4th Grade Trip the VMFA: “Hear My Voice: Native American Art of the Past & Present” Exhibit

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We went took 4th grade to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The VMFA is in walking distance from our school, and most exhibits are free, so we are super lucky that we really get to think of the VMFA as part of our classroom experience. Student have been here many times by the time they graduate from Fox. This is the first time, however that I have taken students to this particular (interactive) exhibit called “Hear My Voice:  Native American Art of the Past & Present” because it is new.

Fourth grade students examined work by contemporary Native American artists like: Bunky Echo Hawk (center), as well as ancient examples of craft and culture, like this beaded child’s vest and Dream Dance Mask. Our students were obsessed with Bunky Echo Hawk’s painting. This image called Freshman 15 references the poor diet forced on native people’s by Western culture. Something about the dramatic lighting, with dark shadows, bulging tummy and angry look on the subject’s face really appeals to 4th graders.

We spent a long time as a class talking about this series of photographs by Wendy Red Star, who, through her work, questions the Western perception of native peoples as they are presented in dioramas in museums like the Natural History Museum in D.C. (where we, coincidentally, usually go in 5th grade).

Students also spent a long time drawing the works of art on display in this exhibit, paying close attention to pattern, line and texture in various works of art. I love this kind of trip, a cross between art making and investigating because I think it makes students feel like they are part of the conversation that goes on between artists, the culture, and the museum. If you haven’t been to the “Hear My Voice:  Native American Art of the Past & Present” exhibit, I recommend it.

Friends who are used to multimedia experiences or who like to fidget can press buttons and listen to recordings of the contemporary artists in the exhibit interpreting the ancient works of art. The Dream Dance Mask for example is interpreted by Holly Wilson, who made the work at the entrance to the exhibit called Bloodline: The Matriarchs. She talks about this mask and what it might mean to different tribes based on her own experience. The audio gives us an idea of what to think of the feathers, the teeth, the eye shapes, and the color…and how it might transport both the wearer and the person viewing them to another realm through an ancient ceremony which may or may not be practiced any longer.

The gallery is full of interesting pieces that do seem to talk to one another, just as the contemporary artists comment on the older works.  At the end of the exhibit students can add their own voice and commentary by writing or drawing responses on blue paper and hanging it up as they leave. Two thumbs up!

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