September 16, 2004

Reconceiving Africa

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Paper cups, disposable bowls, and spoons at hand, a crowd gathered at the steps of the Johnson Museum this Sunday. This weekend, the museum hosted Odun! (meaning ‘festival’ in Yoruba), a celebration of African art. The event complemented the museum’s fall exhibit, African Forms, a selection from the greater Ginzberg Collection of African items, valued not only for their utilitarian purpose in daily African life, but also for their aesthetic merit.

The exhibit, displaying daily objects from neck rests to stools, all skillfully crafted from varying materials such as silver, iron, ivory, and wood, demonstrates a culture that is by no means primitive. Sadly, only a floor is devoted to the great continent of more than fifty countries, more than a thousand languages, and a population of almost eight hundred million people encompassing countless distinct cultures. The exhibit is politically cautious, however, of portraying the Dark Continent in a negative light.

African Forms is conscientious of the common massing of African cultures as one dark, primitive, and savage obscurity that sits in silent, uncivilized grandeur between Asia and the Americas. The exhibit addresses misconceptions that are brought about by the “scant written history […] i.e. the misconception of Africa as timeless and unchanging” by highlighting the movement of its peoples, among them the Zulu, Tuareg, and Kuba. We also learn of the influences — both Eastern and Western — on religion and technology. The exhibit is hardly a display of the Other; it was an exploration of another.

The three-hour event catered to all senses, introducing different aspects of African culture from its music, food, and daily life to spiritual devotion. What sets this event apart from other events on campus was its target audience since the occasion was enjoyed by people outside the usual academic and scholarly fields.

There was a half-hour tour of the exhibit and an ongoing showing of African culture videos in one of the galleries. In the workshop room, both children and grown-ups got their hands dirty in designing their very own Bamana mudcloth, a long-established tradition whose designs symbolize various meanings: major life transitions, supernatural powers, social status, character or occupation.

The event also hosted two sets of musical performance from a Ugandan musician. The crowd — students, local citizens, little children, even the notorious Ithaca hippies — congregated in one of the rooms, where Samite Mulondo, director of the charity organization Musicians for World Harmony, shared his musical heritage. Using both woodwind and percussion instruments, Samite created a musical ensemble by himself, using pedal-controlled technology where he would perform one instrument, record it, play it in the background, and layer another tune and his voice on top of it. It was, above all, a family affair for both the audience and the performer. Everyone rose to their feet, danced, and participated in creating African music. It was an uncommon juxtaposition of generations, peoples, and cultures. Distinctively African music echoed in the gallery, but its makers, the persons (Ithaca natives, visiting guests, the Ugandan performer) and instruments (foreign antiques and their manipulation with twenty-first century technology), all came together to produce traditional African music restructuring global, social and temporal order.

Soon following the musical performances, food was served in the lobby giving a little taste of Africa. The menu included lentil salad, honey bread, Doro Wat (Ethiopian chicken stew), and Nigerian rice water. The feast was a mixture of African flavors: the characteristic taste of cinnamon and ginger, the incomprehensible flavor of rice water that is both sweet and spicy, and the biting taste of the chicken stew. Everyone gathered outside the museum to consume not only the new flavors but also the booming voices and echoes of percussion instruments, as the World Drumming and Dance Ensemble performed.

The concluding program, a fashion show demonstrating the boldly rich, vibrant colors and patterns, soon followed the feast. With pleasure, delight and reverence to their culture, each model proudly walked wearing their traditional dress, declaring to the world their wealthy heritage. As widely diverse as African culture is, so were the people present at Odun! Pop culture most often tells us that the entirety of Africa — all 11,677,240 square miles — is a singularly sad and helpless nation. Though markedly apolitical, momentarily forgetting the civil wars and human destitution, the Johnson Museum provided an alternative snapshot of the continent with the celebration of the lives and arts of Africa. Let us not forget the life, the culture, the arts, the music, and the voices that thrive in the darkness of the highly stigmatized name, Africa.

Archived article by Whine Del Rosario
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer