FOR THE BROTHAS: AN INTRODUCTION

It must have been about 20 years ago when I first began thinking about creating a "Cultural Salon" as a reaction to the mundane social circles In Washington D.C. The richness of intellectual and artistic interchange had died, college friends had moved, the internet had not yet become the phenomenon it now is... I romanticised about the Salons of the mid to late 1800's in Paris, London and Berlin and the cultural dynamo of the Harlem Rennaisance. I was fortunate enough to meet a gentleman, an artist who lived and traveled with James Baldwin... Jimmy he affectionately called him, and he spoke often of their small cottage in southern France and of the many Artists, Poets and Luminaries that dropped in to chat and relax. Well, the impressionists, cubists, modernists, etc. all hung out together famously in those days and shared their ideas with one another creating a creative greenhouse in a world that was rapidly changing. I longed to have lived in those times, to have met Cassat, Rodin, Ellington, Fitzgerald, Baker, Balwin, well I did finally meet Baldwin and others purely for the joy of intellection upon the arts. This was in the late 1980's and by the mid 2000's I happened to run into a friend of mine from Hampton University who had been living in New York since he graduated in the early 90s. Well, I was surprised to hear him comment that in all of the wonder that is New York he never met anyone who ever really had anything interesting to say about art, literature, architecture, science, fashion or anything... I was so surprised to hear this since it had also been my experience. Well here I am in 2011 attempting the Virtual Salon...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A PIECE OF AFRICA!

A PIECE OF AFRICA...

EVERYBODY WANTS A PIECE OF AFRICA,
LIKENED TO A FRAGMENT OF THE GREAT EARTH-MOTHER,
KNOWING... THAT TO PUT THE PIECES TOGETHER...
IS TO DISCOVER...
THAT HER POWER IS POWER...

By David Vollin


When I wrote this poem I was a dreamy student of architecture at Hampton University... My colleagues there may remember the many intellectual discussions we had on Afrocentrism, Postmodernism, Futurism, Deconstructivism and Neo-Primativism... all of the many isms of the day.  As most artists have done, I searched for a medicum inwhich to express my theories on Afrocentrism and that medium became furniture.  At that time I designed what I called the Shaniqua Chair, a fanciful chair based on the overscaled sillhowette of an inner city African American Woman  wearing a monothically architectectonic hair style and huge bamboo earrings.  Along with this imagery add the effusion of gold bangles, finger nose and earrings, necklaces and other adornments typical of the postmodern era.  I would like in reflection, to think that my decision to design a tool for seating based on a womans hair style was a rare combination of social manifesto, wit and pure experimentalism.  At this time the Memphis style had captivated us and we began to  incorporate it's concepts into our designs for  buildings and objects.  The Memphis book had a prominent position upon the shelf of my dormitory room... which became a collecion of memphis and postmodern furnishings and artifacts gathered on our weekend travels to DC, Philly, and New York in search of "The Architectonic Experience" imangined to have been missed in the hallowed and sleepy but much beloved halls of Hampton University.  But when my friends and I were in town we turned Bemis Laboratory, the school of architecture, into a hotbed of intellectualism and experimentation.  We formed a design collaborative called, "Architectnoir" and wrote our own manifesto proclaiming a new era in design expressionism and mannerism that would begin to incorporate elements of African design and culture.  We carefully planned and rehearsed our presentations, critiqueing one anothers delineations, models and script.  We went shopping for our "presentation clothes" which typically included something black, and may have incorporated vintage and other accessories we had designed and made ourselves.  My colleagues at Hampton and I spent countless hours theorizong the meaning of postmodernism.  Finally, while pondering the word a year or so aftter I left Hampton to attend Catholic University it hit me!  Postmodernism, or at least the term... was a sham... and empty hollow shell literally meaning nothing more than, "After Modernism"!  How could you define an era by calling it simply "After Modernism"?  It was always my opinion that the modern era had not yet come to a close.  After all, no new technology or innovation or even aesthetic had replaced the way man had been building, painting or thinking for the past 100 to 150 years.  Socially, even though the sexual revolution had interjected prophetic seeds of change, we were essentially still in the last phases of the victorian era... all of the gadgets of modernism had not been fully activated yet...  and tt was clear that the era between the late 1970's and 90's lacked a real identity... who would coin it?  The actual name hummanity would ascribe to the period of time from roughly 1972 till 1999 would be left for posterity.  The term, postmodernism quickly vanished as I am sure everyone else had come to the same conclusion I had reached.  Like the era, Shaniqua was layered, clustered, guilded, wrapped, faux finished, cross cultured, oversized and otherwise enamored of the trappings of this nameless era which seemed so cluttered with self absorption.  The 80's was obsessed with external verification of status.  Drug dealers,  the omnipresent icons of the day and their women legendarily wore their assetts upon them, perhaps for safe keeping in such a trecherous and uncertain milieau.  An ongoing African Tradition has been for men and women to wear their wealth as a show of status.  These connections are unavoidable and support my theory of hybrid culture.  But the 80's was obsessed with excess from the lowest exhelons of the ghetto to the highest of haute couture.  The upper social classes were also engaged in a fantasy of what the media termed, "conspicuous consumption"... It was an American thing, it was a golbal thing... it was the culture of the 1980's. 



During the 1980's there was a brief revival of exuberantly stylized fashions for womens hair.  Hair pieces were ritully attached, glued, layered and stacked in ways that mirrored styles worn by West African women.  At the same time Martin Lawrence popularized a character of his own creation called Shanaenae.  Shanaenae was the quintessential "Ghetto" girl... unpolished, uneducated, boisterous, overly aggressive and fitting the stereotype of the angry black women who finds success in her career but not in her love life.  This form of hair style reached its pinnicle in "Charm City", Baltimore, which became renown for its ability to execute complex hair styles incorporating multiple textures and materials such as flecks of  gold and silver, woven theads jewelry, fruits, birds and other objects.  Shanaenae was a caricature, a parody... she was L.L. Cool J.'s  round-the-way girl, she was the banjee girl imitated in the drag balls and vogueing contests of inner city gay culture.  In every way  Shanaenae was the antithesis of Martin's wife who was a polished and beautiful  corporate proffessional.  Shananenae gave you realness... maybe not authentic continental African realness... but hers was the flavor of the streets in a time when street credibility was everything, so much that some famous rappers went to jail for it.  I am not saying that Shaniqua is the paradigm for the late 20th Centrury "Noble Savage" as model for Afrocentric realness but I am saying that the formula for true Afrocentrism did not come from the hallowed halls of the black intelligentsia alone, rather it came from simple folk who made due with what little material and intellectual wealth they had to make a bold and revolutionary statement about culture without plagiarising or being too derivative.  Shaniqua, unlike Shanaenae, was not a parody, buffoon or caricature, she was an idealised woman who was responsible, proper, intelligent though not well educated, huanitarian and community oriented... she was the Kore, the Chloe of the ghetto.


 I argued that this woman named Shaniqua was a woman of modest means who could not speak Swahili or easily enter in a discussion on Binin Bronzes, Ashanti jewelry, The relationship between Byzantine architecture and Coptic symbolism in Ancient Ethiopian churches but she knew that she was of African descent and felt the desire to express her reverence for her ancestors in the naming of her child and her expression of external beauty. 


That she knew of and recognized their importance at all is significant and shows that there was some cosmoligic link between just surviving the odds and setting a foundation from which to concquer them.  While I was developing the persona for Shaniqua I bounced my theory off a female confidant at Hampton.  From her bourgeois perspective Shaniqua was too completely unimaginable to be memorialized in the form of a practical object d'art...  While I do concede that the black  bourgeoise plays an important role in the maintainence of the African American community as a whole there are some aspects of it's narrowness of sight which will continue to limit it's ability to capture the spirit and attention of our age and lest it become utterly insulated within it's own bias efforts must be made to transform itself into a phenomenon worthy of popular opinion and credibility.  For the present it is too aloof...

There appear to be two distinct ways inwhich African Americans have expressed the desire to preserve the legacy of Mother Africa. one is through scholarly pursuit of African culture with the intent to absolutely re-assimilate the full range of cultural offerings into their daily lives or to replicate selected aspects verbatim.  The other approach is a synthesis of what we know of African Culture with elements of the African American experience.  It is my belief that the latter is the only true form of what we call African American Culture because it fuses elements taken from both sides of the diaspora into a hybrid of unique and site-specific form.  In order to support this argument I will need to digress with a commentary of the nature of what we call popular culture. 

Ask any person... the first person... that you encounter to please tell you the name of at least one popular song from the early 1700's and you will undoubtedly see they have pulled a blank.  Popular culture is a volatile phenomenon.  For instance, although the passing of a well known neighbor will gather local and even regional headlines today, after about 100 to 150 years anyone who ever knew or heard of them would have been dead unless they are descendants.  Popular culture preserves only a small fraction over time of what was once commonly known.  It is dusturbing but likely that almost everything we know to be popular will be utterly forgotten in 100 years, replaced with newer data relevant to primary sources for its importance. 

Over the roughly 400 centuries that Africans have existed in America most of the culture which was once common to them has been forgotten.  The popular culture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is compelling and captivating indeed.  While an attempt at a verbatim infusion of African culture would probably not be succesful at this time because it would not have the ability to compete with already established elements of popular culture identity a hybrid would have a much better chance to rise to the upper clouds of popular culture.  Two examples are the popularity of dreadlocks and braiding as alternative hairstyles for African American men and women.  Although many men and women who wear these styles may not even be aware of their true origins or of the cosmological symbolism they denote... they are considered to be acceptable elements of popular African American, Afrocentiric culture.  Afro Sheen mounted a popular campapign during the late 1960's and 1970's to popularize the "Afro" or the "Natural" in direct opposition to the conckoline or permanant pressed hair styles popular with black men and women.  Although it has has marginal popularity over the past 30 years the afro has again become a popular mens and womens style, it's clear reference is to African and aboriginal human ethnic origins.  So the incorporation of African or Africanesque elements into already popular cultural trends creates a hybrid esteemed as an essential element of popular culture and maintained only as long as it is deemed relevant.  Hopefully these elements of African origin will continue to be considered relevant by African American peoples and as they become more aware they will incorporate even more elements in an effort to replace these elements which they feel are essential to their current state of being.


So how does the Shaniqua chair factor into this equation?  It's very simple in fact.  She, with her pure and unaffected expression of reverance will name her child Takasha or Imbari, Mobari or Layanya, or some other name of absolute artifice with the idea that it has the feel and sound... the soul of something african. She has created something new.  Scholars who name their children proper African names will also do due dilligence by teaching their children their meanings and will teach them of the culture and traditions of the African tribes from which their names were borrowed.  But without actually living from birth the traditions of the tribe, the cosmology and folkways that tie the names, language, food, and everything else together at best we African American scholars can only be good scholars of these cultures.  Nobody outside the close and well informed circle of those who speak and understand Swahili will even know what a grammatically accurate African name sounds like or means.  In a culture where such things as names bear heavy cosmological significance this is important to how a person is percieved and percieves themself.  In a culture where personal names have virtually no meaning or cosmologic significance at all, (such as in America), even the best chosen name is largely insignificant within the context of society.  Shaniqua took something that sounded African to her and transformed it into something that has relevance not in Africa but here in America.  She recalled the structure, volume and articulation of hairstyles worn centuries ago and revised them to create a new fashion incorporating modern materials and techniques and speaking to the aesthetic demands of a modern Amerin audience.  hair design.  I hesitate to use this word but I must intercede to mention it as the name of a an afrocentric hair salon I saw in the 80's called, "Hairology" where the aestheticians allegedly studied hair in all its manefestations.  The hair stylists of Baltimore proved the test of hybrid afrocentricity with their experiments in hair design. We understand what it signifies, it is part of our culture, folkways, language and cosmology and aestetic. 

Well... my theory about Afrocentrism is very basic and familiar in structure.   Because our ancestors were virtually stripped of their language and culture during the centuries long process of enslavement and assimilation we have always had a desire to recapture what was percieved to have been lost.  I remember watching the landmark series, "Roots" in the 70's as Kunta Kente... yes... "Kente"... resisted his newly given name of Toby.  Our ancestors had to ultimately choose their battles wisely in order to survive relegating many traditions to secrecy away from the scrutiny of white Americans but vowing never to give up their connection with a home that they would never live to see again.  Sankofa is the quintessential expression of this truth.  Since we have so digressed from any semblance of what we know or do not know to be "traditional African culture" It can never truly have the same precedence, meaning, and cultural relevance as that of African American culture which is dominant because it is the very world we live in from day to day.  It's tantamount to learning to speak Yoruba  but living in a world where it is never spoken outside of a very small circle and of course simply speaking the language is not the same as growing up within the culture, places and experienceing all the psychical phenomenon that give the very language it's meaning.  This essay called the Shaniqua chair was an attempt to explicate the term we affectionately call, "African American Culture".  So let me here set down a definition for African American culture:  The linguistic, cosmologic, dietary, sexual, behavioral, philosophic, aesthetic oral and written traditions of traditional African culture preseved and evolved through generations of struggle combined with and modified by western european language, diet, sexual, behavioral, philosophic, aesthetic oral and written traditions to galvanize a hybrid and uniquely evolved expression of social intity.   

 Well, let me tell you where this poem came from.  As an avid  collector of antiques and artifacts I have entered may lovely homes of extravagant and simple elegance.  One vein is clear.  Each time I entered the home of an African American person I saw multiple artifacts, masks, paintings, sculpture, furniture and other objects d'art but the objects were always oddly out of context.  Why was a funerary mask be hanging on a wall beside a football poster?  Why was a faux Egyptian papyrus wreed painting written with meaninglessly arranged hyroglyphs?  Why was kente pattern, reserved for sacred occasions, adorning a commercial chicken box and retail uniform? My first reaction was one of resolute horrorror but I was young...  Once I had time to contemplate this phenomenon I realized that it was not important that the African Artifacts be kept in the correct context or if they even could be read or understood... they were merely comforting reminders of our past!  Pieces... Fragments of mother Africa that we had assembled in an attempt to show reverence for our heritage.  I realized that we were symbolically putting all of the fragmentary pieces together for ourselves in order to create a coherent image of who we were and where we came from.  Like Shaniqua, we may not have been technically accurate in our assemblage but that did not matter because in so doing we had created something of newer meaning and relevance.  These random artifacts gave us power... power to complete ourselves in ways that had been denied for over 400 years of bitter struggle in this land.  Now I understood the expressions I heard during the early sixties and seventies when I was a boy; Power to The People, Right On, Brotha, Blood... they all made so much sense to me...

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