Students will investigate the significance of certain facial features on the Olmec Seated Figure, explore the meaning of alter ego, and create an artistic representation of themselves indicating an animal that might be their alter ego.
Intended Age GroupSecondary (grades 6-12)
Length of LessonOne 50 minute lesson
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Students will be able to:
- describe the artistic characteristics of the Olmec Seated Figure;
- explain the significance of certain facial features on the sculpture;
- explain the meaning of alter ego; and
- create an artistic representation of themselves which indicates what type of animal might be their alter ego.
- Warm-up: Invite the students to brainstorm as many things as they possibly can that are smooth. Write their ideas on a whiteboard or on a large sheet of easel paper. Ask the students to brainstorm all the things they can that are rough and write these ideas on a separate area of the whiteboard or on a separate sheet of easel paper. Ask the students to take a look at both lists. Did they only mention ideas that relate to texture, or did they incorporate other definitions of the words such as “smooth talker” or “rough day”? Encourage the students to broaden their perspectives and add more ideas to the lists!
- Display the Olmec Seated Figure and invite the students to examine the sculpture closely. What do they notice? What material is the sculpture made from? How do the students think the artist created this sculpture? Does the figure remind them of any other pieces of art they have seen? If so, which ones and why? What do the students think the purpose or function of this sculpture might have been?
- Discuss how the mouth on this sculpture has strongly turned-down corners, which has been compared to a jaguar’s snarl. Using the About the Art sheet, explain how some scholars surmise that, in Olmec belief, powerful individuals had jaguar alter egos. Explain that one definition of alter ego is “another side of oneself.” Ask the students: What fictional or historical individuals can they think of who have alter egos (e.g. Clark Kent and Superman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus)?
- Have the students think of an animal they would choose to be their alter ego, prompting them with questions such as: What kind of animal has characteristics that remind you of yourself, or that you would like to have?
- Invite the students to draw, paint, or use a variety of artistic materials to create a self portrait with slight modifications that indicate their animal alter ego, just as the Olmec Seated Figure provides a subtle reference to the jaguar.
- When the students have finished their artwork, be sure to have a gallery show to display their masterpieces!
- Drawing pencils/paints and paper
- Assorted artistic materials for students to create modified representations of themselves (glitter, pipe cleaners, craft pom poms, yarn, etc.)
- About the Art sheet on Olmec Seated Figure (found at the end of the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
- One color copy of the sculpture for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Visual Arts
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
This figure was created by an Olmec [ole-mek] artist. The term Olmec refers to the pre-Columbian culture that flourished on the Gulf Coast of Mexico from 1400–500 BC, and to the style of art found throughout Mesoamerica during this period. Mesoamerica is defined by a group of cultural traits, including agriculture and a diet based on a triad of crops (maize, beans, and squash); the use of a 365-day solar calendar and a 260-day ritual calendar; the playing of a sacred ballgame; the construction of monumental public architecture; and a religion that emphasized blood sacrifice. The Olmec was Mesoamerica’s first civilization to embody all or most of these traits.
The artist who crafted this hollow earthenware figure modeled it from pinkish clay and covered it with a smooth white slip (a mixture of clay and water) to give it a skin-like look. The artist then applied red and black pigments to the head and face, possibly after the figure was fired (heated to harden the clay).
What Inspired It?
Figures like this one are called “babies” because of their large head proportions and often short, fleshy limbs. The faces on Olmec figurines are distinctive, with heavy eyelids and thick lips with down-turned corners. Some, like this one, have a jaguar-like mouth. Some scholars think that in Olmec belief, powerful individuals had jaguar alter egos and Olmec shamans (intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds) were able to transform themselves into jaguars. Called were-jaguars (like werewolves), these figures have snarling or crying mouths, are sexless, and suggest possible shamanic transformation of humans into animals. The purpose of these types of figures is unknown. In other Olmec depictions, supernatural baby-like figures are held on the laps or in the arms of sculptured Olmec rulers. The baby-like figures may have had an association with the natural elements such as earth or water.
The figure sits in a relaxed asymmetrical pose with the head slightly cocked.
The limbs are soft, thick, rounded, and don’t reflect any anatomical reality of bones and muscle. The hands and feet are small and elegant.
The head is an elongated oval with narrow eyes, a slender nose, and delicately outlined eyebrows and hairline. Red and black pigment heightens the features, perhaps to indicate the figure is wearing a helmet or other headdress.
The mouth has strongly down-turned corners. This mouth shape has been compared to a jaguar’s snarl.