Friday, November 11, 2011

Artists vs. Individuality

           This week brought up new issues and controversies that deal with not only contemporary artists, but artists in general. The discussion also linked back to the beginning of the semester as well as resurfacing the strong point of last week’s topic of discussion- contemporary African artist debatable issues. The two articles read in class this week were that of “Traces of Ecstasy” by Rotimi Fani-Kayode, “Eros, and Diaspora” by Kobena Mercer.  Both articles consisted of sexual nature that creates both controversy and strong point that was established through these artworks and the artists’ ‘so-called’ identity. The point of this blog and much of the topic discussed, is that of the fact that stereotyping and assuming an identity of someone will never change no matter the artist or subject, because that is what we, as the audience and crowd are programmed to learn/know.
            In the first article by Rotimi, it was stated that, “I seek to translate my rage and my desire into new images that will undermine conventional perceptions and which may reveal hidden worlds... I make my pictures homosexual on purpose.“ This was a bold statement by Rotimi in more ways than one. Throughout the discussion groups on Thursday it became evident that the same issues that were raised were again, that were discussed last week. What makes something authentic? In addition, how does an artist portray their identity? What is there identity? So many questions to ponder here. The issues last week that of real authenticism and what black artists are supposed to create as African traditional artwork. It’s something that’s almost unescapable.
            This is something that was brought up this week through the articles, but in a different manner. Not only does Rotimi have to battle the allegations and stereotypes of a black artist, but as a black homosexual as well. He states that he remains at a disadvantage because of so. The struggle for these artists is being able to produce creative pieces that recognize them as an artist and not as an object or subject. This was also apparent in last week’s readings and discussion of Yinka Shonibare. The battle is still there and will continue on, as labeling will honestly never cease.
            I think a connection can be made also with the Haitian collection at the Waterloo Center for the Arts. Unfortunately, I didn’t think that the center would be closed today because of the holiday, so I wasn’t able to physically see the collection. However, I can assume that it would be interesting looking at all of the work and comparing displayed pieces to one another. I think to myself now that if I did not take this Arts of Africa class and did not learn about these controversial issues, that I would have been just like any other average joe in the class- stereotyping and assuming where these artists come from, their values and what they’re supposed to be producing as works of art.
It made me think to myself that if I would have actually got to see the collection, that  my mindset and the way I analyzed and understood the meaning behind the works- would have been done in a completely different way.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Contemporary Artist Controversies

There are many issues that arise with contemporary artists, especially of Africa descent. It is assumed or stereotyped that artists of a specific culture or heritage do or should produce specific ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’ pieces. When I used to think of African art, I thought of wooden masks, colorful prints, and spiritual chants. I learned quickly it goes far beyond such. All three articles that were discussed in class this week create support for these accusational claims toward these African artists. In the Kasfir, Shonibare, and Oguibe readings it is pointed out that artist’s work is sometimes seen or assumed as a representation of a society as a whole, when in reality that’s not the case.
            I can relate to the assumptions people did and still do impose upon African artists. It was discussed within the first week of class of how stereotyped and unknown African art is. I personally assumed it to be one nation, which is not the case. The Asante, Dogon and Yoruba peoples are located in extremely different regions in Africa, which consist of many cultures and values that make up the artwork that is produced (which is very dissimilar). I was also unaware of the influences from colonization, trade and other surrounding regions, which have effects on the production of African art as well as its meaning. This is just the first point that raises concerns among many artists; I just assumed that of the culture, when in realization I had no clue what it consists of. Africa is not the only country that experiences this. In our group discussion I shared an experience of my own in which I traveled to Atlanta to visit friends and was assumed to live on a farm just because I’m from Iowa. People are commonly stereotyped because they’re from a particular region or consist of a certain race.­
            It was explained throughout the second article in the conversation between Shonibare and the interviewer that just because of his African background, it doesn’t mean he is expected to project that ‘pure’ notion of assumed African authenticity. We watched a movie on his work which showed and depicted him as a contemporary arist, which if I did not see him physically in the video, I would have never guessed he produced such artwork. I do realize that it is stereotyping on my part, but also brings up the point that his heritage, values and beliefs may be included in the artwork, but may not reflect the notion of how African artwork is supposed to be portrayed.
             In the third reading that was assigned, it was apparent how these artists confront assumptions and projections. It was evident that Ouattara became very frustrated quickly with the interviewer (Thomas McEvilley) asking questions such as, “Where did you grow up?”, “Where did you go to school?” and so on. Santoni simply wanted to talk about his art. Why is that important anyways? Sure, an artist may include past experiences, cultural integration, and values and beliefs into the work of an artist’s piece, but especially in contemporary terms, it goes so much beyond that. It happens so often that these artists are pegged with that black identity because of physically appearance, and not as a person.
Contemporary art is art that has been and continues to be created during our lifetimes. Who is to say that it has to be created a certain way because of the country of origin one is from? The possibilities are endless and relate to anything socially, politically, and economically. It is neither fair nor right to put a label on that just because these artists are from a specific area, however, it is somewhat sad, because these artists will continue to experience it.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Interculturation and The "Other"

     This week served as a little more challenging compared to prior weeks in the form of context, by reading the two articles, “Imaging Otherness in Ivory” by Suzanne Preston Blier and “Mami Wata Shrines” by Henry John Drewal. Both of the essays shared a lot in common in the ways that described how the African peoples are influenced by these ‘unknown’ or ‘foreign’ peoples as well as the aspects of how they interpret and understand them. It was interesting to discuss and bring out specific points on how these African cultures take what they see, examine and represent it to support their beliefs. This in turn brings up the point of interculturation, which was the focus in class for this week.     Each article supports the statement above in ways of how the peoples saw these native influences and how they construed them. For example in the article by Blier, the Beni, Sapi, and Kongo cultures were all affected by the Portuguese, but portrayed that impression in different ways. In Drewal’s excerpt, it focused more on the influence of, “...what we see, how we see, and therefore, what we understand”. The link between the two cultures (and articles) was the simple aspect of the “others”. This is in the way that these African peoples utilized the foreign cultures into their own visual structures so it gave them familiarity and understanding to the distant culture.
     Varying strategies were used among the differing African peoples. The travel of these pale-skinned peoples related to aspects of life and death and crossroads as the travel was made across the seas. In regards to the first article, some examples of the Benin people incorporating that perception and influence was shown in numerous ways from focusing more on figural concerns and movement in the works. With mobility, mudfish were compared to the valued god of Olokun (water god). The mudfish are valued because of the ability to live outside of water and in the sense of mobility, which was also compared to these foreign peoples as they traveled to Africa.
     Visual aspects and examples of the Kongo peoples has significant in the spiral symbol that was seen in the textiles patterns, raffia cloth for funerary purposes, and ivory horns. They took bits and pieces and made this into their own framework. The spiral symbol, as well as others represented that link between life and death, as well as that crossroad of communication between the two worlds.
      Lastly with the first article, the Sapi peoples portrayed the Portuguese influence in that of creation of salt cellars. The artworks were shaped as an egg which exemplified fertility as well as that life cycle of life and death-again. Other supporting aspects of the object are what are projected as power and wealth. Crocodiles may appear on the pieces which represent that and the water spirit along with serpents. Needless to say, it is obvious that these three different societies in Africa used aspects of what they saw and integrated into their own values and culture.  
     This also goes in hand with Drewal’s article which explains that sense of “otherness” in the through the explanation of the Mami Wata shrines. These shrines consisted of borrowed ideas along with various objects to create importance and relevancy to their own culture through this icon because the Mami Wata spirit is considered to be foreign. This article was focused on how people, whether if it’s intentional or not, use objects to define themselves (portraying objects in a museum as an example). This goes in hand and further declares the point of this blog and what was discussed in class all week. The influence of other cultures is going to correlate and be intertwined with cultures that it influences, that in a cycle, parts are taken and reconstructed to base new beliefs and values.
            I think a main thing to point out with what was learned this week that whether is consciously, unconsciously, intentional or intentional- cultures will influence others but are also being influenced themselves. America as a society is consists of foreigners and immigrants, and interculturation has been processing since peoples established lives here. This is just one example besides the articles discussed in class. The discussions this week made me wonder how original or authentic a certain cultural system really is, since it has all of these influences. That in question can bring up a whole different discussion.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Week 9 - African Connections

            There are many different routes one can take when connecting what is known already about African arts and what is continuing to be seen and read. One thing that I’ve realized and observed so far about African culture is how sacred the rituals and beliefs of certain societies are.  One of the two most vivid connections I have made is the influences societies have on each other, as well as embodiment from spirits in which the differing African peoples partake in.
            In every section of this class that we have already discussed and learned about, I can link similarities together while still realizing those differences, in which I’m sure, is the point of the class; to understand what’s going on in the world and being able to establish that understanding and connect it to everyday life. From the textile making and performances with Nani to learning about Bamana masquerades, I can see that. Although each group of peoples throughout Africa has their own distinct beliefs, they are partaking in events that in which the sense of embodiment or inhabitation is present.
            Some specific examples of this is when Nani came to explain Batik textile making as well as the examples he showed of the Ghanaian dances he and his people generally perform. Not only could one tell how passionate Nani was, but also the expressions and movements he implemented through his drumming and dancing. It was powerful to say the least, and you could tell the meaning of the dance represented preparation of war, difficulties and failure through his movements and appearance. Nani stated himself that it was spiritual to him and others who danced.
The Gelede masquerade is another reference, in which the Engungun masker literally inhabits the dancer and becomes one between the spirit world and the human world. The dancer is personified and that’s their way of communication between the two. The purpose of the dance is to celebrate the life of the ancestors and to communicate back and forth between them, whether what the message is that is being received.
             Between the article reading, “Mama Lola and the Ezilis: Themes of Mothering and Loving of Haitian Vodou” and the two DVDs, I could easily pick out the same message in a number of different ways. In Haitian belief, life is hard and people depend on each other whether it is humanistic ally or spiritually. For example, comparing Haitian ways to Yoruba, certain gods are used as crossroads for the communication between both worlds. In Yoruba the God, Eshu is believed in and in Haitian views, the Lecba is sacred. Both are Gods of divination and serve that specific purpose. Another value of Haitian idea is that it can be undoubtedly linked to other cultures and peoples in the sense of possession which became present in the article and “Divine Horseman” DVD watched on Tuesday.
              Participants actually believe and/or mock the act of spirits coming to visit the ceremony which takes place by physically possessing individuals and speaking and acting through them. Haitians use this strength for this practice in many ways in order to get a message across and help guide that specific purpose through the physical and mental journey of life.
              Another main theme or example that can be connected through differing cultures is that of influence. In the DVD, “PBS Black in Latin America-Haiti”, one could definitely see this. We learned about the history of how Haiti and Santo Domingo was established and how the island is divided, yet influences of both cultures are interrelated between the two locations. It’s also explained how a portion came to the island is imported slaves from Africa, and their religion and belief system is mixed of Vodou and that of Catholicism. Catholicism was pushed on as a belief from the slave masters and that’s a reason to why it is integrated today. That’s so fascinating because I realize influences like that in everyday life in America, too. Influences of modernism and complex beliefs systems are present in all cultures; undoubtedly, it just differs on what that specific impact is. It’s interesting to see that and how societies started out and where they are today.
              One can pull a few examples and associate those acts between other cultures throughout Africa. Again, I think this not only goes with Haitian views, but can relate back to other cultures as well. Different cultures wouldn’t be cherishing and practicing these beliefs and values if it weren’t for a certain reason. I compare different subjects discussed and learned about in class with this, in which I truly believe it occurs across the globe.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Thoughts on Yoruba Visual Culture

     The Yoruba culture communicates spirituality in many ways from the concentration and value of the female gender in the community to the belief of divination and ancestral spirits the community believes in. The Yoruba peoples’ beliefs differentiates themselves from other African cultures in terms of spiritual aspects and cultural practices, yet  is still similar in terms of customs such as initiation and what’s important and focused on within a certain society. Whether different or similar, every culture has main ideas or certain customs that is believed in.      The Yoruba way of life trusts that all human beings hold destiny to eventually become one in spirit with the divine creator of the universe.  Furthermore, their thoughts and actions interact with all other living things, including Earth itself. The traditions and beliefs of the Yoruba are influenced by the objects of nature around them. Each person attempts to find their destiny, and life and death are considered cycles of existence between the actual and spiritual world.
     One of the practices the Yoruba engage in is making offerings to their spirits. Visual culture that communicates and reflects the Yoruba faith in their divine spirituality is explained and represented in their artworks in the physical sense as well as the performances and masquerades. One specific example of this is the Ifa Divination Tray. This tray is carved with geometric shapes and different motifs containing images of Eshu, the Yoruba God known for the female gender and sex, who is thought to deliver messages to and from the spirit world. Eshu is the God of crossroads between the two worlds and this specific tray symbolizes entirely the belief that divination is the connection between the human inner self and the life force.
     Another specific example that the Yoruba society embraces are masquerades. One of the most sacred and performed dances is the Gelede masquerade which is danced to honor older women, mothers and female ancestors. This is just one of many of the practices that the Yoruba society engages in. It is danced by men and the purpose of the dance is not only to commemorate the women of the society, but to give thanks to ancestors so that the blessings that are given to the community are good.
     Several other different masquerades are also given for differing reasons. A large way in which the Yoruba culture communicates this is the way that the performer who is participating with the masquerade embodies the spirit. This is represented in all of the masquerades, especially the Egungun masquerade which particularly celebrates and communicates with ancestors. Also, the Epa performance that is danced depicts warrior figures, hunters and again, mothers in which super structures are worn on the dancers’ heads to symbolize. Although these impersonations may signify different meanings and purposes, all of the dances are connected together in which the spirit of the deceased inhabits the dancer, the dance is based off a secure belief and that is one of the strongest communications spiritually.
     Every culture, whether it is with African, American or any group or nation of peoples in the world, has a structured belief system and practices that they share. People communicate spirituality in different ways, and one can see that clearly with variations in religion, location and influences. However, although many believe in different things and portray that belief in different ways, one can connect these certain subjects such as universal initiations, gender balances/imbalances and spiritual customs to others.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Baule vs. Mossi

     Based off what is seen and discussed in class about the African culture, as well as what is read and researched outside of class, there are many pieces of artwork from different regions in Africa that could be compared and contrasted. Although there is a wide array of artwork produced throughout those different areas, there are many cultures that have social, ritual, and valuable beliefs that are represented in the artwork and performances varying from types of masquerades to doll sculptures.
     Two objects that I would like to focus on are the Biiga (Child) figures made by the Mossi peoples as well as the Blolo Bla/Bian (Spirit Spouses) figures made by the Baule peoples.  Although they are two diverse doll sculptures made by different cultures, they both signify some similarities, yet differences in meaning and relevance.
     The Biiga figures are abstract dolls that serve an adult as a surrogate baby for a childless and a would-be mother as she cares for the doll as she would her own baby.  It’s an extreme treasure and is to be passed down between generations of women which is a central belief among women of the Mossi peoples.
     The Blolo figures represent that of human experience evolution linked to the ancestral spirit world which controls and determines fate. Baule diviners are individuals who have been selected by spirits as ways through to communicate important insights into the human condition. The male figure represents a husband and a female figure is that of a wife. The main role of the doll is for psychological belief. The dream partner is always described as very beautiful and the Blolo is able to give "good luck", in which is carved specifically per person, not passed among generations.
     Some noticeable exterior details on the Biiga are the abstract appearance of certain characteristics. The neck and breasts on the figure are the most apparent and main focus of the piece. The elongated breast area represents fertility as well as lactation which is an imperative practice for the women in the Mossi culture. The engravings on the figures simulate maturity and the character itself depicts idealism. As for the Blolo pieces, the appearance of the doll is apparent that the abstraction isn’t consistent in certain areas like the Biiga. For example, there may only be one area focused in on depending on what the owner of the doll wants his/her ancestor to accommodate. An example discussed in class was a contemporary spirit spouse in which the doll is seen wearing a modern dress with a brief case. Most likely the owner wanted to meet a woman who is successful with a similar appearance, so the doll was created to signify his wants to hopefully be granted.
     There are a number of different purposes for the Blolo compared to the Biiga. The Baule peoples is gender balanced in which the doll can be either a spirit wife or husband as well as serving many purposes such as fertility, matrimony, success etc… However, the Biiga dolls represent women in fertility as a main belief and focus on the female gender, which is stressed in their society.
     The two dolls serve different purposes for the different regions of Africa, but a main theme that they have in common is the function of the doll to connect to the spirit to achieve that divine connection between human and ancestor/worship. Not just focusing on the physical characteristics of the pieces, but also the meaning connects the artwork to even other artwork discussed in class which connects us as students to the world around us. It’s important to make these connections to understand concepts and lifestyles in these regions as to why ways of art are produced between these cultures and what impacts they have on their beliefs and the rest of the world.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Art of African Masks and Masquerades

The purpose of blogging thoughts about what we read in class relates back to making connections to events and concepts. This week we focused on the “I am not Myself” article by Herbert M. Cole, as well as exploring different types of masks and masquerades of the Baule and Bamana peoples. While reading the article and listening to lectures about the culture of these masks, I again saw myself connecting to concepts already learned as well as absorbing new views.
Cole stated in his article that, “…masks and masquerades are among Africa’s most cherished and compelling artistic phenomena.” This is very clear from what we’ve studied as well with all of Cole’s supporting details of how powerful the spiritual dances are. The article starts with how masking originated with the mythology of the phenomena, but also states that masquerades have long been and continue to be subject to change. It goes on to support that urban masquerades have sprung up as well as the continuation with more changes to come in future years. This links back to the fact that tradition is a conventional word and Africa is a changing and developing like other nations.
The art form in the masking describes that the details of the mask are often in another human character. The patterns on the masks, which aren’t limited facially, but masks covering the whole body, aren’t meant to be decorative, but be meaningful in these dances in key moments of life, whether performing for initiation or for agricultural reasons. This is where Cole states that it is and is not a human being, that the transformed is saying that “I am not myself”. The dancers in the specific Igbo masquerades take on serious roles for when they perform. It’s about the embodiment of the spirit for the performer, not just representation. The dance in the video watched in class, exemplify certain characters literally personifying the character they’re representing through the movements they execute. From the monkey to the serpent mask it’s not just about the display of the costume, but the performance in itself.
I can also relate this part of the article from when Nani Agbeli came to work with us through the textile workshop, as well as the performance he danced and drummed. When performing, the dress, movement and spiritual intake the performer feels is related. Cole states that the performers must be organized, choreographed and rehearsed…Although these examples are from different regions of Africa and in theory representing different values, the art that all peoples believe in are performed in the same manner, from the Baule to Bamana as well as the Yoruba peoples mentioned in the article.
In class, there were also comparisons made between different styles of masks in different regions throughout west Africa. I noted that the male and female Baule kple kple masks represented style such as flat round faces that were simplified with long plant strands hanging down, were much different from the Ndomo mask of the Bamana people which was much more complex with the shells and pronged symbolization of female vs. male. The functions of the masks play protective spirit, but they both signify initiation to some extent but to different age grades.
           While finishing up the last half of the reading, I noted how detailed the spiritual aspects of the dance was mentioned which supports a lot of the different dances that are done. A section stated how masked spirits stood as mediators and that performing partakes of god and man alike, yet it is neither- in-between. That’s how these dancers see their specific purpose of the dance, not as entertainment, but more as religious and spiritual. These masquerades are used as tools for teaching culture and passing on beliefs which engages everyone. This was one of the most compelling topics we’ve discussed in class yet, and I’m excited to see what more to cover on it, and future areas.