcame the challenges of being a poverty-stricken single mother and wrote what was is probably the most successful book series ever. Joanne Rowling has inspired me to be a writer. Many people have been moved by her story, and have attempted to overcome their own challenges because of her. I hope one day to be as good a person as JK Rowling.”
“I picked Muhummad Ali because I like boxing. I also like sports. He has determination like me to win. He never stops believing, just like I do.”
“I picked Michelle Obama because she is helping the world with healthy eating, getting outside, exercise and much more. Michelle is someone I look up to, a great role model. She is also very stylish and fun.”
Another way to try this is to look at book-making. Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord has created entire career out of this concept of book-making from different cultures. I harbor dreams of someday making an illuminated manuscript out of the Declaration of Independence, but what a great assignment it would be in understanding how certain documents are regarded by different societies. (Add a twist and you could specify making one that is rich with 1776 iconography versus 21st century iconography, or evolving iconography from the last 200+ years.) Illuminated manuscripts from the medieval era are, themselves, rich in cultural exchange–even the pigment used by early Irish and British artists reveals a layer of depth in exchange with blues coming from organic or mineral material as far away as India.
Of course, another way to approach this concept is to use entirely modern examples, but this highlights a potential danger in this type of exercise: Don’t lose track of what you are trying to represent historically. Remember that a project like this involves a lot of doing, which embeds the experience solidly in your students’ mental archive. The memory will only maintain the art project if it is not tightly tied to the historical example and experience. Ways to avoid this deficiency include the following (note: I mention exhibits below because this sort of exposition of the finished product tends to raise the stakes for the students in positive, motivating way):
- require research as part of the art project (whether heavily directed or loosely guided, just make sure they are connecting good information with the project)
- explanatory essay for an “exhibit book” or “exhibit display” or simply as an additional assignment
- set up the art project as a direct metaphor for the historical example–this idea may translate the concept: Greco-Roman ideals contributed to a neo-classical national Capitol in Washington DC; so, design a school or university using the design concepts Thomas Jefferson’s home because of his advocacy of public education
- assign extensive review of relevant artifacts and primary documents–encourage them to be thinking in character, as it were, as they are designing or creating, not just immersing themselves into a creative project of their own design (mimicry is an essential ingredient for the historical learning process)
I want to emphasize that I think a project such as this works best if sparsely used to highlight particularly relevant points. The illuminated manuscripts of Ireland and Britain form the foundation for generations of illuminated books of Psalms, Gospels and Psalters made throughout Europe with varying effects and materials that often reflect the changing domestic and international economic and political exchanges. The central importance of these religious documents to the literate contemporary culture can be correlated to the importance of America’s founding documents in our literate culture, today, thus making an illuminated Declaration of Independence, Constitution or Bill of Rights a relevant activity. Furthermore, there are multiple opportunities to study centuries of European Medieval examples in museums, university archives, or online. Cultural exchange can be demonstrated in an illuminated Constitution, for example, by accounting for the changing face of American culture with the subjugation of the western frontier and the introduction of various immigrant groups in the iconography used.
Keep an eye out for off-beat exhibitions that may also demonstrate the point. For example, during the Japanese Internment, the living facilities were minimal, but the internees made some beautiful artwork out of functional objects, such as furniture. That is the sort of museum exhibit that could fuel an art project, reinforced by the historical material. If you live in a city with a strong connection to an operable sea dock and there was a locally hosted modern exhibit on sailors’ art, you could tie this closely to historical examples of exploration, sea voyages, etc. Many exhibits are also created with correlating online exhibits that can be used, too.
So, take advantage of a great opportunity for a collaborative and interesting project, but don’t overuse it. Make sure it is on point and facilitates a better understanding of the culture you are studying.