My journey through a semester in Arts of Africa
learning and understanding the culture, religion,
and art among various other ways of everyday life in Africa.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Contemporary Artist Spotlight: Colleen Madamombe

Zimbabwean contemporary artist, Colleen Madamombe is one of the few women sculptors working in Zimbabwe and is said to hold somewhat of an inspirational role within the stone sculpture movement. Madamombe is known for her use and commitment to a particular theme within her work, adding surprising elements of complexity and intricacy to each piece she constructs. Madamombe focuses on the special qualities and individuality of Shona women, as well as spotlighting the injustice and discrimination Shona women face in Zimbabwean culture.
Madamombe engages in traditional imagery and subject matter regarding the conventional role Shona women play in society. Confronting experiences with which she is personally familiar, so much of Madamombe’s work is concentrated on mother and child relationships, pregnancy, and birth. She’s interested not just in the emotional, spiritual side to a woman’s life, but is also fascinated by the movement so particular to her sex. Through the use of powerful imagery, Madamombe captures the energy and movement of the female figures, making her stone sculptures particularly active and dynamic. Colleen works predominantly in Springstone but also uses Opal stone in her sculpture. She uses both rough and polished stone, often leaving parts of the surface of the stone in its raw oxidized form to provide color for hair or clothes, while creating expressive faces, arms and hands in the fully polished black stone. The overall effect and subject matter of Colleen Madamombe’s work is easily recognizable.

The way many African cultures portray the gender roles of women in society through art can be compared with the way Madamombe does in her sculptural forms. Although in some cultures more than others, women are honored and venerated for fertility and the ability to bear children, speaking in contemporary terms, many women in certain cultures are still being suppressed. Colleen Madamombe takes the female form and gives her life through her work. Placing the female in different areas of light while in each piece creating a strong sense of energy, Madamombe celebrates the Shona woman and generates a new way for us to view the social issues surrounding Zimbabwean women as a whole.

Said to be representing the voice of the new generation of Zimbabwean women, Colleen Madamombe states, "I am inspired by the activity of women and I work hard to show this in my sculpture. In recent pieces I have used natural areas of the stone with rough workings to emphasize this movement - the texture follows the rhythms of the body. This contrasts with the more finished areas of the face and hands. I started sculpting 25 years ago. I do women sculptures; what I see women doing is what I put in sculpting, like bearing children, going to the field, sisters and so forth. That’s what I do in my life."

Monday, November 7, 2011


The articles read and discussed in class this week by Sidney Kasfir, Olu Oguibe, and Yinka Shonibare dealt with the pressing issue of authenticity and its importance to Western cultures in regards to African art. In many Western cultures, assumptions and stereotypes are placed on artists of specific cultures, origins, and heritages to produce specific “authentic” works of art. A certain awareness became present of the difficulties many contemporary artists of African descent contend with as their work is judged by Western critics.
In class, we were given a quote from Okwui Enwezor’s interview with Yinka Shonibare and asked to give thoughts and analyze the excerpt. Our quote read, “I’ve never actually been to an African village. I’ve only seen one on television.” Beginning the semester in this course, Arts of Africa, this quote would have utterly shocked me and this becomes the core problem of many Westerners’ mindsets at attitudes.
Western cultures assume all Africans originate from one nation—an exotic, poverty stricken third world country consisting of all black-skinned peoples. The Africa many Westerners believe it to be is anything but these preconceived notions many hold. Africa, like all other continents, is composed of many diverse countries, all differing in various cultures. These beliefs and perceptions become the definition of “authentic” and “traditional” raising a burning question—does authenticity even matter? For critics, professors, and the general public to expect Shonibare and Ouattara to create “traditional” and “authentic” African art is just absurd. By doing this, the color of their skin becomes a stronger element than the importance these artists’ work places on society. Shonibare’s “blackness” should not become a marker of his identity as a human being.
In all three readings, the importance Westerners place on the idea or perhaps, non-existent idea of authenticity is a crucial obstacle many contemporary African artists experience day to day. America, for example, is an immense melting pot of diverse and dissimilar traditions and customs, creating a culture all its own. Why can’t the idea of African culture be based on these same values and perceptions? The color of one’s skin nor their origin should define that person or link them to any certain or correct way of creating contemporary art. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Idea of The "Other"

The idea of the “other” was the primary focus and theme discussed in class this week as well as the articles “Imaging Otherness in Ivory” and “Mami Wata Shrines.” The “other” explained in both articles, generally refers to any culture or people new and unknown to these African peoples being affected by approaching change.
In reference to Suzanne Preston Blier’s article, “Imaging Otherness in Ivory”, the “other” refers to Portuguese peoples exploring new African territories throughout the 15th century. In the eyes of African peoples such as the Kongo, Sapi, and Beni influenced by the Portuguese arrival, their interpretations of this new culture proved very interesting. The Portuguese were an entirely new, different culture in appearance, language, and religion, among many other characteristics. These African peoples took what they saw and interpreted the arrival of these Europeans into their own ways of life.
For example, the sight of pale skinned peoples sailing across the sea to their land was easily adapted into their religious belief systems translating to aspects of life and death and relating to the cultural importance on the “otherworld” or “afterlife.”
Beni artists associated Portuguese peoples with movement, water, and otherworldly realms. Kongo perceptions of the Portuguese related their pale skin color to death along with their wealth and foreign tongue. They also interpreted Christian crosses and crucifixes with the “crossroads”, very prominent in many African religious structures. Sapi representations of these Europeans were based on more ephemeral qualities of specific European attributes maintaining similar forms between the Portuguese and African peoples in many motifs. In this same way, Mami Wata shrines were compiled of borrowed Hindu chromoliths along with various other objects to create something of more importance or significance within the culture.
Both of these essays discussed explore the construction of the “other” and how this relates to the interculturation of these specific peoples mentioned. The openness and willingness of these African peoples to new ideas is remarkable. Instead of denying change, they adapted European customs and beliefs into their own cultural belief systems. African receptivity to the future changes that would occur is evident in various art forms such as ivories including saltcellars, brass, raffias, and textiles among other artifacts. 
The first interactions with Europeans allow Africans to fit their beliefs and cultural norms into their own belief and visual structures. Through African peoples own interpretations of the “other”, we see a broad sense of interculturation and hybridity occurring between Europeans, Africans, and many other cultures around the world. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Haitian Vodou

In Haiti, a religion practiced by 80% of the population is known as vodou. Its practitioners serve the Iwa and the religious complex is a profound mixture of African and Catholic beliefs, rituals, and religious specialists. Many practitioners of vodou continue to be members of a Catholic parish. Long stereotyped by the outside world as "black magic," vodou is actually a religion whose specialists, like Mama Lola, derive most of their income from healing the sick through trance-possessions or card readings rather than from attacking targeted victims.

Because Haitian vodou is an intricate combination of African as well as Catholic beliefs, many art forms include the use of both African deities and Catholic saints. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, campaigns to suppress the practice of vodou occurred, causing Haitians to strategically maintain their beliefs but hide behind certain Catholic facades as well. This is why many Catholic saints can be seen in popular drapo imagery as well as throne-altars.

Haitian vodou is similar to other African religions first of all, because thousands of West African slaves such as the Fon and Ewe were transported to Haiti, transferring and continuing to practice their religious and cultural beliefs. Many vodou religious altars can be compared to ritual altars of certain African peoples, as they pay homage or honor a particular object or spirit. African masquerades like those performed by the Yoruba and certain Baule peoples can be compared to vodou religious worships, the act of possession being very evident in cultures of Africa as well as Haitian vodou.

Divination is also another practice occurring in both Haitian vodou as well as Yoruba culture. According to Yoruba religion, spiritual divination is used in ways of communicating with ancestors that have passed on to the next world through the Opon Ifa (divination board). Vodou practitioners also communicate with spirits in ways of divination through the use cards to perform readings where vodou priests or priestesses invoke the possession of Iwa.

Haiti is a country, full with a rich combination of ethnic peoples as well as a variety of religious beliefs. The borrowed customs and beliefs from African cultures have created a diverse fusion, known today as vodou. Vodou is a religious melting pot of borrowed cultural and religious customs that has withstood centuries of oppression and still remains a strong cultural way of life for many Haitians today. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Yoruba Spirituality

According to the text, the Yoruba are to be considered the most urban of all African societies and peoples. The founding city of Ile-Ife was already a thriving and influential city-state by the eleventh century AD. The Yoruba worship an infinite number of gods, called orisha. Like other African cultures, spiritual divination is used in ways of communicating with ancestors that have passed on to the next world. The orisha, or “pantheon” of gods including primordial gods such as Orunmilla and Eshu have a significant affect on Yoruba culture.

The two gods, Orunmilla and Eshu serve as mediators between the orisha and humans. Eshu represents uncertainty, chance, violence, and trouble. On the other hand, Eshu is the considered to be the messenger of the orisha. For one to be heard by Orunmilla, a person must contact Eshu first. A diviner or babalawo, mediates between Orunmilla or the spiritual world and the human world through a divination process called ifa.

The Opon Ifa is an essential spiritual object through which communication between worlds takes place. Without this board, the diviner is unable to correspond between the spiritual world and the human world. This plate-like object is circular and flat, bordered by an array of raised images carved in low relief. The face of Eshu is located top center of the board and five additional images appear to the left and right, creating a symmetrical composition.

Another object through which divination occurs is through a divination bowl called Opon Igedeu. Divination paraphernalia can be stored in this hefty, multi-compartmental bowl containing a lid. The bowl created by Areogun of Osi-Ilorin is easily recognizable because of its bold relief. The vessel is circular in shape including an innovative characteristic—a hinged lid. Surrounding the bowl are seated figures while a man riding a bicycle is represented on the lid. The bicycle is just another example among many we have studied in which the artist has been influenced by modernity throughout his own, as well as many other cultures.

Through the worship of many orisha in Yoruba religion, the Yoruba peoples share many of the same spiritual beliefs as other African cultures we have examined. Divination is just another way the Yoruba are able to pay tribute to their ancestors by honoring the orisha and committing to important Yoruba practices that have survived the centuries. 

Friday, September 30, 2011

Comparison of Objects

Two very different objects in culture and time period, but the Akua ma and Akua ba of the Akan peoples and the blolo bian and blolo bla or spiritual spouse of the Baule peoples seem to have some significant similarities. The Akua ma dolls from Akan culture of Ghana were produced in the early 20th century and usually composed of wood. These figures are usually called Asante fertility dolls although "dolls" may not be the proper word to use when referencing the importance of these figures. A spiritual spouse, or "Otherworld Woman" is often used in Baule culture to represent a person's wife or husband of the spiritual world. The Baule believe that all adults have a mate of the opposite sex living in the next world and their thoughts and activities coincide with one another.

The body of the Akua ba is usually cylindrical, possesses no limbs, and is characteristic of having round, flat heads. The story behind these figures is that a woman named Akua was the first woman to care for a consecrated human figure, following the wisdom and advice from a local priest. A figure was then carved and empowered at a shrine. Akua could bare no children so she carried around the small figure, caring for the surrogate baby as if it were her own. Although mocked for caring for a baby made of wood, she eventually gave birth to a healthy baby girl. 
In present-day Asante culture, women believe that the divine intervention that helped Akua will aid them in becoming pregnant and giving birth, so many women order these special fertility figures from carvers and treat them as if they were their own children. 

Peoples of the Baule culture ask through a diviner to acquire a "person of wood" or statue that is honored and represented as an adult's spiritual spouse. The spirit, diviner, or customer determine the characteristics and attributes of the wood figure and afterwards, the image is consecrated through sacrifice and prayer. The adult must continually give offerings and sacrifices to their spiritual spouse, allowing their figure one night per week where they do not sleep with their this-world spouse. Through these acts, the adult hopes to gain prosperity or help in personal difficulties such as marriage, family, children, or finances. 

The special care and attention given to these seemingly unimportant wooden "dolls" or figures is a common characteristic and belief amongst many African cultures. The absolute faith and trust in oral stories and legends passed down from generation to generation is something to be admired of these African cultures. Both of these figures, after the creation process takes place, are consecrated and given complete spiritual empowerment, allowing them to take on an enormous amount of spiritual power. This power is what thrives cultures like the Asante and Baule in their everyday beliefs. Although in comparing these two objects, the person wishes for help in different areas of life, the faith in a higher power or otherworld spirit is extremely prevalent throughout these cultures. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Thoughts on the Art of Masks & Masquerades

Initially, when thinking about African art, masks come directly to mind. Many of them idealized and abstracted, but very different when compared to masks and masquerades of Western cultures. As Herbert M. Cole writes in Introduction: The Mask, Masking, and Masquerade Arts in Africa, “Masquerades are probably Africa’s most resilient art form, continually evolving to meet new needs.”

As learned in class, many of these masks and masquerades especially those performed and worn in Baule and Bamana cultures of Mali, have nothing to do with disguising one’s identity. These masquerades are extremely influential to cultures such as the Baule and Bamana in educating the young, punishing wrongdoers in the community, and redirecting social action among other means of spiritual intervention. In contrast, among Western cultures, masks are usually only worn for holidays such as Halloween and Mardi Gras, representing a humorous or feared disguise of a human being.

In almost all African cultures presenting masquerades and wearing masks, men are the spiritual dancers that perform. As Cole explains the historical myths and legends behind African masking, a common theme arises: women held the first secrets of masks. Women were said to have been the first masked dancers, calling into question whether or not men feared the spiritual power women possessed, ultimately leading to the exclusion of women as masked dancers in performances today.

An interesting point, men probably feared the horrific thought of becoming anything less than superior, so they began secret societies and cults to regain dominance and social control within certain cultures. Although today many masquerades are held in honor of women, they are still prohibited to dance or wear the masks.

Masks of these performances in Baule culture are very elaborate and idealized. They represent absolute ornamental beauty within African culture. Cole makes an interesting argument in stating that American and European cultures expect to see portraiture masks resembling a specific person down to the exact details of each facial characteristic. A Baule artist or sculptor almost always has an idea in mind before carving. An example might be incorporating a high forehead- marking the wisdom of that person. This can be associated with Akan funerary heads of Ghana, emphasizing idealistic marks rather than distinct features of a person’s face. In most cases, African artists intent is to embody and signify a spirit rather than a realistic form.

Nevertheless, whichever form the mask is transformed into whether it be an old man, pretty woman, animal or other character, the mask also takes on a spirit form. Although visually being represented as a character, it becomes a new being as well, a “spiritual being.” This relates to Nani’s performance as he explained that a certain “higher power” or “spiritual force” came over him while dancing and chanting. This force is the ultimate embodiment of power in many African cultures. 

Masks, masking, and masquerades are still a quintessential aspect to every day life in many African cultures, serving as a power to affect the quality of life. Although many African customs have been changed throughout the centuries, this form of “tradition” when we think about African masquerades has certainly survived colonialism and European influences of Christianity, allowing many African cultures to maintain their beliefs within their own cultures.