Unit 3: Art and Power

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 Power. In this gallery works are introduced that evoke power and status.

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


Power assumes myriad forms, reflecting the values and beliefs of a people. Works associated with some of these many forms are presented here to demonstrate the integral role that art plays in defining and asserting power. The efficacy of the objects lies in their ability to augment political authority as is shown in Empowering Leaders. As highlighted in Negotiating Gender, certain works reinforce the power of one gender over the other, while others express the complementarity of female and male attributes. Individuals’ efforts to exercise control over the environment and to maneuver through their worlds—often with animal spirits in important roles—are highlighted in Harnessing Spirits. Personal power may be expressed through articles of Status and Prestige worn on the body or displayed in the home.

The empowering objects featured in these lessons are made in ways that visibly convey authority and hierarchy; they act to balance authority relationships or they harness spiritual powers. The use of precious materials, the incorporation of symbolic motifs, and the representation of animals associated with qualities such as strength or ferocity characterize these arts. The selected works of art facilitate and represent power relationships through their forms, aesthetic conception, and attendant uses and meanings.

Questions for Thought

  • How do you define power? In what ways might art and power be connected?
  • How does an object acquire power? Does the power of an object reside in the object, in the observer, or both?
  • What characteristics might an object have that makes it more powerful than another object? Why might an object have power for one group of people, but not for another? What factors determine the difference?
  • How can the arts portray the authority of an individual or community? What parts do clothing, adornment, and regalia play in commanding respect?
  • Who become the leaders of a society? How does this vary from one culture to another? Why are the emblems of leadership important to a leader? … and to a community?
  • Why are so many artful endeavors associated with animals? What makes an animal such a powerful metaphor?

Select one object (or more, if you choose) in this section that is a good example of how art defines or activates power. HOw does that object exemplify the premise that “art forms are actually or metaphorically associated with power and leadership?

Art, Power, and You

Select an object (or more, if you choose) from home that you would consider an example of art that has helped to demonstrate authority or established your own or another’s status or prestige. What object did you choose? Explain your selection.

How do the arts establish and communicate power and authority? Consider examples in your community.

When you have encountered people who wanted to display their authority, did art play a part in how they present themselves to you or others?

Have you ever used an “artful” means of expressing your role or status within a group—such as an article of dress or a symbolic representation of your position?

Have you been aware of the service of art to help in control over the environment?

Unit Lessons

Lesson 12: Empowering Leaders: Leadership Art of the Cameroon Grassfields, Africa

Lesson12_Intersections_0A study of the leadership arts of the Cameroon Grassfields provides opportunities to consider how integral the arts are to notions of power and leadership. Students study the works and then consider their functions from background information they have been given. An additional activity centers on a short film, “Pageantry in the Palace,” and students discuss and develop in writing their reactions to the film.


Lesson 13: Negotiating Gender: Portrayal of a Hunter: Ere Egungun Olode, Nigeria

Lesson13_Intersections_0In this lesson students explore the use of egungun masks in rituals devoted to honoring ancestors, as practiced by Yoruba peoples from Nigeria and Benin. They discuss family rituals that celebrate their own ancestors, construct special dress ensembles to honor them, employ poetry as a way to memorialize loved ones, and discuss contrasts between cultures, as inspired by the experiences of Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka.


Lesson 14: Negotiating Gender: Powerful Mother: Ere Gelede, Nigeria

Lesson14_Intersections_0Through a study of gelede masquerades of the Yoruba peoples of Nigeria students explore art as a powerful medium for commentary on issues of concern to the community. Students will discuss gender roles among the Yoruba and in their own communities. Creative writing activities provide opportunities for students to compose praise poetry and to explore the expressiveness of proverbial speech.


Lesson 15: Status and Prestige: To Make the Chief’s Words Sweet: A Counselor’s Staff, Ghana

Lesson15_Intersections_0Learning activities focus on the importance of oratory wisdom among the Akan peoples of Ghana. Through writing and artmaking experiences students explore the ways that verbal and visual ideas can work together to express notions of importance for the Akan and by extension, in their own lives.


Lesson 16: Status and Prestige: A Wall of Status and Prestige, Africa, Asia, and the Americas

Lesson16_Intersections_0Through a study of twelve works on display, students investigate how works of art can convey status and prestige. Provided with short commentaries on the objects, they should determine how the works confer status and then add to the list prestige objects of their own choosing, justifying their selections with short written discussions on the objects.


Lesson 17: Harnessing Spirits: Pacific Northwest Arts, United States and Canada

Lesson17_Intersections_0A study of selected works of art from the Pacific Northwest will introduce students to the symbolism, materials, and uses of masks, and serve as inspiration for artmaking. Another activity focuses on students’ discussion of the potlatch with its distribution of gifts.


Lesson 18: Harnessing Spirits: The Hornbill: Bird of Prophecy, Malaysia

Lesson18_Intersections_0Study of a hornbill mask from Borneo introduces students to the natural history of the bird and to cultural practices related to it. Students’ study leads to visual and performing arts activities and to their understanding of and respect for omens and other beliefs that are centered on observations of the natural world.