Building a Bridge of Understanding

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Overview: 

Each year in my art room, I introduce a unit of study focused on the art and culture of another country or region. This year I decided to focus on Islamic art and culture. Since I provide art instruction to approximately 500 students in my little corner of the world, I thought this focus would be an opportunity to help build a bridge between Muslim students and non-Muslim students and begin a dialogue about Islam.

The students enter my room to the sounds of Arabia on my CD player. I give each a ginger cookie to eat as I explain about ginger, its history beginning in China, its healing properties and its use in Arabic recipes. They gather around me and my suitcase of artifacts and listen to my presentation.

I explain that the world population of Muslims, people who practice Islam, is currently approximately 1.57 billion. Without teaching about religion specifically, I explain that each of the world’s religions has its own art and culture. I show them artifacts from various faiths such as the Hindu god Shiva, a Buddha, a silver and turquoise Jewish prayer book and Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. I then begin my presentation of beautiful examples of Islamic painted manuscripts, metalwork, carved stone, architecture, textiles and ceramics. Students demonstrate their understanding of Islamic design principles through observation and discussion of geometric and natural patterns. Often my students, especially my Muslim students, enthusiastically share their personal connections to the various objects and stories. My Muslim students show pride and offer to bring in personal artifacts, such as a prayer rug.

When I finish sharing my suitcase full of treasures I explain our art project. On each table are stencils, rulers and examples of Islamic patterns. The students’ task is to create a pattern of shapes that remind them of the art of Islam, based on what they just observed and discussed. I show them my example and explain the technique. First they select a paper color. I provide jewel tones reminiscent of the rugs we discussed. They use pencils, rulers and stencils to draw their repeating shapes and lines, creating wonderful patterns. Next, they dip cotton swabs into a mixture of equal parts bleach and water. They trace over the pencil lines with the bleach mixture. As if by magic, the paper color changes right before their wide eyes! Once the paper dries, additional details and complicated patterns are added using metallic colored pencils. The end results are as varied and beautiful as the art of Islam.

Helen Goren Shafton
Park View Elementary & Westfield Elementary
District 89 Schools
Glen Ellyn, Illinois

Invite guest speakers who can present information about their own religion or faith tradition. The Islamic Networks Group helps locate Muslim guest speakers across the United States. For more on Arab culture and its contributions to the world, see www.adc.org/index.php?id=247.