Jubilee: Ghana Harvest Festival
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)
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
SUBJECT AREALanguage Arts
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.
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.
- Look closely at the composition. What do you see in the foreground, middle ground, and background? How does Biggers connect these separate spaces?
- What techniques does Biggers use to portray distance? Observe specific instances of scale, detail, and other design choices the artist has made to create a sense of space.
- How would you describe the people depicted and their clothing? What colors, details, and textures catch your eye? What might they be seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting?
- How does the artist capture movement in this painting? What type of mood does this sense of movement create?
- This painting depicts the annual Akan harvest festival in Ghana. What parts of this work of art indicate a festival-type atmosphere?
- Biggers has said that a major inspiration for this painting was the pervasive, energetic rhythm of the drums playing at the festival. How has Biggers used repetition to create a sense of rhythm in this painting? Note the many different elements that are repeated throughout the composition.
- How might this painting give us a clue into the way Biggers felt about his heritage, journeying to Africa for the very first time in 1957?
- A central part of the harvest festival is a progression of the royal party, covered by large umbrellas. Why do you suppose that Biggers has chosen not to focus on the royal party here? What aspect of the celebration does he highlight instead?
- Similarly, although the drums are a key aspect of the celebration, Biggers’s actual depiction of them is quite small, at the far right. How does he make their presence clear in the painting, even if the drums themselves are minor elements in the composition?
- Note the dimensions of the painting. How might its size influence the viewer’s reaction to the painting?
- The Akan harvest festival symbolizes and celebrates the natural rhythms of the earth, and the cycle of renewal undergone by nature each year. What role does nature play in this painting? Has Biggers included it in the story of this scene?
- Biggers 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.” In your opinion, how might this quote apply to Jubilee: Ghana Harvest Festival? How does the spiritual interact with the mundane in this image?
• Teach different methods of using graphic organizers (e.g., webs) to arrange ideas for descriptive writing.
• As a group, web the important objects and details in the work of art, and then write descriptive paragraphs based on the webs.
• Next work in groups to write plays that dramatize the celebration reflected in the work of art.
• Create sack puppets for the characters in the plays (see Art Lesson: Writing Plays - Stuffed-Sack Puppets, pg. 5) and present the plays, using the puppets.
Subject Matter Connection
In reading and writing, attention to detail is important. By observing Jubilee: Ghana Harvest Festival and its familiar subjects, students can put into practice the art of observation. These observation skills can be repeated and re-emphasized throughout the school year when students observe works of art, read, or prepare to write. Because the subjects of Jubilee: Ghana Harvest Festival are familiar, students should be more comfortable about communicating their thoughts and verbalizing their ideas about this work, skills that carry over into both group and independent language arts practice activities and assessments.
Resources Available to Order
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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.