Friday, November 4, 2011

Authentic African Art

This week we read three articles that discussed authenticity and truly traditional African art.  After reading these articles we were asked to come up with questions that the articles raised and certain quotes that resonated with us.

As said before, one issue was that of traditional African art.  We have discussed this many times in class because many peoples ideas of traditional are skewed.  For example in our first week of our Arts of Africa class, we first talked about what we thought traditional African art consisted of.  Words such as tribal and primitive, among many other similar words, were common among the students.  We quickly learned that these terms were not correct in identifying traditional African art.

The other issue was that of authenticity.  The question was raised of who gets to decide whether or not something is authentic?  Our class has taught us that there are many different ways one can determine such a question and many people have different views.  For example, many people may think the traditional way of batiking is the only way to make authentic pieces.  But when we had Nani Agbeli visit he showed us a different way of batiking that is used.  The outcomes are different but both are valid processes that are used to get those outcomes.  Another example is some of the traditional African masks and masking we have looked at.  The kinds of masks that many tourists expect to see are the traditional looking masks.  However, in current times, the masks that are made can look very different.  However, both have their specific purposes and uses, making them valid in their different contexts.  This makes both authentic.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sapi, Benin, and Kongo

This week for class we focused on how different peoples of Africa came to see the Portuguese when they landed on African soil in the late 15th century and how the Africans portrayed these foreigners in their visual art.  We read two very inciteful articles on the topic.  One was titled "Imaging Otherness in Ivory: African Portrayals of the Portuguese ca. 1492" by Susanne Preston Blier.  This article focused on three African peoples; the Sapi, Benin, and Kongo.  I found that all of their views of the Portuguese people stemmed from very similar beliefs. 

The first similar belief between the Sapi, Benin, and Kongo peoples has to do with the difference in skin color beween the Africans and the Portuguese.  The color white was often assoiciated with the dead or the spirit world.  Another similar belief was that the journey from the world of the living to that of the dead is separated by a passage of water.  The Benin people in particular, thought the Portuguese had reversed that journey, coming back from the spirit world to the world of the living.  Another common belief in which these African peoples shared was that of the cross.  This "X" sign signified crossroads and spiritual passage.  The Portuguese came with many Christian crosses which were seen as similar to the African cross symbol. 

What I found to be extremely interesting about these examples of their common beliefs, is that it was molded or fit to the Portuguese' arrival.  They were white people who arrived in ships with white sails from across the ocean, spoke a completely different language, had technology far greater than the Africans, and had familiar cross symbols signifying spiritual passage.  All of these factors fit the arrival of the Portuguese so well, and matched up to their tales perfectly, possibly helping the Portuguese by not seeming to portray a threat to the African peoples. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Joys of Technology... and Haitian Culture

Last week my weekly blog somehow did not get published.  I am finally getting around to rewriting it and hopefully I can cover the bulk of what I originally intended to post.  The joys of technology, right?  

We were asked to address the class readings and DVDs we were shown that related to Haitian art, culture, and their belief in Vodou (which is completely different than what we as Westerners know as voodoo or witchcraft, etc).  I found that I learned a great deal about these people.

Firstly, I believe it is important to understand the geographic location of Haiti.  Below is a very general map showing Haiti in relation to the neighboring Dominican Republic. 

The DVD we watched in class raised some very interesting issues about the relationships between the Haitians and the Dominicans.  One issue is that there are two different languages spoken in each of these places, setting an obvious gap between the two.  The Dominicans see themselves as superior because they regard themselves as being from a mixed culture.  They commonly refer to themselves as Spanish rather than black.  They believe that their homeland is Spain rather than Africa.  This was interesting because many of the people from the Dominican Republic have a skin tone that most people would distinguish as black as the commentator mentioned.  The DVD raised the issue that Dominicans are in complete denial of who they are because they will refer to themselves as anything but black when 90% of them are of African decent.  

Haitians on the other hand seem to be very proud of being black.  They celebrate their heritage and are not naive to where they come from.  They are also very proud to practice their Vodou beliefs.  However, as said before, Dominicans consider themselves superior to the Haitian people.  This is because the Haitians came to be known as a new class.  They were migrant workers who worked jobs that no one else would, such as working on sugar plantations.  This along with the Haitian pride of being black created much tension between the Haitians and Dominicans.  

Vodou can be a misunderstood belief practice due to people associating it with Voodoo and witchcraft.  Vodou is actually a belief in several spirits to cope and respond to everyday life whether it be problems or giving thanks for something good that has occured.  It can be practiced as a way of protection AGAINST evil witchcraft.  The article we read in class was titled Mama Lola and the Ezilis: Themes of Mothering and Loving in Haitian Vodou by Karen McCarthy Brown.  This article expressed how a woman, Mama Lola, serves the Vodou spirits as a very popular Vodou priestess.  Below is a short video that actually showcases Mama Lola.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Yoruba Visual Culture and Spirituality

This week we were asked about howYoruba visual culture communicates Yoruba spirituality.  I found it is best to explain by using some examples of pieces in their culture. 
The Yoruba are very spiritual people.  They have what is called a Bablawo which is like a diviner.  It would be somewhat similar to who we would go to for answers about our faith.  The Yoruba people are able to go to the Babalawo to have their spiritual questions answered.  The Babalawo could also be looked at as someone who tells the fortunes of those who seek it.  The Babalawo can wear an Adenla, or crown like head piece.  The Adenla can have various attributes or representations adorning it, but it is common to have some sort of veil that comes down to cover the wearer's face.  This is due to the belief that the wearer or Babalawo has such a powerful force, that their gaze must not meet the audiences.  Below is an example of an Adenla head piece. 

Adenla of the Yoruba people

The Yoruba people also have many spirits that they believe in.  These are called Orishas and they all have different personalities.  Some examples are Eshu, Shango, and Ogun.  Eshu is the spirit that has power over money, sex, and a persons' livelihood.  Eshu is also the spirit of crossroads and the market.  He is known as the trickster.  He must be appeased or it is possible to have bad luck in the mentioned areas.  Below is an example of a representation of Eshu.  It is common for Eshu to have two heads or faces in relation to being a trickster. 

These examples are just two of many that show that the Yoruba are very spiritual people. 

Friday, September 30, 2011

Comparing Pieces

This week we were asked to make a comparison between two pieces of African art from two different African cultures.  I chose to compare the Asante peoples' Akua'ba and the Yoruba peoples' Ire-Ibeji.  Shown below, both pieces are abstracted figural pieces that have to do with offspring.  However, both serve different spiritual purposes.

Yoruba Ire-Ibeji
Asante Akua 'ba

The story behind the Asante Akua 'ba doll starts with a woman who could not get pregnant.  She went to her diviner (somewhat similar to a priest) and then commissioned this doll to be carved.  She was to care for it as a real child, and soon she became pregnant.  Girls and women carry these dolls to help with fertility and to bring health to their offspring, as many children die within their first few years of life.  These dolls are abstracted with an exaggerated flat forehead, one of the Akan peoples' ideals of beauty. 

On the other hand, the Yoruba Ire-Ibeji doll is be carved to honor a deceased twin.  In the Yoruba culture, there are more twins born than anywhere else.  However, many die, leaving only one twin remaining.  This doll, like the Akua 'ba doll, is also cared for as if it is a real child.  It is hoped that the spirit of the deceased child will live in the doll.  It is also abstracted with exaggerated body parts. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Masks, Masking and Masquerades

This week we focused mainly on the African arts of masks, masking, and masquerades for our class lectures and discussions.  While we had briefly touched on the subject before I was still not fully understanding the important distinctions between the different areas of this art.  To help, we read a piece by Herbert M. Cole titled "I Am Not Myself".   The introduction, called "Introduction: The Mask, Masking, and Masquerade Arts in Africa" made a clear distinction on the subject that I believe is extremely important for everyone to understand.

Cole defined three words:

  • Masks:  "a physical object of specific materials, shape, and size", "normally designed to cover the face or head" 
  • Masking:  "the active presence of one or more fully costumed characters"
  • Masquerades:  "important events involving varied masked dancers, musicians, and their audiences"

These words being defined helped in understanding the art and I believe it is beneficial when looking at the issue of the importance of not taking the masks out of context.  What we see is what is often shown in museums, only the mask itself.  We do not see the entire outfitted character and the way it is acted and danced.  While the mask itself may be interesting to look at, being without its context completely takes away from the experience and true meaning.

Also, it is important to know the functions of masks.  One function is to tell stories.  Masks can tell stories of a certain people's culture, working as a teaching tool of their history.  Another function is to entertain.  Each masked character has different qualities that they represent.  For example, we saw a video clip of the Bwa people dancing a mask of a chameleon.  The chameleon represented change and the ability to mold to new situations and circumstances.  A third function of masks is to honor the spirits who protect the community.  This is very important because many peoples of Africa are extremely spiritual.

Below is a video similar to what we saw in class.  It shows masks of the Bwa people in their original context.

Cole also touched on many interesting things about masks.  I was unaware that African mythology seems to have a theme that women first held the secrets of masking.  This was surprising because the examples of masks we have seen have predominantly been danced by males.  In many African cultures the males have a "secret society" and it's masking secrets are very well protected.  Often, it is the elder males who have the masks and usually those who are younger will dance them.  When an elder male dies sometimes his mask is even made into a shrine for him.  The mythology goes on to say that men eventually took over the masking rituals, completely excluding women.  Cole mentions that this may be evidence men's fears of female powers, reproductive roles in particular.

In addition, reflecting the title of Cole's piece, "I Am Not Myself", we learned of the reason that African masks seem to be so abstracted and distorted.  The peoples of Africa are not as much concerned with realism as Americans and Europeans.  The purpose of the African masks is to represent a spirit rather than a real person/animal, etc.  It is important to know that the masks represent the person or animal and those who partake in the masking completely take on the character of the mask costume, not only in acting, but complete embodiment.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Radiance of the King

In class this week we discussed a term that I had not heard before: cross-cultural pollination.  It came from an article we read called "The Radiance of the King" by Donald Cosentino in the Autumn 2009 issue of African Arts.  This article looked at the Ghanaian paintings made during the 2008 Obama campaign and election.  The art pieces showcased in this article are quite fascinating.  They are paintings that have a very contemporary feel to them with what some might see as unique content.  What is interesting about them is that they give very visual interpretations of what the Ghanaians felt was going on with Obama being elected as the first black president of the United States.  Obama is shown with different alter-egos such as superman and is painted next to figures such as George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr., making obvious hints that they are comparatively similar.  With Obama's father being from Africa, Africans felt a strong connection with this historical occurrence.

Ghanaian painting of Obama

So this is where the term "cross-cultural pollination" is relevant.  To understand the meaning it just takes a look at the Ghanaian artists' paintings featured in the Cosentino article to see how our culture affects the cultures in Africa.  They see what is happening here and relate it to themselves.  They bring our culture and history into theirs.  I am sure almost every country and culture does this in some way.  The United States does it, too.  Just as one person sees another doing something different, that person will remember it, take something away from it, and incorporate it with their own understanding and life.

Another related topic we talked about is the contemporary Ghanaian funereal practices.  Like us, the Ghanaians place a significant amount of importance on funerals.  They believe they should make their funerals as extravagant as possible so they can, in Professor Sutton's words, "do death right".  This makes sense for the fact that they believe and celebrate death as an initiation into the next part of life, or in this case afterlife.  Many coffins for the deceased persons are commissioned to look like objects that relate to them in some way.  Below is a coffin shaped like a fish, probably for a fisherman.  Other coffins made to look like objects include cars, phones, shoes, animals, or food.  Really anything is possible.  The main idea behind these coffins is that they represent the status and wealth of the deceased.

Ghanaian coffin

So our culture and the Ghanaian's culture cross.  In both cases death is marked by similar practices, initially lowering a coffin into the ground.  And another thought; what would your coffin look like?