A whole curriculum around inquiry based projects aimed at ‘remixing the canon’ would reveal how contemporary artists improvise on the Western canon of art and visual culture, in order to comment on the significance of the African-Diaspora, Asian, and other non-European identities within contemporary civilization. The Western canon largely dominates the genre of art history and visual culture, however, the traditional images (of affluent white figures and Christian iconography) are not indicative of the increasing globalization that the Western world is experiencing. For example, black and Asian individuals currently account for a vital part of the population in Western countries, however, images of non-caucasian men and women are portrayed differently than caucasian men and women have been and continue to be portrayed in mainstream works of art. To the outside eye, as well as those from within the art world, the Western art scene would appear to be oriented to the ideals of the white male viewer. Although, the art scene is expanding and becoming more diverse, the white male hegemony narrative holds true for the greater part of Western civilization. There are a growing number of ‘disruptors’ whose profound imagery is getting the attention of the cultural elite and inspiring other artists to challenge the status quo. Contemporary artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Awol Erizku, Dedron, Mickalene Thomas, Zhang Hongtu, and Paul Anthony Smith, have turned the Western canon on its head, by remixing iconic Western works of art with multicultural imagery and themes.
Let’s start by looking at Kehinde Wiley’s portrayals of contemporary black men within his Baroque-inspired paintings. Students should scrutinize Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) juxtaposed with the painting it was appropriated from, Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (1801). After viewing both paintings, students should receive some concise art historical background about the artists and the subject matter that each work references (David depicted the famous French leader, Napoleon, leading his army into battle, while Wiley chose a man he met on the street to pose as Napoleon did in David’s painting). They will then be asked to describe, interpret, and analyze Wiley’s art. What are some of the similarities between Wiley and David’s paintings? What creative liberties did Wiley take in altering David’s painting in order to influence our understanding of the work in a contemporary perspective (i.e. what do you think those changes signify)? Was this a successful transformation (i.e. did it make us think about the work in an entirely new light after discussing it in context with the original painting, and the larger context of the Western canon)?
Awol Erizku’s Girl With A Bamboo Earring (2009), Mickalene Thomas’ A Little Taste Outside of Love, 2007, Zhang Hongtu’s The Last Banquet (1989), and Dedron’s Mona Lisa With Pet (2009), are works of art that sample iconic Western paintings in order to create new meaning. Each artist transforms the original painting they’ve referenced by incorporating their unique and diverse cultural perspectives into an entirely new composition.
Erizku’s photographs, of contemporary black women, recreate of works from the Western canon that typify traditional notions of feminine beauty. For example, Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring (1665) becomes Girl With A Bamboo Earring. Here Erizku is asking us to consider how we have and continue to idealize beauty, and black feminine identity throughout the course of Western civilization.
Mickalene Thomas also riffs on Old Master and modernist works of art by incorporating powerful representations of black femininity where white subjects have traditionally been featured. Her painting A Little Taste Outside of Love, samples compositional elements from Titian’s Venus of Urbino (c. 1534) and Manet’s Olympia (1865). Thomas’ painting addresses both the objective and passive role female subjects have played in Western art, as well as the fact that black women were not typically portrayed as major subjects in Western painting. While Titian’s and Manet’s “venus figures” lay passively, presented for the sole enjoyment of the viewer, a white male; Thomas’ Venus is assertive and powerful. She addresses a different type of viewer, the strong black woman.
Tibetan artist, Dedron, recasts popular imagery from Western paintings within a new environment, replete with Eastern iconography and mythology. For example her painting, Mona Lisa With Pet, transforms Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503) into an amalgamation between Eastern and Western culture. The iconic figure of the Mona Lisa is transformed to a vibrant new land, and is depicted with symbols of Buddhist mythology such as the Fenghuang and dragon.
Zhang Hongtu’s work uses the Western canon, including Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495-1498), to critique a part of contemporary Chinese history known as the Cultural Revolution, where Mao Zedong, the leader of the People’s Republic of China, sought to remove all elements of traditional Chinese culture, especially the arts and philosophy. In fact, his Red Army sought to physically destroy monuments to historically and culturally revered figures such as Confucius. Hongtu’s mixed-media work is made from pages of Mao’s “Little Red Book,”
To conclude, let’s look at and analyze picotage works, such as Woman #3 (2013), by the Jamaican-American artist Paul Anthony Smith. Smith manipulates modern day photographs by picking away at their surface to create a pattern symbolic of traditional African beaded masks, in order to comment on the African Diaspora and question the complexity of the his own cultural background.
Several lessons incorporating different media and techniques can be used to develop a multicultural arts-centered curriculum that references the Western canon in a way, which makes it relevant to students who may not feel well represented by the traditional imagery often associated within well known works of art. Any of the examples above by Wiley, Erizku, Dedron, Thomas, Hongtu, and Smith, can serve as inspiration for projects that have personal significance to the students’ lives and express the intersectionality of identity.
In the classroom, students should be encouraged to share their personal experiences of cultural traditions that have been passed down within their family or community. How have these traditions held up in the contemporary world? If they began outside of the country/city/state that they’re currently living in, how have these customs or traditions been modified or transformed to correspond with their new geographical environment? Students will think about their own cultural identities and the customs and traditions that are familiar to them. They can make a list of specific iconography associated with their cultural identity and discuss how their cultural experiences are different or similar to the mainstream images they see in Western culture. Assuming the role of a sociologist/anthropologist, students can interview a family member in order to find out about their cultural identity and then create a portrait of them, which expresses that information. For example, they can have photograph their subject posing as a figure within a well known work of art and transform the more traditional artwork into a personalized portrait with symbols or elements that are indicative of the person they have chosen to represent. The possibilities are diverse and plentiful.
Note: this post was inspired by the writings in Julia Marshall & David M. Donahue’s Art-Centered Learning Across the Curriculum: Integrating Contemporary Art in the Secondary School Classroom (Teacher’s College Press, 2014).