Contemporary art education pack
This KS2 education pack for schools has been designed to complement a new film that was commissioned the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) by artist Michelle Williams Gamaker. The film can be viewed online or in person at the museum from Tuesday 25 October 2022. This pack provides background information to the film and an insight into contemporary art practice. It gives ideas for classroom activities linked to the film and to the National Curriculum. There is range of individual and group activities that can be selected as appropriate. If you wish to visit with with your school group to take part in this self-led activity please ensure you make an advance booking for your group at Free self-led education group visits
Michelle Williams Gamaker is a renowned contemporary artist who works with moving image, performance, and films. She creates fictional landscapes as settings for the stories she tells through her artworks and she describes her work as ‘fictional activism’. She tells stories from the viewpoint of characters who have been forgotten or not listened to.
What is contemporary art?
Contemporary art is art that is being made now, in our current time, or fairly recently. Contemporary artists work with all sorts of materials: some use traditional materials such as paint, textiles and clay, some work with performance, film or make works outdoors in the environment, and some use digital technologies. An artist may work in several different forms. Contemporary art is sometimes collaborative, meaning the artist doesn’t work alone but works jointly with other artists or with people with different skills. The art is often about the ideas and meaning the artist wants to convey, as well as what the artwork looks like and how it is made.
The Silver Wave
This 12 minute film by the critically acclaimed artist Michelle Williams Gamaker was commissioned by RAMM in 2020 and was displayed in the World Cultures gallery until 25th July 2021. It is inspired by objects from the World Cultures collection and by the incredible story of Ada Blackjack, an Iñupiat woman and the only surviving member of an expedition to Wrangel Island in the Arctic in 1921. Ada was employed as a seamstress and cook for four explorers, who hoped to claim the island for the British Empire. However, the four men fell ill and eventually died or disappeared while attempting to seek help, leaving Ada to survive alone on the island for three long months. The words you hear in the film are unedited extracts from Ada’s diary, expressing her concern for her young son Bennett, who she reluctantly left behind in a care home. Ada’s words are narrated by Iñupiat poet and writer Carrie Ayagaduk Ojanen, from the Ugiuvamiut tribe of King Island. Ada was taught English by the Christian missionaries who raised her. Like many Indigenous people at that time, she was relocated and suffered the suppression of her native language along with an inadequate education. Ada may not have had a strong command of any language. Carrie Ayagaduk Ojanen asks that, ‘the listener hears the context of the broken language in the broken world’. Ada’s was a world of cultural upheaval and colonial violence that Indigenous peoples were forced into. In the film, Michelle Williams Gamaker projects archival images and lighting effects over the objects to evoke the Arctic. The Silver Wave film also includes Mexican rain gods, Thai dancer figurines and Indian tourist souvenirs, objects that are currently kept in the museum’s stores.
Making the film
Michelle Williams Gamaker tells stories to enable us to see history from a different viewpoint. She particularly wants us to hear the voices of people who were not in positions of power and whose stories have not been heard or remembered. Historical events, such as the Wrangel Island expedition, have generally been told from the viewpoint of more powerful people of the time, such as white, male explorers. The experiences of someone like Ada -a native woman – would, historically, have been overlooked. Fortunately, Ada wrote a diary which has survived, and this gives us another way of seeing things.
Activities and themes
For ease of planning, themes and activities are listed under the curriculum areas PSHE, Geography, Technology, Art, and English, but the activities are generally cross-curricular. For example, an art activity can also involve thinking about feelings (PSHE) and using geographical knowledge. Teachers can select, adapt, emphasize or extend the aspects most appropriate for their class. Activities are a mix of short, long, individual and group activities. Group activities are designed to encourage the children to work together, as one of the consequences of the pandemic is that many children have missed out on opportunities to play and learn in groups with other children.
Links to further resources are provided at the end of this pack.
Learn about the Arctic region, climate change and maps. Why not have a go at making your own map? Or try our group challenges which involve making a shelter or going on an expedition!
Ada Blackjack managed to survive on Wrangel Island for two years and for the last three months she was entirely alone. These activities focus on discussions around isolation and loneliness. Particularly relevant to how people may have been feeling during the pandemic.
Ada was a seamstress which was one of the reasons she was employed on the exhibition. Challenge yourself to design an outfit that would keep you warm in a very cold climate. Or how about using simple sewing stitches to make a small purse of bag to keep special items in?
How does the film convey the feel of the Arctic? How does it give us a sense of how Ada felt? Art gives us more than just the facts and how things look. Could you design your own dream figure and model it in clay? Or perhaps you would like to have a go at painting a figure in a vast Arctic landscape?
Ada wrote a diary which is how we know about her time on Wrangel Island. Could you have a go at writing a diary or perhaps you would like to write some poetry inspired by a place or landscape that is special to you.
The Silver Wave education pack was researched and written by Christine Johns as part of a contemporary art placement at RAMM organised in conjunction with her BA (Hons) Fine Art and Art History with the University of Plymouth. If you would like to download the entire pack you can do so but following the link below.