The Aesthetics of Black Excellence; Celebrating BHM Through Visual Literacy

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Look at these two works of art and imagine for a moment that there are no right answers- anything goes.  Answer the following questions totally unencumbered.  

What do you see?  Make a list. No detail is too superficial.
What are you thinking right now?
What do you wonder?
What connections are you making? What do these images remind you of?  

Let’s focus first on the Kehinde Wiley portrait of Obama.  Maybe, like me, you had answers like:

I see flowers, some purple, some white, some yellow.  I see leaves.  I see a chair.  I see Obama leaning forward.  I see his arms crossed.  

Right now, I’m thinking that I miss Barack Obama.  I’m thinking about how thoughtful he was.  I’m thinking about what it meant to have a leader with integrity.  

I wonder why the leaves and flowers seem to be creeping over him.  I wonder whether he is going to disappear into the leaves and flowers behind him.  I wonder what’s behind there.  

I’m making a connection with other books and works of art that take place in the middle of beautiful nature.  I’m reminded of the Garden of Eden.  I’m reminded of being in gardens. I’m reminded that nature makes me feel connected to something greater than myself.

Now imagine that you’ve invited your students to answer these questions in small groups of 3 or 4, and they’ve written these answers on chart paper.  Imagine the incredible depth and variety of the answers they might provide, given the fact that there are no right answers in this exercise.  

Now it’s your turn as the educator to introduce a little context.  For example, the flowers you and your students surely noticed?  

“From the greenery sprout flowers that have symbolic meaning for the sitter.  African blue lilies represent Kenya, his father’s birthplace; jasmine stands for Hawaii, where Mr. Obama himself was born; chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, reference the city where his political career began, and where he met his wife.” (Obama Portraits Blend Paint and Politics, and Fact and Fiction, NY Times, 2/12/18)

See where your students take this context given their answers to the other questions.  

What meaning do my wonderings take on now that I know this?  What does it mean to say Obama is being reclaimed by these particular flowers?  Now that he’s out of office, does he get to return to the truth of who he really is?  Or did his presidency grow out of this greenery and that’s why he seems to be so much a part of it?

Now imagine working with your students to turn these Lines of Inquiry (LOI) into a thesis statement for an essay.  Something like; “Kehinde Wiley’s presidential portrait of Barack Obama uses floral imagery to express the cultural and historic roots of a thoughtful and beloved president”.  In this essay, your students’ noticings become the textual evidence for the cultural experience of the painting.  

Together, we just engaged deeply with a work of art by using literacy strategies.  

This line of questioning is a variation of a “See, Think, Wonder” protocol, utilized by educational organizations like “Facing History, Facing Ourselves”.  I’ve added the connections question, based on my experience with Aesthetic Education and my work as a literacy and language teacher.  

For many years I worked for a school now known as the Maxine Greene School for Imaginative Literacy in the Martin Luther King Jr. Campus on the West side of Manhattan.  Back in the day we were the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry, because Maxine Greene was still alive and in NYC you can only name a school for someone posthumously.  Maxine Greene was the founder of the philosophy of Aesthetic Education, and at the time was the Philosopher-In-Residence at the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education (LCI).   

Maxine Greene developed concepts of “Aesthetic Literacy”.  In her book, “Variations on a Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 11.52.17 PM.pngBlue Guitar: Lincoln Center Institute Lectures on Aesthetic Education”, she describes aesthetic education as “an intentional undertaking designed to nurture appreciative, reflective, cultural, participatory engagements with the arts by enabling learners to notice what is there to be noticed, and to lend works of art their lives in such a way that they can achieve them as variously meaningful.” (pg.6) 

As a culturally responsive educator, I love the idea that our young people can “lend works of art their lives”.  This is deep sentiment, because it implies that the work of art needs them- that it is nothing without the viewer.  How powerful is it to suggest that the great paintings, films, sculptures and works of music are nothing without us?

So much of our experience with the visual arts is oriented in the opposite way.  Great works of art are meant to be looked at and revered, not engaged with.  The shift to aesthetic education is deeply culturally responsive.  It suggests that the true meaning of the work of art lies in its relationship with the full human being who is experiencing it; their cultural, racial, social and historical selves actually make the art come alive.  

During the last three days of Black History Month, I’d love to hear about educators who are building literacy skills in their classrooms through works of art by incredible black artists.  Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama is a great place to start.  But there are so many others worth exploring, like…

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Kerry James Marshall


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Julie Mehretu (My favorite living painter- Ethiopian-born Mehretu’s works are so huge you feel like you could get lost in them…)

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The incredible Carrie Mae Weems.

The list goes on and on.  

This month I’ve been thinking about all the ways Black Excellence has made our world.  Thinking about the incredible contributions Black artists have made to the world of visual arts can actually help us teach our content in a deeper way.  Are you a math teacher?  What are the mathematics of a Julie Mehretu painting? Are you an English teacher reading something that explores family relationships, racial and sexual politics?  Class and the consequences of power?  How about looking at the staggering body of work by Carrie Mae Weems? Are you a history teacher interested in exploring the ways that victors have retold histories? Why not analyze the Kehinde Wiley painting of a Black man on Napoleon’s horse, Napolean Leading the Army Over the Alps, a reimagining of Jaques-Louis David’s Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard?

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All content areas require literacy, so I’d encourage educators to access those literacy skills through the visual arts.  Contrasts and contradictions, repetition, imagery and symbolism are tools that help us construct meaning in our world.  The development of these skills is at the heart of critical thinking which makes it possible for us to imagine a different world than the one we live in.  

I’m in awe of Blackness right now.

Let’s share a little of that awe with our students and bring our classrooms to life by looking at our content through the eyes of the great Black artists of our time.  

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