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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. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Reactions to Donald Cosentino

           This week we discussed a lot about Donald Cosentino’s article, The Radiance of the King, and how it addresses the idea of cross-cultural pollination. The main focus of his article was on his reactions to the “Out of Africa: Obama and McCain” exhibit at the Ernie Wolfe Gallery in West LA. The exhibit consisted of various posters done by Ghanaian artists, most of which revolved around the inauguration of Barack Obama and how they viewed the election of an African American president. Cosentino goes on to describe how technology has had an impact on Ghanaian art, as well as the different meanings behind the artwork and how differently the peoples of Ghana might interpret it versus how we might. There are also many aspects of Ghanaian art that relate to some of the art we have previously studied.

          One common theme is the multiplicity of meaning, especially in how the visuals are being portrayed. An example of this is seen is in the Fante flags, where there are so many visual metaphors. This can be related to Ghanaian paintings in the sense that they portray Obama as so many different celebrities and idols. This is especially evident in the painting of him as a basketball player where the he would be seen as someone of importance or someone to look up to in our culture, and the basketball could be taken as a representation of the world. However, there is more than just the idea of multiple meanings connecting Ghanaian art to the pieces we’ve been looking at in class, such as technology and media.

          Cross-cultural pollination is seen in a lot of the art we have studied so far, such as the Fante flags, as shown in the picture above where the train is being used to represent new technology and is used as a symbol of power.  However, trains were just the beginning. The revolution of media in Africa has had a tremendous impact on various art forms. Cosentino related cell phones to bread in terms of being a staple or necessity.  Not only do they show up in textiles and clothing, some Ghanaian coffins even depict cell phones. While some coffins represent chickens, eagles, and fish, others go as far as to replicate Mercedes Benz. Coffins that are far from Ghanaian traditions aren’t even allowed in the churches, but it shows how great of an impact different cultures have on each other.

          The television is another part of the media revolution, integrating cultures through this form of communication and globalization.  Television became a big source of inspiration to the Ghanaian artists, especially relating to world politics. Paintings of Barack Obama started taking over, replacing movie posters. He had been an icon of not only change and peace, but also unification. Cross-cultural pollination was becoming more evident in the artwork. For example, the piece depicting Obama where he looks as if he is European American, versus African American, as an attempt to “bridge the gap”. 

          Overall, I think what I’ve taken out of this article and what we’ve learned this week goes back to my conclusion during our first blogging assignment. We do not see what Africans see; not only relating to technology, but also relating to what they see of as “praise portraits” and how we see it, in a totally different context, as humorous.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Reactions to Nani Agbeli

            This week was a totally different experience for me. It isn’t very often that we actually get the opportunity to experience first hand some of the things we’ve been studying.  We were lucky enough to have Nani Agbeli, an Ewe artist, come and not only give us a demonstration on the art of batiks but also give a presentation on the music and dance of the Ewe people of Ghana.  

We spent some time this week looking at adinkra cloths, with their various symbolic designs and patterns. For some reason, when we started studying these I never connected it to the actual process of batiking. I was introduced to batiks in high school where we were asked to draw out a pattern, choose a certain color scheme, and use paintbrushes to apply the wax. It was interesting to see how much of the process is the same, and yet I had no knowledge of the history or meaning behind batiks to some cultures. Nani Agbeli explained a lot about what batiking meant. It was especially interesting to learn more about the various stamps, which we got to use when making our own batiks. That made a more solid connection between the images we have been studying in class and how they are actually used. There are also different aspects we had been touching on in class, in which Nani Agbeli went into more depth on at his presentation in the Center for Multicultural Education later that night, pointing out how integrated music, dance, and the visual arts all are.
           His presentation was another example of how witnessing their traditions first hand means so much more than simply reading about it. Actually getting to see Nani Agbeli dance, with his energetic movements and chanting, made it all seems so much more significant. Afterward, he talked about how the dances were a series of movements related to war and how some of the motions were directed towards the spirits, asking them for permission, guidance and protection. Knowing more about the significance of certain movements made it more meaningful as well. I haven’t decided whether joining in on the dancing at the end was my favorite or least favorite part. It was definitely out of my comfort zone, but I feel as if I got a deeper understanding of what he was really doing.
           Overall, it was an amazing experience getting to not only learn about the art, music, and dance but to actually get to see and hear first hand some of the traditions of the Ewe people of Ghana.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Initial Reactions to Arts of Africa

The first two weeks in Arts of Africa have already changed the way I view not only African art, but the culture and traditions of the people as well. After reading Giblin’s essay on Issues in African History, the Key Moments in Life website, watching the video, and class discussion and lecture, I felt as if there were a few overall themes that were the most intriguing to me, such as how African art is viewed differently throughout various cultures and whether it should really be displayed as an art form.
A big part of why it caught my attention was the part of the video that mentioned the word “art” wasn’t necessarily a concept in Africa. The preface in our textbook explains how instead they consider it more of a skill or tradition versus an art form. They don’t create things specifically for art; the objects must serve a purpose. Not only that, but they don’t even have complete freedom over what they create. They must follow certain signs and symbols. So if the people making these objects don’t consider it art, how do we justify putting the pieces in museums?
Traditional objects, such as the masks worn in ritual dances, become useless once put into a museum. 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. Another issue with art being displayed in museums is the amount of people that get caught up in the racism and poverty Africa can be known for, altering their reaction to the art on its own. Much of the history and tradition so relevant in a piece is lost once taken out of context. 

Overall, the basic concept is that we do not see what Africans see. The fact that they create things so visually interesting without the intention of it being displayed as art is what captures my attention and makes their art so different.