Art, Culture, Memory, and History

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]

Human beings have traveled about the world in fits and starts since our ancestors began moving out of Africa thousands of years ago to explore other places. Many civilizations were created in the ebb and flow of discovery, conquest, or survival. The evidence of their existence is found in the things these socie-ties made and the art they created. Art tells stories of how people thought of themselves as they moved through the world around them. Locked in these works of art can be found insights into the consciousness and the cultural imagination of the people who created them.

West African culture and art and their impact on societies in the Americas resonated in the founding of The Ifa Yoruba Contemporary Arts Foundation. In the fall of 2008, founding members of IYCAF gathered in New Orleans to put into motion an idea that the six of us had discussed for years. It was a collection of artists that included painters, a sculptor, a performance artist, musicians, and writers. Besides the various disciplines the group embraced, all had a personal interest and commitment to understanding Yoruba philosophy as found in its literature. This would be the basis of our mission and the works we wanted to do. Our mission is to use Yoruba arts to build bridges between communities and foster education about the significance of Yoruba culture on contemporary art.

Of interest is how culture manifests in an artistic expression, in this case connected to a wave of globalization in the form of the Atlantic slave trade, that left seeds of African cultures scattered across the Americas. That fact of history was eerily foreshadowed at the beginning of the mythological story of The Broken Calabash found among the Yoruba people of West Africa:

Long ago in sacred time was the divine calabash which contained all the good things of life that human beings enjoyed. There was harmony, all were happy and no one would pass away; the sweet life was forever. Then came a time when discords and disagreement began to fester then suddenly erupted in its blindness, knocking the divine calabash from its throne, breaking it into many pieces…1

The metaphor of the Broken Calabash is the starting point for many of us in search of our cultural heritage, as we seek to understand it in the context of a traumatic historical experience. The beginning of the Atlantic slave trade represented the shattering of the calabash, scattering millions of human beings to strange and alien lands. Culture is never transmitted as units of whole experiences; threads of cultural knowledge brought by Africans adapted into new forms to fit the reality found in the new world.

Many cultures have been exported out of Africa, Yoruba culture being one of the largest. Africans arrived with a cultural memory that would fragment as the centuries wore on. Inevitably, knowledge of self began to fade. Even so, seeds of Yoruba culture took on new ways of expression in those places where the African Diaspora would make their homes in the New World. Fragments of memory became real and found new life in their artistic creations.

On the Caribbean island of Trinidad, we find a use of visual art in the form of veves, which are graphic representations of spiritual forces. This practice is similar to sacred shrine painting by the Yoruba in Africa. In Bahia, Brazil, the performance art of the Egungun masquerade is a salute to one’s ancestors. The function of this ritual, with its attention to the details of the costume’s construction, mirrors that of masquerades found in Africa. Folk art from African Americans in the southern United States has its own iconography that gives it functionality with the intent to heal, comfort, or protect. Each of these examples accessed cultural memory to give meaning to place and circumstances. Each one is inspired by a single source but produces art that is unique to a particular cultural experience. By locating an African aesthetic to do its work within the context of the slave trade, we gain a unique tool to understand a chapter in human history.

This was a forced migration born in horror. It created lives filled with stories of fear and sadness, but with threads of hope that went on for centuries. In such a world, lifelines to people’s humanity were forged out of the art they created, where whispered memories of another self would find homes in the language, music and the images they conceived. The aesthetics of this art contained cultural codes holding the identities of the progeny of the many who were scattered because of the broken calabash. It is our belief that study and understanding of how these cultural seeds germinated and evolved gives us a blueprint to understand our cultural heritage and how that informs identity in the contemporary world.

Since IYCAF was formed, we have produced two significant projects. In 2009, we conducted a two-week music workshop based on stories from Yoruba mythology with students at Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park. Students used Yoruba stories as source material to create original works that were performed with a well-known recording artist at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel. We currently have an exhibition at the DuSable Museum called Sixteen Pieces. Sixteen Pieces is an exhibition of visual art based on the sacred literature of the Yoruba. There are 17 paintings in the collection and artists from Nigeria, Ghana, Brazil, Cuba, Trinidad, the United States and the United Kingdom, representing the Yoruba Diaspora. Yoruba priests chose the artists from a pool of possibilities using the Yoruba divination system, and each artist was asked to interpret specific verses from the ancient wisdom system of Ifa. Taken together, these works give insight into the Yoruba worldview of life, death, transformation, and rebirth. Each painting interprets a specific body of literature that deals with the human experience as seen by the Yoruba. The exhibition also includes sacred artifacts that are the source of some of the iconography seen in many of the paintings.

Current globalization and immigration has brought about an increased interest in knowing about and understanding other cultures. It is often through the arts that we gain understanding of ourselves and others, and the more we understand others, the more we understand ourselves. For centuries, different cultures have coexisted and learned from the other. North America in particular has been shaped by this dynamic as it has absorbed the uniqueness of what different cultures throughout the world have brought to this land.

Our task is to create a space where other voices of humanity can be heard because humanity speaks through all cultures. Each one has something unique to say about the human experience and our relationship to the world. We believe that the wisdom found in each voice gives insight into what it means to be a human being. ◊

1.     For more on the broken calabash, see Moyo Okediji, The Shattered Gourd: Yoruba Forms in Twentieth-Century American Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003).

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