As long as humans have existed, art has been an important part of social culture. Teaching children about the folk art of other cultures helps us to appreciate what people from around the world consider valuable and beautiful. It allows students to learn about new techniques and materials used in art, and displaying real examples encourages art appreciation in even the youngest students.
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A Look at Traditional Amate
Today we’ll look at a traditional Mexican folk art, painted on an organic medium called “amate.” Amate (pronounced “ah-MAH-tay”) is a type of paper produced from the fibers of the bark of fig trees. Beginning in pre-Hispanic times, different indigenous groups used the amate to communicate with others. For example, the Aztecs used the amate paper to register data, or as a gift for soldiers. In today’s Mexico, the Otomí people of Central Mexico produce this paper in a way similar to its historical origins. However, now Nahua artisans paint intricate birds, colorful plants, and whimsical animals on the amate so that it can be used for decoration.
Find Puebla, Mexico on a map, and explain that people have been making a type of paper called amate since before 300 BCE. After describing the history, show examples of real amate paintings, and printed images. When I prepare a lesson that I know I am going to repeat in the future, I like to print out the picture on 8×11 paper and laminate them, so they can pass them around and sticky fingers won’t smudge the images. Tell the children the Nahua artisans in Guerrero are detailed artists, who paint scenes onto the amate paper.
- Can the students find any common themes in the paintings?
- What are common figures that are painted?
- What color is the background?
- Are there certain colors that are used more?
- What do they notice about the technique of the paintings?
Making our Own Mexican Folk Art
Let’s learn an easy way for the kids to make some amate art. Before you start, gather your materials:
- Brown paper bags, cut into large rectangles
- Black markers (sharpies are great)
- Bright Tempera Paint (fluorescent colors work well, washable paints do not show up as bright; for younger kids, try fluorescent Do-A-Dots)
- Examples of real amate paintings. If you do not have any, google amate paintings or check out these images.
For children in kindergarten and above, have the children crush up and smooth out the brown paper bag several times to achieve the “softer” appearance. If they are old enough, children can draw flowers, animals, and birds with the black markers on their brown paper (or parents/teachers can help with the littlest ones!). Next, they can paint inside their drawings with the bright colors, using white to accent their creations. Typically, amate paintings do not have any background colors, and are usually painted within the thick black lines.
For preschoolers, it is helpful to draw out a couple of simple pictures in black, and copy it onto brown paper. The children can still crush and open the paper to soften it, and then can use either do-a-dots or regular paint brushes to paint the amate.
When they are finished, display the paintings and talk about them. What feelings to we get when we look at these paintings? How are our paintings similar to or different than the original amate paintings?