Worthless …… as in “that’s worthless”!!

As a minority I’ve had the extreme pleasure of taking umbrage (always liked that phrase) at the following comments :

1)   He/she will never amount to anything,

2)   That car is worthless…. you couldn’t get a dollar for it,

3)   That African Art is worthless junk!!

The question of how much we would pay to save another life is an interesting one. At the low end, of course that would be zero.  If we knew that someone was dying from hunger, lack of water, or medication, in some part of the world we would not necessarily contribute a one-time sum of $5, nor commit to a monthly contribution of the same. An intermediate cost can be figured out using insurance and healthcare realities, and at the high end, one would sacrifice their own life to save another – still this would not address the true worth of the individual to his family, society, and loving friends.

E1 : Soweto Riots - Death of 12 yr old Hector Pieterson, showing his 17yr old sister Antoinette alongside., 1976 (Sam Nzima photo)

We tend to (are conditioned to) frame the concept of worth in terms of what we can get on the open market, or future earnings potential. In economic or financial terms this would be referred to as a “fair market value”.  The fact though is that this differs tremendously from the “replacement value”, which is more subjective and arguably more suited to items or products of a more unique nature, or items filling a pressing need (score one for the 1998 Jetta).

The kicker is that a human being is the single most complex entity on the planet. Nothing we can come up with can compare. Not the ipad, nor a supercomputer, nor the most sophisticated combination of gems and precious metals. This is the curse of supply and demand (S&D). With six (6.9) billion bodies (and counting), our worth is not what it used to be.  With quaint phrases such as “collateral damage”, and “the end justifies the means”, we have rationalized our worth to the point where society has been desensitized to the value and uniqueness of human life, and the gift of thought.

Yoruba Offering Bowl - Nigeria

Likewise African Art  has much the tougher battle. In an age where we celebrate Harry Potter, vampires, ghost whisperers, and the like, Tribal African Art still suffers from historical condemnation (in the mainstream), and religious ostracizing. Here too the issue of worth defined by the S&D basis is paramount, but similarly there are other issues of historical style, and culture that should be taken into account. The long and short is that if one is in the market for a profit, then one may be totally forgiven for referring to African Art as worthless (on some arbitrary personal scale), but if one recognizes that each piece may carry some cultural significance or vestige of tribal African history, then maybe not so much.

 

E1 : http://www.awesomestories.com/assets/soweto-uprising-hector-pieterson

My Tribal African Art Vibe

It’s amazing… I picked up one piece, and now I have to admit the apartment is literally crawling with African Tribal Art . They have settled into their own groups… adhering to the ‘melting pot’ philosophy of American lore yet strangely dominating my small universe in their own unique ways. Collecting Tribal African Art is turning out to be both fun and instructive. There are many important  values and norms one can distill from the tribal cultures.

Bambara Maternity Statues

Bambara - Maternity Statues

Maternity

The Bambara maternity statues offer peaceful, even tranquil backdrops of mothers with children playing on their laps. Their poised beautiful faces, on slender necks, slim figures with slight postnatal curves evoke a sense of definitive idealism.  Who would not want to recreate the peaceful scenes?  In start contrast the Baga Nimba is large and domineering, the first figure facing the door, the large head, almost an arm wide, with heavy breasts and braided plaits signifying a mature fertile woman who has had children. This represents the maternal feature of motherhood, the eagle watching over her brood and promising times of plenty. If hope grows the contrast in size is well reflected in the group of Aku’ba dolls from the Ashante Tribe of Ghana.

Ashanti Akua'ba dolls

The legend of Akua and solving the riddle of her barrenness using her doll is now interwoven with the myth of producing progeny of beauty and grace.

Teaching

The Mumuye tribe of Nigeria produce sculpture called iagalagana which represent tutelary spirits and which offer an aesthetic abstract form that truly fascinates, incorporating a high degree of heterogeneity.

Mumuye Tribe - Iagalagana

‘They seem to be reminders of living together in a multicultural society, one were we are enough alike to be able to speak to one another, yet different enough for everyone to have something to say.’  [1]

Mende, Sowei Mask : "The Renewed Spirit rising from the water"

Not to be outdone , the Sowei mask, from the Mende of Sierra Leone is the maternal disciplinarian – representing the  passage from adolescence to adulthood, and the rebirth in a more developed value system with higher expectations, and greater responsibility.

Luck

Nikisi - Protection against "Bad Luck"

The rabbit feet of Tribal African Art would be the Nikisi from the Kongo Tribe. The startling images of upraised hands and nail impaled bodies were used to keep away sickness, bad luck, misfortune, bind promises, and repel evil spirits. One can never have too many.

Reliquaries

From the Mahongye, to the Kota, to the Fang the reliquaries were used to guard the remains of ancestors. To the nomadic tribes this was important since their link to the past is the thread that held the value systems in the communities on a consistent footing through the years. The abstract nature of their sculpture, developed perhaps by a need to conserve space, resulted both in beautiful works, and a holistic representation of social concepts.

Fang Tribe, Bieri sculpture

I particularly admire the Fang representation of the “Balance of Opposites” – using the proportions of a child whilst representing a strong powerfully built adult; showing power yet at the same time exhibiting calm. Forces we wrestle with on a daily basis, even today.

Scrooge, Michael Vick, and Redemption.

I’m not happy for Michael Vick. Why should I be? He makes his, he got his, and with half a brain and an ounce of luck, his finances will be fine. I wish him well… Bah! Humbug!

That said i do feel a touch of delirium coming on. What i am happy about goes way beyond watching MV rip and shred the Giants to a sputtering mass of bewildered looks, and irrational apoligetics. I finally understand that the melting pot of America does not start in the corridors of power, the halls of hallowed cathedrals, nor the voting booth. There are seminal moments in music, art, and sport that change our conditioned prejudices, our clinging debilitating favoritisms, and allow us to have fun together, unite, and move falteringly toward the promise of this great nation.

Mende, Sowei Mask : "The Renewed Spirit rising from the water"

There are stories of redemption and forgiveness that transcend our narrow-minded views of right and wrong. A goose-bump giving essence that rattles our stereotyped views and renders the limits of our moral and ethical logic to so much mush as we reconsider the impossibility of the Eagles comeback in the last seven minutes on 121910. These are the stories that shrivel moats of genteel etiquette, pedicured mannerisms, and hoarded wealth.

Maybe we wouldn’t last a minute on a football field, but here’s hoping that we can each bring to our daily lives a little of the heart, hunger, and preserverance that MV and his teammates continue to display in their fascinating run to the 2010 Superbowl.

Benin Bronzes, Lost Plots, and Prime Real Estate

It is always interesting to procure pieces from a personal collection of African Art. One can get some insight into the mindset of the owner, his particular attractions, the efforts he expended in collecting tribal art, and the pieces he considers special. These special pieces typically find pride of place in the living room (prime real estate to the collector), or a special room where one can enjoy the pieces in a peaceful setting. One of my favorite pieces of African tribal art is an old Benin bronze – a casting of a Queen’s head.

Benin - Queen's Head Bronze

What I was clueless about was the level of artistry and complexity that the casting process was capable of producing. One particular piece in Howard’s collection soon clarified the shortcomings of my thinking. I suspect the casting represents a young Oba (King) in Benin regalia. Suffice to say it seemed a logical upgrade.

Benin - Bust of Young Oba (King)

The Benin people still use the Lost Wax process to produce fine bronze castings.

The process begins with a basic clay form over which beeswax is applied and carved. Once the carving of the wax is completed, layers of clay are added and allowed to dry. The entire mold is buried in a heating pit and fired. The wax subsequently melts, leaving behind an empty container with both an inner and outer shell. The liquid brass, or bronze is poured into the shell and allowed to cool. On breaking open the outer shell the casting is revealed. When this method is used the final product is always unique.

Benin - Bust of Young Oba (side)

In 1897 a punitive expedition by a British[1] force of 1,200 looted the city of Benin, and destroyed the West African Kingdom of Benin. Over 2500 (official figures) religious artifacts, Benin visual history, mnemonics and artworks were taken to England. 

E1 - Oba Akenzua II (1933-1978)

In one instance Nigeria was forced to purchase 5 stolen bronzes from the British museum[2]for £ 800,000. It is easy to understand how valuable these works are to museums when their prices have reached astronomical levels. What is less clear is why these items have not been returned to Nigeria, and show little signs of being returned in the near future. Clearly the British Museum has truly lost the plot in this little tale.


Five Things one should know about the Kwele

Dominant mask : EKUK

Kwele Tribe, Ekuk mask

  Physical characteristics of the kwele mask:[1]

  1. The horns of the mask ‘usually’ curve downwards; this could be associated with tranquility, or a state of  peace and rest.
  2. The mouth is situated very close to the chin.
  3. Narrow eyes.
  4. Small pointed triangular nose.
  5. Wide arced eyebrows.

Ekuk means both “protective forest spirit” and “children of beete.” This mask, with two large horns, represents the antelope. The faces are usually painted in white kaolin earth, a pigment associated by the Kwele with light and clarity, the two essential factors in the fight against evil. [2]

 Country / Location:

West Africa, Gabon – to the North East near the border of the ‘Republic of the Congo’.

Religion:

The two major religions in the District are Christianity and Muslim. There are still pockets of the original animist beliefs, and ancestors are revered by many people.

 Cultural Difference:

The Kwele people attribute unexplained tragedy of tribal sickness, and uncommon adversity to incidents of witchcraft. To counteract such occurrences the tribe enacts a Beete ritual. This ritual uses masked performances, and what is particularly interesting is that the ritual is used to “heat” the members of the tribe, in a metaphysical sense.  The beete cult uses the ritual to maintain order, control, and pass along tribal values. This is a typical theme of Ritual, Values, and Norms (RVN).

 Tribal Relations:

Fang Tribe, Bieri sculpture

The Kwele are located close to the Fang, Mahongwe, and Kota. Each of these tribes are famous for their reliquaries. 

Africa, PIIGS, GDP and Haiti

Lately the economic troubles facing the PIIGS, (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) has roiled financial markets and further muffled credit markets.  What is far from apparent is that the standard of living in these areas is much higher than most areas in Sub Saharan Africa, Haiti, and Cuba and yet the poverty of these areas continue to be neglected by the mainstream media.  The closest analogy would be to sensationalize Warren Buffet having to change a tire on his car while ignoring the fact that in some countries children have to walk miles to get to school.[1]

Economic Data (GDP) for Selected Countries

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP)[2], is a measure of a country’s output. Where it becomes interesting is when one looks at the GDP per capita, which can be used as a proxy for the average salary in a country, (see income approach).[3]

What the grid shows is that the per capita values between the African countries and their European counterparts show embarrassingly high disparities. The fact is that while a strike (civil unrest) in Europe more likely represents being able to afford a backyard pool or better retirement benefits, a strike in Tanzania represents basic items concerning food, education, and shelter.

To add insult to injury the general consensus is that the problems faced by many African countries stems from greed, mismanagement, and ineptitude of governance.

The following chart shows the colonization of the continent in 1914.[4]

Colonial Africa 1914

African history shows the manipulation of various tribes by colonial powers, (Chowke vs Lunda)[5] , and the exploitation of the arts and resources of the continent have resulted in long term weaknesses in the African economic framework.

It should come as no surprise however that several of the colonial powers which invested in the unsustainable exploitation (Portugal, Italy, and Spain), now find themselves losing ground on the economic front without surplus capital provisions from the African continent.

Chicago, Picasso, Pyramids, and Van Gogh

Et tu  Chicago … The concept of the African  and Latino pyramids aren’t only found in the Sahara, or in Mayan Teotihuacan, Mexico. They thrive in the Chicago landscape. These are organizational pyramids where you find the majority of janitors, and assistants at the lower levels of the organization. As you move progressively through the upper ranks the numbers thin out drastically. If in really abrupt cases you don’t even see minorities handling money, rest assured you pretty much have a flat-line pyramid, and maybe a future human resource problem.

Picasso - Lady beneath Pine Tree

I have to admit that I had a great time visiting the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), this weekend. The museum has a fantastic collection of Impressionist paintings; Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Degas (the guy really liked to paint young ballerinas),  and Seurat were well represented.

Van Gogh, 1889 - "The Bedroom", AIC

There were also a couple Picassos and several paintings by Salvador Dali. With the addition of a new “Modern” wing the museum has over 300,000 pieces of art and is the second largest museum in the US.[1] Within this cornucopia of  smorgasbordic delight I happened to come across a mere handful of pieces “of color”- (ambiguous statement since the Indian and Mexican exhibitions were  better than ok) … being true to my stereotyped roots however I managed to parlay this deficit into a free ($18) extra ticket.

Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier, France - Bronze of African Man, 1848

The “windy city” has a 2008 estimated population of close to 3 mil, approximately 38% being  African American. One would think with President Obama in the big house, and Oprah still pulling in the ratings, that the African Tribal Art, or even the African American exhibitions would be something to see.  Unfortunately (or fortunately?), the museum has plans to open a new African themed installation in the Spring of 2011.[2] Funnily enough the opening of the exhibition is not being given center stage billing in the AIC “Future events” catalogue (actually it’s not even mentioned).[3]

Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier, France - Bronze of African Woman, 1851

The AIC has one of the most extensive collections of African ceramics in the US.[4] Honestly this seems pretty weak on paper.  The investment in this cultural outlet for the growth and future development of African American society is comparatively abysmal by any standard…. but don’t get me wrong the Impressionist collection is still on point.

John Philip Simpson, 1827 - The Captive Slave, AIC

To view a comparison of the items from a recent trip to the Brooklyn Museum:

[1] http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/modernwing/overview

[2] http://www.artic.edu/aic/calendar/event?EventID=8027

[3] http://www.artic.edu/aic/exhibitions/future.php

[4] http://users.telenet.be/african-shop/chicago-ceramics.htm

Kibbutz, Mende, and Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience,  advocated passive resistance to unjust authority, and strongly influenced the thought and tactics of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.[1] On the question of practical living and idealistic aspirations he was on point when he observed that,

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Applying the idealistic concept of communal living in a practical framework can be fraught with missteps. Many years ago it was enough to start a discussion by either modeling the basic framework on a continuum, or by using a discrete (good/bad) function, but nowadays one can pick a specific point of balance and (very much like enlarging a view on a smartphone by widening one’s fingers) examine the merits or demerits from a sustainable and practical perspective.

The kibbutzim were built on the attempt to create a permanent and institutionalized framework, which would be able to set a pattern of conduct which would successfully handle the implementation of shared values…..The original concept of the kibbutzim was based to a large extent on self-sacrifice of its members for the sake of abstract foundations and not on the cancellation of work, and therefore after the pioneer period the linkage between the kibbutz members decreased, due to the decline in the pioneering spirit and the decline in the importance of the self-sacrifice values.[2]

So one can argue that utopian ideas were incorporated into practical life without going through the period of practical development and flexible adaptation. Ideas which may seem foreign and socialist to a certain degree (equal pay, sharing property, equal standard of living) were attempted, which in the long term did not thrive in the globalization of an individualistic and capitalistic society.

Sowo-wui (Ndoli Jowei) : "The Sande woman is not a child!!"

The Sande (Female society of the Mende , Sierra Leone) used a much more flexible and socially inclusive device to develop their Value – Ritual – Norm (VRN) system.  The most important aspect seemed to be the initial transfer of Values. The head of the Sande lodge is the Sowei, who is in charge of the initiation of young girls and are viewed as the “arbiters and creators of beauty and morality in Mende society.”[3] The Sowei’s mask is referred to as the Sowo-wui or is more commonly known to as the “Mende Mask”. It is through the masked spirit counterpart, Sowo, that the Sowei receives her temporal authority. This is the ritual aspect of this value transference device which then develops into the social norms or rules followed by the community. Again each initiate can aspire to the utopian ideal at their own pace as opposed to hard and fast rules laid down by community leaders.

Sande Society Helmet mask - Brooklyn Museum, 2010

In her book, Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Boone identifies several Sande (and Mende) social ideals.

Nemahulewe – cleverness, intelligence, use of mind.

Kahu – strength, endurance, stamina

Kpaya – authority, responsiibility

Ndilo – bravery, courage, (the heart can stand the strain).

Malondo – be quiet, be silent, the silence to endure hardship, long suffering

Fulo-Fulo – doing things smartly and quickly

Tonya – Truth

Di – persistence

Pona – to be correct, straight, reliable, doing things properly

Hindawanda – goodness, generosity

But there is more….. the Sande Society has two masks, for while Sowo shows the nobility of human Sowei the counterpart of failure and disgrace belongs to Gonde.

“Mende women have created two masks because it takes both to express fully the realities of the social milieu out of which the Sande mask forms emerge.”[4]


[1] http://www.morning-earth.org/ARTISTNATURALISTS/AN_Thoreau.html

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kibbutz

[3] Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Boone, p 34

[4] Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Boone, p 39

Respecting Our Women!

On the question of “Respecting Women”, I came across a figure  (at the Brooklyn Museum exhibit), which “epitomized the sensibility of Luba carvers when rendering the image of a woman”.[1]

Luba Carving - Water pipe

The description of this figure reads as follows:

The female figure holding her breasts is the most common motif in Luba art. The gesture has multiple levels of meaning, symbolizing respect,nurturing, and the role of women as mothers. The representation of a woman is also significant since the Luba trace descent through the female line. The female figure additionally references the belief that women hold secrets, especially the secrets of male kings and chiefs, within their breasts.[2]

The other figure, displayed at the National Museum of African Art in Washington displays similar characteristics.

Gourd - Luba Tribe

In buying or collecting African Tribal art and researching the associated histories one may find differences due to the fact that tribes may be nomadic rather than settled, or follow patrilineal, matrilineal, or cognatic descent principles.

My questions are fairly simple.

How did we move from Tribal societies which lavish respect and adoration on our women, to a modern society which brazenly denigrates our women on a regular basis in the most popular vocal art-forms of Rap and Hip-Hop?

Why do we languish in destructive social patterns without taking responsibility for finding ways to protect and instruct young children in social norms which sustain our family units?

How do we fix this??


[1] The Tribal Arts of Africa, Jean-Baptiste Bacquart – p 158

[2] African Art, A Century at the Brooklyn Museum – p 255

Marriage, Family, and Community.

Marriage, Family, and Community

We take many aspects of marriage for granted.. very much like the Federal backing of a Ginnie Mae mortgage backed security, or the FDIC guarantee for bank deposits not exceeding $100k…. we assume that God has an implicit spiritual guarantee in place for people who faithfully adhere to the tenets of marriage and monogamous living. Ironically this represents an enormous leap of faith and diabolical logic.

Baule : Spirit Partner

One of the most interesting quotes I came across was that marriage may have began as an institution to adequately access nubile women… this made sense,  since who would want warriors killing each other in their quest for companionship! [1] Another interesting point was that around 600 years ago no priest was required for a European styled marriage, which was basically sealed by a promise. The modern marriage came into effect around 1556, after the 1553 Council of Trent.[2]

It may come as a shock that marriage in and of itself does not bring God’s blessing and it is by itself a spiritual nostrum. Almost any crook, murderer, or thief, can get married in the finest church and walk out as husband and/or  wife.

This is not to say that the social construct that is marriage is useless… far from it. Nor would I rank the payment of taxes (another construct) on the same spiritual level that some marriages clearly attain, but I refrain from linking deep personal intimacy with spirituality.

Bambara Maternity Statues

Bambara - Maternity Statues

Within the context of a community, and raising a family, different types of marriages clearly work better than others.

If any one wedding tradition might be said to be indicative of the African continent it would be the importance of family. An African wedding is, more than anything, the bringing together of two people as a single family, or the combining of two families or even the mixture of two tribes into one family unit. The concept of family is one of the unifying ideas of the African continent.

There are more than 1,000 cultural units in Africa and each culture, each tribe has its own wedding and marriage traditions, many of which can trace their origins back hundreds or even thousands of years.

Divorce is rare in African marriages. Problems in a marriage are often discussed with both families and solutions found. Often entire villages join in to help a couple find solutions to their problems and keep a marriage from failing. [3]

A good marriage can provide a “win win” situation where both sides find love, and companionship, as well as raise a family. It remains hard work and it would seem that some Western societies do not provide adequate training for the task, yet the freedoms afforded the Western females are such that they are not disadvantaged to  as great an extent as in Eastern and African societies.

It is clear that the most important part of the marriage is the love and commitment of the couple to each other.  A marriage represents the legal, spiritual, union of two people but can easily devolve into a basic contract on paper, and an amazingly complex hell on earth.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage

 

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Trent

[3] http://www.worldweddingtraditions.com/locations/african_traditions.html

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