ARt Inspired by Central and West African Sculptures


Abby Birhanu

Grade Level:



Student Choice

Disclaimer: I don't usually write lesson plans so I am not following any standard format in the description of this lesson. Feel free to jump in where it fits into your teaching. Also, I am a Choice-Based/TAB instructor and this lesson is more structured than my usual approach. With that said, I would introduce these concepts briefly and in chunks and allow students to take the research and artwork where they will allowing for as much choice as possible. I do not expect them, nor do I want them to create an "African sculpture or artwork". The expectation is to get inspired, not copy. Although the lesson is designed to be a sculpture project, it can become a painting, a print, a fiber arts project, collage, or be executed through any other medium. I would also do this lesson over a few days, not necessarily following the order presented. The slideshow is meant to be a quick glance hence why I don't go into depth about each sculpture featured. I also tend to add a lot verbally that is not written into the slideshow so feel free to expand on what is presented at length, reduce the content, or reach out with questions. The point of any lesson I present to students is exposure so that they become more aware of cultures different from their own. What they do with that information artistically is ultimately up to them.

Objective: Students will create a work of art inspired by Central and West African Sculptures. Points of inspiration may include (not limited to) the way the sculptures use symbolism, pattern, proportion, movement, and geometric form.

Guided Discussion: Concepts to Explore During Presentation/Discussion

Bell Ringer/Establishing Set: Have students sketch perceived notions of Africa. I usually ask them to sketch images that represent life in Africa. My students tend to draw pictures of animals and people walking through the Serengeti as they have limited exposure to the continent.

Ask students where their notions about the African continent comes from? Most will say the media; what they have seen on TV and photographs. Question to pose: Why are those the only images you have seen? Where is the framing of the story? What is framing? What could be the alternative story? What might be the best way to get the most accurate representation of the African continent?

Also, how do you ask about a person’s culture when you meet them? Here is an opportunity to teach students to let go of assumption when meeting someone of a different cultural background but rather ask open ended questions.

Example: “Wow, you’re from Ethiopia. Cool! What is it like there?” Verses, “Wow, Ethiopia, I heard people live in huts there” or “I’ve seen pictures of starving people. Were you starving?” My students look mortified when I say these things but they are all questions I have gotten when encountering people that do not know much about Ethiopian culture. They too can be prone to asking such questions if not introduced to appropriate cross-cultural communication skills.

From here, I teach them that Africa is a diverse continent comprised of 54 countries with a diverse collection of people who are proud of their individual cultural identities and traditions. There are over 2, 000 languages spoken in Africa. I point out the various regions of Africa (reference scale and population of the continent) and discuss the various art and culture that exist within each.

Share pictures of cities from Africa to show a well-rounded image of the continent. Discuss that artists are living and thriving there today and exhibiting works in galleries as well as creating and displaying art for the public in the streets. Point out that people of Africa want this part seen and appreciated in addition to the popular wild life that is frequently seen in the media.

I then transition to how art can introduce us to the most intimate parts of someone’s culture and can serve as a great insight into the traditions and values systems of a people.

When discussing Picasso, point out where he saw the masks for his inspiration and how they might have arrived in Europe. Were they stolen? Makes for a great discussion for the returning of stolen art. Also, Picasso didn't necessarily give credit to the mask makers for his inspiration. Is this appropriation, appreciation, or inspiration? All good topics in anti-racism to unpack. Let the students discuss it among themselves and guide them along accordingly. Could make for an entire lesson in and of itself. or

We discuss Central and West African sculptures. The links provided have a lot of information. I always suggest these links and give the students the choice to research on their own with guidance as to how to navigate to strong verses inaccurate sources.

You can look at how artist John Edmonds addresses the black diaspora’s connection, reflection, and interaction with African sculpture and artifacts before heading into their research or at some point during the unit of study to bring in contemporary dialogue on the subject.

Students conduct research based on questions provided or other inquiry into the subject of African sculptures.

Building on the lesson:

We continue studying African culture and art throughout the year. We discuss ancient African civilizations (, Adinkra symbols and African textiles from all over Africa. We study Ruth Carter and fashion (costume designer for Black Panther): , Ghanian artist El Anatusi: , as well as Picasso and Cubism.

With the Choice-Based/TAB method, process matters more than product. Most of the lessons are student driven so the outcome of the artwork can look extremely varied in style as well as quality. I love and appreciate all of their art no matter what it looks like and enjoy seeing them engage in the process of research, inquiry, and art making.

SlideShow & Student Art Examples

Art Inspired by African Sculptures.pptx