Art (Explaining Human Culture)

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Exercise ID: 1.34
Class size: Any
Level(s): I II III
Source: Produced by HRAF

Learning Objectives

Does the exercise compare 2 or more cultures? Yes
Subject selection: Multiple subjects specified by teacher
Subjects/OCMS, if applicable: Visual art, verbal art, music, song, folktales, dance
Region selection: open (student choice)
Region, if applicable: Various
Culture selection: Student chooses from entire collection
Cultures/OWCs, if applicable:

Classroom Guide

Instructions for navigating eHRAF included? Yes
Assignments for students to complete in groups? Yes
Assignments for students to complete on their own? Yes
Instructions for Microfiche version? No

Carol R. Ember, Abbe McCarter, Human Relations Area Files

Level I

Art practices vary drastically across societies, especially in terms of accessibility. Using the “ADVANCED SEARCH” function, in the ‘Add SUBJECTS’ box select all OCMs (major subjects) under the category ‘Arts’ (530). Then, in ‘Add CULTURES’, select the societies below and read from the following documents:

Note: Excerpts can also be found in eHRAF Browse Documents, searching for the author’s last name, then clicking on the publication and selecting the appropriate page number in the drop down menu in the upper right hand corner.

Blackfoot (NF06): Ewers, John Canfield. “Blackfeet crafts” – Page 15 starting with “Men’s Painting and Women’s Paintings” – 16, and pages 19 (bottom paragraph) – 24

Balinese (OF07): – Covarrubias, Miguel, 1904-1957. “Island of Bali” – Pages 161-163

Gikuyu (FL10): – Kenyatta, Jomo. “Facing Mount Kenya: the tribal life of the Gikuyu” – pages 87-90 (“pottery” and “basket-making” sections)

Azande (FO07): – Evans-Pritchard, E.E. “The dance” – page 451-453(1) “Pattern of the dance” to page 453-454(1)

Either on your own or broken into smaller groups discuss the following questions: How do these societies compare in terms of who practices art? Is it a communal practice, restricted to a few artistic specialists, or somewhere in between? If there is a division of who practices, what lines / distinctions form these divisions? (i.e. gender, extent of training, social status, type of art/designs…?)

Level II

2.1 One of Fischer’s (1961) findings, as documented throughout the Art Module, was an association between complexity and the degree of symmetry in a society’s art. A design is symmetrical if, drawing an imaginary line down the middle of the visual field, everything to the left of the line is perfectly reflected on the right. Asymmetry on the other hand, refers to the absence of this property.

One of the major determinants of complexity is subsistence type. Using this distinction, we can then ask the question: Is asymmetry more frequent among agriculturalists than hunter-gatherers?

 2.1.1 In ‘ADVANCED Search’, select the following small sample of societies in the ‘Add CULTURES’ box:

Amhara Tehuelche Mi’kmaq
Zuni Mescalero Apache Tanala

2.1.2 Fischer focused exclusively on 2-dimensional visual art. To approximate that study, in the ‘Add SUBJECTS’ box, select the OCMs ‘Visual arts’ (5311), ‘Representative art’ (532), and ‘Decorative art’ (531). Then press ‘SEARCH’.

2.1.3 In order to separate the intensive agriculturalists from the hunter-gatherers, click ‘Narrow Results by Subsistence Type or Sample’, then select ‘Intensive Agriculturalists’ or ‘Hunter-Gatherers’. In the table below, record which type of subsistence each group practices.

2.1.4 Browse the ethnographic documents for each society, paying special attention to the images of art. When you look at images of designs, separate those representing the human face (i.e. masks), because they tend to be symmetrical. (Additionally, if it is a picture of an object lying down, such as a paddle, imagine it in its upright position.) After you have finished looking at the collection of documents for a society, judge whether the artists used mostly symmetrical or asymmetrical designs, and record your evaluation in the table below.

Be prepared to present your findings to your group/ class. Make sure to note where you find your examples within the ethnographies.


Society Name Subsistence Type Symmetrical or Asymmetrical
Mescalero Apache

Now that the table is complete, do your results appear to conform to Fischer’s proposed relationship between complexity and asymmetry? Are there any cases that are ambiguous or otherwise difficult to code? Why do you think this might be? Are there confounding variables at play that might be skewing the results? Are there differences by type of art? (Masks, baskets, etc.) Are there different time periods represented and if so, does the art differ?

2.2 The eHRAF World Cultures database contains a wide variety of different ethnographic art accounts. Under the larger subject category ‘Art,’ there are 11 different subtopics (Dance, Decorative art, Drama, Literary texts, Literature, Music, Musical instruments, Oratory, Representative art, Verbal arts, and Visual arts). Listed below you will find just six examples of different forms of visual art that are extensively documented in the eHRAF database. Read through the different options, and pick one that you find the most interesting.

Listed immediately to the right of each visual art topic is one example of a document that contains information on the art form. In order to find these documents, select ‘Browse DOCUMENTS’ from the menu bar, and type in the author’s last name. Once you have selected the correct document, it will bring you to a screen containing the publication information for that document. On your left-hand side will be a ‘table of contents’ which contains a ‘body’ drop-down menu. Click on this menu in order to select a specific section of the document / art practice that you wish to learn more about.

(If you are having trouble deciding on just one, feel free to search and skim through multiple different documents in order to get a better idea of what the practice looked like in each cultural context.)

Examples of visual art documented in eHRAF World Cultures:

  1. Tattooing (Handy, Willowdean C., Tattooing in the Marquesas) pg 3-12 = background, 13-25 design information, 27-64 = pictures of different tattoos
  2. Decorative beadwork (Wildschut, William., Crow Indian beadwork: a descriptive and historical study) Use the ‘body’ table of contents to narrow your search
  3. Dance patterns (Speck, Frank “Cherokee dance and drama”) Use the ‘body’ table of contents to narrow your search
  4. Pottery (Hartman, Russell P., Navajo pottery: traditions) Chapter 2/ pages 9-11 = background and Chapter 3/ pages 15-26 = technology
  5. Ear & Neck Pendants (Best, Elsdon., The Maori: volume 2) ‘Personal Adornment’ pages 532-543
  6. War flags (Ross, Doran, H., Fighting with art: appliquéd flags of the Fante Asafo) page 3 = introduction, page 4 = pictures of flags, page 5 -11 = description of the art form, pages 12-15 = history, pages 17-22 = figure explanations

2.2.1 As you complete your investigative research into a topic of your choosing, keep in mind the following questions:

– Where do the designs come from? Is there a story as to how they emerged / changed over time? Are there special culturally significant meanings?

~ OR ~

(depending if emphasis is placed on the design or the process)

– What goes into the creation of these art forms? How are the materials secured/ how long does it take to make them?

– Are they created largely for commercial use / for profit? Are they used for functional every-day use or only for special occasions / ceremonies?

– Do you come into contact with these same art forms in your day to day life? If so, how are they similar / different to the ones you are reading about here?

Level III

* The following exercise requires the use of a computer and audio capabilities*

3.1 Using whichever web browser you have installed, either type in the following URL “” or search for ‘The Global Jukebox.’ (The first result should look like the following: “The Global Jukebox | Association for Cultural Equity.”) Having either typed in the URL or clicked on the link, and scroll down until you get to blue button ‘Experience The Global Jukebox.’ Clicking on that text will bring you to a screen which allows you to either sign in, or continue to the site as a guest. After entering your information or continuing as a guest, you will see a variety of different options to help you explore the collection. For this exercise, you will need to select ‘Explore the Map.’

Once you have selected the Map function, it will bring you to a list of cultures and a hyperlinked text just above that reads “Enter the Global Jukebox Map.” Clicking here will take you into the full map.

3.1.1    After you have entered the map, located the search bar in the upper right hand corner. Click on the drop down arrow to the right of the magnifying glass, and select ‘genre.’ We will be searching through different audio clips based on two different song genres: Dance and Lullaby.

3.1.2   After you have selected ‘genre’, the search bar should populate with the text ‘genres…’ directly after which you should search for ‘Dance song’

As you listen to the audio clip, use the lines below to jot down some of the characteristics of the sounds that stand out to you.

Listen to at least five different ‘dance song’ clips from five different continents. Note any similarities, differences, or trends that you may notice between the clips.

3.1.3   After you have listened to the dance song clips, search for ‘Lullaby’ using the same genres search bar.

Once again, listen to at least five different lullabies from five different continents, noting any trends between them.

3.1.4  Now that you have listened to at least five dance songs and five lullabies from various cultures around the world, what are some features that seem to be characteristic of each specific genre? Are there certain beats or rhythms that signal you to the song’s genre? Did any of the clips surprise you? If so, why?

3.2 Now having gotten the hang of the Global Jukebox interface, feel free to explore it further on your own. Do audio clips all coming from a geographic radius close to each other contain any similarities? Are your findings consistent with what you read in the Art module’s Music/Song section? If so, what were they and if not, note any discrepancies you found as well.