Jubilee: Ghana Harvest Festival, 1959–1963
John Biggers, American, 1924–2001
Tempera and acrylic on canvas
Canvas or panel: 38 3/8 x 98 in. (97.5 x 248.9 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Duke Energy
Habits of Mind
- UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Writing a Family History
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
• Explain ways in which art tells about the past and its leaders such as William Penn.
• Identify primary and secondary sources of historical information.
• Research and write their own family history.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Jubilee: Ghana Harvest Festival is based on a series of drawings by John Biggers that chronicle the rich culture and customs of the Ghana region in West Africa. The painting depicts the annual harvest festival, which celebrates the cyclical passage of the seasons, the renewal of the earth, and the rhythms of nature that are echoed in the life of the Akan people. In the foreground, women dressed in white sing the songs of the harvest and dance to the ceremonial drums. At the left in the background, a royal procession brings the king and queen, covered by great umbrellas, into the scene. At the far right, men beat out a rhythm on monumental, ceremonial drums. Biggers has commented,
Drummers enchant the crowd with a pulsating rhythm that excites performers and spectators alike… The inner happiness that can be shared only with one’s dearest friend as well as the outgoing gaiety that one can share with all the world seem mirrored in the faces of the harvest time merrymakers.¹
Rather than focusing on the royal party overseeing the festival, Biggers instead provides a panorama of the festival including the joyous participation of both women and children. To Biggers, the focal point of the celebration was the dance as response to the drums: the swaying rhythms of the women in the foreground dominate the composition. The repetition of curving lines and forms and areas of white creates a sense of dynamism and movement that is enhanced by the warm colors. The depiction of richly decorated fabrics reveals Biggers’s eye for detail and pattern.
Born in Gastonia, North Carolina, John Biggers was educated at Hampton Institute and received his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. at Pennsylvania State University. In 1949 he moved to Houston to establish the art department at Texas Southern University, a new university for black students. His interest in his African heritage led him to apply for, and in 1957, receive a UNESCO fellowship to study traditional culture patterns in west Africa.
During his long and distinguished career at Texas Southern, Biggers taught three generations of Houston artists and contributed immeasurably to the life of the city. He was strongly influenced by the tradition of Mexican murals, and all art students at Texas Southern created murals. Biggers himself contributed many murals to the city, including those at the Blue Triangle Y.M.C.A., the Science Building at TSU, and the Music Hall. He has said of his work,
The role of art is to express the triumph of the human spirit over the mundane and the material. It is also to express the universal myths and archetypes of the universal family of man…. My motivation is to portray the very rare and unseen spirituality of the Afro-American that is universal for all mankind.²
John T. Biggers, Ananse, the Web of Life (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962), p. 93.
Fresh Paint: The Houston School (Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1985), p. 104.
What do you see in the foreground? middleground? background?
How does the artist portray distance? Observe specific ways the artist uses scale and detail to show perspective. Explain.
Though you can’t actually feel or hear what is happening in this scene, the artist invites you to use your senses to explore it; he encourages you to imagine what you might be able to hear, smell, see, touch or possibly taste.Explain what your senses might discover, using evidence from the painting.
How would you describe the people depicted and their clothing? What colors, details, and textures catch your eye?
Why might people be dressed in these colors and textures?How does the environment both impact and reflect choices in clothing?
Strike a pose similar to someone in this work of art.What if you could be that person? What might your next move be? What might you say to the person next to you?
How does the artist capture movement?What type of mood does that create?
This painting depicts the annual harvest festival of the Akan people in a region of West Africa called Ghana. What parts of this work of art indicate a festival-type atmosphere?
How does this work of art compare to a festival or celebration you have attended? Elaborate and give examples from the work of art.
- Review each work of art and what it expresses about the experience and background of each artist.
- Discuss ways in which works of art are important in learning about history. How is each of these works effective in expressing the artist’s idea about his heritage?
- Think about museums as containing works from diverse cultures. Discuss the importance of museums in preserving and sharing objects from many cultures.
As you read or listen to the following quote from the artist, John Biggers, observe areas of the painting that reflect his words:
“Drummers enchant the crowd with a pulsating rhythm that excites performer
and spectators alike… The inner happiness that can be shared only with one’s
dearest friend as well as the outgoing gaiety that one can share with all the world
seem mirrored in the faces of the harvest time merrymakers.¹”
- Where do you see evidence of this quote in the painting?
Hypothesize what type of music the drummers might be playing. Imagine the rhythm of the music’s beat.How does Biggers reflect that rhythm in the painting? Use your device to listen to music that typifies Ghana Harvest festivals.
What part of the festival does Biggers choose to focus on?Does it surprise you that he chooses not to focus on the royal party under the umbrellas on the left?Why or why not?What would you choose to focus on in a celebration like this?
Investigate the dimensions of this painting.What do you notice about its size? John Biggers was a teacher at Texas Southern University in Houston, and he was strongly influenced by Mexican murals. How does that relate to what you now know about this painting?
Biggers’ art can be found in books and many parts of Houston. Use a device to research where to find other examples of Biggers’ art.How do some of the locations exemplify this quote from Biggers: “The role of art is to express the triumph of the human spirit over the mundane and the material…2”
Compare and contrast other works of Biggers’ art with “Jubilee: Ghana Harvest Festival”.
- John T. Biggers, Ananse, the Web of Life (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962), p. 93.
- Fresh Paint: The Houston School (Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1985), p. 104.
• Discuss primary sources and secondary sources of historical information. List examples of each. Discuss whether works of art are primary or secondary sources.
• Use the information gathered for the art lesson to write family or cultural histories represented in works of art. Encourage students to make connections between family history and world and national events (for example, families relocating because of war or economic hardship).
• Have students list the sources they used to write their histories and identify each as primary or secondary.
Subject Matter Connection
In the discipline of Social Studies, students need to be able to think conceptually and differentiate between which patterns and ideas are common across societies. Students need to be able to recognize those ideas— whether economic, social, or political—that are not bound by time and place, and how a group’s perspective may affect the historical interpretation of those ideas and principles.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.