Senegalese artist urges pupils to add personal touches to art

Senegalese artist urges pupils to add personal touches to art

URBANA – Though Yelimane Fall doesn't speak English, he had no trouble communicating with fifth-graders from Wiley Elementary School on Thursday morning.

In a guest lesson, he – and they – spoke the language of art.

Drawing a picture of a circle divided into four parts, the artist from Senegal talked about how the "universal man" was made of four colors. He spoke in French with a translator for the day, Dana Rush, a University of Illinois professor in African art history.

As students watched, Fall drew the colors seeping out of the circle, forming shapes that made up a body. "The universal man should be the prototype for the 21st century," Fall said. "The universal man doesn't know (or) acknowledge discrimination. ... He knows nothing but love and peace."

When fine arts teacher Harbert Jones gave students an alphabet of Arabic letters, along with paper, brushes and paint, they got ready to make their own creation.

"Everyone is free to write the letters as you feel them," Fall said, offering his services, "if you'd like some help in the composition."

As an example, Fall fluidly painted shapes and colors, explaining the meaning, to him, of each shape and color as he went along. "Blue doesn't have to mean the ocean for you," he said. "Each color can mean what you want it to mean."

Fall is visiting the UI to talk about the works, including his own, in a Krannert Art Museum exhibition. Called "A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal," the show – which runs until Dec. 31 – displays art that reflects the culture of Islamic Africa and teachings of Muslim Saint Sheikh Amadou Bamba.

"He is a man, he loves people, and he believes in work and studying real hard," said fifth-grader Cody Gill of Bamba.

As for himself, Fall said he wants to share his own goodwill and vision with young people.

"He lives in a poor part of Senegal," said Rush of the artist, who arrived in class wearing sunglasses, a whitening beard and a track suit, asking students to talk to him as though he were their age. "He has devoted himself to working with the kids in that area."

Students Jamie Eskew and Teiona Dantzler said they admired Fall's alphabet paintings and self-portraits when they saw them in Krannert Art Museum. The class also learned about Senegalese art when Rush's students presented a slide show on the subject to the class.

"They've been studying about Africa and Senegal," Jones said. "This helps them make a connection to past and present."

As students got going on their own work, Mara Dolan swirled shapes and colors, filling her canvas.

"(With) art, you can express yourself," Mara said.

In his painting, Austin Stephen thought it right that yellow be the color of life and light. Conner Gremer said the letter "h" stood for "hope" in his painting.

Rush said that part of the point of the lesson was that students learn that while art is visual, it can have layers of meaning hidden inside.

Or not.

"Art doesn't have to mean anything. It doesn't have to be logic, it can just be what you think is right," said fifth-grader Meghana Babu. But for her, the meaning makes the painting cooler.

"I like how the numbers and the letters all represent something," she said of the bright unions of color and shape that Fall painted in front of the class. "That's just amazing."

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