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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.