I recently read about a teacher from the Midwestern United States. It was a Friday afternoon and she was at work. Her students were excited about the news of the day – the inauguration of the 45th US president. They asked their teacher if they could watch the live broadcast and she felt that it would be wrong to deny them this. When her students started cheering and punching the air in response to Donald Trump’s words, the teacher had to turn around so that her students wouldn’t see her cry. When powerful people start to sow the seeds of hate and fear, it can be difficult for teachers and educators to know how to respond. But art can provide one possible answer. This lesson plan uses images from artist Shepard Fairey and photographer Ridwan Adhami.
- Language level: B1+
- Learner type: All ages
- Time: 60 minutes
- Activity: A mock interview; Reading
- Topic: Art
- Language: Question forms
- Materials: Images; Articles
About this activity
The 2017 Women’s March was a worldwide protest that took place on 21st January 2017, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th US president. Shepard Fairey’s poster was prominent at many of these marches and as a result, Munira Ahmed’s face quickly became an iconic symbol of resistance to the Trump administration.
Shepard Fairey created his image as part of a project titled “We the People”. The project has been coordinated by the Amplifier Foundation, a group which describes itself as “an art machine for social change”. You can download free, high-resolution posters from their website.
The primary aim of this activity is to bring the image(s) of Munira Ahmed into the classroom. Students construct questions about the woman, the artists, and the art, before investigating the story online.
Please be aware that an image like this could provoke strong reactions in some parts of the world. In such classrooms, it could be quite provocative or controversial. If you are in doubt about using it, please speak with a more experienced member of teaching staff in your school or institution.
Please also be aware that different people will construct their own personal opinions and interpretations in response to the image. For example, some might feel that it depicts an independent-minded young Muslim woman. Others may see the hijab as an overly-simplistic representation of Islam. There is no single narrative on offer.
For this activity, you will need the following four images:
- Ridwan Adhami’s portrait photograph of Munira Ahmed (“I Am America”) [link here]
- Shepard Fairey’s image of Munira Ahmed [link here]
- Mannie Garcia’s 2006 photograph of Barack Obama sitting beside George Clooney [link here]
- Shepard Fairey’s image of Barack Obama [link here]
- Tell students that you are going to show them a portrait photograph of a young woman called Munira Ahmed. Tell students that they may have seen the photograph before.
- Before you show the photograph, write the woman’s name on the board (Munira Ahmed). Ask students to guess where she is from. Write suggestions on the board but do not tell students whether they are right or wrong at this stage.
- Show students the portrait by photographer Ridwan Adhami. Make sure that the title is not visible. Ask students the following questions:
- Now that you can see the photograph, where do you think she is from?
- Have you seen this image before? Tell us more.
- When do you think the photograph was taken?
- Where do you think it was taken?
- What is she wearing? What do you call this? (Point to her hijab)
- Can you guess the title of the portrait? What title would you give it?
Discuss students’ answers. Improvise a discussion by asking follow-up questions when possible. Do not tell students whether or not they are correct at this stage.
- Where do you think she is from? This is a trick question. Munira Ahmed is from the United States of America. She was born and raised in New York. However some people might interpret the question as: “What is her ethnicity?” You can draw attention to the difference between these two questions and point out that Munira’s parents are Bangladeshi and moved to New York in the seventies.
- When? The picture was taken in 2007.
- Where? It was taken in New York City – close to the site of the destroyed Twin Towers.
- What is she wearing? A hijab.
- Title: “I am America”.
- Munira Ahmed
- George Clooney
- President Obama
Tell students that one of these people is the odd one out. In other words, one of them is different to the others in some way. Ask students if they know who it is and why.
Note: If no one knows the answer, invite students to guess by asking you questions. Give a limit to the number of questions that they ask (12, for example). Students should ask closed questions only (questions to which the answer can only be ‘yes’ or ‘no’). You can provide students with clues such as: It has something to do with art. It has something to do with an artist called Shepard Fairey.
Answer: George Clooney is the odd one out. Both Munira Ahmed and Barack Obama have been the subjects of posters by New York artist Shepard Fairey. The images that Fairey created were both based on photographs.
- Munira Ahmed: the young woman with the Stars and Stripes hijab
- Ridwan Adhami: the photographer
- Shepard Fairey: the artist that created the image based on the photograph
Questions for Munira Ahmed
Where did you get the Stars and Stripes hijab?
How do you feel about being the subject of these images?
Questions for Ridwan Adhami
Why did you take the photograph and what did you do with it?
Why did you choose to take the picture just after 9/11, close to the site of the destroyed Twin Towers?
What does the title mean?
Questions for Shepard Fairey
Why did you choose to use Ridwan’s photograph for the subject of your artwork?
Did you make money from it?
Follow-ups and variations
The part of this activity that I like the most is the simple idea of showing people Ridwan Adhami’s photograph of Munira Ahmed and asking:
Where do you think she is from?
I have tried this a few times and it is interesting to note that ‘USA’ is not always the immediate answer. For me, this is the central issue of the lesson plan and one that can be explored. For example, students could carry out a survey / make a video in which they ask people this same question and report back with the different responses that they get.
There are so many different directions that this activity could take. Rather than suggesting specific ideas, I would like to hear from you.
- How would/did you use the images in this lesson plan?
- How would/did you do things differently?
- What direction would/did you take the activity?
- What other material or art could/will you complement the activity with?
Please leave your ideas in a comment below. Good luck!
And finally …
Here is a poem from a friend of mine called Colin McGuire. It is titled Fascist’s Guide to Salad and I think it is bloody great.
We exclude peppers of all colours on racial grounds.
No red onions: Bolshevik tearjerkers, every last one.
No sweetcorn, caught in the teeth like POWs on barbed wire.
We exclude all potatoes, inferior forms of base origin,
though they weather all winter, in their pallid form
they are such sluggish lumpen proletarian.
No environmentally green lettuce, tastes like sheets
of bland paper in the mouth. No French dressing
drooling in all its effeminacy.
No drizzle of olive oil from Italian peasant fields.
No free range eggs, only the finest yoke
from purest born Eagle.
No Greek affectation: fetid cheese.
No Caesar salad: stabbed in the back with his own cutlery.
No mezze platter selections sneaking through the plates border.
Do you hear them sing? The tomatoes will prevail.
The tomatoes will prevail! No, the tomatoes bleed
like liberals all the same, blood dripping from their tongues.
This salad will be the finest; made only to be acknowledged,
prized only for its privilege, a museum exhibit
around which people gawp.
Behold, the cold white porcelain bowl,
served, empty and gleaming.