Friday, November 11, 2011

Scavenger Hunt Fail: A thought about African Artwork, Stereotyping, and Museums

After two failed attempts in the last two days to look at the artwork in the Waterloo Center for the Arts, I have decided to write my blog on something else. (They were in the process of taking down the work for the holiday art events and were closed according to the ladies at the front desk.) I have decided to write about African art and museums in place of the Haitian artwork in Waterloo.

Disclaimer: This has nothing to do with the Waterloo Center for the Arts or the Scavenger Hunt at all. It's my reflection on African art in museums and the reasons it's often displayed improperly.

Museums are often thought of as places to view objects that you don't see everyday. They provide educational entertainment to the public. The key word in the previous sentence is entertainment. Museums wouldn't be able to stay open if they didn't contain things people wanted to see. Artwork, oddities, and other things are entertainment objects for the people outside the realm from which they were created. We often find things outside the everyday spectrum to be amusing because it's not what we are used to seeing and don't fully understand it.

 Many times throughout the semester we have discussed how African art is often viewed out of context and how white people can tend to over-generalize Africans as one. One of the common things from last week's discussions that stuck with me is how Africans considered the objects they made not to be art, but functional objects for specific purposes. To Americans and Europeans, these objects can often be seen as art objects. I think a lot of this can be attributed to the novelty of the objects in our caucasian eyes.

Africa is on a completely different continent from Europe or North America. In fact, Africa is a continent. It's a continent made up of almost as many countries as their are states in the United States.  But the major problem with this is unfamiliarity. That is the unfamiliarity of Africa in Western Eyes. As Americans, we as a whole see Africa as one country and one people. And by that, I mean exotic black people not born in a Western country.

This over-generalization among the whole of Americans and Europeans is mentioned by me because it ties in to how African artwork is treated in museums. The exoticness of Africa is why its objects are found in museums. People aren't typically entertained by the sight of cigarette butts and Dr. Pepper cans, but objects from another continent are novel and we pay to see novelty. But since we tend to view Africans as one, their works often end up in a museum together because whites don't distinguish between the Bamana or the Yoruba. They are all still works created by a exotic people typically considered to be primitive.(Egyptian art is the one African art exception however. There work is often viewed on its own and not considered primitive.)

The major question I have pondered this semester regarding African art, is whether or not the over-generalization and stereotyping of Africa in museums is good or bad or somewhere in between. I think that the clumping of Africa as a whole is often necessary in many museums because their collections in African art probably aren't as vast as their other collections. It would be especially hard to gather a large amount of objects from each different culture located in Africa. It's just too expensive, and many of the people coming to visit museums wouldn't be able to tell the difference between African peoples by the end of the day.

I think that any exposure to African art or non-Western art is good, even if it's not presented in the proper way. After all, it's at least being presented. I think that instead of constantly challenging how African art is presented, we should be happy that it's even being presented at all. I think that even in the "incorrect" presentation of the artwork, people can still acknowledge how beautiful something is. If it wasn't being presented at all, people probably wouldn't be studying it and this class probably wouldn't exist.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Nov. 4th Blog

There are many issues out there that drive contemporary artists crazy. Contemporary African artists have to deal with one issue in particular that gets under their skin. They don't like that most people are more interested in where they're from than the work they're producing. Their origins usually overshadow their contemporary artwork in the eyes of westerners. 

The Olu Oguibe article from the course packet talks about how critics and the public seem to care more about the origins of the African artist than what the artist is trying to say through their work. The stereotyping of foreign artists, such as those from Africa, is a crude and shallow way to overlook an individuals artwork. Oguibe is an art critic that is not happy with how the Western world does not see the non-white artist as an individual, but as a person that is part of a larger stereotype. 

The contemporary African artist, Yinka Shonibare, has made a career of contradiction. The contradiction in his work is based on how Westerners don't see his work as fitting in either African or European art realms. His combines the two influences to create contradictory work. Many of his pieces use African textile patterns on distinctly European imagery. This causes the critic trouble, such as the critic mentioned in the Oguibe article, because the work is distinctly European enough that the critic can't quite put it into the "African art and artist" stereotype. Much is Shonibare's work is well-known throughout the world today and has been featured in numerous galleries and museums. Without the contradictions in his artwork, Shonibare probably would have been just another African artist in the eyes of Westerners.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Prompt for Oct.28 Response

When the Portuguese arrived in Africa centuries ago, the Africans didn't know they were Europeans, they believed that they were people returning from the land of the dead. The Portuguese fit into their spiritual beliefs ideally as dead people from across the sea returning to the land of the living. These "other" people were like nothing they had ever seen before. They were like people from another realm, so it wasn't a far-fetched idea for them to believe what they did and incorporate them into their artwork.

In the Blier article, it is mentioned that the Kongolese believed that there were two mountaintops in which the land of the living and the dead lived. In between the two was the sea. The people from the land of the dead were also thought to be white. When the Portuguese arrived by ship, it made perfect since to the Kongolese that these outsiders were people back from the dead. Similar beliefs were also shared in Benin about the Europeans. In Benin culture, the Europeans were often associated with Olokun, their god of wealth and the sea.

The Europeans were also thought to be the dead, by the people living in current day Sierra Leone. Their beliefs about the dead worked well with their conceptions of the Portuguese. When the dead was buried, they buried them facing the west towards the sea with riches for the next world. They believed, like the Kongolese, that the land of the dead was across the sea. They also associated white with the dead, so when the Portuguese came to Western Africa by ship with plenty of riches, it all made since in terms of their spirituality.

In the three of the peoples mentioned in the Blier article, the Europeans were seen as peoples from the dead that had strong spiritual connections with both realms that were separated by the ocean. After the arrival of the Europeans in West Africa, it didn't take any time for them to show up in African artwork because of the connections the Africans made with the Portuguese and their own spirituality. The Portuguese were thought as "others" not only because of their skin, but the beliefs the Africans already had in place long before their arrival.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Haitian Relation to Africa Through Artwork

When the first slaves were brought over to the Americas, they brought their traditions with them. One of the first places the slaves where brought was what is now the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The slave culture of the island was a new hybrid, combining African and European influence to create Vodou. The art of Vodou is very similar to African art, yet it is still different.

One of the common things that Vodou shares with many African cultures is the idea of spirit possession. During Vodou rituals and dances, such as the Divine Horsemen that we watched in class, people are believed to be taken over by spirits. Many of these ritual dances remind me of the African dances we watched or learned about in class. Many African cultures believe that when someone puts on a mask and dances, that they become the spirit the mask is supposed to be representing. I think this idea probably traveled over with the early Africans to the Americas. The major difference is that the Vodou ideas of spirit possession don't seem to have the need for wearing masks during rituals. 

Another idea borrowed from African art is the different traditions that honor women and especially mothers. The article on Mama Lola and this weeks lectures both mentioned the spirit or Lwa, Erzulie Dantor. Erzulie Dantor is the spirit for strong mothers. Mama Lola had a strong connection with Dantor and did rituals to honor the spirit. The Gelede dance of the Yoruba is another tradition to honor the mothers and motherhood. Other cultures also have examples of traditions that honor mothers in addition to the two I just mentioned.

Another interesting twist on Vodou art is the European influence in addition to the African influence. Many of the Lwa are represented visually as Catholic figures. For example, the Erzulie Dantor is often shown as the black madonna in artwork. Over time Haitian art has became an unique hybrid through African and European influences, as well as being isolated from both of those continents.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Yoruban Spirituality and the Importance of Community

Much of the the art created by the Yoruban people directly relates to the importance of community in their spiritual beliefs, whether it be the Epa headdress or the Gelede mask. The two distinct masks honor the individual roles of people within their communities that keep the community running smoothly, even though the two are are different.

The Gelede masks are masks created to be worn in dances to celebrate the importance in women in their culture. Women play an important role in Yoruban society, much like the some of the other groups of people we have studied in class. The role of mother is very important in Yoruban society so the Gelede dances help honor the women and mothers in the community. They help keep the family functioning and provide support for their children.


The Gelede masks are carved from wood and all tend to feature a female face with some kind of structure on top of that. The top structure can vary quite a bit and feature many different things such as a bowl of food, people doing a routine jobs, or even an airplane or a motorcycle. These examples such that the masks can feature the ordinary or wild but the specific carving for each mask is often related to some important aspect of an elderly or deceased mother's life.


The Epa headdresses are also very important to Yoruban spirituality because they represent the importance of balance and power in the community. The Yoruba believe that every single person in their society plays an important role in keeping the society balanced. The Epa headdresses help celebrate this because they feature different occupations of people in the society. Many of these masks feature occupations such hunters, warriors, and mothers. The Yoruba carve these masks out of wood and make the masks' structures stand very tall in the air. The person wearing the mask has to have good balance to be able to keep the mask upright. This helps emphasis the importance of balance in the community.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Kane Kwei Coffins in comparision the Ile-Ife memorial heads.


Funerary traditions very between all peoples. In contemporary Ghana, the Kane Kwei coffins are works of art. His coffins are designed after objects that were very important the deceased persons' lives. Some of these objects have included birds, fish, cars, and cellphones. From western eyes, many of these coffins seem pretty wild, but they played an important part in representing the dead during the funeral. These coffins were only seen during the funeral because they buried with the dead.


The memorial heads from Ile-Ife were also funerary objects that were crafted to resemble the dead. They were crafted out of metal or terra cotta and often placed on wooden bodies so they could be shown to the public instead of the dead body. The detail on the masks is not like anything we've seen so far in class because the heads are very lifelike. 

What both these funerary objects have in common is their role in representing the dead through the funeral process. They are created pretty much just for this purpose. These examples are very well made and yet they aren't as important after the funeral. For example, the coffin is placed in the earth. It is very interesting how much work goes into  an event that only happens once, as these objects aren't reused for later funerals. But from seeing these examples in class, it hammers home the importance of death in their cultures and the importance in honoring the deceased.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Blog: Week 3

This past week of class was a pretty fun one. Nani came yesterday and helped walk us through how to make batiks. Making batiks was a lot simpler process that I remember it being when I did them in a high school art class. Thats most likely because I paid attention more this time than I did in high school.

To start the batik, we had cut strips of cloth down in size so that we could each have a piece to work with. From there, we all chose symbols with meanings in Akan culture to place on our fabric.  Once we heated the wax, we dipped the stamps in it and then stamped them on our to cloth to leave a wax imprint. We used wax because the wax image will resist the dye when the cloth is colored, so the image remains white or the original cloth color. To get rid of the wax, you have to boil it out with hot water. Sadly, I wasn't able to see this done in class because of my work schedule. Luckily though, I've done the process before.

I really liked Picton's argument against using the word traditional in his article we read for class. He argued that the word traditional shouldn't be used in his book about African textiles because the would mean that the way people were creating textile art would have to be distinguished as old or new, when the     more recent and modern textile art was still an extension was the way it had always been done. The other thing in his article that I found really interesting was that there are European companies making textiles such as batiks and importing them to Africa. I found that to interesting because I had figured that most African textile products were made in Africa, when there are actually cases where some are actually imported in. I also found it interesting that Batik started in Asia, not in Africa where I thought it had based on the importance of batik in textile art.