Friday, December 2, 2011

Contemporary African Artist: Charles Searles

Unfortunately, I missed the Waterloo Center for the Arts visit but am making up for lost time by doing a little research, analysis and comparison on a contemporary African artist, Charles Searles.

After reading his story of how he got where he is today, I was hooked, without even viewing his pieces of art. After studying at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and creating artwork influenced by African use of color, patterns, sculpture and dance, his daughter passed away. His loss inspired him to visit Africa and study in Ghana, Nigeria and Morocco. Searles' journey influenced his African inspired artwork to take a new direction of abstraction while maintaining his patterning and anthropomorphic dancing forms.

The piece above is an excellent example of a sculpture by Searles that shows a biomorphic form of a dancer to an African masquerade while it reminds me of forms seen as a substructure on a African mask that danced for a specific meaning.

This painting is also a good representation of Charles Searles. It incorporates his passion for bright colors, for dance and movement, elaborate patterns and African figures.

Charles Searles takes a view of 'traditional' African art and puts a modern, contemporary spin in it. By using the same traditional concepts of bright colors, masquerades, movement, patterns, and sculpture, he adds the updated element of abstraction. You can find more information and artwork by Charles Searles here: and

Friday, November 4, 2011

Reaction to Articles

Whats more difficult than trying to read 3 controversial articles that are extremely complex in language on content? Well for me, nothing. I tried over and over to be able to understand each article fully, which I think would be pretty much near impossible. Thankfully,  I did grab a few concepts, quotes and questions from Olu Ogubie, Sidney Kasfir, and Yinka Shonibare.

My group discussed the quote from Shonibare of "I've never actually been to an African village, I've only seen one on television." This only starts to describe how bias the world views everyone else, not just Africans. We all assume so much about everyone and everything, that for instance all black people are from a poor, underdeveloped African village because thats all Africa is. Or even that all Iowans are farmers and hicks. Both of which are far from correct. But to be honest, I didn't know what Africa was like either but how would I know? All my life I have been taught little about Africa, I've seen a thousand commercials about helping poor and sick children in Africa and have heard only about the 'small underdeveloped villages' where they wear masks all the time.  So of course we make assumptions based of what we think we know, which we know everything right? Based on these false accusations, Shonibare is challenged to making great art thats controversial, thats different and gets people talking and confused to almost prove a point about who he is, and who he isn't.

A question that I developed after reading all these articles was the difference in how or if our views change? Compared to even 30 years ago, our (American) views I hope have developed more so in becoming more culturally aware. With us overcoming racism, does being an 'other' still have as much of an impact? Although I think we have much more to be educated on to fully change our biases, its something that I hope will slowly disintegrate.

Friday, October 28, 2011


This week of articles and class discussions was a nice eye opener to connecting everything we've learned so far and relating it to our own terms. While reading these articles, Imaging Otherness in Ivory and Mami Wata Shrines, I tried to put myself in their respective time periods so it was easier to relate or understand the concept of the "others." Presently, we've all grown up knowing about most of the world, its peoples, cultures, religions and such. But we all know about these 'others' now because of explorers from way back when like we see explained in the articles. Both articles describe the concept of 'others' while showing the effect of interculturation into African visuals.

In the Imaging Otherness in Ivory article by Preston Blier, the word "other" describes the Portuguese that came to Africa, who had an effect on their cultures. For example, The Beni saltcellars depict Portuguese human figures with their white skin, long hair, mustaches, thin and such other features. In the Mami Wata article by Henry Drewal, "others" are featured as any foreigns from across the sea. This includes Europeans, Americans, and even Indians. Basically, anyone they don't know is foreign, or an "other."

Through these "others," African cultures have been influenced in their visual forms, also referred to our class word of interculturation. Blier talks about how the Portuguese are widely seen as a connection to the dead African ancestors because they have white pale skin, speak unintelligible language, possess higher technology and also come from across the ocean, which is a deeper meaning of the connection of the living and the dead. These ideas of connection to the dead are reflected in visual forms, like the cross symbol. In the Kongo, the spiral forms support the European view of transition, death, and life. In Beni, vessels like the saltcellars detail Portuguese features so prominently that it can date it itself. Portuguese figures are often shown in pairs, which also associate with Benin court officials and religious figures and are commonly displayed in active poses. The connection to Beni’s fish motifs supports the relationship of the Portuguese with movement, water and otherworldly realms. Blier links objects held by the Portuguese with their identity of power and prosperity including swords, lances, rifles, manillas, and books. In Sapi, early ivory carvings reference Portuguese foreign figures such as angels, unicorns, crosses, mermaids, lions, eagles and religious acts such as Virgin and Child.

As I talked about in our class discussion, I wondered where we would be if cultures weren't mixed or if we didn't learn from others. Europeans brought great technological advances to Africa and also brought back African cultural knowledge and visuals to the world. Although we as Americans have our own interpretation of other cultures, it is respectively better than nothing. As said by Drewal, "Museums may be windows on other worlds, but they are also mirrors reflecting their creators. By framing our view and directing our gaze, they influence what we see, how we see, and, therefore, what we understand." Another comparison I used to help understand it is by food. In America, we have, for example, Mexican restaurants but its an American version of mexican food and not actual food from Mexico or what Mexicans eat. I have actually been to Mexico several times so its always fun to compare and see the actual difference between the actual and the revised American way. This concept also goes for visual arts and other foreign influences.

Overall, interculturation is very effective in all countries around the world and allows us to learn more about everyone else and to expand our own knowledge. I see so many benefits that came from a bad or scary time but thats how life is and sometimes it takes awhile to see the good in the bad.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Vodou Connections

Vodou is a perfect way to bring alot of cultures and religions together.  It's religion is influenced by beliefs and practices from mainly West African peoples and Roman Catholics. It was created by African slaves who came from European Christian families and applied it to their new home in Haiti. Now the small country of mostly African slave influence practice Vodou in Haiti. This religion of Vodou relates to many things we've talked about in the African arts and practices like communication to the spirits/gods through masquerades, dances and music, and sacrificial practices.

After watching the Black in Latin America: Haiti & Dominican Republic movie, I could really begin to see the relations to African practices we have studied so far. When at a Vodou ceremony, the peoples become possessed by the spirits just like many African cultures do at a masquerade. When putting on a mask, that person becomes that figure and communicates to the audience around them the message of who or what that figure means and represents. This is very similar to the communication received through the godly spirits in Vodou when it takes over a person's body. Also similar to the masquerades, the ceremonies include meaningful music and dances.

Another similar way of communication to the spirits/Gods between Haitian Vodou religion and other African cultures is their sacrificial practices. While they have different performances of sacrificing, it has a similar concept. In the Vodou practices, they use birds, mainly chickens, to cleanse someone of bad or make peace to and then break their legs and also use their blood as an offering to the gods. At bigger ceremonies or at a new year, they also sacrifice a goat as an offering to the gods. In African cultures like the Dogon, the tellem ancestor figures and other shrine objects are sacrificial materials. Instead of killing a specific animal, sacrificial blood is used on specific tellem figures to communicate to the gods for certain request.
A chicken being sacrificed at a Vodou ceremony

After comparing many Vodou practices with different African cultures practices, I can really see the many African influences in the Haitian religion of Vodou. Now I am more curious on our American perception of voodoo and how or why the two get mixed up.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Spiritual Communication

The Yoruba culture is a very spiritual culture, centering its arts on the connection between real world and spiritual world. The ashe is a powerful spiritual life force and the energy of creation, which plays a big role in the Yoruba culture. Multiple Gods all referred to as Orisha also guide them. The spiritual world is reached through the babalawo, the diviner, and the Ifa, the divination. Through all of these aspects of the spiritual and life forces, many Yoruba visuals, like the calabash bowl and the performance of the divination, greatly reflect the communication between real world and spiritual world.

The calabash from Oyo represents the Yoruba cosmos, the aye and orun. This bowl is used for drinking, serving food and also to carry goods to sell at the market.  Its two halves, the bowl and the lid, link to the two parts of the Yoruba universe, aye and orun. The aye means the real, living world. This part of the world includes the knowledgeable ones, the living, the people and the unknowing or children.  So on this part of the calabash, images of women, priests, animals and such might be depicted. The other half is the orun, or the otherworld where Olodumare is the creator. This includes the spirits, Orishas, ancestors and the divination and depicts such gods as Ogun or spirit Oro and Iwin, not to mention the many other Orishas and spirits. The visual impact directly communicates the relationship between the real world and spiritual world. While the two halves can be separate, they are really not a whole until the two parts, or two worlds, are together as one.


The Babalawo, the diviner, also connects to the spiritual world through performing an Ifa divination. A tray is used to carry out the communication between the babalawo and the Orisha. This tray, for example, is decorated with Eshu, the god of crossroads who brought together the world of real and spirit while he is bordered with the living motifs such as mothers, farmers and soldiers.  The babalawo performs the communication with the spirit world by chanting stories of the Orisha. He also uses palm nuts and a sculpted Ifa divination tapper to complete the spiritual performance.

Ifa divination tray

These two examples only begin to show the importance of the relationship between the real and spiritual world.  The two cosmos of the Yoruba universe go together like ying and yang. Not only does the Yoruba culture live by the connection between the real world and spiritual world, but also it is visually present in its communication and every day life.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Akua'ba vs. Blolo bla/bian 

There are many ways to connect to the fertility spirits through different figures from around Africa and it's cultures. Although they all have their differences in the form of the figure and how they connect to the spirit, they also have some similarities. The main goal of these figures: to bare a child.

The Akua'ba is a figure from the Asante from Ghana. The story goes that a woman could not have a child and was told to make a wooden baby doll and treat it like her own baby. Eventually, after carrying her Akua'ba doll, the woman became pregnant and gave birth to a healthy baby girl! The practice caught on with other women in the Asante culture and the Akua'ba dolls became a popular tradition. The tradition is now so popular that you can find these dolls almost anywhere for a souvenir.
Aku'ba doll from the Asante.

The blolo bian and blolo bla is from the Baule and is actually a spirit spouse, in both a husband and wife form. A married couple in the Baule culture have a spiritual spouse to make offerings to or spend time with to keep balance with their life and their real spouse. Once a week, a spouse should spend time alone with their blolo bian/blolo bla and make offerings to, such as a wife offering an egg to her blolo bian or a husband breast feeding his blolo bla for the prayers of fertility.
Blolo bla, Baule

These are 2 very different ways to become fertile in different African cultures. The Akua'ba dolls are only for fertility purposes while the spirit spouses can be used for more than fertility problems, such as health, wealth, warding off evil, ect. The spiritual spouses are also to be kept hidden in the sacrificial alter while the Akua'ba dolls are out in the public, being treated like a real child. So although they have their differences, they are still figures used for the purpose of fertility.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Whats Behind the Mask?

Another week in Arts of Africa has passed us by and, for me, the cultures are beginning to get harder to keep separate of whose is what from where with what meaning. Every culture has a mask, or multiple masks with different meanings and significants so I feel like we have studied 40 masks already in 5 weeks. Hopefully by blogging every week, I can think through all the cultures and their masks and keep them straight.

The Bamana masks like the Ndomo are for young boys going through initiation to become a real man. They represent their change in society and in life from young, crazy, wild boys into educated, hard working, tough men who can control their actions and emotions. This culture also has the Ci Wara masks for the age grade groups focusing on agriculture. And the Kore and Komo which regulate a person's place in their society. For example, the Kore horse mask points out the person not wanted in the community, nicknamed the 'ass mask.'

The Bwa masks are the most interesting to me and how they are family owned. Their plank masks have so many figures or characters that all together represent a family, or clan while each individual has their own mask. The movie we watched in class really showed how they interact with each other, their drummer and their audience.  The patterns on the masks are not just for decoration but all the designs and colors have a specific meaning. The only colors used are red, black and white. They also have grass woven into the mask to create more movement in their performance. These masks of the families don't have to be danced by that person, the elder men hand their masks down to a younger man or boy to dance his mask for him. The Bwa also also have leaf masks which are older and represent life cycle, fertility and growth. They consist of a combination of leaves and feathers and after they are danced, the masks go back to the bush and are burned. Doing this enforces the renewal of life, the recreation of creation.

We also read to article The Mask, Masking, and Masquerade Arts in Africa by Herbert Cole which was a great review of the underlying meaning and significance of all masks in Africa. Their not just art, their a part of life in every culture. The article mentioned how a mask is made by the idea of the individual rather than just re-creating the face of them. I think that concept is spot on in how the masks get so elaborate in their decoration of patterns or colors of meanings and significance.

My group also had a discussion of represented vs. embodied. After some deliberation, I felt I really grasped the concept of the difference between the two ideas. The word represented is for the mask itself,  the spirit it represents. A person wears the mask to represent the idea or character. A mask sitting in a museum represents something. On the other hand, embodied is becoming the spirit, the performance of the mask. The dancer is embodied in the mask, he is that character and spirit, not just a dancer wearing a mask. Of the Bwa plank masks, its the difference of wearing the mask of the crazy man and being the crazy man.