The African Tribal Art of Facial Scarification

Scarification is the practice of permanently marking the skin by cutting it, and is widely practised in Africa. The main purpose of African scarification is to enhance a person’s beauty, but scars can also indicate bravery, show group identity, or mark stages in a person’s life. [1] Collecting African Tribal Art through masks, and headdresses is an easy way to examine the cultural differences, and norms of African Tribes.

Guro Mask : Simple Scarification Pattern

Makonde

 The Makonde used body scarification in an effort to prevent their abduction into slavery. Although not as popular as before, scarification still finds a place in the culture, and craft of the tribe. A typical Lipico mask is worn on the top of the head partially covering the face and slanted up to enable the masquerader to see through the mouth area. These masks are used in initiation and circumcision ceremonies for boys as they move from adolescence to manhood. The masks may exhibit scarification, which is reflected in thick, symmetrical zigzag patterns across the face area.

Makonde Tribe : Lipico Mask

Tabwa

 The distinctive facial scarification consisting of a number of lines along the sides of the face and along the forehead, and abdomen were the means whereby Tabwa identified themselves to localities, and displayed social status. They are also a high form of body art or ornamentation. Elaborate and attractive patterns and designs were worked into the skin according to the Tabwa concept of ‘kulemba’ that reflect aesthetics, social membership, and the abstract idea of order upon the chaos of nature. It demonstrates that a person becomes a complete adult when they are properly inscribed with the appropriate scars. These patterns and designs are collectively known as ‘vindala’ and represent one’s advancement through life and within Tabwa society. Distinctive hairstyles among Tabwa men reflect status or membership in a hunter’s cult known as ‘buyange’, and requires some effort to braid, tie and decorate. [2]

Tabwa Tribe

Baule

Consider the marks on the Baule mask. The Senufo use three scars radiating from the edge of the mouth along the side of the face. The Senufo however are close neighbors of the Baule in the Ivory Coast.

Baule Tribe

At one time most slaves in the Baule territory were Senufo and because Baule people make this association, they use this type of scar to protect young children from harm; when a woman has had several children who have died for example this scar is given to her next child so that Death will not be attracted to it. [3]

[1] http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/pdf/scarification_web.pdf

[2] http://www.africadirect.com/productsdesc.php?ID=53842

[3] http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/pdf/scarification_web.pdf

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.

Susu, Anansi, and Tabanka – the beginning

Five Areas of Common Tribal Heritage we never knew.

Beyond the use of masks in festivals and masquerades there are several areas of  African Tribal Art, and customs that form a common part of the heritage of the Diaspora. It is amazing that after hundreds of years there are commonalities and ties that have stood the test of both advances in technology, and concentrated attempts at indoctrination in different cultures.

Common Volcabulary[1]

“Susu” is a word based on the Yoruba word “esusu” meaning a rotation of funds to persons who have contributed to a central banker; a sharing of capital. This practice is done commonly throughout West Africa. A general misconception is that the word had its origins in the French word for “cent.”

The Caribbean use of “Allyuh” and “you all” also bear traits of West African language. Standard English just has “you,” which acts as the 2nd person singular AND the 2nd person plural. African languages make a distinction between the plural ‘you’ and the singular ‘you’ so therefore the “all” is inserted “allyuh”, “you all” to mean more than one. The Bajan “wunna,” which means “you all” is a version of the Ibo pronoun “unna” which has a similar meaning.

Ibo (Igbo) Tribe, Nigeria - Spirit Maiden Mask

“Moomoo” a word meaning stupid, or dumb, and “booboo” meaning coal in the eyes are also African based words. “Anansi” likewise is a chief character of folk tales in the Gold Coast. “Jumbi” is a word from Angola meaning a ghost, an entity that returns from the dead. “Locho” is a Congo word meaning “cheap; mean; stingy” that has found its way to the Caribbean. “Tabanka” or its variant (without the nasal consonants “n or m”) “Tabaka,” is a Congo word meaning sold out or bought out completely. So from this we have the Caribbean word “tabanka/tabaka” meaning completely lost in love. “Tooloom” comes from the word “toolumuka” which means to drag oneself or to pull out teeth. The Caribbean word “Lahe” which mean “wutless” or “good for nothing” is based in the Congo word “laha” which means the same. “Kongori” can be found in a series of languages in Africa from Gabon to the interior, and the meaning is the same – a millipede. “Kaiso” among the Niger Delta peoples is a term that means “well done!” and so at the end of a “kaiso” or “calypso” it is very suitable to hear such an acclamation. “Dwen/Douen” is also an African word which refers to the soul of a child that has died.

Bwoon Mask, Kuba Tribe - DRC : Famous Royal three way relationship!

 

Bamilike Tribe, Cameroon[2]

To compensate for not preserving the skull of a male ancestor, a family member must undergo a ceremony involving pouring libations into the ground. Dirt gathered from the spot then becomes a proxy representing the skull of the deceased. The tradition of sprinkling drops of liquor when a new bottle is opened may be derived from this.

Gunyege Mask, Dan Tribe - Ivory Coast

 

Dan Tribe, Ivory Coast[3]

The tradition of “tin” is still an essential part of Dan culture. Young people strive to make a name for themselves by lavishly spending at community feasts to demonstrate their wealth – hence to be described as a “Dan” refers to someone who dresses well, and who shows himself to be ahead of others in the categories of wealth or social prominence.

Ashanti, Ghana[4]

The Anansi tales are believed to have originated  from the Ashanti  tribe in Ghana. The word Anansi is Akan, and means simply spider.  An example of Anansi’s craftiness is given in the excerpt which sees him capturing a nest of hornets.

“To catch the hornets, Anansi filled a calabash with water and poured some over a banana leaf he held over his head and some over the nest, calling out that it was raining. He suggested the hornets get into the empty calabash, and when they obliged, he quickly sealed the opening.”

Religious Beliefs – Yoruba Tribe,Nigeria [5]

With the trans Atlantic Slave Trade, the Yoruba religion was transplanted in various parts of the western hemisphere. Today it is practiced in a host of different forms. One of these is Vodoun, a mixture of Yoruba, Catholicism, and Freemasonry, in Haiti. It is known throughout South America, the Caribbean, and Central America as Santeria where it is practiced not only by Africans but also the descendants of indigenous peoples (misnomered Indians or Hispanic) that inhabit the region. Worship in the Yoruba religion is based upon the belief in a Supreme Being (Oldumare), the creator of Heaven (Orun) and Earth (Aye); the belief in a multitude of spiritual deities (Orisha); and the belief in ancestral spirits (Egungun).

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

Michael Vick’s Shiny Green Pants

Michael Vick is no pretender, in the sense that he would love to lead his team this Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.  He is no pretender because he didn’t turn this situation into a Quarterback controversy, simply because there is no controversy. He has paid his dues, he is still one of the most athletically gifted QBs to ever play the game, and perhaps with a little more patience and hard work his story will be one that rivals the most Rudyesque of football movies.

While some may question the coach’s motives to pursue the harder path of benching MV, especially in light of his last two performances,  the fact is that the Eagles organization have done a wonderful job in providing an environment where this young man can learn, improve his passing game, and be protected from the demons which no doubt assail him. In a society where faster is better , Coach Andy Reid has effectively slowed the circus down, and placed some of the load squarely on his own back.  Coach Reid has shown that there are always options, there are always alternatives, and sometimes if one takes a little time and effort, one may find a win-win scenario.

The American youth has no shortage of heroes and heroines to look toward… many, especially the brave youth who fall on the field of battle are unheralded.  Where we typically fall short, is in our guidance of our youth, and in the effort we should make to disseminate these opportunities, and teach them real world values, norms, and intangible concepts like honor, the value of a promise, and of course commitment. I am often reminded of being taught to cross the road. Instructions (look left, right, and left) would not have been half as productive as having someone hold my hand and walk me through the process.

Like our children, the MV story is a work in progress. There are many parallels we can take and use in our own lives, our careers, and our relationships. Disappointments, and setbacks need not be permanent life fixtures. So what if MV has to ride the bench… keep those leotards bright, and shiny…  I bet deep down he’s just happy for a chance at continued redemption, and an opportunity to play the game he loves.

The Chokwe Tribe of the Congo, stand out as one which maintained their cultural identity by proactively adapting to outside influences, and developing a deeply stylistic approach to their African Tribal art and craft. As in the case of other African peoples, the Chokwe’s success and survival resulted from their cultural flexibility and ability to adapt to impending change.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston - "Art of the Senses - African Masterpieces from the Teel Collection"

The Chokwe artwork incorporates many sculptural figures and masks evoking the memories of their founders and cultural heroes. This idealized image of a chief (or mwanangana, “lord of the land”) is among the masterpieces created by Chokwe artists of the Moxico region, which flourished in the nineteenth century.[1] 

For Michael Vick there may be movies, documentaries, articles, and books.  His story is still being written and many hope for a remarkable ending, one in which his work extends off the field, and one where youth of all walks of life can find some inspiration, a humble attitude, and a deep reservoir of courage.


[1] http://www.randafricanart.com/Chokwe_2.html

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

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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