The Children of Abetenim | A. A. Sieunarine
The earth was red, as if a fire was lit under it. The children walked barefooted, save for some with broken rubber flip-flops. Their skin smooth and shiny like patched coffee beans; light medium and dark roast tossed together in a burlap sack. Their smiles shy and infectious and their beautifully carved eyes glistened like gemstones as if they stood out of sculptured bronze faces. The children of Abetenim, a village near Kumasi in the Ashanti Region of Ghana, taught me to see the beauty and magic of their world through their jeweled eyes and through the impetuous strokes of their drawings
While we worked on the mural in the village, the children gathered every day on site, sitting patiently with attentive stares at our every move. The older ones fetched water for us, and helped with little tasks. It was difficult to engage the younger ones in our process so it occurred to Sondra and me that we could have them create their own art. Sondra gathered art materials (paper, pencils and crayons) while I found a couple pieces of wood for them to sit on. They were so excited to have their own paper and materials that it soon became our little art community class within our mural community, within the larger village community.
Frank Appiah Kubi, a schoolteacher in the village, came regularly to attend to our every need and was happy to see that the children were drawing and becoming part of the daily activities at the site. We are all amazed at the level of respect the children had for adults, but especially for teachers.
I wanted to see what the children would draw given the materials. Drawing was a new experience for many of the children; at first they hesitated, since they did not know what to do. But within moments of picking up the materials they started making strokes, creating lines and choosing colors. According to Viktor Lowenfeld, “children’s first disordered scribbles are simply records of enjoyable kinesthetic activity and not attempts at portraying the visual world”[i]. Most of the younger children’s artwork fell into the preschematic stage of artistic development. The first representational attempt is a person; usually with circle for head and two vertical lines for legs as evident the work of the four- to six-year-old children. Later, other forms developed, clearly recognizable and often quite complex.
Ishmael, whose favorite line was “take my picture” was fascinated with the camera and posed with some of the butterfly drawings which we taped to a wall in the children’s first ever exhibition of their work. The show was very impromptu and I curated it in one of the studio spaces in the arts village that was being constructed by some of the villagers. The children were excited to have their work displayed on a wall. With limited materials, we recycled all the artists’ tape and the young artists helped with the display. With awe, wonder and endearing earnestness the children, Francis, Ishmael, Enok and I created a gallery show of the artwork to the delight of the other children and the village community.
Enok, the 12-year-old boy whose talent was unbound took my sketchbook everyday and drew images with more realism and details. Lowenfeld called this:
The gang stage: The dawning realism. This dawning of how things really look is usually expressed with more detail for individual parts, but is far from naturalism in drawing. Space is discovered and children begin to compare their work and become more critical of it and they are more anxious to conform to their peers. [iii]
This is evident in the two drawings below done by two boys: Francis and Enok. By observing Enok I began to realize that he was a very independent artist with no formal training; with the markers we gave him he continued his drawing process on the walls of his home. He incorporated text and Ghanaian politics to his subject matter.
While most of the boys drew strong looking men with muscles and hat, or copied images from the mural wall, I found a couple of children who were not regular visitors to the mural site. An older girl Faustina in the village who had her own paint and art supplies painted repeated patterns, perhaps symbolic to the patterns in the fabric of her Ghanaian cultural heritage. She was very proud and excited that I came to look at her work. Then there was Maxwell, a shy boy sitting at his table outside his home drawing and writing, undisturbed by the chicken or by me who took many pictures of him.
The opening for the village wall mural, which was celebrated with music and dance, became the opening for the children’s gallery opening as well. And, as we packed our bags and walked through the village for the last time, leaving all the remains of the paints and supplies for the children, I heard the children calling, “Sondra, Sondra”, as they waved their little hands vigorously with smiles on their pretty faces, perhaps not knowing that this was our last sunset in Abetenim. But Benjamin whose portrait is included on the wall along with James, the Chief and Nana Kraah said, “Ann please don’t forget us.”
[i] Perspectives, Drawing Development in Children: Viktor Lowenfeld Betty Edwards http://www.learningdesign.com/Portfolio/DrawDev/kiddrawing.html
[iii] Viktor Lowenfeld Creative and Mental Growth: The gang stage: The dawning realism. http://www.learningdesign.com/Portfolio/DrawDev/kiddrawing.html
Androneth Anu Sieunarine grew up in Trinidad and was educated under the British system of education. She migrated to the United States in the late 1980s after teaching in Trinidad for five years. She attended Brooklyn College where she graduated with a Bachelor and Masters degrees in Studio Art /Art History and Art Education. She attended Columbia University where she graduated with a Doctorate in Art Education in 2008. She is the curator and arts coordinator of New York City Art Teachers Association, a delegate of New York State Art Teachers Association, a painter and a cultural researcher. Androneth currently teachers Visual Arts at The High School of Fashion Industries in New York City.
Also by Androneth Anu Sieunarine in ALT/space:
From Ghana to New York: Forming Art Communities