Habits of Mind

  • Synthesize
  • Communicate

Painting the Past

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.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Explore ways in which art can communicate personal feelings and ideas. 

•  Research their own heritage and create a painting expressive of that heritage.




•  Have students research their own culture and heritage.  Develop a list of questions to guide the research, including country or countries of origin, language, food, clothes, art, religion/beliefs, folktales, etc.  Conduct research in a library and by interviewing family members or others from a similar background.

•  Based on their research, students can create sketches and a painting that express their heritage. 

(see Art Lesson: Painting the Past, pg. 4)

•  Display the sketches and paintings.

One of the major reasons artists create art is to communicate an idea. Understanding how to break apart a work of art to see what is being communicated is a vital part of learning about art and how to be an artist. Students who learn how to truly communicate thoughts and concepts create meaningful works of art that have an impact on society.

  • 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?

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


  1. John T. Biggers, Ananse, the Web of Life (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962), p. 93.

  2. Fresh Paint: The Houston School (Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1985), p. 104.

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