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Introduction

This is one of two lesson plan resources for secondary age students that focus on modern African paintings in The Argyll Collection in Scotland. They can be used individually or together within a lesson plan, offering students the opportunity to explore the contrasting approaches to painting mood and atmosphere.

Explore the resource 'Painting mood and atmosphere: Henry Tayali'

 

About The Argyll Collection

The Argyll Collection was developed between 1960 and 1988 as a learning resource for young people in Argyll and Bute. It was established by writer Naomi Mitchison (at that time a Councillor for Argyll and Bute) and Jim Tyre, art advisor to the Council.

'My plan had two edges: one was purely artistic. But the other was to build up a Scottish confidence, a sense of nationhood, something a civilized person could be proud of.' – Naomi Mitchison, Times Educational Supplement 1966

The focus of the collection is contemporary Scottish art, but it also includes artworks from Africa and Asia, collected by Mitchison on her extensive travels. She wanted students in Argyll to be able to connect with other cultures, and often selected artworks that linked these cultures with Scottish cultures – such as scenes of fishing or agriculture.

Find out more about The Argyll Collection
Browse paintings in The Argyll Collection
Read the Art UK story: Modern African art, from Dar es Salaam to Dunoon

Context

Fishing in this region of Tanzania traditionally involves men in wooden dugout canoes called jahazi. The canoes often have a small sail. The fishermen use nets to catch tiny sardine-like fish called dagaa. The fish are caught at night with small lamps used to attract the shoals.

Much like the importance of fishing to many communities in Scotland, fishing is an important part of the life and economy of many communities in Tanzania.

Discuss the painting again with your students considering this contextual information.

  • Can you see any suggestion of fishing nets and shoals of fish in the painting?
  • Does knowing that the fishermen fished at night with lamps change how you see the painting?
  • How similar – or different – would a scene of fishing boats look in Scotland?

Inspiration

Louis Mbughuni's paintings celebrate the rural life of Tanzania, a country known for its vast wilderness areas, which include the plains of Serengeti National Park, and Kilimanjaro National Park, home to Africa's highest mountain. He also draws on his memories and experiences and looks to African art and culture, politics, and his religious faith for inspiration.

His painting The Fishermen was based on his memories of a month-long fishing trip he made with his cousin on Lake Namanga when he was 12 years old.

It was also inspired by the New Testament story of Jesus recruiting fishermen as disciples and the Miraculous catch of fish.

'My intention was to depict this biblical story with a creative twist of symbolism, mystery and African identity.' – Louis Mbughuni

Ask your students:

  • does knowing about the inspiration behind the painting change how you see it?

 

How has Louis Mbughuni created the dreamlike mood of the painting?

When Naomi Mitchison bought The Fishermen for the Argyll Collection she described it as a 'dream image'.

The painting reflects the magical excitement that the artist must have felt as a young boy out on the lake at night, as well as the spirituality and symbolism of the miracle of the catch from the New Testament story.

 

How has he used abstraction?

Louis Mbughuni said that he abstracted the fishing scene to create a 'dramatic image of mystery'.

If he had painted the scene in a more realistic way, the sense of mystery and spirituality might have been lost among the realistic details.

Dicsuss colours, shapes and patterns

Perhaps the first thing we notice about the painting are the bright colours and the swirling pattern of shapes that seems to surround the fishermen and their canoe.

Look at the shapes and patterns in the painting with your students.

  • Describe the shapes. What do they make you think of?
  • What effect does this patterned lake have on how you see the painting?
  • Do the figures look like real people – or do you think Mbughuni has abstracted them too?

The Fishermen (detail)

The Fishermen (detail)

Louis Azaria Mbughuni (b.1940)

Now discuss Louis Mbughuni's use of colour as a class.

  • Are the colours realistic?
  • Are they the sort of colours you might see at night?
  • How has he used light colours and dark colours?
  • What mood do they create?
  • Do you know of any other artists who use colour to create a dreamlike or mysterious atmosphere?

 

Thoughts on shapes and patterns

Artists often abstract an image by exaggerating shapes or forms or repeating them. Although the painting shows a recognisable scene, the abstracted elements make us see and think about it in a different way.

The shapes suggest the movement of the water – waves, ripples and deep and shallow areas. They make the lake look turbulent and possibly dangerous.

  • Some of the shapes look like nets or sails and fishtails. Can you spot these in the painting?

 

The figures

Although the figures in the boat are recognisable as people, Louis Mbughuni has a simplified their shapes (as well as the shapes of the village and trees).

He explained that he did this to add a sense of 'majesty and simplicity' to the figures, inspired by the simple forms of early Egyptian art and African religious sculptures and artefacts.

Colour thoughts

Louis Mbughuni has used unrealistic colour to help create the mood of his painting. The two figures in the boat are silhouetted against a background of luminous yellows, reds, purples and blues.

While fishing with lamps at night explains some of the eerie colours and shadows, the colours also add a dream-like unreality to the scene. He used a mix of light and dark colours to add to the sense of drama.

'There is something majestic about pure colours. There is an aura of spirituality about them! It's all around them and within them.' – Louis Mbughuni

Mbughuni explained that his juxtaposition of light and dark colours was inspired by the highlights and shadows seen in African carving as well as the traditional use of colour in African art and artefacts.

Colour in African art is traditionally deeply rooted in spirituality and symbolism, the colours used are not just about looking bold, they are designed to reflect feelings and emotions and to tell stories.

Complementary colours

In The Fishermen, Louis Mbughuni has placed bright complementary colours next to each other.

Complementary colours are pairs of colours that appear opposite each other on scientific models such as the colour wheel. When they are used side-by-side in a painting, they make each other look brighter.

The Fishermen (detail)

The Fishermen (detail)

Louis Azaria Mbughuni (b.1940)

Fauvist painters at the beginning of the twentieth century often used complementary colours to create vibrant paintings.

Barges on the Thames

Barges on the Thames

Leeds Museums and Galleries

Colour in Western art

Since the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, many Western artists have experimented with abstract colour to moods and feelings – from Symbolism to Abstract Expressionism.

Sun Dial

Sun Dial

Lakeland Arts

Mbughuni's use of colour to express the religious spirituality of a scene can perhaps be compared to paintings that Post-Impressionist artists Paul Gauguin and aslo Émile Bernard made at the end of the nineteenth century.

In his painting Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) 1888, which is in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Paul Gauguin used bright colours to suggest the intense feelings experienced by a group of Breton women witnessing a vision on their way home from church and convey the mysterious spirituality of the scene.

Have a go! Paint a mysterious dreamlike painting

Task your students with painting a dreamlike, eerie scene, inspired by the mood of Louis Mbughuni's painting The Fishermen.

These research links and suggestions provide ideas and inspiration for students planning their painting projects.

What will you paint?

Choose a dreamlike or eerie subject.

  • Think of a place from a childhood memory or a story you have read.
  • Choose a subject from your imagination such as an empty street or a dark forest or a windswept stormy beach.
  • Or be inspired by the unreal and often surreal environments of computer games or science-fiction movies!

Boranup Forest

Boranup Forest

Great Ormond Street Hospital

Imagine yourself in this place:

  • what does the place look like? 
  • what does it feel like?
  • what does it sound like?

How could you use visual elements such as composition and colour to convey the atmosphere of this place?

Note your ideas in your sketchbook.

Research

Explore how other artists have painted dreamlike places or mysterious scenes.

Michael Armitage

Kariakor

Kariakor

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

Michael Armitage is a Kenyan-British artist who works between Nairobi and London. His paintings suggest visual narratives that challenge cultural assumptions. He explores politics, history, civil unrest and sexuality. Armitage is inspired by modern East African painters such as Jak Katarikawe.

See more artworks by Michael Armitage

Find out more about Michael Armitage

Paula Rego

Paula Rego's painting The Dance (1988) shows figures dancing on a beach at night. The shadowy night-time setting and the blue tones that Rego has used to evoke the moonlight, makes the painting seem mysterious.

See more artworks by Paula Rego

Marc Chagall

Russian painter Marc Chagall also painted dreamlike scenes. They combine memories of the village in Russia where he grew up, with tales from Jewish folklore. He often includes floating or upside-down figures and uses bright colours in his paintings, which add to their other-worldly atmosphere.

See more artworks by Marc Chagall

 

Explore more dreamlike paintings

 

Plan your painting

Gather images that inspire you. These could be photographs of places or people, or artworks. Use these to help you plan your painting.

Composition

  • Sketch some ideas and make notes to help you plan your painting.
  • Think about the things you want to include and how you will arrange them (e.g. if you are going to paint a scene of people in a landscape, will the people be big and fill the page or will they be tiny figures in a big landscape?).
  • Small quick drawings, sometimes called thumbnail sketches, are a great way to jot down lots of composition ideas.

Sketchy Landscape

Sketchy Landscape

Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service: Ipswich Borough Council Collection

Think about...

  • The time of day – whatever you choose to paint, an evening or night scene will make the painting seem a bit more mysterious!
  • Colour – look again at the colours that Louis Mbughuni used. Think about using bright unrealistic colours. You could juxtapose complementary colours or use colours that are all within the same colour range – as Paula Rego has done in her painting The Dance. Use shades of blue or pinks and reds
  • Shapes and patterns – although Louis Mbughuni created a recognisable scene of a boat on a lake, the shapes and patterns of the lake and sky add a strange dreamlike quality to the picture. They look almost like fish tails. Are there any shapes in your painting that you could abstract?
  • Something unexpected! Louis Mbughuni repeated the figures in his painting upside down. How can you make your painting look strange and other-worldly?


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