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Friday, November 11, 2011

Reactions to the Haitian Collection

People say that every time you watch the same movie over again it gets better because you notice things you didn’t each time before.  I feel as if the same idea can be applied to art. Thursday was my third time going to the Waterloo Arts Center to view the Haitian art collection and each time not only did I notice things I hadn’t the time before, but I had a totally different view on what I was seeing.
This first time I went to view this collection was before I was even taking Arts of Africa. My ignorance is very evident to me now that I have learned so much about the context of the pieces. I will admit that I was the close-minded person looking at the art as coming from an entire country rather than the cultures that make up that country.  Being as oblivious as I was to the world outside of the U.S., I honestly probably even went as far as grouping it with all African art in general.  I remember being intrigued by all the detail in the Drapos, but I had no idea what they were or what their purpose was. I left feeling more confused than anything else.
The second time I saw the collection I knew a great deal more about the history and context of Haitian art. I was able to pick out certain characteristics seen not only in the Haitian art we had been studying, but other cultures as well. One of these characteristics was the almond shaped eyes that seem to be prominent in the majority of artwork we see involving figures. They stood out to me in the Madonne Enfant II piece by Saincilus E. Ismael depicting Madonna with a female baby. Another characteristic I noticed in some of the pieces was the use of the Vévé that we discussed in class. These were symbols drawn on the ground to evoke the Lwa. One piece I found particularly interesting was Untitled by Stivenson Magloire because I felt as if I could recognize and understand some of the symbolism used. It looks like the man lying down is deceased, so the Vévé could be a representation of the crossroads and the intersection between the worlds of the living and the dead. A symbol on the drums looks as if it could be a symbol for the crossroads as well. The rooster was another part that caught my attention, as they were often used as for sacrificial purposes. However, it was more the aesthetics that I focused on when I saw everything for the second time.

This last time I went to the Waterloo Arts Center I had the articles we read last week still in my mind about authenticity, expectations, and other issues surrounding artists creating in a environment where they're the minority. Even being aware of the issues many artists have with expectations based on their backgrounds and seeing similar images in class, I’m still thrown off by the varying depictions of the Virgin and Child. The Madonne Enfant II piece by Saincilus E. Ismael is an example of how a certain thing is expected and when a person sees something that they're not used to it automatically raises questions. The piece was enough to remind me of The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili. It blows my mind how unsettling it can be to see such an iconic figured changed, even if it is as simple as just changing the skin color. That shows how being subjected to these figures in a certain way can form such strong views on the ‘right’ way they should be portrayed. Another example of this is how Renee Cox depicts The Last Supper in her piece, Yo Mama’s Last Supper. A person might have to be more than simply aware of the differences in cultures to overcome how institutionalized people we’ve become.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Reactions to Shonibare, Kasfir, and Oguibe

          The overarching theme of this week’s readings and discussion revolved around the awareness of authenticity and what it means, as well as expectations of people, such as Yinka Shonibare, based on where they're from and assumptions already formed about that area. The readings from this week included “Art, Identity, Boundaries: Postmodernism and Contemporary African Art” by Olu Oguibe, “African Art and Authenticity: A Text with a Shadow” by Sidney Kasfir, and an interview between Okwui Enwezor and Yinka Shonibare. Each reading brought up different issues that affect artists, such as being considered an “other” and living in a society as a minority.

          “For Ouattara, though, the game is already over. It was over before it even began. It was over from the moment he was born, from the moment he was destined to be – designated as – an Other.” I was intrigued by this quotation from Oguibe’s article mainly because we have been focusing on the “others” by looking into who they are in the eyes of various cultures and how they have influenced each culture as outsiders or foreigners. It raises questions in my mind about what it would be like to live life as an “other”. It was interesting to read about the interview and how the person asking the questions was more focused on where he was from and how he grew up versus the art he created, even after Ouattara pointed out that he would rather discuss his artwork. It was mentioned that the interviewers questions were intended to objectify the artist in a way, emphasizing even more how Africans are denied many of the rights we take for granted. Oguibe’s article also touches on the issue of authenticity, explaining that much of this issue has more to do with putting boundaries or limits on what African artists create as to keep a distance between their work and Caucasian art. He looks to authenticity as a way of defining and categorizing identity, much like in Kasfir’s article.

          “Ironically, it is not knowledge but ignorance of the subject that ensures its authenticity.” When I first read this quotation it seemed as if it was too simple to cover the ideas and controversy surrounding authenticity. However, as direct as it is, it still manages to encompass how authenticity is defined as something lacking identity rather than emphasis on the individual and their purpose for the piece. Kasfir mentions that anonymity is what many people are looking for when they are looking for something authentic. Basically, the more that is known about an object the less of a mystery it is, which can be taken as less appealing. This is explained, in a way, by Kasfir saying “the Western connoisseur is the essential missing factor that transforms artifact into art.” It is just another way the public reinvents the African cultures to fit into their own ideals and views.

          I found the discussion on how Africa is thought of as an entire continent as a whole rather than the various cultures found within it to be intriguing, mainly because it is how I had thought of it before this class. “So for you the trauma is this consciousness of your blackness, which you had no awareness of because you were living in a society that did not work in this racially charged hierarchical way.” I find this quotation from Enwezor during his interview with Shonibare particularly interesting because I feel as if I relate in the sense that I am not aware of my “whiteness”. We may live in a society that is “racially charged” in a hierarchical fashion, but this quotation raises questions in my mind, much like the quotation from Oquibe, about what it would be like to be among a minority, or to be surrounded by people expecting certain things of me based on their assumption of my background. In our discussion it was brought up that some people who have never been to Iowa think we have only gravel roads and don’t have access to technology like computers. To us that may seem ridiculous, but this is a major issue Shonibare must face on a regular basis; he is expected to create art based on all of the generalizations surrounding Africa.

How oblivious or limited are we regarding our expectations and perceptions of cultures outside our own?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Reactions to Blier and Drewal

         Interculturation was a main point of discussion this week in respect to articles by both Suzanne Preston Blier, with "Imaging Otherness in Ivory: African Portrayals of the Portuguese ca. 1492", and Henry John Drewal, with "Mami Wata Shrines: Exotica and the Construction. of Self". These articles focus on how “different” peoples affect the cultures in which they impose upon, also know as the “others”. More specifically, Blier goes into depth about how the Portuguese influenced the visual aspects of the Beni, Sapi, and Kongo peoples, while Drewal focuses on how Africans are affected by foreigners such as the Americans.
The Americans had a significant influence on the Africans in the 20th century much like the Portuguese had an influence on the Beni, Sapi, and Kongo peoples around the 15th century. Many of the carvings done in the 15th century were even referred to as Afro-Portuguese ivories, showing the relationship between the two cultures. An example of the Portuguese influence on African art can be seen in the imagery found on various objects such as the saltcellars, spoons, and trumpets. However, each culture incorporated that influence in their own way over a huge range of artworks being made at that time. For example, the Kongo focused on the separation of the living world from the world of the dead through spatial frames and spiral frames. These characteristics reflect the European influence in that they viewed the Europeans as signifiers of transition, life, and death. The people of Benin also portray the Portuguese as “others”; however, they put more emphasis on figures and naturalism. The poses of these figured suggested the same idea of movement and transition as seen in the Kongo pieces. European motifs also appear in the ivory carvings of the Sapi people, as well as specific references to Christian beliefs such as religious scenes with the Virgin and Child. Individuals are also depicted with the African scarification while wearing European clothing. This shows how the different people base their portrayals on what they witness and take in from the foreigners. Items such as prints, books, films, and other traded items play an important role in the shaping of cultures and the new ideologies being formed. They aren’t abandoning their own styles and beliefs as much as they are simply incorporating what they see into their visual culture.

Benin figure wearing a cross, 16th century, bronze, 63.5cm. 
Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Museum.
        Accepting of new ideas and differences of the foreigners is a major connection between both articles. Rather than disregarding the “others”, the Africans incorporate certain characteristics into their lives by transforming the foreign symbols into something they are familiar with. An example of this is the connection made between the Christian crosses brought over by the Europeans and the sacred crossroads already identified in the African society. Interculturation is also prominent in Drewal’s article, discussing the African receptivity to European rituals and icons and how they interpret them in a way that links them to Mami Wata’s relationship with water spirits, such as the snake charmer print. “…people intentionally or unintentionally use the objects of others to define themselves.” This quotation from Drewal’s article was mentioned a lot throughout the class discussion; I feel like it is an excellent explanation of the overall message being portrayed in both articles.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Reactions to Vodou

Haitian Vodou is a very complex religion, incorporating many religious beliefs within it, including Catholicism and some African peoples’ beliefs. Like much of what we have previously studied, symbolism and rituals play a huge role in the connections of cultures, and in this case religion as well.

There are many ideas relating Vodou religion to Catholicism. A major relationship is seen between the Lwa and Catholic saints by means of iconography, such as lithographs on the shrine wall. Some of the symbols incorporated into Haitian religion from Catholicism include the keys, snake, and staff as well.  An example of where this can be seen is in the scene in which a possessed Azaka is being represented by Malant Pierre in a shrine holding a picture of a Catholic saint as well as a bag that can be used to hold ritual items. Another relationship between Haitian Vodou religion and Catholicism is between the transformation of the Eucharist during Mass into the actual body of Christ and the Vodou spirits possessing a person transforming them into that spirit. More Catholic influences are seen in their depictions that clearly resemble the Madonna and child.  However, a major difference is that while Catholics focus of worship, the Vodou religion puts emphasis on integrating spirits into everyday life. This can be seen in the African communities as well.

Spirits play a huge role in the societies of both the African peoples and the Haitian Vodou religion. In both cultures dance and ritual movements are incorporated by both men and women for various reasons. Chants and songs are found in both cultures as a way of praising spirits and asking for protection. Offerings and sacrifices can be seen as well. Another connection between Vodou and African beliefs is how a person can be taken over by a spirit. While the Haitian people don’t use the term “God”, they have spirits that closely relate to the Gods of fertility and agriculture seen in African spirituality. They both also have a “trickster”. The Haitians refer to the family of trickster spirits as Gede. Legba can be compared with the African spirit Eshu as well because they both are who a person needs to go through to communicate with a higher power. A couple characteristics of the Haitian culture that stick out to me as connecting with the African cultures is the symbols of Olokun that represent the crossroads, which have no connection with but seem to resemble the symbols found on batiks. Another similarity is in the use of scarification, even though it is seen on figures in African society rather than on humans.

Even though there are many obvious differences between these religions, it’s interesting to see how a religion such as the Haitian Vodou religion can form from the obvious integration and influences of other religions, especially Catholicism and some African peoples’ beliefs.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reactions to the Yoruba culture

The majority of Yoruba art we studied this week focuses on expressing the community’s religious beliefs.  Masks, much like the masks of cultures we have studied in previous chapters, play a huge role in how the people connect with the higher power or life force. The Gelede, Egungun, and Epa are three of the prominent masquerades seen in Yoruba societies and each communicate with Yoruba spirituality in unique ways.

The Gelede masquerades are related to the Yoruba spirituality in many ways, the most obvious being that they focus on the power and spirituality of “our mothers”, who are the elder women of the community. Although the Gelede is often danced by men, they celebrate, as well as appease, women and are often danced in pairs. Not only do the masquerades showcase the good of the society, but the bad as well. This is to ensure that our mothers use their power for the good of the community. The costumes are made of brightly colored cloths and the faces of the dancers are always covered. A chest plate is also worn to emphasize breasts. The Gelede are similar to the Egungun with the brightly colored costumes; however, there are many important differences.

The Egungun masquerade is much more spiritual than the Gelede and therefore puts a great deal of emphasis on the concealment of the dancer. Unlike the Gelede, the entire body of the Egungun masker must be covered because they are too powerful to be seen. Another difference between the masquerades is that rather than focusing on the women of the society, the Egungun celebrate the ancestors. Like the Gelede, they also incorporate moral messages into their masquerades, such as the white masks portraying Western society with objects like a watch and purse. This specific masquerade and its relationship with modernity reminded me of the Baule bloblo bla figures and how they depict women in a similar way, with some holding purses or the figure wearing the yellow bikini.  The Egungun, Gelede, and Epa are all similar in that they are danced by men.

            Another similarity between the Gelede and Epa masks is that they both honor women of the community. However, the Epa masquerades also focus on celebrating and promoting balance, power, and achievement in the community. The superstructures are a very prominent characteristic of these masks. They can weigh up to 40 to 60 pounds and require a great deal of physical strength and balance to successfully dance. These superstructures often resemble the warriors and soldiers of the community. They remind me of the wooden Dogon equestrian figures we studied earlier in the semester, not only because of the abstraction of the figures but also because they both have the medium incorporated into the structure. This is especially evident in the way the horses head is being portrayed. Every week we learn about new cultures and pieces of art that consistently relate to pieces we have already studied.

            The religious beliefs of the Yoruba culture are expressed through their art, much like many of the African artists we have been studying communicate spirituality through their own art forms. Masquerades seem to be a common theme, not only throughout the Yoruba cultures, but throughout many of the African cultures. 

Friday, September 30, 2011

Bamana Boli vs. Ile-Ife Oni

During this course we have discussed a lot about multiplicity of meaning, symbolism, and spiritual qualities. All of these characteristics can be found throughout the majority of different cultures we have studied and the art they create. There seems to be close relationships between a lot of the African art we have studied; the Bamana boli and Ile-Ife oni sculpture can serve as example of the similarities in art between cultures.

The boli figures, made by the Bamana people of Mali, are considered to be one of the most important power objects in the society. They are made up of wood, clay, and an accumulation of sacrificial materials. Some of these materials include blood, semen, nails and other sacrificial elements. The power of the boli figure increases with each additional layer, which are each added as an offering to the spirits. These figures were often used for religious purposes, such as portable altarpieces, as well as protection for the community. While I was doing more research on the boli, I read an interesting interpretation on the materials used to create these figures. It was suggested that the materials used on the outside of the boli represented the contents of a humans stomach, while the inner materials of the figure represented a humans exterior, thus making the boli a representation of a human turned inside out. They are very amorphous and abstract figures. Generally, they take the shape of a bull; however, they can take on many other shapes as well.  Abstraction is one of the many connections between the boli figures and the oni sculptures of the Ile-Ife.

            The terra cotta oni sculpture of the Ile-Ife has many similarities to the boli figures. Despite the naturalization of the oni figure, there is still a great deal of abstraction that can be seen, which is similar to the abstraction seen in the boli. The Ile-Ife peoples abstract the proportions of the king, emphasizing the size of the head as a visual representation of spiritual belief. The enlarged head is said to have been linked to the idea that the head was where the soul was located.  However, the meaning behind the abstraction is different between the oni sculpture and the boli figures. The abstraction of the boli isn’t as closely related to spiritual aspects of their culture as the oni is. Outside of just an visual similarity, both figures have significant spiritual purpose and meaning in common as well. While the oni sculpture seems to exemplify a much more positive aura, versus the sacrificial material of the boli, they both are meant to represent or embody a sacred power.
            Even though sculptures may come from many different cultural backgrounds, they still tend to have many similarities, especially in their inclusion of symbolism and relationship to spiritual beliefs. This can be seen throughout many cultures and in many aspects of life.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reactions to Masks

This week the main topics we focused on were the masks of different cultures, especially the Baule, Bamana, and Bwa. The majority of what we covered, such as what certain masks represented and their purposes, was reiterated in Introduction: The Mask, Masking, and Masquerade Arts in Africa by Herbert M. Cole. Many aspects of this section relate back to previous weeks, such as how Cole explains how masks are interpreted when they are taken out of their original context and how most African languages don’t have translation for the word “mask”.

Masquerades closely relate to other aspects of African art we have been studying. The masks, much like I pointed out in my first blog post and like Herbert Cole touched on, only mean so much when separated from the rest of the costume. They are displayed solely as masks, while still showing off their beauty and visual power, the viewer cannot take in the artworks purpose and meaning. In some cultures the mask never would have made it to a museum setting because if it had a functional use it would’ve been burned. Western cultures rarely understand that it’s more than a mask; to the African peoples it’s about the whole costume, the dances, and the atmosphere. Another connection between my first blog and what we learned about this first couple of weeks of class and the rituals we are looking at now is the words we associate with African art. Not only is the word “art” not necessarily a concept, but they also don’t have a word associated with “mask”. We think of masks as a disguise or something being represented, while Africans rely on the concept of embodiment where the spirit is being created. They are more than just masks or power objects.

            Masks play a huge role in African arts and have many different purposes and meanings. A video we watched in class, titled African Art as Theater, pointed out that the masquerade is used as a way to attract people to the market. Masks can also be used in harvest celebrations and as funerary shrines for elders who have passed away. However, a big part of why masks are so deeply integrated in the African cultures is because of the spiritual meaning. While masks are being danced, the performers believe that they aren’t simply representing a greater spiritual power; they believe that spirit embodies them and they are no longer their own self. Masks effect change in the sense that they evoke a transition of knowledge, in this case being a spiritual interaction between this world and another. An example of this is the chameleon mask, which symbolizes transformation like the changing of the chameleon’s skin. The spirit of it is embodied in the dancer, rather than the mask and dance being symbolic of the chameleon.

The Bwa masks also represent animals such as the butterfly, serpent, and hawk, all of which have meaning embedded in the colors and geometric patterns used. Even though the use of color in masks is generally limited, the use of black, white, and red are relevant and each pattern has its own symbolic meaning. An example of this is seen in the black and white checkered superstructure of the Bwa masks. The squares represent the hides the viewers sit on to watch the performance; the black is for the knowledgeable elders and the white is for the less wise. Zig zags are also seen on masks, which refers to the course of life. Some of the marks seem to resemble the scarification on the Bwa people.

Masquerades incorporate not only the visual aspects of African cultures, but the dance and music as well. However, the presentation isn’t only about the dancer. He interacts with both the drummer and the audience. In the video it seemed as if some of the performers interacted with the audience in the same way Nani Agbeli did when he incorporated different people into his performance a couple weeks ago, especially the way they both get in peoples faces and intimidate the audience. The audience also gets involved when the elders join in to teach the masker. The dancer relies on the role the drummer plays in telling them when it’s their turn to perform and warning them of obstacles. All of these interactions contribute to the masks and their meaning to the people.