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Ex-professor introduces art of Africa to pupils

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Ten-year-old Pascual Cicenia sniffed the elephant hair bracelet he held in his hand. Another child made music on the bush piano. Everyone stared with awe at the black ceremonial mask from which long strands of black raffia hung.

The six children who sat around a table in a room on the second floor of St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Arts last week were learning about the culture and art of Africa.

This hourlong session led by museum volunteer Christian Anderson, a recently retired University of South Florida professor, was just one component of a summer program that teaches children about ancient cultures through art, storytelling, games and hands-on activities.

They listened intently as Anderson enthusiastically introduced them to the masks, sculptures, musical instruments and clothes of Africa.

"I've always been interested in art," said Anderson, who has a doctorate in comparative education and African studies. "I have some African art, so I thought, why not share it?"

This summer he got a chance to share both his art and knowledge with the children who participated in the Ancient Adventures Summer Camp sponsored by the Museum of Fine Arts and the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

Rebecca Russell, curator of education for the Museum of Fine Arts, said this is the second year that the summer camp program has been offered. Besides African culture and art, campers explored the cultures and art of American Indians and Asians as well as those of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt.

For the African art and culture segment, Anderson pulled numerous treasures from a seemingly bottomless leather bag. He also brought to the session his experiences in Africa. He served as a high school principal in Sierra Leone, lived in Ethiopia for two years and traveled extensively throughout northern and western Africa.

Before he began the session, however, he asked the children to tell him what art is. Bradley Hunsinger, who will enter fifth grade at the Canterbury School of Florida in the fall, said art is a "universal language."

And culture, added Anderson, "is everything that is there because people are there . . . including ideas. It's the things that they make, the songs that they sing, the things they care about, the way they make their living and the way they use nature."

Even so, Anderson told his pupils _ all of whom will enter fifth or sixth grade this fall _ there actually is no such thing as African culture.

Africa, he explained, as he displayed a map of the huge continent, is a place of hundreds of languages and cultures. In Sierra Leone, for example, 17 languages are spoken.

Anderson shared his many artifacts. The children enjoyed touching and playing the musical instruments, which included a talking drum, bush piano and wooden xylophone. He bought the last while he and his Sierra Leone pupils were walking through the forest, Anderson told his fascinated audience.

Also eliciting much attention was the intricately carved wooden mask with strands of raffia hanging from the neck. As the young campers poked and prodded, they wanted to know how it was worn and whether the wearer could see through it.

Anderson explained that the mask from the Mende culture of Sierra Leone is worn on top of the head and that the raffia, which is made from leaves, covers the face and the rest of the body. He said that it was worn by a dancer during the rite of passage ceremony for young girls after they had finished preparing to become adults.

The mask, like most traditional African art, explained Anderson, served a purpose. For instance, he said, a farmer who wanted a "picture" of his ancestors would carve sculptures that represented them.

"They didn't make this as art," he said, as he displayed several figures. "They made them to remind themselves of people who are important to them."

As he picked up a flat wooden sculpture decorated with jewelry, he explained to the four boys and two girls that among the Ashanti people of Ghana, mothers carried dolls on their backs to ensure that their babies would be beautiful.

He then showed the children special stone sculptures, called nomoli, that have been found buried on farms in Sierra Leone. No one knows who made the sculptures, Anderson said, but they served as good luck charms for the land.

Unlike traditional African art, the purpose of modern African art is somewhat less practical, he explained. As examples, he showed the campers a pair of delicate, beautifully carved busts made of ebony and a tiny, graceful ivory gazelle. He also held up a painting by Ugandan artist Paul Nzalambaa, aptly called Disagreement, showing two people sitting against a tree with their backs to one another.

The hour of African arts and cultures passed quickly. Pascual, a pupil at Maximo Elementary, knew what he had enjoyed most. "I liked the modern carvings best," he said, adding with the confidence of a connoisseur: "I like real good art."

It was a time of enjoyment for the teacher, too. "I particularly enjoy dispelling a lot of the myths, if I can," Anderson said. "Americans, for all of our wealth, are intellectually isolated. We don't know much about the rest of the world."