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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.


  1. Good recap on everything! If I need a review this would be the blog to read! But isn't it interesting that the Portuguese had a different influence on each African group? It shows how things get can, in a way, 'get lost in translation.' Its proof that from all around the world at all times, we all see things differently and take away certain aspects.

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  3. Nice summary on the two articles! I really appreciated that you mentioned that some figural pieces from the 15th century had a blend of African and Portuguese elements, signifying the heavy integration of the two cultures. Christian religious symbolism and the way the African peoples were able to fuse it with their established religions was something that has surprised and intrigued me over the course of this semester. Great job!