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.

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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

Guest Voices : US Botanic Gardens

Today’s guest post, the first of 2014, comes from Dr. Beth Burrous who is one of the Earth Matters partners at the US Botanic Garden in Washington DC. The US Botanic Garden currently has African plants that you can see up close, plants that have become especially important to our daily lives and show how much earth really does matter!

African Plants in Everyday Life

We frequently reap the benefits of African food and medicinal plants, a topic I explore when conducting tours at the U.S. Botanic Garden.  A few of the many beneficial African plants are highlighted here.  Come to the U.S. Botanic Garden to take a look.

Chocolate – Equatorial Africa supplies about 75% of the world’s cocoa beans that are used to make chocolate. While the chocolate plant (Theobroma cacao) is native to South America, it grows well in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria.  Beans are harvested from cocoa pods .  After fermentation, drying, roasting and grinding, the beans are made into edible chocolate products.  Nearly all cocoa is grown on small (5-10 acre) family farms.  Preliminary studies suggest that eating dark chocolate (the darker the better) may promote cardiovascular health.

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Roasted cacao beans                                   Cacao bean pods

Vanilla – Vanilla “beans” are the fermented and dried fruit of the vanilla bean orchid (Vanilla planifolia). The beans are used for cooking and to make “vanilla extract.”  While the vanilla orchid is native to Central America, about 65% of the world’s vanilla beans are grown on the island of Madagascar.

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Vanilla bean

Coffee – Historians believe that the coffee plant (Coffea arabica, robusta) is native to Ethiopia.  Nowadays, ripe coffee plant berries (“cherries”) are aged, dried and roasted to make coffee “beans” for brewing coffee. But long before the invention of a brewed coffee beverage, people used the caffeine-containing coffee “cherries” as medicine. Islamic medical texts from the year 1000 C.E. prescribe coffee cherries as a stimulant and digestive aid.  Preliminary studies suggest that consuming moderate amounts of coffee (about 3-5 cups per day) may prevent certain types of cancer, dementia and Type 2 diabetes and prolong longevity.

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Roasted coffee beans                                                  Coffee cherries

Periwinkle (“Vinca”)Catharanthus roseus is a popular landscape plant native to Madagascar. It is also the source of cancer-fighting medicines.  The drug vinblastine is used to treat cancers including Hodgkin’s disease, various lymphomas, breast cancer and testicular cancer.  The drug vincristine is used to treat cancers including Hodgkin’s disease, leukemia, neuroblastoma and a rare childhood muscular tumor.  Manufacturers use about five tons of periwinkle plant material to make one ounce of drug.

Periwinkle public

Periwinkle

Foxglove – This common garden plant (Digitalis purpurea ) is native to Northwestern Africa.  It is the source of the heart medicine digoxin (digitalis), used to treat heart failure and irregular heartbeat.

Digitalis public

Digitalis

Deadly NightshadeAtropa belladonna is native to Northern Africa.  “Belladonna” is derived from Italian and means beautiful woman because long ago, the plant was used in eye drops to dilate the pupils.  While all parts of the plant are highly poisonous, several medicines are extracted from this plant and close relatives.  Atropine is used to resuscitate patients with extremely low heart rate, and U.S. troops carry atropine-loaded syringes to treat nerve gas poisoning.  Scopolamine is used in trans-dermal patches to treat motion sickness, and may be useful in treating severe depression.

A Belladonna public

 

Belladonna

Earth Matters Around the Web : The Geography of Nelson Mandela

The Earth Matter’s exhibition consists of five sections that take a symbolic journey through the world as interpreted by African artists. The fourth section in the show is titled “Strategies of the Surface”, which includes works focusing on the landscape and authored by artists from Jacobus Pierneef to Otobong Nkanga and IngridMwangiRobertHutter. Using these two works as examples, the latter work is an apartheid era landscape painting that, many contend, paints a colonial picture of South Africa, devoid of the indigenous inhabitants that challenged colonial claims to the land. The work by Nkanga describes geography from the detached, inhumane point of view of military strategy, conflict, and claim. The work by IngridMwangiRobertHutter focuses on land, belonging, and borders.

In these many interpretations, the emphasis is on the relationship between the land and people, race, and culture. With the passing of Nelson Mandela, it is a an apt opportunity to remind the world that much of the late freedom fighter’s work was about a similar geography, the landscape of people. This landscape is something that Mandela changed greatly, erasing the imaginary lines that separated and imprisoned people. Today, while disparate communities still exist, gone are the so called “homelands” which divided South Africa according to the edicts of racial segregation. Indeed, Mandela’s impact on South Africa’s geography is one of his greatest legacies.

Humans, however, are not the only species affected by geography. In a recent article by National Geographic Editor in Chief Chris Johns, for example, the author tells about his meeting with Mandela and the Peace Park project in Africa. Peace Parks are transnational reserve areas that allow wildlife to move freely across the continent. As Johns notes, the idea of Peace Parks—reserves that transcend political borders, enabling animals and people to move freely across a single ecological unit—resonated with Mandela. This article, which also sheds light on Mandela’s love of nature and his yearning for it during his imprisonment, captures a nuance of Mandela and his legacy that might be overlooked in many of the popular articles that have flooded the internet. The article can be found at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131205-mandela-south-africa-apartheid-appreciation/ and more information on the Peace Parks project can be found at http://www.peaceparks.org/.

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Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, 1886–1957, South Africa

South West African Mountains, 1944, Oil on canvas

Private collection, courtesy of Bonhams

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Otobong Nkanga, b. 1974, Nigeria

Limits of Mapping, 2010, Wood, acrylic paint, metal

Untitled-1static drift-germany

IngridMwangiRobertHutter, b. 1975, Kenya

Static Drift, 2001, Chromogenic prints on aluminum

Collection of Heather and Tony Podesta, Falls Church, Virginia

Guest Voices : Candace LaRocca

Today’s guest post comes from Candace LaRocca, one of the docents at the Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art and a great friend of the museum. During the years of preparation for Earth Matters, LaRocca has been involved in numerous aspects of the show, most notably helping to translate for our artists from Francophone Africa. In the following post, LaRocca gives a warm and personal account of her experience with working with two artists from Morocco, Hassan Echair and Younes Rahmoun.

From time to time, docents are asked to help out in other areas in which we have a special interest or skill.   I was asked if I could do a rough translation of the one-hour interviews that Karen Milbourne, curator of the Earth Matters exhibition, had taped with the artists Hassan Echair and Younes Rahmoun in Morocco.   I saw this opportunity as a “win/win” situation; it would allow me to brush up on my French at the same time that I would  get to know the artists’  work,  which would assist me in giving tours of Earth Matters!

By accepting this assignment I was able to become very familiar with their work.  The honor of transcribing Dr. Milbourne’s interview required listening to the audiotape a multitude of times!!!.  The benefit was that I felt that I actually was “on location” with her and the artists in Morocco!   I could hear birds chirping in the background during Echair’s interview, I could hear other conversations and work going on during Rahmoun’s interview, and these details made a powerful impression that transported me to Morocco and the artist’s studios. It was amazing to see how much they covered during their one-hour conversation: upon transcription, each interview would be about 14 typewritten pages!

While Echair was unable to come to Washington D.C. for the installation of his work, Anthony Stellaccio (the Earth Matters Project Manager) arranged for the installation of his work to be handled via “Skype,” another first-time opportunity for both me and the museum. We started at 8:00 AM.  The installation site was set up as a mini movie set.  I sat in a corner while the screen was focused on Echair’s work. I interpreted while he worked with our design team for the installation of “Ascension.”   I was quite relieved to see him smiling, drinking a cup of Moroccan mint tea and holding his little girl on his lap in his living room. It seemed such a nice family setting and so relaxed and charming. I shared with him that I was concerned for his personal well being since he had spoken so emotionally with Dr. Milbourne about his work and concerns.   His response was “Yes, my work is not a joy; but someone has to represent these people.”

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Gallery shot of Hassan Echair’s Ascension

Bamboo, quartz, cord, paint, installed at NMAfA in 2013

Photograph by Franko Khoury

I was able to meet Younès Rahmoun personally during the opening of the exhibition; he was equally kind and caring.   As soon as I introduced myself, he wanted to let me know that there was another French- speaking artist who might need some help.   I recalled that he and Dr. Milbourne had discussed the work of Wolfgang Laib during their interview and let Younès know that Laib’s Wax Room was on display at the Phillip’s Collection (a museum of Modern Art in DC).   He managed to see the work prior to his return home and commented that it was “awesome.”

As a docent, I now have the opportunity to add a personal perspective to my tours as a result of my meetings with these artists.  Both Echair and Rahmoun are very deeply involved in their work and committed to expressing the needs and concerns of the people they represent.

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Gallery shot of Younes Rahmoun’s Kemmoussa

Plastic bags and compressed nails, installed at NMAfA in 2013

Photograph by Franko Khoury

Earth Matters Around the Web: Climate Change

About 30 headlines down on my Yahoo News page, after updates on movie premiers and election updates, was an article on climate change released just an hour before writing this post. The article was entitled Greenhouse gas volumes reached new high in 2012: WMO, and as the headline reveals, the World Meteorological Organization has analyzed data showing that greenhouse gases, despite conservation efforts, reached a record high last year.

According to the Copenhagen Accord of 2009, a non-binding environmental treaty, many nations from around the world agreed to limit climate change to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. According to the new data released by WMO, our gas emissions, by 2020, will be 8 to 12 billion tons higher than that is thought needed to stay under the 2 degree mark. Instead, some predictions have us reaching the 2 degree mark by mid-century.

What is the significance of the 2 degree mark?

The 2 degree temperature increase set as a maximum by the Copenhagen Accord is not a safety zone. By many accounts, reaching the 2 degree mark will spell long-term environmental disaster. However, many scientists argue that even temperature increases of 1 or 1.5 degrees will wreak global havoc.  The significance then is that with such a small margin for error and a growing awareness of carbon emissions and global warming, humanity is still failing to neutralize the single most important global threat of our age.

Reading this unfortunate news, I am reminded of the work Coldfire/Kilimanjaro by South African artist Georgia Papageorge, a work featured in the Earth Matters exhibition at the Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art. Coldfire/Kilimanjaro is a work that is comprised of decades of observation of the Kilimanjaro glacier, which Papageorge has watched as it has steadily receded. According to Papageorge, one of the biggest local factors in the irreversible melting of the glacier is the felling and burning of trees in the regional and illegal charcoal trade. However, there is no doubt in our minds that carbon emissions and climate change is a global problem and that local factors and local impacts, as significant as they may be, are only indicative of the global scale of this seemingly irreversible problem. Image

Georgia Papageorge (b. 1941, South Africa)

Kilimanjaro Souther Glaciers, 2010

Mixed Media, 238cm x 148 cm

 

Guest Voices: Marc Lallanilla

Todays guest post comes from Marc Lallanilla. Lallanilla is a science, health and environmental writer and editor for LiveScience.comAbout.com  and ABCNews.com. For the Earth Matters blog, Lallanilla offers us some poignant thoughts on a the environmental impacts of war. Too often looked past in popular media, the environmental effects of war have a measurable impact on our lives. Also a talking point for Earth Matters artists Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh, Lallanilla’s thought provoking words are part of nuanced discussion of our relationship to the earth.

The Environmental Effects of War

By Marc Lallanilla

Centuries ago, the armies of ancient Rome sowed salt into the cropland of their enemies, making the soil useless for farming and ensuring the total conquest of their foes.

Using salt to ruin farmland was an early use of military herbicide, which would again be used to devastating effect in Vietnam, when Agent Orange was sprayed on the forests that provided cover to guerrilla soldiers. Between 1961 and 1971, an estimated 20 million gallons of the herbicide was used, decimating some 4.5 million acres of countryside.

These are just a few examples of the effects of war on the environment. Indeed, there are few human endeavors that can wreak near-total devastation on the natural world with the ruthless efficiency of warfare.

Beyond wholesale habitat destruction, war can help to spread invasive species, lead to the collapse of critical infrastructure like water treatment facilities, and cause widespread hunting and poaching of rare and endangered species.

While it may seem counterintuitive, some experts have argued that military conflicts often end up preserving the natural environment. “It’s one of the findings that’s utterly contrary to expectations,” said Jurgen Brauer, Ph.D, professor of economics at Augusta State University in Georgia. “The most preserved area in all of Korea is the demilitarized zone, because you have the exclusion of human activity.”

Indeed, experts have noted that despite the massive amounts of herbicide use during the Vietnam War, more forests have been lost in that country since the war ended than during it, due to peacetime commerce (such as logging and farming) and Vietnam’s quest for prosperity.

The blackened skies that erupted over Kuwait during the oil fires of 1991 provided dramatic visual evidence of war-related environmental damage. These oil fires, however, burned in one month roughly the same amount of oil burned by the United States in a single day.

Despite these facts, experts are quick to emphasize that this is not an argument in favor of armed conflict. “War is not good for the environment,” adds Brauer, author of War and Nature: The Environmental Consequences of War in a Globalized World.

Carl Bruch, co-director of international programs at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C., adds that warfare only delays the environmental damage of peaceful human activity and commerce. “It may provide a respite, but the long-term effects of war aren’t that different from what happens under commercial development,” Bruch said.

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Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh (b. 1963, Egypt; b. 1963, Iran)

We Are Destroying Planet Earth, 2007

Charcoal, ink, collage, stickers, embroidery on paper

Courtesy Tina Kim Gallery, New York, and Kukje Gallery, Seoul