En la Clase: Rethinking Conquest Using David Alfaro Siqueiros’ Collective Suicide

In last week’s En la Clase, I talked about why it’s important to spend some time thinking about how and what we teach about conquest, colonization, and historical figures like Christopher Columbus.  I also linked to a number of previous posts we’ve done that highlight lesson plans and resources on the topic, so please check that out if you missed it.  In today’s post I share a new lesson plan that we created this fall to add to our teaching resources for rethinking conquest and colonization in the classroom.

Collective Suicide

Last spring I had the opportunity to visit MoMA in New York City.  While there I saw David Alfaro Siqueiros’ Collective Suicide (pictured above).  I’d never seen or heard about this painting before.  It’s quite striking.  I immediately thought, “I’ve got to create a lesson plan using this painting.”  For those of you who may also be as unfamiliar with it as I was, I’ve shared MoMA’s description of the painting below (Taken from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art,
revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 172. Excerpt also available online at http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=79146 under publication excerpts).

“Collective Suicide is an apocalyptic vision of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, when many
of the indigenous inhabitants killed themselves rather than submit to slavery. Siqueiros
shows armored Spanish troops advancing on horseback, a bowed captive staggering before
them in chains. The broken statue of a god demonstrates the ruin of the indigenous culture.
Chichimec Indians, separated from their tormentors by a churning pit, slaughter their own
children, hang themselves, stab themselves with spears, or hurl themselves from cliffs.
Mountainous forms create a backdrop crowned with swirling peaks, like fire or blood.

Siqueiros, one of the Mexican mural painters of the 1920s and 1930s, advocated what he
called “a monumental, heroic, and public art.” An activist and propagandist for social reform,
he was politically minded even in his choices of materials and formats: rejecting what
he called “bourgeois easel art,” he used commercial and industrial paints and methods. Collective
Suicide is one of his relatively few easel paintings, but here, too, he used spray guns
and stencils for the figures, and strategically let the paints—commercial enamels—flow
together on the canvas. Collective Suicide is both a memorial to the doomed pre-Hispanic
cultures of the Americas and a rallying cry against contemporary totalitarian regimes.”

In this lesson students will examine Siqueiros’ Collective Suicide.  Using what they’ve learned in previous parts of the a unit on conquest, colonization, exploration, Christopher Columbus, or other similarly themed units, students will study, analyze, and discuss Siqueiros’ representation of the Spanish Conquest.  After focusing specifically on Collective Suicide students will then think about and discuss how they would choose to represent the same historical event/period.  If time allows and materials are available, the activity can be expanded to allow students to create their own sketch, painting, sculpture or other representation.

I’ve shared the entire lesson plan below or a pdf of the lesson plan is available here.  I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on using art in the classroom or any of your go-to resources on the topic!

Preparation

  • Secure internet access and appropriate technology for class viewing of the digital painting and
    MoMA video.
  • Print copies of Collective Suicide for small group use (optional)

Materials

Process
Activity 1: Small Group + Whole Class Reflection and Discussion on Initial Viewing of Collective
Suicide

  1. Divide students into small groups. Provide each group a printed copy of Siqueiros’ Collective
    Suicide. Ask students to take a few minutes to silently study the picture, thinking about questions such as:
    • What do you think is being depicted in the painting?
    • What kind of feel does the painting have?
    • What kind of message do you think is being shared here?
    • What stands out to you the most in the painting?
  2. Next, ask students to discuss their thoughts with their small group. One person should record
    the group’s ideas.
  3. Display the painting for the whole class to see. As a whole class discuss each group’s ideas on
    the painting. As students discuss various aspects of the painting, if applicable, direct students
    to the appropriate part of the pain ting. Classroom ideas can be recorded to refer to later.

Activity 2: MoMA Video and Materials

  1. Read the excerpted materials from MoMA Highlights (included above or available here: http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=79146 under publication excerpts) to students. Highlight
    any of the ideas here that students also discussed in their reflection on the painting.
  2. View the MoMA video on Collective Suicide available here: http://www.moma.org/explore/
    multimedia/videos/177/1362
  3. Discuss any significant ideas or themes presented in the video that have not already been
    raised in the previous class discussion

Activity 3: Reflection Questions
The following questions can be used in various ways. Students can think about these individually,
and then share in small groups or with the whole class. They can be used to guide a whole group
discussion of the painting. They can also be used as writing prompts for an extended response
writing activity.

Questions:

  1. Why do you think Siqueiros titled his work Collective Suicide? Do you think that is an
    appropriate name? What would you name it?
  2. Describe the various contrasting elements of Siqueiros’ painting. What do you think these represent? Explain.
  3. How do you think Siqueiros’ own involvement and experience in the Mexican Revolution is
    reflected in the painting? At times artists and writers can romanticize the violence of war. Do
    you think Siqueiros does this in his pain ting? Explain your thoughts.
  4. Do you think that Siqueiros is making a specific statement in his painting? What do you think
    that statement is? Explain.
  5. How does Siqueiros’ painting compare to other representations of Christopher Columbus or
    other European conquests of the Americas? Think about the paintings often included in history
    text books on exploration and children’s books about explorers. Find specific  examples if available.
    If you were to generalize, are the representations more alike or different? Specifically
    speaking, what representations are more similar to Siqueiros’? Why do you think they have
    more in common? Which ones are the most unlike Collective Suicide? Think about the message
    these representations are sending or the version of history they’re telling. With this in
    mind, why do you think they are so different from Siqueiros’ painting?
  6. Art historians have said that one of the import ant themes throughout all of Siqueiros’ work is
    the idea of rewriting history. In what way(s) can Collective Suicide be seen as rewriting
    history? What history does Collective Suicide tell?
  7. How would you portray Exploration, Conquest, or specifically the Spanish Conquest artistically?
    Think about what you would depict and the type of medium you would use, and then explain
    your choices.

Expansion Activity
Create your own artistic representation (sketch, painting, sculpture, diorama, etc.) of conquest.
Then, describe how you portrayed it and why.

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