From the Archives : The Ogboni

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Members of the Ogboni Society near Onitsha, Nigeria

Photograph by Simon Ottenberg 1959-60
EEPA
2000-007-0973783/1959-1960
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

Renowned anthropologist, Dr Simon Ottenberg,  took this photograph in the Afikpo region of southeastern Nigeria during his 1959-1960 research. The original caption says, “The Ogboni Society coming from a meeting at Onitsha, the city on the Niger River, during a trip to visit Richard and Helen Henderson, conducting research in the old town at Onitsha. These were Igbo members of Ogboni, which is primarily a Yoruba society.”

The Ogboni society, also known as Oshugbo in the Egba and Ijebu areas of southwestern Nigeria, is an association of accomplished elders in parts of Nigeria, Benin, and Togo.  Members perform a range of religious and political practices, including meting justice for crimes and disputes, installing and deposing kings, and overseeing burial rites. Ogboni members recognize the underground as a spiritual force that unites humankind and witnesses all wrongdoings. Ile, the deity or omniscient spiritual force of the underground, is central to Ogboni beliefs, art, and practices.

The Earth Matters exhibition includes both insignia of office and figures from the meeting house of a Yoruba Ogboni (or Oshugbo) society.  These edan (staffs or insignia of office) and onile (society figures) demonstrate the importance of concepts of the earth to Ogboni. In the ease with which their motifs can be identified, the figurative pair of copper alloy edan suggest the knowable world: male/female, old/young…  and yet beneath each figure is a non-descript iron shaft.  Made from an ore of the earth, these shafts allude to things we cannot know: the unknowable world of the divine and the underground.  Likewise, the terracotta onile figures are made of a material of the earth that alludes to the power and knowledge beyond mere mortal comprehension.

Earth Matters Around the Web : It’s Cold Out There, Even for Butterflies

Wherever you are on the globe, chances you have contended with some extreme weather this year – for example the extreme cold that has shut down several American cities. While some of the shutdowns may be dramatic overreactions, it is certainly colder than usual and that inconveniences many of us in all sorts of ways. In the big scheme of things, however, the inconveniences are pretty small and there are probably very few people who, at least at this stage, give the weather that much attention.

 

Yet, while human beings may find he weather to be, overall, benign, there are far more susceptible creatures on the planet. Take for example this article on the monarch butterfly that was recently posted by the New York TImes. Now, I cannot claim to be an expert on butterflies, but I was surprised to read that monarchs are, in fact, migratory, traveling from Canada and the US to a relatively small stretch of mountainous forest each year. Not only do the butterflies need to reach these mountains, they need to do so at a very particular time of year, or else their populations inevitably crash, and that time consists of a mere 40 day stretch. Last year, the article relays, “unusual springtime cold in Texas delayed the butterflies’ northward migration, causing them to arrive late in areas where they would normally have bred weeks earlier”. In 2012,”months of near-record heat sapped [the butterflies’] endurance and skewed their migratory patterns in ways that limited their ability to reproduce. Still, there is another problem.

 

As we are informed, the obstacles to the monarch’s migration would be less of an issue if their population was larger. However, due to the loss of habitat in both Mexico and the US, their population has been steadily declining and the survival of the species is now dependent on a much smaller, and therefore more vulnerable, number of individuals. Of course, this brings us full circle as the loss of habitat, that being plants and trees, is a major contributor to the climate problem. So, here we have yet another example of the interconnectedness of the earths ecosystems, which begs the question of what impact the loss of the butterflies might have, other than the loss of one of nature’s greatest spectacles.

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                     Monarch butterflies in a butterfly sanctuary near Angangueo, Mexico, in 2005 
                      Kirsten Luce/Associated Press (taken from the New York Times)
 

Earth Matters Around the Web : Brand New Lists for a Brand New Year

 

Although the new year recently passed, it was not so long ago that assessments of 2013 will stop rolling in anytime soon. This is especially true where science is concerned since the results take time to assemble and analyze. Consequently, one of the lists just recently released is a government list of extreme weather events for 2013, which came with a well illustrated map.Image

http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/service/global/extremes/201313.gif

Chances are, that even without this summative list, that most readers heard of an extreme weather event in the news or experienced it themselves because these events occurred around the world: Drought in the American West, the typhoon in the Philippines, extreme heat in Australia, extreme cold in the U.K., heavy rains in China and Russia, and the shrinking of arctic glaciers.

In another but by no means unrelated article, a separate report predicts that extreme El Nino events are expected to double from once every 20 years to once every 10 years. Now, of course weather predictions are never fully accurate and are most of the time concerned with expectations and tendencies rather than predictions. But the research in this case seems extensive, with 20 separate climate models utilized in the findings and producing, we must assume, fairly consistent results.

What is the main culprit of these weather anomalies? Well, both much of the scientific community and the political left are inclined to say that global warming is responsible for the extreme fluctuations in weather that we have ben observing. Yet, because weather is not an exact science, proving these links hasn’t been easy, and that is one reason what we are left with so many skeptics. In the case of the El Nino effects, however, good evidence is arising for the connection between it and global warming. As the article explains in common language, the El Nino effects are produced when  “a pool of warm water that normally resides in the western Pacific expands to the eastern equatorial Pacific, bringing with it increased atmospheric convection and rainfall.” The reason that these effects do not frequently occur is because barriers of cold water generally keeps the expansion in check. Logically, then, it follows that as water temperatures rise and these barriers of cold water disappear, that the El Nino effects are likely to increase in frequency – which is about as simply as I have ever heard it explained.

As 2014 has now gotten well underway, I expect that we will continue to see anomalies in the weather such as these. And at the very least, I hope that more clear and convincing evidence such as this will turn the skeptics in the world around and harness their “renewable energy” for the effective action needed to combat climate change.

Guest Voices : Marco Cianfanelli

This week’s guest post comes from Marco Cianfanelli, a South African artist who, in addition to participating in the Earth Matters exhibition in Washington DC, is internationally recognized. Cianfanelli is an artist who examines the universal within the personal and, as the great T.S. Eliot once said of great writers, writes both himself and his time.

 

Back down to Earth

by Marco Cianfanelli

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Maquette: The sum of us [The sum of us (2009) realised at 4.44 x 3.47 x 11.4 meters; mild steel: Forum Homini, Cradle of Humankind]     

I am always slightly puzzled when asked to give my opinion on a matter, as one of the significant reasons I became an artist is the very privilege it affords me in blurring and manipulating elements of intellect, science, knowledge, emotion & gesture in a way that is based on, but not confined to, logic or fact but in a way that makes perfect sense to me.

Is it feasible to personify the whole of humanity, as one single being, a being with particular traits and a complex yet distinct personality? Could these traits and this personality be better understood by observing the condition of the earth, how humanity exists on it, in it, with it? In this sense, our perception of the earth’s state(s) would not be a judgement of humanity but rather a reflection of it. Be it good or bad, it is what it is.

If you believe in evolution, you have to consider that we, alongside everything around us, are evolving with every passing second. Evolution is not an event it is a process. With regard to our place on earth, how are we evolving or how will we evolve in the future? Is it possible that we can be active, rather than passive in the process of our evolution and if so, will the nature in which we cohabit the earth be something we value?

Regarding evolution, Vredefort to Sterkfontein, is a work that I produced as a response to the immense significance and connectedness of the two regions of Vredefort, the site of the largest verified asteroid impact crater, and Sterkfontein, a site of significant Hominid findings, which lies within the “Cradle of Humankind”. The work is both a scientific analysis and a family portrait of sorts or a musing on the subject of genetics, created by morphing and interpolating three silhouette portraits of my mother, myself and my father, to create the seven profiles in the work. Geographic coordinates of the region between Vredefort and Sterkfontein, recorded at 20-meter intervals, were gathered to create a digital three-dimensional topographical portion of this region. This data was used to create the third dimension of the seven forms and was amplified to varying degrees on each of the seven portraits, enhancing the effect of a wave or tide, representing the immense impact that rippled the earth’s surface well beyond the region of Sterkfontein.

Could an event so dramatic and in some ways, so violent that it made the earth’s surface twist and distort like water, be intrinsic to the evolution and formation of humanity, could our dawn have been catalyzed by such a cataclysmic event? It became apparent to me that the intended “family portrait” was actually something broader and spoke to me of humanity’s connectedness.

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Vredefort to Sterkfontein (I-VII)  
Laser cut, burnt, laminated supawood 
43 x 31 x 6.5 cm each
2009

From the Archives : Colonial-era Photoraphy

ImageA young Luba woman in the Belgian Congo
Photograph by Emile E. O. Gorlia (1910)
EEPA 1977-0001-135-01

Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives

National Museum of African Art

Smithsonian Institution
 
This photograph of a young, unnamed Luba woman was taken in approximately 1910 by Judge Emile E. O. Gorlia from Belgium in what was then the Belgian Congo and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gorlia was acting as an alternate to the public officer at the time, in Lusambo, a community in Congo’s Kasai province. He was a keen amateur photographer and photographed in detail the experience of being a government official in the Belgian Congo. This particular photograph was taken during his first tour in Africa. It shows a young Luba woman whose name we are unlikely ever to know, wearing bold earrings, a nose ring, and impressive necklaces. There are few details that provide more context to this woman’s story.  All we know is where the photograph was taken—which is not necessarily the same as where the anonymous young woman was from, as populations in Eastern Kasai at that time were being uprooted and displaced due to wars with Arab populations in the north.
 
 
It is interesting to consider this photograph alongside the work of Congolese artist Sammy Baloji, who has seductively and evocatively drawn attention to colonial-era images in which Africans are too often reduced to stereotypes and landscapes appear as wild or unpopulated. In his piece in Earth Matters, Portrait # 2: Femme Urua sur fond d’aquarelle de Dardenne [Luba woman against watercolor by Dardenne], Baloji overlays an 1898 photograph of a Luba woman over a contemporary watercolor of the landscape representing the two conflicting representations of reality.   

Earth Matters Around the Web : Water, Water, Everywhere!

You probably do not know this, but every week for the last couple of months, I have been writing this blog from an off-site location in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. It is currently January in New Orleans and despite a few cold days during the Polar Vortex, the winter weather here (or lack thereof) has been pleasant. It is also the time of year when some of our seafood, particularly our oysters, are at their biggest and best. But seafood is always in season on the Gulf of Mexico and it is both a staple of local cuisine and a livelihood for many fishermen. You will understand then that whenever the British Petroleum oil spill is in the news, the folks in New Orleans are paying attention. 

 

Currently, the BP oil spill is making headlines in the news because the company is back in court, in New Orleans, protesting certain terms of its reparations agreement. When I say “back in court”, it is important to keep in mind that some of the money that BP has agreed to pay was voluntary, and some of it was award to claims recipients when several US states took BP to court. BP’s complaint is, essentially, that the terms of the settlement do not protect them from false and exaggerated claims. 

 

It is certainly not my place to comment on the all the legalities of BP’s original settlement and current appeal, but this is a moment when we can all reflect on this tragic environmental disaster and “check up” how things have gone in restoring the environment and economy since 2010. To do this, one of the most convenient resources is, of course, the BP restoration website. While the BP restoration website probably gives the most optimistic account of the company’s effort, they are far from admitting that the cleanup and repairs are anywhere close to finished. In fact, the first thing you see on the website is a statement reporting that “We continue to make significant progress cleaning the Gulf shoreline and supporting economic and environmental recovery in affected areas. Our goal is to provide a positive legacy in these coastal communities.”

 

One thing that the ongoing BP cleanup reminds us of is the severity of the oil spill’s impact. On the one hand, there are many immediate and obvious effects of the spill, and it is likely that those effects have been given some attention. However, with environmental disasters of this scale, there are longterm impacts that are not always visible and these take longterm study to assess and address. For example, one newspaper reports that “21 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster it is estimated that 21,000 gallons of oil still remain just below the surface of Alaska’s Prince William Sound, and the long term environmental effects on the area have far exceeded scientists’ original predictions.” The same is likely to be true in the Gulf and that is to say nothing of all the additional chemicals (dispersants) that have ben used to cleanup the oil. 

 

Of course, we expect that restoration will take time, even as the disaster fades from the public consciousness. However, we should be reminded here that given the long term, and often unforeseeable, effects of such large-scale disasters, a “complete restoration” is probably never to be achieved. We should also be reminded, as no complete restoration is likely a reality, that foresight and the avoidance of such accidents is the only real solution. And this is not merely a safety issue, but a question of fossil fuels, commerce, and the sustainability of our planet. Continue reading

Earth Matters Around the Web : The Polar Vortex?

polar-vortex          images

Happy New Years everyone! And a cold new year it has been. In the United States, temperatures around the nation plummeted to extreme lows as Arctic air was caught in cycle that caught our country off guard. As with most extreme weather phenomena, there are two ways that most Americans look at them. On the one hand, extreme weather phenomena and their increasing occurrence are, if not directly linked to man-made climate change, in keeping with scientific predictions of what the symptoms of climate change will be. However, climate change is still a flashpoint, divisive issue. For every person who views the extreme weather event known as the polar vortex as a potential symptom of climate change, there is some preposterous claim, here are the top two:

1)   The cold weather disproves that global “warming” is a real phenomenon.

2)   The “polar vortex” is a hoax perpetrated by leftist media to promote the climate change agenda.

Obviously, as a blogger for Earth Matters, I am not of the opinion that the polar vortex was a leftist hoax or that it disproves climate change. But let me back that up with a brief critique. First, the term “global warming” has been passed over to the term “climate change” because the weather phenomena that global warming are linked to are incredibly complex. Second, if we choose to use “global warming”, as many of its critics do, we have to consider that the term “global” does not refer exclusively to the United States. As pointed out in a recent article on Slate, temperature around the world reached record highs in 2013.

As we enter 2014, it is unlikely that climate change phenomenon or the debate around it will cease. But as you begin the new year, please ask yourself one question when you consider all the things we all do that contribute to so-called “global warming”… is it a risk you are willing to take?