Friday, November 11, 2011

Haitian art in Waterloo, Ia

Scavenger hunt at WAC

            I visited the Waterloo Arts Center this week to look at the Haitian art work that was on display.  It was hard to find, I had to ask where it started, and the Bahamas exhibit was labeled quite well.  They have a messed up system to how they display their exhibits.  They told me that there was more upstairs and there wasn’t much, just a few that definitely made it a scavenger hunt and the Ezili Freda was in a hidden spot also, but I found it.  The Haitian exhibit was mostly made up of flags that were made of beads, sequins and fabric; it followed the theme of possession and Vodou. 

            The term Vodou derives from the Fon word Vodun meaning spirit, deity or mystery.  The Fon brought their religion with them from Dahomey, now Benin, where it was combined with the religions of other African groups and synthesized with the Roman Catholic faith of the colonists.   Recently, this art form has seen revolutionary changes in stylistic variations, materials and techniques as new artists enter the arena, many of them bringing with them experience working in Haiti’s garment making factories. 

            These banners represented and honored Vodou deities or loas, and are used in religious ceremonies and hang in altar rooms.  They are considered to be sacred objects; in fact, they are made by artists that are religious leaders.  A skilled Haitian artisan can typically finish a banner in about ten to fourteen days of the average size banner containing approximately 30,000 beads and 30,000 sequins. 

            A few of the banners that we were to find was; Veve (symbol) of Ezili Freda (Feminine Rada Spirit of love and luxury), the sacrifice of Damballah/Danbala (Serpent deity associated with water, the rainbow, cool, and wisdom), Madonna/Ezili Danto (Petwo mother-warrior spirit, usually imaged as dark-skinned and known for her fierce protectiveness), and to look for the “Crossroads” and one metal sculpture labeled the “spirit possession.” 

           The sacrifice of Damballah/Danbala (the faithful, also the oldest of the ancestors), it serves as a ritual "magnet" for the loa's entrance, obliging the loa to descend to the earth, allowing the spirits to come down through Damballah.   As I look at the “spirit possession” (by Serge Jolimeau) piece, I cannot figure out who is riding the chawl, my first choice would be Mama Wata but the rider has legs, so I’m having trouble finding the rider.  There were also some paintings labeled Vodou and had great detail and messages in them as well, a lot of symbolism was shown.  I enjoyed looking at these pieces and it was nice to see them in person/up close.  I also can appreciate the time and care that went into these banners.

            On the view of the Bahamas art work, it was interesting to see the multi levels in the paintings as well.  There would be one or two main characters with characters (mirrored) off behind them, like echoes.  There was one in particular that really caught my eye, I didn’t get the title, but it in a sense could represent the Madonna and child.  There are multiple women in the painting with that echoed look of the other women’s faces behind the main one.  There is another younger looking woman to the lower right as you look at it, but near the bottom is a child’s face.  It makes me wonder about the power of women and the mothering nature that they have and represent, such that we have learned about with the other African cultures that we have seen and the representation of the Madonna and child.  No scars seem to show in the Bahamas print, just multiplicity.  I enjoyed seeing both exhibits.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Yinka Shonibare
      He was born in London and at the age of three he moved to Lagos, Nigeria, until the age of sixteen when he moved back to Britain.  He is artist who implements African textiles with the look of a Victorian style.  He joins the two cultures to remind them about the success they gained from the African people, that which they took from their heritage and culture.  Yinka actually spent a lot of his time in a larger city of Africa and considers his African ideas to come from television.  Lagos was a contemporary society, and this is where his experiences of American programs came into play.  It wasn’t until he came back to Europe when his “blackness sent in”.  It hadn’t really affected him until then.
      He is criticized for his work on two different levels.  He is confronted about his art looking European and his skin color is black.  Then he is confronted about why he doesn’t do just African art.  As usual, he is confronted with stereotyping, something that everyone seems to do quite often and it is insulting.  Why is it that he has to choose, he is an artist, freedom of expression is to be their forte. 
     Yinka told us of an incident from one of his tutors; “Well you’re African, aren’t you?  Why aren’t you producing authentic traditional African art?  And of course, given my background, the whole notion that I would understand the concept of some pure African authenticity, or for that matter that such an expression would be expected of me, I found utterly shocking, negating my engagement with modernism and modernization as well.  So I decided to explore the notion of authenticity and what it might signify.  That was when I realized that the idea of loyalty or allegiance is always imposed by others from the outside.”  He now had to come to the realization that he had to face his “color” because society was now showing their assumptions of predictability.  He was no longer a secret, his work was now out there for all to see and brings to life the controversy of his “blackness.”  
     This article’s strength was the controversy that it discusses and the answers that Yinka had to give.  I would highly suggest that anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of Europe and Africa would significantly gain some insight from this reading.

Shonibare, Yinka. “Of Hedonism, Masquerade, Carnivalesque and Power.”  In Looking Both Ways.  Museum of African art, New York: 2003.  Pp. 162-177.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Who are the “Others” to Africa?

            In the article by Suzanne Blier, "Imaging Otherness in Ivory" and the article by Henry Drewal, "Mami Wata Shrines," we are starting to understand how foreigners or “others” have an influence on different cultures. Blier says: “people intentionally or unintentionally use the objects of others to define themselves," explaining how the Portuguese, (often portrayed as Olokun), had an influence on three different African cultures, the Beni, Kongo, and the Sapi, and how they assimilated the visual culture of the “others”.   Biers’ information talks about such objects as ivory sculptures of the people of the Benin, Kongo and Sapi of the 15th century (considered to be the prime time of life for Africa).  As seen in the culture of the Portuguese, symbols are very similar to that of the “Cross with Christ” as we know it and the implements of the crossroads of their culture are some of the visual perspectives that for take a crossing of intercultural perspectives.  Some visual perspectives of the Benin are pairs, twisted postures, angels, fish, water, mudfish (predominantly), and other worldly realms.  The visual aspects of the Kongo pertain to perceptions of special farming, spiral lines (with the significance being seen in textiles, on ivory, crowns, and on hats), supernatural images, and abstract textiles.  While the visual perceptions of the Sapi demonstrate; bars to spears, seated in bent knee, large heads, snakes, birds, dogs, crocodiles (that represent wealth), and egg shapes. 
“Mami Wata Shrines”
            We are now into the 18th -19th century referring to the “others” as the Hindu and Indian and all other cultures not of African descent.  They don’t understand the general idea of the unknown- “people from across the sea.” Ivory was acquired for European export taking forms of saltcellars, trumpets, spoons, and Catholic ritual objects such as pyxes.
            Raffia textiles were seen as a map to get to the underworld, spirals as longevity and paths such as the crossroads giving meaning to the understanding of controlling the two worlds (life and death), being able to go back and forth between them.  The devotees are those of a spiritual devotion, worshipers, those who will help record the significances of “Mami Wata” with objects and rituals.  Although having two completely different meanings, they were able to relate their own beliefs and ideas onto their objects that related to the Christians ideas of that of the Portuguese.   
            It was a very intense ending into conventional African art as we move into unconventional African art.

Friday, October 14, 2011


Haitian rituals/way of life and prominent religion revolve around Vodou Spirits or deity “Lwa”. Some of the Vodou spirits are; Agwe: Lwa of the sea, imagined as admiral or ship’s captain of the boat Imamou, who conducts the dead to their ancestral home, Azaka: Lwa of farming and agriculture, Bondye: God, Danbala: Serpent deity associated with water, the rainbow, cool, and wisdom, Erzulie Danto: Petwo mother-warrior spirit, usually imaged as dark-skinned and known for her fierce protectiveness, Erzulie Freda: Feminine Rada Spirit of love and luxury, Gede: Family of trickster spirits associated with the ancestral dead, with sexuality, and with children, Legba: Rada guardian of gates and doorways, Marasa: Sacred Twins, and Ogou: Family of warrior spirits known for strong sense of justice; also associated with fertility.  Some other Vodou terminology is; Kafou: Literally an intersection or crossroads, Petwo: Pantheon of ‘hot’ spirits, derived from Kongo and slavery experience, Rada: Pantheon and rites of ‘cool’ spirits from Ginen (West Africa).  From Brown: “Vodou spirits (Haitians never call them gods or goddesses) are quite different from deities, or even saints, in the way that we in North America usually use those terms.  They are not moral exemplars, nor are their stories characterized by deeds of cosmic or even heroic proportion.  Their scale (what makes them larger than life though not other than it) comes, on the one hand, from key existential paradoxes they contain and, on the other, from the caricature-like clarity with which they portray those pressure points in life.”   

The Haitians don’t worship, they integrate these spirits into their everyday lives.  The paradox is that these spirits can go either way in life, make it good for you or screw it up.  The spirits define how the world is going to be for the Haitians.  The Kafou in the Haitians life is very much an everyday part of where they are finding themselves.  Dance and music play a big part as a (mock battle) one could say, as they fight good and evil in their lives.  Possession is probably one of biggest beliefs that Haitians have.  When we think of Vodou, we think of Voodoo (which is what we think of possession, a type of black magic), Vodou is as mentioned a religion.  We have been brought up to think of possession as being something evil, too many misconceptions and horror movies!  Music, drums and visual art are all strong instruments and elements to appease the spirits.  It takes days of preparation, just as we have seen in other African cultures, be it masks, outfits or ritual trays.   When the drums are playing the beat of the (mock battle), the priest and priestesses are dancing to the beat.  They are chanting for the spirit to take them over and help them with what they are battling with.  When possession takes place, it is not visible to the person themselves, but very visible on the outside viewers.  As we watched the video of “Divine Horsemen: Living Gods of Haiti” by Maya Deren, it was clearly visible who was possessed and who wasn’t.  You could see how they went from a slow “chant-like” movement to just letting loose and were swooped up by something else.  “We” as Americans is where we just freak out or say, “their just putting on a display”.  It’s actually like watching someone who is hypnotized, we ask ourselves the same question, are they actually hypnotized or not, but if you believe it, that is what it looks like watching them dance and move.  Someone else is present. 

Mama Lola and Maggie are particularly drawn to the Ezilis because she provides a lot of the sociological context to try to explain how the spirits of Vodou are affective and reflective of the Haitian people.   Mama Lola and Maggie follow, more so, Ezilis Danto, to the fact that Haitian women and as immigrants to the US, the  Ezilis are strong women that have to take care of their kids, the father figure is usually an absentee kind of figure.  The spirits are reflective; they show how it is rather than how it should be.  Again from Brown, “Vodou is a religion born of slavery, of wrenching change and deep pain.  Its genius can be traced to long experiences in using the first (change) to deal with the second (pain).  Vodou is a religion in motion, one without canon, creed, or pope.  There is never one spirit that lays down the law, there are always other spirits to consult, other spirit energies to take into account.”  This religion gives women the type of energy to deal with life creatively, realistically and to be strong against the pressures of the world.

Falk, Nancy Auer; Gross, Rita M.  “McCarthy Brown-Mama Lola and the Ezili; Themes of    Mothering and Loving in Haitian Vodou.” Unspoken worlds; women’s religious lives: 235-45.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Yoruba women and symbols

So far, I would say that from what we have learned from the Yoruba is that they are far more spiritually.  The Yoruba communities stage lavish masquerades to appease spirits.   They have a very unique iconography just as any culture does.  Some masks that they wear seem calming, serene like, such as the ere gelede.

This particular mask (ere gelede), made from wood, paint, laundry bluing is used to appease women.  It was worn by men impersonating women to show them reverence in hope that the power of "our mothers" will be directed toward community well-being.  All masquerades that we have looked at so far are almost always to appease the spirits in some way.  The spirits of women have now become far more noticed and part of the community effort in keeping the balance.  The fact that women can give birth is why women are held in such high regards as well.  Not shown here but birds were often a reference to the mystical powers of women.

Next thing I would like to show you is a beaded panel that would be found as a type of sash, or sheath worn on someone who might be boasting for the sheer delight and admiration of others.

Made from cloth, felt, glass beads and cardboard, this beaded panel shows us many representations of symbols used by the Yoruba people.  Each one has two yellow figures holding staffs with European style hats and two blue figures considered to be Yoruba hunters.  Between these figures are backward-facing dogs (that represent hunting companions) and birds (the spiritual powers of women).  A primary representation of power and protection is the rams' heads (Owo), found below those.  We also see the symbol of the monkey.  Once again this is a symbol for trickery.  We have seen this in the Bwa culture as well.  In the Yoruba culture there is a split though, with one being that the  Owo-Yoruba hold them in high regards to courage and strength to protect ones home and the other being the Thundergod, Sango, of the Oyo.  It is in the Ifa verses that one read about the trickery of the monkey.
We are always seeing new symbols and yet seemingly repeating the same ones with the same typical meaning only in a new clarity of the culture we are observing.   The bottom photo clearly shows us that.  The top photo shows us some more of the same familiarity with a bit more meaning to the spirituality that women have in the community.  It is interesting to me to learn how these similarities and yet seemingly subtle differences take place in each culture of the same geographical location.    

Friday, September 30, 2011

Serpent Masks of the Dogon and Bwa

Here, in the top picture, we have the Sirige maskers, made of wood, pigment, fibers and cowrie’s shells of Mali, Dogon. The Sirige mask or serpents mask is worn every 60 yrs by the Dogon to represent the key moments in life; birth, life, marriage, children, trials and tribulations and then death.
Next, in the bottom of the two, we see the serpent mask at the harvest celebration, village of Boni, Burikina Faso, Bwa. The mask before you is held in honor of refudge taken in a serpent’s hole after a retreat from trying to conquer the wives of another nearby tribe.
Both are very eloquently designed, even though they both seem simplistic. The Dogon with their rectangles and x’s in pattern with limited use of color, while as the Bwa is vibrant in red, black and white. Even though both are limited in color, the design elements give off some of its flair also. Both are only worn during certain times, none of these masks are worn yearly. They both have a deep meaning to their ensemble, whether it is life’s stages or tribute to a god.
They are both very spiritually base, although the Dogon are remembering their ancestors and the Bwa are thanking a god-like representation. Both are past down from their ancestors throughout the passing years.
I have talked about these masks in three different blogs, starting with my very 1st blog, my last one, that touches on these masks a little more and now.  The strength and determination and passion in their history to keep passing this on generation after generation is so outstanding to me.  I love the passion that is put into each and every mask that they wear.  The wisdom behind each and the craftsmanship is superior in mines eye.  These masks are recreated every time they are worn, not just put on a shelf or bought in a retail store.  We make masks, admire them and usually they are for drama, or just to hide ones self at a celebration or such, but these have a much deeper meaning behind them that makes them that much more unique in themselves. 
It is interesting to me how they both offer different meanings to each community, while at the same time they have a slight competition going on with the height of the overall serpent mask.  The Bwa have made sure that their mask being honored to a serpent god is taller than the Dogon's Sirige mask that honors one's life span.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Bwa people of Africa

We learned about the Bwa people this week and the masquerades that they perform in their society. In Cole’s article “Introduction: The Mask, Masking, and Masquerade Arts in Africa”, he tells about how everyone takes part in the rituals that are only performed at certain times during the year with the Bwa people. It is not something they do as an everyday performance or duty. They will stay for a week or so then they are gone for next several. Throughout Africa we can see that masks have significance to all communities and society in Africa. They all represent some part of their spiritual beliefs and they embrace themselves with these throughout their history handed down from their ancestors. The masks are always changing from their origin. They are created from memory of their ancestors.
The Bwa people include both men and women to take part in the masquerades, compared to the Dogon earlier in the semester, who only allow men to wear the masks. The Bwa people also allow women to make the masks as well as partake in the rituals. The drummer has a slightly different role in the beats that they drum. It tells the dancer about possible dangers in front of their feet and or people that may wonder in the way. There are many different characters that play the roles in the rituals. They have monkeys that interact with the crowd like a heckler near the beginning of the ritual and they move through different spiritual characters and bring it to a close with an angry man who is followed by his wife to try and calm him down when he is constantly being rude to everyone. He represents an unsocial member of the community.
The masks resemble many of the same markings as do the Dogons’, with the x’s and checker board look that we have associated with agriculture so far. The Bwa have owl like masks with a beak that represents wisdom. Although the Bwas’ masks don’t appear to be taller than the Dogons, except for the serpent mask. The Dogon wore it to represent the beginning to end of one’s life cycle only performed every 60 yrs. For the Bwa people it represents a time from when they went to war and needed refuge and a serpent took them in and they reward this kindness with the mask which is consequently taller than the Dogons. It also is a representation of good luck with the women and finding a wife which was the failed attempted with the war. They completely embody themselves in the masquerades with each and every character. They move as if they are the actual character themselves; such as a chameleon who walks in a rocking forward and backwards motion. This represents change, where the monkey represents having fun, the pig represents being socially dirty and the angry man the social outcast. The Bwa people embody their characters actions and spiritual connections allowing everyone to take part as to where with the Dogon, they believe in possession of the body and it can be dangerous to see them in their original masks.
Every African culture has the same principle with wearing masks and performing rituals that we cannot see in a museum and we really do lose the authenticity of the strength and influence it has on the African people by putting it behind glass and calling it art.