Summary and Objectives. Students 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. Students will
Lesson 6: Ntan Drum Lesson Plan (PDF, 1 MB)
At social and festive gatherings in Ghana, as in many parts of the world, popular bands entertain their audiences with familiar music. Particularly popular in the 1930s and 1940s were Ntan bands, voluntary associations that provided music for national and community festivals and at weddings and funerals. Central to each group was a large drum embellished with a rich variety of images. These images (and the meanings implied) boasted of the band’s talents, called attention to the natural environment and material culture of the people, and reminded listeners of community values and proper behavior. In the Ntan drum exhibited in Memory and Cosmology, the importance of the band is indicated by the elephant base that supports the drum, suggesting its important social role as supporter of the community’s music.
Ntan drums functioned both as musical instruments and as objects to be read, with visual references to proverbial language. For the Asante and other Akan peoples, visual images illustrate proverbs or other verbal expressions such as praise names, jokes, insults, riddles, boasts, and even longer folktales. The repertoire of imagery includes flora and fauna, objects of daily use, and people involved in social, religious, and political interactions. When used as unique verbal/visual messages, these images define acceptable modes of behavior and underscore essential truths and values of society. This intersection of word and image is essential in Akan art and exemplifies an unbreakable link between art and thought.
The Ntan drum shown in the exhibition is one of many carved by famed Asante artist, Osei Bonsu (1900–1977). The artist’s father was a drummer and a carver, and his son, Osei Bonsu, practiced both arts while still very young. By his teens, he was already carving works that had been commissioned by chiefs in the region. Along with his father and an older brother, Bonsu was employed as a research associate and carver by famed British anthropologist Captain R. S. Rattray, whom Bonsu accompanied on research trips among the Asante. Bonsu carved for the court, for popular drumming groups, for colonial administrators, and for tourists, while teaching for many years at a British colonial school and later at the University of Science and Technology. In 1975 he came to the United States for the Festival of American Folklife at the Smithsonian Institution.
At celebrations and other gatherings, Ntan drum groups provided the musical entertainment, and the imagery on the breasted drums suggested biting social commentary and proverbial wisdom. By “reading” the relief images on such drums we can discern clues to the history of Ghana; by interpreting these images we can also gain knowledge of some of the traditions and social mores of the Akan.
Activity. Have the students study Handout NTAN DRUM ON ELEPHANT BASE and Handout NTAN DRUM WITH QUEEN IMAGE (featuring another drum [and its drawing] in the Fowler Museum’s collection), noting the many carved images on the bodies of the drums. In the classroom, these images can be called out verbally, listed on the board, or sketched by each individual student. A notable feature of an Ntan drum is its protruding female breasts, a reference to motherhood. Indeed some drums feature as many as eight breasts, emphasizing the idea of the drum as “the mother of the group.”
Activity. As they study the images carved on the drums, what clues do students notice regarding Ghana’s history? After noting the juxtaposition of images of Europeans and Africans on the drum, let students do some research about Ghana or you may give them the following relevant facts:
Activity. Let students speculate on the significance of some of the images, ask questions, and offer answers. For these activities, use Handout NTAN DRUM WITH QUEEN IMAGE.
Many of the other motifs on the drums are drawn from the local animal world and announce much more than the animals’ presence in the environment. They serve to remind the band members and their audiences of the vast store of oral literature that uses metaphors to impart wisdom.
Activity. Using the rollout drawings (Handout NTAN DRUM ON ELEPHANT BASE and Handout NTAN DRUM WITH QUEEN IMAGE), students will identify specific images and associate them with Akan proverbs. They may complete Handout AKAN PROVERBIAL WISDOM as follows:
Activity. Begin a collection of proverbs already familiar to, or researched by students. Selecting from the list, students should represent the proverb with a motif as the Akan peoples do. Then develop a worksheet modeled after the one given for students’ collected proverbs and distribute it to class members to solve. Students should be encouraged to use these proverbial expressions, as well as those of fellow class members, in their creative writing and oral speech.
Activity. Students may collect proverbs that compare animal behavior to that of humans, as do many of the Akan proverbs cited above.
Cole, Herbert M., and Doran H. Ross
1977 The Arts of Ghana. Los Angeles: UCLA Museum of Cultural History.
DjeDje, Jacqueline Cogdell, ed.
1999 Turn Up the Volume: A Celebration of African Music. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
Ross, Doran H.
1984 “The Art of Osei Bonsu.” African Arts 17 (2): 28–40, 90.
1988 “Queen Victoria for Twenty Pounds: The Iconography of a Breasted Drum from Southern Ghana.” Art Journal 47 (2): 114-120
Handout NTAN DRUM ON ELEPHANT BASE
Osei Bonsu (Kumase, Ghana, 1900-1977). Ntan drum, Abofo, Ghana, 1935. Wood, pigment, hide. H: 117 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Donald Suggs. X78.136
Handout NTAN DRUM WITH QUEEN IMAGE
Ntan drum. Fante peoples, Ghana. Circa 1920. Wood, hide, pigment. H: 94 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Clayre and Jay Haft. X85.321
This lesson is part of the curricular materials developed to accompany the exhibition Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives. Although this and companion lessons are self-contained, each will be enhanced when used in conjunction with others in this resource. Addressing several lessons within each unit will facilitate the incorporation of the study of world arts and cultures into your curriculum.
The lesson is based on works in the second section of the exhibition called Art and Knowledge. In this gallery works are introduced that served to communicate knowledge and a sense of history. See “Unit Two—Art and Knowledge” for an introductory statement on the unit, along with some provocative “Questions for Thought,” and suggestions that will inspire the students to relate the unit to their own lives.
Images of objects to be shown to students may be printed as handouts (from within each lesson), viewed online at the Intersections web link http://collections.fowler.ucla.edu, or downloaded from the curriculum page on our website.
In this unit, the topics and lessons are
Lesson 5: Painting History: Fineline Painted Vessels of the Moche, Pre-Columbian Peru
Lesson 6: Memory and Cosmology: Mother of the Band: The Natan Drum, Ghana
Lesson 7: Memory and Cosmology: Creator/ Ancestors: The Wawilak Sisters Bark Painting, Australia
Lesson 8: Memory and Cosmology: Cacao and a Ballplayer: Maya Ceramic Vessel, Mexico
Lesson 9: Proclaiming Heritage: Canoes, Carvings, and the Austronesian World
Lesson 10: Proclaiming Knowledge: Teaching about the Spirit World: Katsina Traditions, Southwest U.S.
Lesson 11: Proclaiming Knowledge: Education as Entertainment: Asian Puppetry, Burma