- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

Third-grader Kelly Alpert hasn't concentrated on reading, writing and arithmetic for a couple of days now. Instead, she has immersed herself in the art and culture of West Africa.

Kelly, a student at Blessed Sacrament School in Northwest, knows the folk art of Mauritania murals painted by women to beautify the exterior of their houses. And she knows the lay of the continent's lush land like she knows her own back yard.

"I've learned that some African houses are made of mud and hay and sometimes wood. I've also learned that Africans are known for their artwork their sculptures and their masks," she said.

That's because Kelly, 8, has made a miniature African hut and painted a colorful panel like the African women of Mauritania. She took a three-day journey to Africa without leaving home during the 17th annual Week of the Arts Festival at her school. The festival began on Wednesday and ends this afternoon when the closing bell rings.

The arts festival allows kindergartners through eighth-graders to put aside their school work and examine different cultures, a specific country or an area of the world. For example, first-graders explored the art and culture of Japan by preparing sushi and creating origami. Second-graders learned about the rainforest by making colorful window toucans. The students even got to see a boa constrictor.

Fifth- through eighth-graders have had the opportunity to take one of 27 workshops, which include abstract painting in three dimensions offered by professional artist Stevens Carter or a workshop on photojournalism with Associated Press photographer Joe Marquette.

"We use this time to hopefully bring a greater awareness about the beauty of other cultures to the students. Especially now, I think we need to learn about different cultures and have a respect for them," said Sally Levie, the head of the art department, whose brainchild it was to hold the intensive three-day arts festival.

Students in Elaine Nortz's third-grade class formed a circle on the floor to listen to Nwangaji Ogbonna, a native of Nigeria, talk about African fabrics. The designer and owner of Gihgi's since 1992 talked about the warm climate, Akwete fabric and the African people.

"Akwete is a village three miles from my home I was born in Aba. Akwete is woven by women. Mothers teach their daughters and the tradition is passed down from generation to generation," Mrs. Ogbonna said.

Then, the guest lecturer wrapped the Akwete fabric around her waist, draped a piece over her shoulder and took a piece of the fabric and in a split second adorned her head in a colorful wrap.

"A truly respectable African woman isn't dressed without a head wrap. Different styles of the head wraps indicate the mood of the woman," she said.

Amaya Murphy, 8, was one of the first to get her head wrapped in a deep-blue fabric. She also donned African markings on her face. A couple of strokes of the paintbrush on her cheeks and above her brows gave the student an authentic African look.

"You know, different tribes wear different markings on their faces. The women wear wraps around their waists and boys mostly wear hats, big shirts and big pants," Amaya said.

Across the hall in another classroom, third-graders painted African Spirit masks and Adinkra symbols. They played Mancala, an African stone game, and the students created a village using straw, cardboard and mud.

Artist Agnes Clancy, who lived in Africa for six years, came up with the African village theme. A native of France, Mrs. Clancy, 38, said she wanted to give the students a real feel for the rural life in Zambia.

"You can create using anything. Look at the children in Africa who pick up a can and make a [toy] truck. This is what I wanted to pass on to the children the ability to create with what is available. I wanted them to be immersed, and this is an immersion experience," she said.

"By building the huts, they are taking a journey to Africa. They can admire their creations and let their imaginations fly," Mrs. Clancy said.

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