As we move our art collection from the condo to the cabin, I remind myself that many of the items are not just knick-knacks to be shuffled from shelf, to box, to shelf. The heart of the collection is sacred folkart -- pieces with deep meaning and great power. I wrote the following in 2013, presented here again, with revisions.
This morning I entered the mysterious world of the Baule tribe, who live in Ivory Coast, Africa.
Before bed last night I did my routine chore of checking auction catalogs against items in our collection, just to see what the market is doing. I got pulled in by figures from the Baule people.
As it happens, Jim had a book.
What struck me first was the careful delineation the people make between the village and the wild. Village life is meant to be quiet, serene, safe. It looks inward upon itself and removes all evidence of the wild -- for example, by replacing the big forest trees with small bushes and fruit trees. Aha (I think), order being imposed upon chaos; pattern being imposed on unpredictability. Sacred space.
The statues such as ours (see above) have a specific purpose. They are ritually crafted under the careful supervision of a diviner (who we might call a fortune-teller, except with way more community respect). The finished wooden figure seduces untamed and possibly mischievous bush spirits. The more beautiful the figure, the more attractive it is to wild powers. The spirit takes up residence in the statue and becomes "localized." (Maybe like a genie in a bottle?) When the owner needs help, he calls again upon the village diviner, who enters a trance state and becomes the medium for the spirit's wisdom.
Again, we see the theme of imposing order upon chaos. The sacred act. And the role of beauty as the powerful engine behind it.
This seems to be the story of human nature. We tame. We seek to exercise dominion over nature. The world is crazy and unpredicable. Death and destruction explode around us. Not knowing "what next" frightens us to the core. But we are smart. We are resourceful. We stand ready to believe that the untamed powers of God, nature, and the universe can be wrestled into some kind of container -- a body of knowledge, a religion, a taxonomy, a government, an ideology, a city -- to work on our behalf.
Jim and I talked about it today. Isn't collecting a way of organizing a combination of objects and knowledge according to certain criteria and standards? Isn't managing the collections about imposing (my) order on (let's say, Jim's) exuberance?
But here's what I'm left wondering: As post-moderns, do we adequately factor in the power of beauty to tap into the wisdom of the universe? I notice too many YouTube videos on how to decorate from the dollar store. One TEDx talk hailed the end of "materialism" because everything we need in the future will be fabricated by 3D printers. Aren't we already drowning in a sea of extruded throwaway plastic? Art -- the hand of a craftsman driven by the soul of a visionary -- fades into decor. Do we head for the craft show to buy a painting to go with our new couch? Or to find something with a resident spirit who will enchant us with her wisdom?
The statue above is sitting next to my computer as I write. I wonder what wild spirit of nurturing and fierce protection resides inside this mother. If I worked myself into a trance, would she enter me for a moment and tell me some small truth I need to hear today?
Art is power.
African Art Western Eyes. Susan Vogel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997
The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion. Mircea Eliade. Harcourt Brace, 1959.
5.18.2013 (revised 9.19.2016)***
THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) Thailand: lovers of ancient treasure tangle with international black markets. Delia Rivera pulls Martin Moon back into the game and their quest turns deadly. In paperback and Kindle editions.
TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) Time after time, Mary asks herself: Do I go or do I stay? She finds her power in her ancestors: Smart women turn discontent into action. An illustrated memoir in paperback and Kindle editions.
PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008) The twin forces of revenge and redemption drive Nellie MacKenzie and Taylor Jackson on a crazed adventure into the heart of Central Asia. They grapple with issues of ethics, trust, rage, and bitter heartbreak -- as well as the intrigue of the international antiquities trade. In paperback and Kindle editions.
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