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.

23 comments:

http://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com/ said...

Jack Mandora, great post.

Thus begins the process of re-membering 1self... as Kamau Brathwaite and others have been saying for years...

It seems though we pick it up for one generation, drop it, and pick it up again.

I wish you all the best in these x-plorations

longbench said...

This is a great post! I went to Ghana earlier this year, and noticed when I was in Kumasi that adinkra symbols were everywhere - including in the grillwork, and was even noting how wonderful it was to have these aspects of one's culture literally written into the landscape. The grillwork that Ghanaians do is beyond stupendous! And then when I came back to Ja, i started to notice the very things you pointed out! Except, that in Ja people don't have the consciousness about embedding culture in their lives in the way that it appears in Kumasi. Is just decoration. Maybe its pre=conscious. I don't know. I suspect that its really a coincidence. But, the similarities are striking and worth noting.

Jamaican Dawta said...

I live and I learn. What eye-opening information. Thanks for enlightening me.

Stunner said...

Wow! This is so interesting. I see these grill works almost every day, and just to think I would have never in a million yeas think they were culturally linked!

Jacqueline Smith said...

Geoffery, Or maybe it is that we do the re-membering in little little, creating a ripple here and a ripple there, each spreading the word in our own way, in our own space.

Welcome Longbench, I can just imagine your excitement when you saw the connection. It's a pity that the meanings of the symbols are lost on us. It's a pity most Jamaicans don't even know of the connections. More pity still that buglar bars are such a necessity here. But I don't think its coincidental that we use these symbols (albeit haplessly!)

Delighted to share, Stunner, JD.

longbench said...

Well, I wasn't excited so much as intrigued; I believe that ideas have a way of moving and appearing that is beyond our consciousness to apprehend. So, I'm not as easily sold on these "retention" arguments, which seem to be about presenting things as verifiable proof that we are *directly* connected to Africa. I don't need proof, nor is the proof offered always really about, or only proof of that connection. I note the coincidence, and then leave it at that. I felt and saw Jamaica in Ghana, and also glimpsed what Jamaica could be; the phenomenal iron/steel work - I'm talking way beyond burglar bars here - was one example of how we have stifled creativity in so many ways. Coming home then was a bit saddening for me.
Your post was a good reminder about what I loved about that place.

Jacqueline Smith said...

Longbench, Not a thing wrong with candour, thanks for keeping me on my toes. Nuff respec.

Guyana-Gyal said...

Linguistically speaking, Patois, or as we call it, Creolese, is not broken English, there are rules.

It's those who 'cringe' from their culture who deny this, tell them next time they say anything negative. And 'kiss your teet' pon them [or 'suck teeth' as we say...this, I think is from Africa too].

Another African influence on Creolese: when we repeat words: bad, bad. Also, there are African words in our daily speech, I can't think of any right now, but they're there.

http://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com/ said...

Jack Mandora,
If you visit my blog, I've now incorporated the symbols into the blog design.

This is just another way of saying that once InI recognize something that was unconscious and a part of me, then I should make it conscious.

Give thanks for the remembering

Fly Girl said...

These are some great illustrations of the African presence in Jamaica. I write a lot about African art and I see not only obvious connections in Jamaica with adinkras and jewelry, but also the carvings and scuplture and the way art is incorporated into daily life. There was a lot of African cultural retention in Jamaica because the environment and climate is similar to Western Africa and also because a large group of the enslaved Africans that wound up on Jamaica were warriors. They fought on the ship and they fought to retain their culture. It lives in patois, the food, the art and the spirit.
As for the adinkra symbol I use for my logo, there are hundreds of adinkra symbols and many mean the same thing. You can see the one I use by going to my website:
www.rosalindcummingsyeates.com

Abeni said...

Off topic..where is Ruthibelle?

Daisy Soap Girl said...

You certainly have opened my eyes and I'm going to join you in paying attention to all the fabrics and other things I have been taking for granted. As usual I have learned something new from you.

Jacqueline Smith said...

GG, I'm planning a post on African retentions in our language. You know I love the way you write in the Guyanese Creole, it's a great way to validate the language, and by extension ourselves, don't sey me follow fashin if you see me doing likewise over here.

Geoffery, that's a sound philosophy to live by, you can only add depth to your experience that way. Blessings.

FlyGirl, Ok, I see it now.

Abeni, I was shocked a couple of weeks ago when I dropped in to get my regular dose of Ruthi, to see her notice of closure. She cited some vague reasons for closing, but you could tell they were troubling. I was distressed by it and seriously wanted to beg her not to go, but I managed to keep my cool and respect her decision. Sorry you missed her note.


Hi Del, thanks as always for your encouraging words, I've learned quite a bit from you too, from the lines you write and from some of the stuff in between them. Tek care.

shoreacres said...

Good morning, Jackie,

So many memories of my own! Reading through your post and the comments takes me back to West Africa - Liberia, especially - and my years there. Kente cloth and Fanti cloth, Liberian country cloth, Nigerian bronzes, language patterns: they all come back so quickly.

Just a couple of notes. The phrase "suck teeth" was common in up-country Liberia, and the repetitive language patterns ("fast-fast", "slow-slow", "dig-dig").

Your set of four grillwork/molding patterns was recognizable, as well. The four tight spirals are common on the pieces of Nigerian bronze I have, and the bird turned toward its tail appears on a piece of Liberian country cloth.

Something else that occurs to me is that artistic symbols, like words (linguistic symbols) both denote and connote. There is never a one-to-one relationship between a symbol (the bird, for example) and what it "means". Symbols resonate and reverberate differently in different contexts. That doesn't make them less "true", or watered-down, it's just a reflection of what happens when a culture is alive.

Great blogs. I'm looking forward to going back through others I've missed!

Linda

Jacqueline Smith said...

Linda, thanks for stopping by. This is a fantastic journey for me. I hope I'll be able to make the real journey to West Africa and experience some of this first hand.

We Jamaicans love to suck our teeth bad-bad. We mostly call it 'kiss teeth' though, maybe from 'hiss teeth'. I wonder how commonly do people of other cultures hiss their teeth in expression of annoyance and anger.

Emmanuel Cudjoe said...

I'm Ghanaian and I've never learned Jamaican patois but I am able to understand more than 50% of it when I hear it. I enjoy dancehall like crazy and the meaning of the songs is never lost on me even without watching the clips. Some of the phrases in patois are similar to Ghanaian and Nigerian pidgin English too.

Skummelskog Trollbutt said...

Jook: to pierce or stab. from chouk (forgot which African language)

The list goes on. The accent alone sounds African. It's slave English. Slaves were African. It's sad this isn't embraced. Instead we let western weed heads try to emulate, appropriate and thus water down or steal this legacy. Jamaican culture is strong because it has retained African elements throughout. God bless!

Howard Cassells said...

These are the african words i know in patois, dopi from twi adope means ghost, ackee from twi ackye the fruit,bafan from twi bɔfran means clumsy /disabled,butu,chaka chaka from twi,nyam from wolof means eat,unu from igbo unu means you plural, anansi from twi means spider, adrew from twi aduru means traditional herbal medicine,seh as in "mu tell im seh" from twi si means that,maka means thorns, butu means non-cultured person,bokra means white person, soso from yoruba soso means only/bare,obeah from either igbo obia or twi obayifo,dingki from kikongo a funeral ceremony, feneh from twi fene means to faint.there's much more than that. Many aspects of jamaican grammar are taken from niger-congo languages ,for example to mark tense you simply put a word infront of the verb to make it past tense and to form plurals you just use dem .even the doubling of words is very west african. Also many expressions are very west african such as kissing teeth and cutting eye which is a universal sign of discontent throughout west africa and black people in the new world.jamaican people are very african but for some reason alot of us deny it

Howard Cassells said...

These are the african words i know in patois, dopi from twi adope means ghost, ackee from twi ackye the fruit,bafan from twi bɔfran means clumsy /disabled,butu,chaka chaka from twi,nyam from wolof means eat,unu from igbo unu means you plural, anansi from twi means spider, adrew from twi aduru means traditional herbal medicine,seh as in "mu tell im seh" from twi si means that,maka means thorns, butu means non-cultured person,bokra means white person, soso from yoruba soso means only/bare,obeah from either igbo obia or twi obayifo,dingki from kikongo a funeral ceremony, feneh from twi fene means to faint.there's much more than that. Many aspects of jamaican grammar are taken from niger-congo languages ,for example to mark tense you simply put a word infront of the verb to make it past tense and to form plurals you just use dem .even the doubling of words is very west african. Also many expressions are very west african such as kissing teeth and cutting eye which is a universal sign of discontent throughout west africa and black people in the new world.jamaican people are very african but for some reason alot of us deny it

omalone1 said...

Gwiz, glad I stumbled upon this. delightful, thanks

omalone1 said...

Gwiz, glad I stumbled upon this. delightful, thanks

Barbara Mckenzie said...

Just Sharing a special moment...
Earlier this year, April to be specific, My Cousin and I took a trip to Alpharetta, Georgia. At breakfast one morning in the Hotel we were staying, the Waiter after taking our orders, remarked on our accent. My Cousin asked if he recognized our accent or knew where we came from? Without hesitating, he said, "you are Ghanians". Cousin said, "No, we are"...( He filled in the blank)"Ghanians". His name I do not remember, but something happened, a connection, spiritual recognition? Something...My Cousin who is usually argumentative, never uttered another word. So happy I found your Blog

Barbara Mckenzie said...

Just Sharing a special moment...
Earlier this year, April to be specific, My Cousin and I took a trip to Alpharetta, Georgia. At breakfast one morning in the Hotel we were staying, the Waiter after taking our orders, remarked on our accent. My Cousin asked if he recognized our accent or knew where we came from? Without hesitating, he said, "you are Ghanians". Cousin said, "No, we are"...( He filled in the blank)"Ghanians". His name I do not remember, but something happened, a connection, spiritual recognition? Something...My Cousin who is usually argumentative, never uttered another word. The Waiter was from Ghana. So happy I found your Blog