Monday, November 24, 2008

African Roots in Jamaica - Art

I've somewhat regained my composure since my last heel-clicking post in which I raved about how much African aesthetic is infused into Jamaican life. You'd think I was visiting the island for the first time, even though I was born here and have barely set foot anywhere else since that sun-hot Wenesday in 1972.

The thing is this; African retentions in our culture sometimes get compartmentalized and thought of in ways that seem distant. Yes, over 90% of Jamaicans are black and are direct desendants of the people who came from West Africa, so when we look at each other we see our ancestry. The other place we could look for our ancestry in everyday life is in our language, but then we often do not appreciate the extent to which the language we speak everyday was shaped by West African languages. If most of us were to be honest, we probably believe with the rest of the world that patois is really just broken English, not much more. Otherwise we'd be able to pinpoint, not merely one or two words that originated from West African languages, we'd be able to show that these languages are fundamental in some way to the structure or the sound of Jamaican patois. But most of us cannot really do this, or at least, I couldn't, until recently.
So when we think of Africa, we generally tend to look to the Maroons in Accompong or Nanny Town. Or to a documentary or JIS feature we see on TV on Augus' morning. Or we take our children to cultural events like Fi Wi Sinting, or to museums. But my excitement stems from the realization that Africa is not as far away as that. It only takes a kench of awareness to see that she has as much influence on our daily life as England, North America and yes, China.

In this post I scratch the surface a little about African continuities in our art and show that West African art is very much part of our daily lives.

The adinkra symbol you see to the top left is called the Nyame Dua (God's Tree). To some West Africans, it signifies God's omnipresence and eternal nature. This Nyame, is the Asante God Onyankopong, is still venerated by the Jamaican Maroons and is commonly known as Nyangkipong. I'm not sure whether there is an association in meaning with the maroon village called Accompong. This symbol is replicated on gate after gate and on the grillwork on verandahs and carports all over Jamaica. Like here:

Another motif, the Sankofa is a stylization of a bird of the same name. You can see from the drawing beside the symbol here:

This bird is shown turning its head towards its tail, signifying that it is good to turn to the past and learn from it, as Del rightly noted in her comment on the last post. This is also a commonly used motif in Jamaican grillwork.

I've also noticed these other motifs below in our grill work as well as wall moldings.

They all have their profound meanings and can be seen in West Africa, notably on fabrics, but also on walls, jewellery and else where.

This must have been the symbol of excellence to which Flygirl referred in her comment on the last post:

Patricia Bryan, in an African-Caribbean Institute of Jamaica article, notes that there is no available evidence that the meanings of these motifs have been retained in Jamaica. But she suggests that their prevalence in architectural decorations may well be a case of reinforcement of a predisposition. The andrinka symbols would have been used by the slaves who did not only plant sugar cane but they also built furniture, plantation houses, roads and bridges. Our craftsmen gravitated toward an art form which they saw around them, and for which they had an innate taste.

But this takes me to another aspect of the retention of African art in Jamaica which I hope to write about soon: reinforcement of a predisposition may be one of the processes by which we kept these symbols in use, but there is aslo that process which we cannot account for- intuition. Visionaries like Kapo and some other self-taught artists actually intuited the principles West African art. It's amazing that nobody taught them, they never went to Africa, they never saw samples of the art they created. Yet the work they produced might well have been made in West Africa by a West African born person. That's something to write about. More soon.

Acknowledgement: I drew on my reading of ACIJ Research Review November 1, 1984 in writing this post.

Monday, November 17, 2008

African Roots in Jamaica - a Closer Look

A fellow blogger recently referred me to a story published by a major media house with me. We agreed that the story took a only cursory glance at the connection that Jamaica has with Africa. I brainstormed a bit to make a case that surely my link to Africa is not as tenuous as all that, and I found that my knowledge in that regard was scant, so I started to read and talk to some people about it. In doing so it has become clearer to me how tangible, how strong, how evident our African ancestry is in our daily lives and I am thrilled to no ends about it.

Our African ancestors came from the West Coast, from ethnic groups such as Akan, Ga-Adangme, Igbo, Ewe-Fon, Twi, Yoruba, Bakongo, Cromantin, Mandgingo. In what ways did we in Jamaica deliberately and/or subconciously perpetuate their ways of thinking, their ways of being? Where in Jamaica, and in what forms do we find expressions that have their roots in these and other West African tribes? In a series of posts, I will attempt to answer both questions. I will show that we often set out to copy and retain our African ancestry, but I will also show that amazingly, some of these ways of thinking, ways of being were not taught to us, nor transmitted through any systematic means, neither did we deliberately preserve them. Some of them are simply embedded in our psyche and we express them in various forms; art, language, music, dance, religion and cooking.

In the next few posts I offer some specifics of some of our expressions that are purely African in origin. Here is a peek. The majority of homes in Jamaica are protected by buglar bars- what we call grills and guess what? The most common motifs in our grill work are basically carbon copies of Ghanian adinkra patterns like the ones picture above. In Jamaica, we are surrounded, immersed in African aesthetics everday.

More soon!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Bloggers Unite to Reunite Families

My hubby recently cleared some bushes from around two young naseberry trees (sapodilla to you Eastern Caribbeaners). I went down the hill to look at them yesterday. They are a little taller than I am. I had planted them maybe seven or eight years ago. I had helped to pack the hundreds of rocks that hug the contours of the hillside, a soil conservation measure that has faithfully done its job. I felt a sense of pride and achievement. I felt like I belong here.
Unfortunately, there are 21.1 million people who are deprived of this feeling, displaced from their country of birth and right at this moment, are alienated from this very basic human right, the right to belong to one's own country. (This figure does not include internally displaced peoples like those in Sudan and Iraq). Look: article 13 of the Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." Article 15 states that "everyone has the right to a nationality".
But wars, violence, intolerance and other things that we get wrong have led to the need for the word "refugee".
Article 1 of the Geneva Convention as amended by the 1967 Protocol provides the definition of a refugee:

"A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."

Displacement means many things, none of them good. It must mean you are separated from family. It must mean you are a second class citizen if you're lucky to find assylum some place. It probably means that you are hungry, you haven't had a bath for days, you're exposed to cholera. It probably means that you have walked miles, and have many more miles ahead. Right now you might be frightened, desperate, helpless, hopeless.

Today, more than 10,000 bloggers unite to draw attention to this very important issue. If you're a blogger and want to spread the word, do join in. You can help to unite families. Other bloggers have said their piece here and here and here. And you can inform yourself about refugees, assylum seekers and displaced peoples in Kosovo, Iraq, Darfur, Afghanistan here.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Claude McKay, Poet Extraordinaire-3

I digressed a bit from the series on Claude McKay, to muse about the day when the spectre of racism is a dim memory of the past, the day when a black man can offer himself for president of the USA and the colour of his skin is not a consideration. But in a sense I was still on topic, for another of McKay's seething sonnets, The White House, did not dare to anticipate the day a black man could possibly sit in the oval office, but here we are on the eve of November 4, wondering whether the door will open up to Obama's relaxed face. Much of the pain has eased, though much still remains.

The White House

Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
A chafing savage, down the decent street;
And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass.
Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour,
Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw,
And find in it the superhuman power
To hold me to the letter of your law!
Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate
Against the potent poison of your hate.

On the international scene Cluade McKay is remembered for his anthems of resistance, such as the sonnets If We Must Die, The Lynching, and Baptism. The Gleaner notes that other Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and Countée Cullen, cited him as a leading inspirational force. Winston Churchill, in a speech before British Parliament in the 1940s in which he issued a rallying cry for Britain to go to war against Hitler's Nazi Germany, borrowed the opening lines of If We Must Die.
In Jamaica we remember Claude McKay mostly for his for his poems of idyllic times, such as I shall Return, which PJ Patterson (yanking the meaning from its context) was qouting after he was banished from parliament over the Shell waiver affair. We have honoured Claude McKay by naming a high school for him. He was awarded the Silver Musgrave Medal of the Institute of Jamaica for Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. In 1977 the Government on behalf of the people of Jamaica posthumously awarded Claude McKay the Order of Jamaica in respect and admiration for his great contribution to literature. I remember some years ago attending a celebration of his life and work at the Ward Theatre. Claude McKay died without ever returning to Jamaica, making this poem even more poignant:

I Shall Return

I shall return again; I shall return
To laugh and love and watch with wonder-eyes
At golden noon the forest fires burn,
Wafting their blue-black smoke to sapphire skies.
I shall return to loiter by the streams
That bathe the brown blades of the bending grasses,
And realize once more my thousand dreams
Of waters rushing down the mountain passes.
I shall return to hear the fiddle and fife
Of village dances, dear delicious tunes
That stir the hidden depths of native life,
Stray melodies of dim remembered runes.
I shall return, I shall return again,
To ease my mind of long, long years of pain.