Unit 2: Art and Knowledge

This unit is part of the curricular materials developed to accompany the exhibition Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives. It is based on works in the first section of the exhibition called Art and Knowledge. In this gallery works are introduced that convey knowledge and communicate history. Such objects have long been used to evoke proverbial wisdom, to impart esoteric teachings, to celebrate family genealogies, or to express moral values.

This unit contains an introductory statement, along with some provocative “Questions for Thought,” and suggestions that will inspire the students to relate the unit to their own lives.

Read the Overview of the Curriculum Resource Unit for Intersections to get an overview of the exhibition, recommendations of how to use this resource, as well as an extensive listing of curriculum correlations with national and California state frame works and teaching standards and the Open Court Reading Program for each lesson.

Unit Overview


Across cultures and through time works of art are bearers of knowledge and communicators of history. Such objects have been used to evoke proverbial wisdom, to impart esoteric teachings, to celebrate family genealogies, and to express moral values as they encode, protect, convey, or elicit particular types of information. In such contexts, art functions like language, sending messages and safeguarding intellectual heritage.

Using selected objects, we explore ways in which works of art have made communication possible. In Painting History we see that the iconography of archaeological objects has taught us about the practices and lives of historic peoples who left no written records. Memory and Cosmology follows with a consideration of memory devices designed to assist their owners with the recollection of people, events, and sacred places from the past.

Certain works of art are central to the education of children and adults. Masks, puppets, or dolls may be Performing Knowledge as they become teaching tools to convey a people’s epic and religious history to its audiences. In Proclaiming Heritage we see how designs and motifs recall ancestors and guide succeeding generations.

Whether worn, carried, displayed, buried, or performed, these particular works of art were storytelling devices and linked to cosmological, spiritual, and cultural beliefs. They played critical roles in the perpetuation of traditions and teachings conveyed from generation to generation, teacher to student, performer to audience.


Questions for Thought

  • How can the arts play a role in imparting knowledge?
  • In what ways do works of art function like language?
  • How do we learn of our past? How are we helped to remember what we’ve learned?
  • What roles do museums play in connecting art and knowledge?
  • How do societies communicate their histories and life lessons through proverbs? How might visual images work with a proverb to reflect an idea?
  • How do groups of people perpetuate their history? What steps can be taken to guarantee that this knowledge will be passed on to those who follow? Do you think that this is important?
  • How can visual and performing arts play roles in the construction of narratives about memory and history?
  • When and how does art become an important means of communication?

Select one object (or more, if you choose) in this section that is a good example of how art can help a viewer (or user) learn about his or her heritage or the past, how to properly act, or how to gain information of any sort. How does that object exemplify the premise that “art forms are transmitters of knowledge and communicators of history?”


Art, Knowledge, and You

Does art ever play a part in helping you to gain or communicate information?

Consider objects in your home that you think of as “art.” Select some that helped you learn about your heritage or the past, how to properly act, or how to gain information of any sort. What objects did you choose? Explain your selection.

Consider experiences in your own life. Has art been part of family remembrances that helped you to learn about your history? Is there an illustrated Bible or record of ancestors? Are there prized photographs of family members in earlier times? Is there a family “keepsake?”

Is it important to remember your own history? That of your family? Your community? What factors contribute to your opinion?

Are any of your family activities based on those of past generations? Is art integral to these activities?

Unit Lessons

Lesson 5: Painting History. Fineline Painted Vessels of the Moche, Pre-Columbian Peru

CRU_Lesson11_Intersections_cover_0The Moche peoples of ancient Peru (100–800 c.e.) portrayed complex scenes on fineline painted ceramic vessels, depicting everything from hunting and fishing to the ritual battles of supernaturals. Studying the painting on these vessels offers excellent opportunities for students to practice their skills of visual literacy as they gain a deeper understanding of the ancient Peruvian world.


Lesson 6: Memory and Cosmology. Nkisi Nkondi: A Power Figure of Central Africa

CRU_Lesson6_Intersections_cover_0Students study the iconography of a Ghanaian drum and investigate its meanings in terms of the history and cultural traditions of Ghana. As students “read” the drum, they come to understand the verbal/visual messages of the drum’s iconography. Activities also include creative writing and problem solving as students work with the imagery on the drum.


Lesson 7: Memory and Cosmology. Creator/Ancestors: The Wawilak Sisters Bark Painting, Australia

CRU_Lesson7_Intersections_cover_0_0Study of a bark painting produced in the 1960s introduces students to Aboriginal peoples of Australia and to their histories as revealed through art. The students will investigate and interpret Australian creation stories and use the featured bark painting to explore the changing roles of the arts in Australia, especially as related to issues of women, commerce, and ritual.


Lesson 8: Memory and Cosmology: Cacao and a Ballplayer: Maya Ceramic Vessel, Mexico

CRU_Lesson8_Intersections_cover_0As students explore the iconography of a Maya chocolate vessel they explore topics of hieroglyphics, the ancient ball game, and culinary arts. Other curriculum connections include a focus on the Maya epic, Popul Vuh, in which are told stories of the Hero twins, and contemporary sociological challenges for Maya today. Activities involve research, visual analysis, artmaking, creative writing, and cooking.


Lesson 9: Proclaiming Heritage: Canoes, Carvings, and the Austronesian World

CRU_Lesson9_Intersections_cover_0_0Students’ study of selected objects from Austronesia (Philippines, Indonesia, Polynesia and beyond) provides opportunities to examine the roles that art plays in communicating peoples’ heritage and history. Activities encompass object study to investigate visual symbolism, work with maps and migration patterns to understand how geography and movement shapes family and community traditions, and creative writing to explore the importance of ancestry in communities’ values and belief systems.


Lesson 10: Performing Knowledge: Teaching about the Spirit World: Katsina Traditions, Southwest U.S.

CRU_Lesson10_Intersections_cover_0As students study Katsina traditions of the Hopi of northern Arizona and New Mexico they will become more familiar with the general principles and details that serve to identify the spirits represented. They will consider the importance of corn among Hopi peoples and they will ponder notions of spiritual and environmental balance, as embodied in Hopi values and teachings.


Lesson 11: Performing Knowledge: Education as Entertainment: Asian Puppetry, Burma

CRU_Lesson11_Intersections_cover_0Students explore Burmese puppetry and as they do so they will make puppets and create and perform puppet plays. Their studies extend to Burmese poetry traditions and to Jataka Tales, around which much of the puppet theater in Burma is based.