Saturday, March 12, 2011

Fluidity Of Boundaries

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
Pablo Picasso
Cubism was new only for Europeans, for it was was partly inspired by specific pieces of African art, some of them from the Pende and Songye peoples, who live in the basin of the Kasai River, one of the Congo's major tributaries. It is easy to see the distinctive brilliance that so entranced Picasso and his colleagues at their first encounter with this art at an exhibit in Paris in 1907. In these central African sculptures some body parts are exaggerated, some shrunken; eyes project, cheeks sink, mouths disappear, torsos become elongated; eye sockets expand to cover almost the entire face; the human face and figure are broken apart and formed again in new ways and proportions that had previously lain beyond the sight of traditional European realism. The art sprang from cultures that had, among other things, a looser sense than Islam or Christianity of the boundaries between our world and the next, as well as those between the world of humans and the world of beasts...Perhaps it was the fluidity of these boundaries that granted central Africa's artists a freedom those in Europe had not yet discovered.
Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, (New York: Mariner Books, 1999), Kindle Location 1313-26.
I have to admit that I have not always had a full enough appreciation of art and art history. As a result, I have often been ignorant of the full value art has at expressing a time period's culture, customs, beliefs, and attitudes. So when I come across information that sheds light upon my ignorance, I am often overcome with the tremendous value & insight it provides me with. Currently, I am reading a book about King Leopold II and his tremendous brutality in the age of imperialism on Central Africa. It is a case in history that has unfortunately not had enough light shed upon it. The author (Adam Hochschild) does a tremendous job at providing a broad range of information to help the reader understand the time period as well as the facts of the story. One point he makes is the influence of African art on the artists of Europe of this time - including that of Pablo Picasso.

What stuck out to me was Hochschild's point of the fluidity of the boundaries between the different worlds for Africans at that time in history. I was struck at how amazing it must have been to not see such distinct lines between what we might call "reality" and that of the spiritual world (as well as that of humans and of animals!). Europeans were so compressed into realism that the potential to shed oneself of its shackles must have been so liberating to artists and free-thinkers of that time period. The question it begged to me was: How often do we fail to see the bigger picture because of the cultural restraints we place upon ourselves? We become so accustomed to seeing things and doing things based upon what we know, see and understand that we willingly stunt our creativity and possibility. As realism in art gave way to the liberating movement of cubism - we too have the potential to taste more liberating freedom if we allow ourselves to move beyond our own restrictions.

In particular, the spiritual world should be viewed in light of being intimately connected to that which we call reality. The amazing aspect of that is that a continent westerners shamelessly called "dark" was in reality a light to the concept of freedom of thought and expression. Instead of exploiting Africa - Westerners would have done the world a lot better favor by learning from Africa.


bigdave said...

Very astute observation about the value of the culture one lives in at any given time and how that person then interprets literally everything he says, does or thinks. The sad part of this, is that those who feel that their personal culture is the apex of the "cultural ladder" will nearly always feel that how they look, and react to all that they encounter can be molded into their personal view of life itself. This would seem to me to be the root cause of nearly all, if not all, international discord. Sadly, it seems destined to be a popular rerun throughout the future, as we have seen in our past. How imperative it becomes for us to truly love our neighbor, if we hope to impact the morass in which we find ourselves. (And that requires that we define love as that unconditional acceptance of that neighbor, no matter how different their culture may be to ours.)
I love you son,