Friday, December 2, 2011

Meet Kebedech Tekleab

 Kebedech Tekleab is a poet an visual artist from Ethiopia and attended the School of Fine Arts in Addis Ababa.  During the political uprising between Ethiopia and Somalia in the late 1970's Kebedech was taken as a prisoner and held in a labor camp for nearly ten years.  It was at this time that Kebedech found writing poetry to be her most valued resource, seeing the beauty and power behind words.  Kebedech is most noted for her paintings in the visual art world and much of this work deals with issues of identity, memory, the human condition, and personal discovery.

What I found most striking about Kebedech's paintings was the layering of paint on the canvas, suggesting the complexity and depth of the particular subject.  I likened this aspect of her work to that of the "traditonal" ideal of "power through accumulation." 

The painting in particular, A Day, captures the raw emotion and tenseness of the work's reference to the Iraq war and the day that "Shock and Awe" began. Kebedech is quoted as saying,

"I started working on it when the world felt the war in Iraq was inevitable. The day it began, I was at my studio working on the piece and listening to the explosion of bombshells on the radio. There was nothing to depict but to feel; visualization dominated observation. I dealt with the present but the process evoked a great deal of memory, social and personal, and time lost its boundary. I titled the piece “A-Day” and in doing that I marked time, the time of my inspiration, which happened to be timely and historic."

Kebedech is much devoted to the plight of humanity and most often her work addresses such concerns. In reading an interview she had with E. Ethelbert Miller in Of Note Magazine in 2009, she remarked that, "Race and gender are very important issues that have a varying social impact based on economic, social and political demands, and priorities in society. In my work, they can be found under the umbrella of my interest on human conditions globally, which has inspired most of what I have done so far."  I find this to be refreshing and I enjoy viewing her work through such lenses or frames of mind.

Though I am certain much more can be said of Kebedech Tekleab, the most important issue I wanted to stress was her ability to conjure up the emotions within herself to create meaningful and effective work.  She accomplishes this through the engagement and visualization of pain and suffering through abstraction.  Throughout her artistic career she has maintained a level of awareness for those around her and produced work about subjects that she feels deeply affected by.  In closing, can you find more ways in which Kebedech engages traditional imagery or themes in her work? Or, how else might we consider her work?

Consider visiting the links below to learn more about her:

and a short video interview can be found at:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

In the Spirit of Collaboration

Though I was unable to see the permanent Haitian art collection at the Waterloo Center for the Arts this past week, I was able to attending the opening reception for the Master Artists of the Bahamas that opened just a few weeks ago.  I was also able to collaborate with Bahamian artist Antonius Roberts for the opening, as he was fulfilling an artist in residency program with the Waterloo Center for the Arts as well as the University of Northern Iowa, specifically working in the sculpture area of our facilities this.  I met him on Wednesday, October 12th as he spoke to our class about his past work as well as his new pieces for the exhibition.  I felt deeply affected by Antonius' work and I wanted to do a performance piece in response to the issues and concepts pertaining to his art.

In reference to his previous works, Antonius spoke about feeling disturbed and saddened with what was happening to his homeland.  Tourist resorts had begun to completely remove the natural landscape of trees and other indigenous plants to replace them with what they felt visiting tourist’s wished to see, creating a fake and false destination essentially.  Antonius then began to take these discarded logs to give them meaning and a purpose again, carving into them to create beautiful sculptures.
His residency with our program and that of the Arts Center acted in much the same way, but instead of using discarded logs, Antonius was asked to use trees that had fallen or been swept away during the flooding of 2008.  I approached Antonius with an idea for a performance piece staged during the unveiling of Antonius’ work at the opening reception.  Both Antonius and the museum’s curator, Kent Shankle, were very receptive and open to this idea, as well as helpful to incorporate this last minute addition to the evening.
To be honest, I was very nervous about performing this piece.  For one thing, I only had a day and a half to get things ready, both my thoughts and the logistics of the piece.  However, my performance was met with some amazing reactions.  Those who were able to see it seemed very happy with my response to both Antonius’ residency and my own emotions and opinions about the flooding that occurred in our area.  It felt good to show others how I felt, how I became inspired by Antonius’ work, and how collaboration can work. 
In the video below, you'll notice that the first portion is an explanation of my performance and the last few minutes are of Antonius Robert's explanation of his own work.  Check it out for yourself (I was so nervous)!  Click on the link below to load the video in a separate window.

I feel that this collaboration relates to our class in the sense that we are continuously asked to create a deeper understanding within ourselves of others; of other cultures, works of art, societal issues, traditions, etc.  So, while this might not directly relate to conversations we have had in our class discussions of African art, I felt it important to share with everyone.  I understand that my performance (or performance art in general) may not be your cup of tea, but think of it this way: in my opinion the most effective way to learn is to find out how to take particular issues or ideas and apply them to one's life and way of thinking, and in doing so, we are then able to understand and appreciate other points of view in relation.  

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Space Between

We have covered a lot of material in class this past week, much of it proving to be quite the mental exercise.  The three articles presented to us to read were unique to the angle in which we have previously been learning about art from Africa.  Instead of focusing on more/other African cultures in particular, we moved to the present day in talking about contemporary African artists.  I liked this shift, this movement, and I especially was drawn to the interview between Okwui Enwesor and Yinka Shonibare.

Because we had previously watched a portion of the episode from Art: 21 about Shonibare, I found that I was able to connect with it more than the other readings.  From “Of Hedonism, Masquerade, Carnivalesque and Power,” I chose two separate passages to highlight and I feel that both feed and support each other. “As Somebody of African origin, I wanted to question the way representation can be used as a way of marginalizing people…I have chosen to remain in control of my own representation, and therefore, while the use of the African fabric is on the one hand a critical look at representation, or at what might represent the African, it is simultaneously a celebration.  So it is actually a negation and a celebration simultaneously,” (164).  The first portion of the quote points to the idea of marginalizing people, similar to an idea proposed in Oguibe’s article.  So, while Shonibare recognizes the fact that contemporary African artists (and even people of African descent as a whole) are marginalized, he refuses himself to be forced into that margin.  Shonibare both openly celebrates and negates the representation he has exhibited for us. 

Now, at first glance this notion, of celebrating and negating, it might feel too safe.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Shonebare’s work and I believe he is a phenomenal artist, but if we were to take it at face value, it would appear that he is attempting to please both sides of the argument; that Shonibare would like to have his cake and eat it too.  Now, we could stop there; end of story.  However, in a separate section of the article he discusses the idea that contemporary African artists are stuck within a Catch-22.  Taken from the article, “I…realized that I was in a double bind.  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” (167).  Shonibare’s method of dealing with this was to occupy the space of contradiction, to create confusion.  He believed that confusion, and not in the negative sense of the word, would be a more honest approach. 
I think that his approach, to occupy the space within contradictions, is an interesting and intelligent way for him to express his own authenticity.  Both Oguibe and Kasfir’s article discuss ideas of authenticity, and in Yinka Shonibare’s work we see, what I believe to be, a beautiful example of how maintain ‘author-ity’ and authenticity.

And to leave folks with something they haven't seen yet, check out this video I found on the Art: 21 website.  I can't get enough of this guy...

Friday, October 28, 2011

Could You Pass the Salt(cellar)?

I found Suzane Preston Blier’s article, “Imaging Otherness in Ivory: African Portrayals of the Portuguese ca 1492” to be really fascinating.  She provided the reader the perfect amount of background information to support each of her conclusions as to how the Sapi, Kongo, and Benin peoples perceived the Portuguese from that time period.  Her article was effective in this fashion by teaching us about the history of these cultures and by discussing a modern opinion and dissection of that history.  While I thought Henry John Drewal’s article, “Mami Wata Shrines: Exotica and the Construction of Self” to have been interesting as well, it was a little more difficult for me to comprehend.  Whether it was either the subject material itself or the style of writing (or both) is irrelevant, I believe I gathered the main concepts Drewal wanted to illustrate for us.
In order to help reiterate what both authors believe the “Other” to be in the before mentioned cultures, I would like to choose one object from Blier’s article to expand upon using my own understanding of her writing.
Here we have an ivory Sapi-Portuguese saltcellar ca 1490-1530. 

I chose this in particular because I thought it to be one of the most beautiful art objects I’ve seen. While its aesthetics are pleasing, there is even more to gain than just that.  If we apply what we know about their history, we can then begin to understand the Sapi people’s perception of the Portuguese from that time period.
Blier points out that the Sapi, similar to the Benin and the Kongo, appear to identify the Portuguese with the land of the dead.  This was assumed so based upon the belief that it is during the afterlife when one must travel across the sea to the land of the ancestors.  By Portuguese ships having sailed to West African coastal areas, this confirms the notion of the Portuguese as ancestral spirits traveling from the land of the dead.
The figures positioned at the bottom of the saltcellar appear to be in European dress though also in a supplicating position with outstretched arms (possibly holding an offering of some kind?).  Through this melding of European attire with African prayer poses, we see a combined image of “Other.”  Notice also the dogs facing upwards between the human figures.  Blier notes that, “Dogs also appear prominently on Sierra Leone [Sapi] saltcellars, often in direct confrontation with serpents.”  Local traditions confirm this strong opposition between dogs and the water spirit (represented by serpents).  Dogs were an important figure to the Sapi because of their ability to see what others cannot, i.e. the serpentine water spirit. 
Even more interesting, is the fact that these serpent heads are pointed in a downward position.  It may seem inconsequential; however, this was a general trend in the depiction of snakes in ivory.  Following local Sapi belief, that of ancestral matters having been brought down from above, these serpents (representing the water spirit) too must travel down the watery route to Earth from the land of the dead.  Connect this idea with the previous theory of the Portuguese as “Other” having traveled across the sea from an ancestral dwelling place, and we then have a greater understanding of Sapi saltcellar depictions. We might even venture to connect the spiraling pattern on the work to be similar to that of the serpent’s route from the ”above” down to humans on Earth.  
The last attribute I will discuss is that of the overall egg-shaped form of the work.  This egg-shape is the visual representation of fertility and life itself.  As Blier makes the connection between this shape and the work’s functionality she writes, “As local Sapi artists no doubt knew, these vessels were carved to be used by powerful Europeans to contain salt, a substance identified closely with life and well-being.”
Much can be learned about the history of these many cultures through the study and interpretation of art dating from the past.  Blier puts it beautifully when she says that, “African ivories from this period make us aware of the historic boundaries of here and there, selfhood and other.”  It is in this practice of understanding the interactions between others that we may then understand how we compare and contrast, deepening an understanding of our own selves in relation.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Strange, Weird, Backwards.....Evil?

These past two classes has been, by far, my favorite since we started; and I might assume that it is the same with many of my peers as well.  There was a thought that kept swirling around inside my head this week, and I was waiting for my blog to share these thoughts and discuss it with everyone.  Now, I will not pretend here that I am greatly knowledged or terribly well-read (outside of our reading from McCarthy-Brown) when it comes to the past history and current practices of Vodou; but what I will be attempting in this blog is to ask a few "big picture" questions; in hopes that it could inspire others to wish to learn more as well.

When I saw in the sylabus that we were going to learn about Vodou, my mind read voodoo automatically. Where did the term voodoo come from?  How did we (I am making a sweeping generalization here by using "we," I know this, but go with me) confuse the practice of Vodou with voodoo?  Where did this transliteration come from?  I will be bold and include myself in this frame of mind: I had never heard of Vodou, I assumed voodoo was the practicing religion of most Haitians, and I believed in the many negative connotations that voodoo is linked to. 

The next question raised is, is it my/our fault that we believed in this false connection?  I absolutely agree that it is every person for themselves when it comes to gaining understanding and comprehension within the territories of the great unknowns...but...why is it that what is unknown is often labled as strange, weird, backwards, and ultimately, evil? I haven't been the first person to wonder this, my last question, and I am sure I won't be the last either. 

But for my (or maybe I should say, my blog's) benefit, let's break it down a little.  We know from the readings that Vodou originated in Haiti, and that it is the melding of practices and beliefs of multiple West African peoples and the practicing religion of the slaveowners, that being Roman Catholic Christianity. Now, here is where I will go out on a limb a little bit...maybe those responsible for coining the term voodoo were simply and very much threatened by the idea of merging these two religions?  Those that felt threatened might have then determined this practice of Vodou to be "evil," because the sharing and co-mingling of their sacred beliefs with the beliefs of other's must be wrong.  It must have been down right shocking to see images of their Catholic saints renamed and repurposed for many slaves linked to the African diaspora.  AND, even further with this idea, think of how riviting it must have been to see the deities, or lwa, possess the bodies of individiuals practicing Vodou. What is one to do at this point? One then feels the need to protect their beliefs and the sanctity of their religion (they, being Roman Catholics).  This is my theory on how voodoo and Vodou became unwillingly aquainted with each other.

Okay, so I am sure there are tons of scholarly papers written about these topics I discussed here, and I am sure they accomplish so much more than my blog has at this point...But, I had to start somewhere with my thoughts.  I used this blog to hash out how I've been feeling for the last week. Hope you enjoyed!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Oba, Oni, Ashe...Oh My!

In our studies this week, I found the Yoruba peoples to be especially interesting due to their heightened dedication to their spiritual beliefs and cosmology. We bear witness to this in the many images we have viewed over the last week of Yoruba sculptures, carvings, beadwork, cloth, jewelry, etc.  I particularly enjoyed the images of the head pieces worn by the oba, the sacred descendant of Oduduwa.

To refresh one's memory, "...Oduduwa and Obatala descended from heaven to create earth and its inhabitants. Oduduwa himself became the first ruler, oni, of Ile-Ife. To this day Yoruba kings trace ancestry to Oduduwa," (239). It is because of this belief, that the oni is thought of by the Yoruba peoples as a god-king.  From the very beginning of the Yoruba peoples history, strong spiritual belief and the dedication to these beliefs, have been and continue to be the very bedrock of their social society.

Below we see an image that was found in our book on page 239.  This photograph depicts king Ariwajoye I, oba of the Igbomina Yoruba, Nigeria.

The most striking aspect of the oba is the cone shaped crown or head piece that he wears.  It is this crown specifically that designates and signals him as the sacred ruler and a descendant of gods.  The entire surface of the crown is covered in bead work, and the fringed veil is constructed of strands of the glass beads.  The veil itself is a particularly interesting facet, for its sole purpose of protecting on-lookers the power of ashe. The Yoruba peoples believe that when the king is wearing the crown, his inner head is imbued with ashe, the sacred power and authority of the ancestors and previous kings.  Even the soles of the kings feet cannot touch the ground, they must be elevated.

If we continue to focus specifically on the crown, we must also discuss the imagry present in its design work. 

Attatched to the crown are many ornamental beaded birds, with a larger 'great' bird affixed to the top.  Our book notes that, "In some regions of Yorubaland, such birds are references to "Our Mothers," a collective term for all female ancestors, female deities, and elderly living women," (239).  I really enjoy this aspect of the Yoruba peoples, the belief in "Our Mothers."  Our Mothers have extraordinary powers in Yoruba society and many efforts go into the attempt to appease such a spirit or spirits.  It is believed that women hold the secret and key to life, that they possess great power and knowledge, some Yoruba songs even refer to them as "the gods of society," and "the owners of the world," (255). 

In this blog I discussed Yoruba spirituality as a whole, while focusing mainly on the crown of oro and touching breifly on the subject of Our Mothers.  There is still so much that could be discussed in terms of Yourba spirituality and how their visual culture communicates these values, and I look forward to reading my other classmate's blogs' to see what they have discovered.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Everywhere A Mask

Clearly the mask, masking, and masquerade are interlocking aspects of one of Africa's most significant artistic phenomena. Masks are known from all cultures and continents, but those of Africa come to mind first for most people.
-Herbert M. Cole. "I Am Not Myself: The Art of African Masquerade"

The comparison I chose to make this week for my blog was that of the Sirige mask of the Dogon and the Serpent mask of the Bwa.

This is a photo taken in 1971 of Sirige masks from the Dogon peoples at Bongo Village in Mali.  The day that this masking sequence took place is called bago bundo.  During bago bundo, five masked dancers are present, four represent women, called bede, and the fifth is a tall male mask named sirige.  It is believed that this masking sequence represents the symbolic roles between males and females.  Because bago bundo takes place during a sequence of days after an adult male dies, many also speculate that the dance performed by the sirige mask places emphasis on the chaos and destruction that is brought about through death.  It is also believed that the sirige mask is a representation of the Great Mask.  Though unlike the Great Mask, it is open to the public to view.   The tall wooden plank of the sirige mask is painted with repetitive motifs that vary between orderly triangular markings and grid-like rectangles.  Some scholars believe that the rectangles represent generations in a great family tree.  It is because of this idea that the mask may also be referred to the names such as, "ladder," "big house," or "tree."

This photo was taken by Christopher D. Roy in 1984.  It is a serpent mask from the Bwa peoples in Burkina Faso.  Wooden masks from the Bwa people are meant to embody nature and spirits, and these spirits are invoked through masquerades.  It is during such masquerades that the embodied spirits have their opportunity to demonstrate rules and values for the community in which it dwells.  Most of the Bwa peoples masks are painted in variations of red, black, and white in starkly contrasted geometric patterns.  These patterns impart numerous meanings to various ages of men and women of the society (like I spoke about in my last blog).  Notice the body suit made of dyed rafia, I think of this as a powerful extension for the mask itself.  The rafia is activated with movement and adds to the overall impressive figure of the serpent mask.

When I think of comparing and contrasting these two images/masks, it is simple.  A connection that these two masks share, is that they are only involved in special masquerading processions and not everyday life.  To contrast, the sirige mask of the Dogon peoples,  seems to me to embody more the spirit that lingers around death, honoring a man through death, and it represents connotations of a family history.  I interpret the serpent mask, of the Bwa peoples, to be more about life, nature, and enforcing social norms within a community. 

To sum it all up and put it plainly...though these two masks are similar in shape, height, and painted symbols, I believe the overall message that they send while being danced, is drastically different.


Cole, Herbert M. "Introduction: The Mask, Masking, and Masquerade Arts in Africa." In I Am Not Myself: The Art of African Masquerade. University of California, 1985. pp. 15

Visona, Monica Blackmun; and Poynor, Robin and Cole, Herbert M. A History of Art in Africa. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008. pp. 140-141, 157-158.