Arts of Africa

Friday, November 11, 2011

Week 12

This week was a short week for class but, we also had the opportunity to go to the Waterloo Center for the Arts to look at some Haitian artwork. I wasn’t real sure on what to expect but I was pretty satisfied when I was able to see the work in person. One thing that I thought was cool to see in person was the Drapos. Being able to see them in person was much more satisfying than seeing them in class on a projector screen. I was pleasantly surprised at all the intricate detail that was incorporated into them. I did not expect them to be so vibrant in color, and I thought that each piece had good craftsmanship. Looking at the Drapos in person made me think about how much effort goes into making each piece. You can tell these took a great deal of patience and time. It was satisfying to be able to look at the work and understand its meaning and why it was there.
I found that when I was walking through the gallery, looking at the Haitian work, I was excited because I could understand what was happening in most of the pieces. Knowing some of the history behind the work is so important to keeping an open mind and it helps keep you from stereotyping. I liked that I was able to understand for instance, the significance of the crossroads and its meaning. This made me think of the first day of class when we were asked what we thought of when we thought of African art. If I would have gone to the arts center and looked at these works before knowing anything about their past I would have thought simple-minded/ignorant thoughts. As I was walking through other works that were not part of the Haitian collection, I found myself wondering about their history and what things meant. I feel as though this class has helped me to be more open-minded about pieces and has made me want to learn about it instead of just assuming it has to be some “traditional” work. I also think that it would be beneficial for future Arts of Africa classes to go to the Waterloo Center for the Arts before learning about anything and then go back later in the future to see how much your outlook has changed.
In class we discussed the touchy topic of racism. We talked about how our/societies history is a major influence and that there is always going to be a “new” racism. I thing that really stuck out in my mind from class is when we talked about how stores still sell Aunt Jemima waffles. We talked about how that comes from an extreme racist background and once again I feel super ignorant for not even noticing. I think it is sad that things like this still go on and people are completely oblivious to it. We also had to read two different essays for class and in one of the essays it talks about the artists and how he purposefully makes work that proves a point or makes a statement. This brings me back to last week’s discussion when we talked about stereotypes and how people are always going to criticize you.
I think that this week was beneficial and helped me connect everything that we have been learning. I am happy that I had the opportunity to go to the Waterloo Center for the Arts and see first-hand the work that we have been discussing in class.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Week 11

For class this week we discussed three articles that discussed how we interpret/view African art. From my understandings I learned in class that there are so many stereotypes. I learned that people are quick to make assumptions just based on your skin color or where you live and that people are going to always put your work into some kind of category.
In class we got into groups and discussed quotes from the reading and ours was said by Yinka Shonibare and it says "If I made work about being black, I would be considered simply an artist who made work about blackness; if I did not make work about being black, people would speak of me as a black artist who did not make work about blackness". In our groups we discussed how no matter what he did people were going to criticize him and that people are always going to put you (him) into a category; everyone is a critic.  In class we discussed how people automatically assume that people from other cultures should produce ‘traditional’ types of pieces.  This brings me back to the first day of class when we were asked what we think of when we think of African art, and I replied with some stereotypical answer.
“The most powerful of the classificatory interventions are the words ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic’, which become shorthand designations for ‘good ‘, and their negations ‘non-traditional’ and ‘inauthentic’, which become synonymous with ‘bad’.” –Sidney Kasfir. I chose this quote because it made me think about how we use the words ‘authentic’ or ‘traditional’. It is true that when something is said to be ‘authentic’ that that work is automatically ‘right’ or ‘good’ and that it somehow is held at a higher importance than say something that is non-traditional. I think that it is interesting to think about when something is said to be ‘inauthentic’ or ‘non-traditional’ that they seem to automatically be wrong or bad.
Sadly, I think people are always going to put people into categories and make assumptions based on their appearances. I also think that the word ‘traditional’ is going to always be used in a loose way. I also think that getting into groups and discussing the readings was helpful in understanding what we read.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Digesting Visual Cultures of "Others".

This week in class we discussed two different articles. We read Imaging Otherness in Ivory by Suzanne Blier and the second article was Mami Wata Shrines by Henry Drewal. Both articles discussed how foreigners or “others” have an influence on different peoples. In Blier’s essay it discusses the Portuguese and how they had an influence on three different peoples, the Beni, Kongo, and the Sapi. The article discusses how the people digested the visual culture of “others”.  In the essay Blier says: “people intentionally or unintentionally use the objects of others to define themselves”.
The way that the Beni digested/incorporated visual aspects from the Portuguese into their life was through art. In their work they often depicted the figures to have long facial hair and oval eyes. They also would often times incorporate the mudfish into their work. The mudfish was compared to Olokun, the water God. The mudfish is also important because it’s mobility and functioning lung. The mudfish is able to live out of water for some time.
The Portuguese also had an influence on the Kongo peoples. In artwork from the Kongo, they often times will incorporate spiral forms. These forms symbolize the path to the other world or the transition of life and death.  We also talked about the textiles and how they would bury the dead in them. Also how they integrated Christianity symbols into their own culture. For example the use of the cross and how the cross represents the crossroads.
A good example of how the Portuguese influenced the Sapi people would be the Ivory Saltcellar. In the piece it has an egg shape (egg also shows fertility/life cycle) with a figure seated at the top. The seated figure is integrated from the Portuguese because traditionally the Portuguese would bury their dead in a seated position. The saltcellar also has crocodiles on it. The crocodile symbols also come from the Portuguese and they represent wealth and power. Another important figure that appears on work would be the serpents. The serpents are identified with a water spirit called Ninkinanka which is both beautiful and powerful. Ninkinaka is also said to have come from an egg which would represent fertility.  
In class we discussed not only how the Portuguese had an influence on different peoples but, we also discussed how “others” influence our daily lives. I have always thought that every person we meet changes us in some way whether we realize it or not, and I think that this week would be a good example of that. When you come in contact with “others” who may be different from you, you are going to somehow take in/digest what you learned from them and make it your own.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


This week in class we discussed Haitian art and vodou religion. Vodou is a complex belief system that took me a while to understand. People often times mistake vodou for voodoo but, they are actually very different. According to the reading we did for class by Karen McCarthy Brown it says that Vodou is the religion of 80% of the population of Haiti. Vodou is a combination that comes from several influences.
When learning about Vodou in class I began to realize that it is similar to other people’s religions that we have been studying. We learned that the spirits associated with Vodou are not idealized but they are what they are and there are many, many spirits in Vodou. Through watching a DVD and reading about Mama Lola I was able to understand Vodou better. In the essay it talks about Mama Lola and the possession that occurs as she embodies the spirit(s). This also made me think of Bamana’s Masquerades in that when they are performing the masks that they are embodied with the spirit of that mask. While watching the DVD I was able to see the possession happen after they called the spirit(s) and gave sacrifices.
Another thing that we discussed in class was the influence of Catholicism in Haitian culture. We looked at several different chromolithographs. In the chromolithograph of Mater Dolorsa it shows a dark skinned woman and a child. It is comparable to the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ and through this it is an example of how Catholicism has influenced Haitian art and beliefs.
I am happy that I was able to learn about Mama Lola and Haitian art. I am glad that I now am able to understand some of the history behind Vodou. I also enjoyed learning about the complexity of Vodou as a religion. The videos were helpful in that we could see how the dance/performance was done and how they were able to embody the spirits. I look forward to continuing to learn more about African art and culture.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Week 7

In class this week we discussed the art and spiritual beliefs of that of the Yoruba people. The Yoruba people believe in many Gods, Orisha. When talking about Orisha in class we discussed Eshu, and Shango and the art that went with these.
In the Yoruba culture a Babalawo uses a divination tray in order to call Eshu the god of the crossroads to communicate with Orunmila to decide fate. Since Eshu is the god of the crossroads and the market, his face often appears on the divination trays and bowls. The divination bowl also can have many other markings that would suggest its use. The bowl is split in the middle horizontally to signify the Yoruba’s belief in two worlds; spirit world and the physical world. With the divination tray the Babalawo will draw an ‘x’ that would signify the crossroads.

The Yoruba people also believe in Shango. Shango is the god of thunder he can either protect you or punish you. Figures of Shango have double axes on the top. During dances/rituals they use Shango to posses initiates. The way that Shango posses them would be through the ‘inner head’. The Yoruba often use the figure of Shango on the ends of dance-wands.

I enjoyed learning about the Yoruba people and their use of art to communicate their spirituality. I found the divination bowls to be the most interesting thing we discussed. I am glad that I had the opportunity to learn about a different spiritual belief and look forward to learning more.

Friday, September 30, 2011


The Dogon are well known for their figures. The Ancestor Couple would be an example of that. The Ancestor Couple shows two abstracted figures seated on a wooden stool. Each figure has elongated oval faces, almond shaped eyes, and a pointy arrow-looking nose. The way that you can tell which is male and which is female is by looking at the figures. The male has his arm over the females shoulder. The female figure has breasts that represent fertility. Each figure also has scarification on their bodies. The figures, while being abstract, are also geometric which is common with the Dogon.
The Baule peoples believe in having a spirit spouse (Blolo Bla) that they have to keep happy. They are told to spend at least one night a week with their spirit in order to keep the spirit spouse happy. The spirit spouse is often a tiny abstracted figure that resembles a human. The Baule people keep their spirit spouse hidden away from others and are often covered up. They believe that the spirit spouse is jealous of you and you are jealous of it.
When comparing these two objects I found that they are similar in that with the ancestor couple they represent a male and a female and without one you are said to be incomplete. The same goes for the spirit spouse, you need to spend time with it to keep it happy and without it you are incomplete. Their use of functions are different in that with the ancestor couple you do not have to spend time with it to keep the balance, but with the spirit spouse you spend time with it. Also the spirit spouse is kept hidden from others while the ancestor couple is displayed and not meant to be hidden. With the spirit spouse you also give offerings and it is more of a shrine than the ancestor couple. Stylistically the two can be similar in that the figures can be abstracted. The spirit spouse may be similar to the ancestor couple in that if the spirit spouse is female it may show the breasts that represent fertility and scarification.
Even though these two pieces come from two different cultures and peoples they share some similarities and differences. I look forward to the next couple of weeks as we continue to learn more about different peoples and their art.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Masks and Masquerades

This week in class we got to learn about several groups of peoples the Baule, Bamana, and the Bwa. We focused heavily on their use of masks and the roles that those have in their lives. We also discussed Herbert Cole’s article “I am not Myself” which discusses African masks/masquerades. We also discussed how the masks mark and effect change.
With the all people we talked about this week, the use of masks in their lives often times marks change and is used as a teaching tool. For example the Kore Horse Masks in the Bamana are used to help teach. They point at the person that you do not want to be in a community. The Baule people use several sets of masks that help teach and help with the transitions of each stage of life. The first set would be the Kple Kple, this represents the younger male. It shows the immaturity of the younger male. The next is the Goli Glen and this represents a young male, but a male that would be going through puberty and is becoming more mature. The Kpan Pre represents the younger more graceful and calm girl. Lastly the Kpan mask represents the older beauty and wisdom of women.  The Bwa also have many masks that help mark change. One mask that we talked about would be the Dwo mask that is performed at funerals. The Dwo mask represents the cycle of life. The mask is danced and then right after it is done it is burned which ensures the renewal of life. This also reminded me of the first week of class when we talked about displaying things in museums and taking things out of context. I think that this mask should never be displayed in a museum because it not only is taking it out of context but if it would have been danced right then it should have been burned right away.
Herbert M. Cole’s article “I am not Myself” was a big part of our discussion this week. In the article he talks about how the masks carry the spirit and once you put on the mask and perform you are then embodied with the spirit of that mask. In class we discussed how there is a difference between represented and embodied. We talked about how representing is the mask, the visual thing you see while embodied is the spirit present, it is religious. We talked about with the chameleon mask and when the dancer is wearing the mask he is the chameleon. We used the example of the Eucharist with Catholics. The wine and bread becomes the body and blood of Christ it is religious and embodied.  The article says “but something essential has happened; this being is also a spirit. It’s visible face—the mask—is inanimate, with immobile features. This is and is not a human being. So transformed, the new being is saying:”I am not myself”.
Masquerades are used to teach and pass down information on how to live. They are changing and growing just like many other things. I had no idea how much masks have an impact on certain peoples. There is so much more to the markings, colors, and shapes than I had thought. I now know the importance and more importantly the meaning behind some of these masks and I look forward to learning more in class.