Unit 4: Art and Transformation

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 Transformation. In this gallery works are introduced that play a critical role in facilitating transformations.

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


Human experience is fraught with challenges and difficulties, and art is often made and used to influence the outcome of the most trying situations. Within the domains of health, spiritual belief, and politics, for example, art can serve as a catalyst for action or provide a means for confronting or accommodating change. A small grouping in Arts for Spiritual Intervention explores a range of arts used in seeking intercession and mediation through prayer, acts of devotion, and consecration. These may be used at times to address illness or other misfortunes, or they may proffer thanks for granted wishes.

In Memorials and Transcendence we find evidence of the need to cope with human mortality and the inevitability of death. Some objects here, created to accompany the living to the afterlife, emphasize the important place of the arts in the last phases of life and on the spirits’ journey to the hereafter.

Traditions may be enduring, though they are never static. In Tradition as Innovation we see that most artistic genres are in a state of constant reformulation, reflecting ever-changing social circumstances and the dynamic nature of tradition. The works featured here exemplify the vitality of changing visual traditions. These arenas of contemporary artistic expression are continuations of and departures from the past, while they make critical and often poignant commentaries on the present.


Questions for Thought

  • What might be the “transformation” of an object or a practice entail? What do you mean by the term?
  • How have some artists responded to social and political change? Does change usually bring progress? Is change usually good?
  • Art is said to be a mirror of culture and history. Can it also shape that history?
  • Do traditions ever remain static? If not, how or why do they change?
  • How can sacred arts of a people be reinterpreted with no loss of respect for the original expression?
  • How has art helped to bring public attention to unjust, tragic, or wrongful conditions?
  • What roles can the arts play in the religious life of a people? Why are sculptures often placed prominently in a house of worship?
  • How might people make use of the arts to promote healing? How can the arts help in the experience of death or loss? How can art bring about or document change?


Art, Transformation, and You

Have you ever tried to change the course of events in your life, particularly in relation to the most trying situations such as illness or death?

Has any manifestation of art (at home or in church, synagogue, or mosque) helped you cope with trying or difficult times?

How have the arts served to keep a memory alive for you?

Have you seen art works that convey social or political transformations or that have been used to help bring about such transformations?

Is there an object that you feel would be helpful to someone you know who is seeking spiritual intervention through prayer or thanksgiving? How does your selected object exemplify the premise that “art plays a critical role in facilitating transformation?”

Unit Lessons

Lesson 19: Memorials and Transcendence: El Arbol de la Muerte, Mexico

Lesson19_Intersections_0Students use a work of art to explore an ongoing and tragic series of events in Juárez, Mexico. They research and write about the “maquiladora murders” and use the idiom of the Tree of Life to express their feelings about this and other community issues. Activities also center on students’ study of the Tree of Life and suggestions are given for their making of trees that reflect themes significant to the students themselves.


Lesson 20: Arts for Spiritual Intervention: To Seek Divine Assistance: Emas, Japan

Lesson20_Intersections_0_0Activities in this lesson provide opportunities for students to explore the importance of animal symbolism in Japanese art. Students interpret the meanings of selected images and engage in artmaking activities that focus on animals in art. Their study of emas extends to an exploration of a Japanese form of poetry known as a lune, which students use to express feelings of thanks or good wishes.


Lesson 21: Arts for Spiritual Intervention: Honoring Patron Saints with Retablos, Mexico

Lesson21_Intersections_0_0Students learn about the meanings of retablos and ex-votos in Mexico and discuss the significance of these to the individuals and families who use them in ritual practice. They create individual votive-inspired expressions of wishes and/or thanks. The lesson also includes a closer look at the representational imagery of Catholic saints and the impact such images may have in students’ lives.


Lesson 22: Tradition as Innovation: Apartheid’s Funeral, South Africa

Lesson22_Intersections_0_0Students explore the history of apartheid in South Africa and discover the important role of artists and the arts in the struggle for freedom and human rights for all. They will deconstruct the funeral of apartheid, as imagined by the artist, and their writing activities will focus on composing a news report of the event. Other curricular suggestions include a study of other art forms that brought attention to the injustices of apartheid, most notably South African music of resistance and anti-apartheid posters. Art and music making follow their study. Finally students have the opportunity to research world peace leaders and the impact their actions have had on global peace efforts.


Lesson 23: Tradition as Innovation: La Calavera don Quijote, Mexico

Lesson23_Intersections_0Students use the imagery of don Quixote to examine how literary themes can be reinterpreted across artistic disciplines. In working with the story of don Quixote they explore the notion of satire and parody, and use these literary devices in their writing. They also research the satirical poetry (calaveras) of José Guadalupe Posada (which inspired the featured work of art), experiment with elements of satire in their writing, and illustrate their own calaveras centering on issues of concern in their lives. Finally, activities extend to students’ exploration of the Mexican Days of the Dead, in which skeletal arts play a key role in beliefs and familial and community celebrations.