Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Aaron Douglas and Afriluminism

This is the third in a series of mini-essays commissioned by Vue Weekly for Afrikan History Month.

In 1993 I visited an artists’ workshop in Nairobi while visiting my father’s home country. I saw there why so much of what passes in the West for "African art" [not Afrikan art] is such absolute garbage.

In little more than a hallway of a chop-shop, an assembly-line of men hacked pieces of wood into animal forms
such as giraffes and rhinos, eventually smoothing them before finishing them with felt markers. Similar shops made “tribal masks” and other patronising, hackwork kitsch. Sure, I could blame Western buyers and the media culture that made them think such “rustic” feebleries were the best the continent had to offer.

But I had to admit, so long as the supply existed, the demand would not dry up. If someone made money from the stereotype, the stereotype could never die.

Of course, legions of genuine artists from across the Afrikan planet have generated beauty and wonder for millennia, from the sculptors and painters of ancient Nubia and Egypt to the stunning batik-makers of modern Senegal and the CG-imagists of the US.

Throughout the ages, oppression, ironically, been a powerful engine for cu
ltural production; more predictably, oppression often restricts imagination. Afrikans were devolved into negroes in part by being taught to hate their Afrikanity; to overcome the culture of racial self-hatred, many painters fixated on their skin, turning out canvasses milling with featureless all-black figures at village markets, in worship or at play.

Initially exciting f
or the exaltation of the racially tabooed skin, the project quickly lost momentum due to the limitation of promoting “black” over “Afrikan,” a philosophy and aesthetic which are only skin-deep, or more accurately, skin-shallow.

But not everyone who painted black figures lacked imagination. One in particular was a genius.

In the 1920s and 30s, uptown Manhattan flowered with African cultural activity of a breadth and intensity not seen since the days of Timbuktu. What came to be called the Harlem Renaissance was an era, more than a place, for the synergy of revolutionaries (Marcus Garvey), authors (Zora Neal Hurston), actors (Paul Robeson) and philosophers (W.E.B. DuBois).

One of the finest painters of the era was Aaron Douglas, founder of a style that might best be called Afriluminism.

Douglas was one of the first artists to employ silhouetted black bodies as racial emblems, but he did so more intriguingly and spectacularly than did anyone else.

Most notably, his figures had eyes. They not only were seen; they could see. They were not merely the objects of history, but its makers. Then there were the settings.

From mythic portraits of Afrikan histories to stunning vistas of African futures, Douglas did in painting what the unfolding literature of Afrofuturism did in print: reveal the continuing epic of Afrikans creating civilisation, overcoming oppression, and building new worlds.

Douglas’s “Building More Stately Mansions” (1944) is a stunning Harlemscape in subtle shades of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-Afrikanist flag. Powerful men in the foreground bearing construction tools and implements of science build a foundation, while a child gazes upon a black globe radiating concentric spheres of light. A foreman in pharaonic headdress seemingly issues a call to prayer, while behind and beyond him, modern towers and a Christian church are dwarfed by arches ancient and new, a pagoda-steeple seems to double as a radio antenna, and the Sphinx looks towards the pyramid of the African past while a gantry points towards the future.

Here in E-Town, local Afrikan artists are depicting their own realities at the TU Gallery’s “5 Artists. One Love” exhibition. “I’d never before seen a show that features local Black artists,” says curator and contributor Darren Jordan, whose own work is a saturated vitality of reds, oranges and purples. Deciding he would create the type of show he’d never seen, Jordan wanted “One Love” to reflect the diversity within the local Afrikan community. “The ‘One Love’ is the artists’ passion for art,” says Jordan of the Garveyist slogan. “Most people recognise ‘One Love’ as a title from a famous Bob Marley song, who also was very much a Garveyist.”

“One Love” features the photorealism of Richard Lipscombe, an artist whose family hails from Amber Valley, one of the score of communities founded by Afrikan-Albertans in the early 1900s. Lisa Mayes, the youngest artist, contributes innocent yet bold portraits, including of young ballerinas standing like flamingos awaiting flight. Carla Mooking’s pristine aesthetics meet the classical work of Zimbabwe’s Shumba Ash, soapstone sculpted to meet ancient Shona aesthetics and modern innovation. “I’m hoping people will get excited about art,” says Jordan, “and that people of all ethnic backgrounds will gain satisfaction from embracing diversity.”

Acclaimed poet Langston Hughes was correct when he noted that the decision to write a non-political poem during an epoch of oppression was in and of itself a political decision, but so was African-Canadian writer George Elliot Clark when he told me, “Black people have a right to beauty.” The body of Afrikan artists must collectively create works which illuminate the death camps and the pathways out of them, but they must also decant the light of butterfly wings and canyons at sunrise and distant pulsars and the yearnings of the human heart.

5 Artists. One Love * Feb. 2 – March 8
TU Gallery (http://www.tugallery.ca)
10718 - 124 St. * 452-9664
10am to 5pm Tues-Sat.; Thursdays to 8 pm

TONIGHT ON THE TERRORDOME: Muhammad Yunus on Creating a World Without

6 PM Mountain Time

The global economic imbalance of wealth is based on taking the resources away from the many—at the business end of weapons, when necessary—to be given to the very few.

Some of those weapons were pointed 500 years ago; others are being pointed today. Even if the wealthy accumulated their riches through inheritance, if the inheritance accrued from a crime, the crime itself is inherited along with its fruits. There is no moral statute of limitations on the plunders of imperialism.

According to Global Issues.org:

Among the many traps that the world’s poor are in, one of the most needless is that of credit. The poor are generally exhorted to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, without recognising that the poorest of the world have no boots—neither metaphorically nor literally. In order for entrepreneurs to make money, they usually need to borrow money. To borrow money, they need collateral. To gain collateral, they need to have had money already.

One man recognised just how needless and destructive the poverty/credit trap is, and decided to act. His actions not only helped numerous people escape poverty, but achieved international acclaim. That man is economist Dr. Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank. Yunus began in the Indian village of Jobra in 1976, lending tiny amounts of money to extremely poor women who had no collateral. Through hard work and with support, these women become economically self-sufficient. “Grameen,” meaning “rural,” was the beginning of the micro-credit lending system which has since become international, having lent more than $5.7 billion to 6.61 million borrowers. To date, repayment has been 99%.

Yunus is highly regarded globally, having served on dozens of international committees and commissions. He’s a Director on 15 international boards, the recipient of 29 honourary degrees from universities around the world, and is a member of the South Africa-based Elders Project, convened by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Yunus’s work has been celebrated almost beyond compare. He’s won 15 major international awards, including the 1989 Aga Khan Architecture Award for helping the poor construct 60,000 housing units, the 2000 Gandhi Peace Prize, and the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee remarked, “Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty. Microcredit is one such means. Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights.”

Muhammad Yunus is the author of an autobiography, The Banker to the Poor: Micro-lending and the Battle Against World Poverty.

VIDEO: Author Stephen Covey interviewing Grameen Bank Founder Muhammad Yunus for the "Masters of Leadership" series sponsored by the State of the World Forum.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Tamaraneh Society Fundraiser for Sierra Leonean students - this Saturday

Sat, Feb 9, 2008 (6 pm - 10 pm)
Northgate Senior Lions’ Centre
(7524 - 139 Ave)
The Faces are All Different


African faces. Some people can’t tell them apart. And others see only the face of African tragic victimhood. Each false vision denies a range of beauty, individuality and hope.

Humanity—and therefore the human face—began in Africa, somewhere around Kenya. The Leakey anthropology dynasty has been asserting this for half a century; it’s commonly accepted wisdom in science. But during a recent CBC report by Wendy Mesley on a DNA “roots-tracing” agency, street interviews suggested that few people know that Africa is humanity’s common home.

Fewer still seemed to know that modern humans (Cro-Magnons) originated in Africa and only later spread out to Eurasia, Oceania and the Americas. How long they looked “African” is unknown—moreover, contrary to Western stereotypes, Africans do not form a monolithic physical type. As physical anthropologists are fond of saying, because humanity has dwelt longer in Africa than anywhere else there is greater physical variation among African populations than among non-Africans.

Nelson Mandela, like many South Africans, has features that, hair aside, wouldn’t cause a second glance among many East Asian populations; there are the peoples of the so-called Pygmy nationalities of the central continental rain forest, mostly under 4’11”; there are tall and slender Masai and Ethiopians whose bodies seem designed either for ballet or marathons; and there are the frequently voluptuous peoples of Ghana.

Skin tones vary from the brownish-yellow of non-Arab (ie African) Egyptians to the “blue” black of some Nubians. Shapes and sizes of noses and lips range, hair textures range, body shapes range (and keep in mind that within each of these broad types, variety reigns).

One of the reasons why many in the West find the notion of an African Ancient Egypt so difficult to grasp is that “Africans don’t look like that!” In North America, the dominant image of Africanity was that of West Africans whose ancestors were bludgeoned into generations of forced labour. But the faces, hair textures and skin tones found on Egypt’s ancient paintings and sculptures are common today among neighbouring African populations in Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and even Uganda—all from the eastern side of the continent.

When it comes to Africa’s modern face, scars from rape and war, lesions from disease and hollowing of the eyes from starvation have dominated our collective imagination, blinding us to the visages all around us. While the disfigurations are far too often real, they recite to us only chapters of the epic novel. Sierra Leone’s many faces have shed far too many tears, but the face of Memunatu Kamara bears and breeds many smiles. A survivor of Sierra Leone’s vicious 1991-1999 civil war, she’s the founder of the Tamaraneh Society (misspelled even on the group’s website and in the URL as “Tamarineh”). Tamaraneh raises funds in Canada to put over 1000 Sierra Leonean students through school at Tamaraneh’s “Alberta, Canada Primary and Junior High School” in Romano Village. With further funding, Tamaraneh plans to open the “Alberta, Canada Health Centre.”

“We have many women who are dying in child birth,” says Kamara. “We want to have a place where women can give birth to babies, or where seniors who are seriously sick [can get free medical care]. We have over 1000 students, so we need to have a hospital.”

Kamara says minimal help comes from a government still ailing from the civil war, and which is concentrating on urban development. In fact, of 15 teachers for Tamaraneh’s huge student body, six are actually volunteers. Parents are providing food and other basic necessities for the teachers in a country which “was burnt down to pieces” by a rebel force that destroyed livestock and houses, and raped, mutilated and massacred people. Ten years of civil war left 70 000 dead.

Kamara says she first decided devote her life to the cause of Sierra Leone when she was in a refugee camp, where she was president of the refugees’ ad-hoc government. She began advocating for better conditions since “the United Nations built for us only tents. Then we decided to build houses using soil blocks.”

On Feb 9, Tamaraneh is hosting its annual “There is Enough!” dinner and development simulation, the proceeds from which will fund their school.

“I know how Sierra Leoneans have suffered,” says Kamara. “And I know Canadians are very, very helpful. Many immigrant Canadians have suffered a lot. They know war; this is why Canadians have sympathetic feelings.”