For students: We hope this guide will help sharpen your reading skills and deepen your understanding of this issue’s articles.
For teachers: We encourage reproduction and adaptation of these ideas, freely and without further permission from Saudi Aramco World, by teachers at any level, whether working in a classroom or through home study.
— THE EDITORS
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to talk with someone who lived hundreds of years ago? Sure, it’s imaginary. At least in a literal sense, we can’t talk to people from the past. But in another sense—in the sense that we build the present on the basis of what’s come before—we’re always conversing with people who lived before us. Today’s artists “converse” with past artists who developed the forms in which they work. The descendents of immigrants “converse” with their ancestors when they keep cultural traditions alive. And people who use technology can only imagine how those who did the same tasks they are doing, but without the advanced tools, would react if they could see what’s possible now. This month’s activities focus on the notion of conversing with the past, and give you a chance to imagine what those conversations with our predecessors would be like if they were actually to take place.
Theme: Conversing With the Past
How do modern artists connect to artistic traditions?
“Reinventing the Miniature Painting” looks at a centuries-old art form and how it is both changing and not changing in the modern world. The article describes a kind of conversation between today’s artists and the long-ago painters who pioneered the form. It provides a look into how art evolves—through a process of respect, adaptation, “subversion” and transformation.
Read the article. Working in a group of four, discuss these questions:
- How is miniature painting different from other painting that is taught at NCA? (You can look at the photo on page 26 to see one difference.)
- Why do you think some students like the discipline that painting miniatures requires? Do you think you would like it? Why or why not?
- How does the rigor of miniature painting compare to other modern art forms?
“Reinventing the Miniature Painting” describes how the young artists who are learning to make miniature paintings both draw on the tradition of their predecessors and also change it. Working with your group, have one person read aloud the second paragraph of the article. Think about the relationship the author describes in this paragraph: Students learn the discipline of miniature painting and then “later they give their imagination free rein to open new possibilities and new meanings for this highly disciplined tradition, in the context of a contemporary art world where few rules still seem to apply.” Discuss what this quotation means. What does “discipline” mean for an artist? What does it say about how today’s students are using the training they get in traditional art forms? Make a few notes for yourself in response to this question: How do you think traditional miniature painters would react to the ways that today’s students are using their training?
One way modern artists connect to the miniature-painting tradition is through “copying.” In art classes, have you ever copied a famous painting? Why might a student do that? Based on the article, why do you think NCA students do it? Yet the article suggests that copying is more complicated than merely, well, copying. Painter Shahzia Sikander describes it this way: Is copying, she asks, “understanding process, or is it understanding the lineage of the medium, or is it mere appropriation?” What is another word for “appropriation”? Write Sikander’s question in your own words, and in one sentence write your initial response to it. Then read on. Sikander goes on to say, “Copying can also mean understanding history. One has to look at someone else’s work very carefully before relating to it in a personal way, in the same sense as claiming a historical past.” What does she mean? Write her statement in your own words. Then, to think more deeply about the question Sikander poses, make a T chart with your group. Title the left-hand column “Copying is appropriation.” Title the right-hand column “Copying is claiming a history.” In each column, provide evidence or arguments that support that point of view. When you’re done, look at your chart. Have you supported one point of view better than the other? How would you define “copying” now? Write your new definition.
Copying is just one way that modern artists relate to their artistic tradition. The relationship can be even more complicated, and “Reinventing the Miniature Painting” talks about another way that artists build on the old as they create the new. With your group, read the third paragraph on page 26, about Aisha Abid, who, the article reports, “subverts the miniature-making process itself.” Find a definition of “subversive.” Discuss with your group: What is Aisha Abid subverting? How is she subverting it, according to the article? Do you agree or disagree that Abid’s work is subversive? Why? Go back to the notes you made earlier, and jot down some thoughts to answer the question: How do you think traditional miniature painters would react to Aisha Abid’s work? Why do you think so?
Find the other examples in the article of how today’s artists are creating “miniatures in a contemporary medium.” List them, and consider them in the context of what one art critic calls “miniature as attitude”—an attempt not to follow the tradition blindly, but rather to converse with it across generational lines.
Now that you’ve laid the foundation, try having that cross-generational conversation. Have two students in your group take the role of a miniature painter from long ago, while the other two take the role of one of the painters in the article. (The reason for having two people for each role is so that you can work together generating ideas and clarifying your thinking. The two students who represent each character should be “on the same page” with each other, not expressing two different perspectives.) How do you think the earlier painter would like some of the projects the article describes? What attitude do you think today’s artists have toward the people who created their art form? Before you begin the conversation, work with your partner to think through the point of view of the character you’re representing. Make notes of the key points you want to make. Then role-play a dialogue across generations. Afterward, debrief as a whole class, with different groups sharing the insights they gained from the role-playing.
What might Chinese Muslim artists from the late 14th century say to Chinese Muslim artists from the seventh century?
“From Middle East to Middle Kingdom” complicates the question of how artists build on artistic traditions by adding another element: historical context. The article identifies two main periods in the history of Chinese–Islamic art. Make a timeline that shows the two periods. Above the line identify the time periods. Below the line, identify the status that Chinese Muslims had during each time period. How did the group’s status affect the art that they were producing in each time period?
Once again, think about a conversation that two artists might have with each other across the centuries. Divide into different groups of four so that you’re working with different people than you did before. Have two people take the role of a seventh-century artist while the other two take the role of a late-14th-century artist. In your conversation, each person must describe the artwork he or she produced, as well as discussing the status of Chinese Muslims in their time period. As in the previous exercise, think about how the earlier artist might think and feel about the art created later. And think about the attitudes that the later artist would have toward the predecessors. Role-play the conversation. Share insights in a class discussion. Then discuss the similarities and differences between the two situations you have role-played. What generalizations, if any, can you make about artists “conversing” with artists of the past?
How might long-ago mapmakers respond to Google Earth?
Artists draw on a long tradition. So do mapmakers. “Desktop Archeology” suggests that satellite mapping—now available to everyone with a computer and an Internet connection—can reveal stories of the past that we cannot see from the ground, and that until now could be seen only through aerial photographs. But long ago, mapmakers did not have the benefits of satellite—or even aircraft—technology. They had to make maps in other ways. To find out about their efforts to map the Arabian Peninsula, read “Mapping Arabia,” from the January/February 2004 issue of Saudi Aramco World at www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200807/mapping.arabia.htm.
As a class, identify and list the different ways mapmakers gathered the information to create their maps, starting with Ptolemy and including Gastaldi, Speed, Niebuhr and Doughty. List them and their mapmaking methods. Discuss: For what purpose were the maps made? How accurate were the maps? What information did the maps provide that was not available before they were made?
Now read “Desktop Archeology.” How does Google Earth facilitate archeological research? What information do the satellite images provide that wasn’t available before? Before you think about what a Google Earth user and a long-ago mapmaker might say to each other, do this exercise with Google Earth. Find your neighborhood and the town or city you live in. Look around, check out the area. What can you see on Google Earth about where you live that you don’t necessarily see in your day-to-day experience?
Despite the many benefits, there’s a flip side to the view that Google Earth provides. What doesn’t Google Earth show about your neighborhood that you know about because you live there? What does it miss that earlier maps or other kinds of maps catch? Write your observations about the benefits and drawbacks of satellite imagery in a journal entry.
Now think about a conversation between the mapmakers of centuries past and the map-users of Google Earth. Working with a small group again, assign two people one role and two people the other role. Think about what the two people would say to each other. How would Ptolemy react to Google Earth? How do you, as a Google Earth user, react to Ptolemy’s maps? Role-play the conversation, and then share your insights with the class.
As a final activity, look back at the three articles you’ve read from this issue of Saudi Aramco World (plus the mapmaking article from 2004), and the conversations you’ve had across time. What have you learned about how the present and the past are connected? Write a one-page essay or journal entry using this writing prompt: I have come to believe that people today should view their predecessors ______.
|Julie Weiss is an education consultant based in Eliot, Maine. She holds a Ph.D. in American studies. Her company, Unlimited Horizons, develops social studies, media literacy, and English as a Second Lan- guage curricula,and produces textbook materials.