As many of my readers already know, within the past two years I have taken up the art of photography. I have been learning a lot and I think I am at the point now where I can start to combine my love for imagery with my love of philosophy. I am inspired by ancient African art, not only for its aesthetics, but for the symbolism for which each piece conveys.
As a student of African history, one thing quickly becomes apparent and that is Africans, traditionally, did not do art for art’s sake. Each expression was an attempt to image the kind of reality the creator of the art-form envisioned and wanted to manifest in their life or the lives of others. Before there was a film called “The Secret,” the ancient Africans used carved or painted images as “vision boards” to imprint subtle messages on the human psyche in hopes of communicating with the ALL, which is mind, and to translate these inspirations into experience. A book I have found helpful in articulating this function of African art is Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy (1983). I also recommend Credo Mutwa’sIndaba My Children: African Folktales (1964).
I am also inspired by post-modernist philosophy. One notable philosopher in particular is Jean Baudrillard, author of Simulacrum and Simulation (1981, made famous in the first Matrix film). Simulacra and Simulation is most known for its discussion of symbols, signs, and how they relate to contemporaneity (simultaneous existences). Baudrillard argues that modern society has replaced all reality with signs and symbols and that our human experience is only a simulation of reality. This was written before the internet and video games like SimCity or Grand Theft Auto. Moreover, these simulacra are not merely mediations of reality, nor even deceptive mediations of reality; they are not based in a reality nor do they hide a reality, they simply hide that anything like reality is relevant to our current understanding of our lives.
The simulacra that Baudrillard refers to are the significations and symbolism of culture and media that construct perceived reality, the acquired understanding by which our lives and shared existence is and are rendered legible; Baudrillard believed that society has become so saturated with these simulacra and our lives so saturated with the constructs of society that all meaning was being rendered meaningless by being infinitely mutable. Baudrillard called this phenomenon the "precession of simulacra". (Wiki)
This author and book inspired the title of this series of images (at least some of the images). Each image pictures a partially nude female model and myself who is fully clothed. I will explain the intended meanings of each image below.
This image above is addressed to those who are “in their heads” too much to enjoy life. These are folks who choose to “study” life instead of “live” it. You find that these types of people drown themselves in their work or studies, but for some reason can’t maintain good human relationships. It is not that they can’t get along with others, but it’s hard for them to connect with others in a real intimate way because their sense of reality is grounded in study material, fiction novels, poetry, video games, etc. When it is not like in the "movies, books, poems," they think that something is wrong. Instead of living life to the fullest, they’d rather read about life that has happened/is happening while great opportunities pass them by. If your head is constantly looking down in a book, it is hard to see the beauty that is around you, the opportunities for love around you, the opportunities to expand, etc. There is a Dagara proverb that I think is relevant here: “When death comes knocking at your door, let him find you living!”
The image above is of our model straddled atop me holding her iPad while I am under her on my laptop computer. Often I will be out at dinner with friends, or at a club and I notice that everyone is on their phone Facebooking or texting. You have good food in front of you, great friends around you and/or good music playing and you are on the computer (a phone is a computer) “simulating” conversation and networking. I find this to be a good example of Baudrillard’s concept of Simulacrum and Simulation. In regards to the image above, if you are a man and have a beautiful half-naked woman on your lap and you’d rather be on the internet, then I would argue that there is something seriously wrong here and one isn’t recognizing the “beauty around you.”
This next image is not necessarily connected to the concept of Simulation. I wanted to do a modern rendition of an ancient scene commonly found in ancient Egyptian reliefs: that of the goddess Nwt and the god Geb who represent the “sky” and the “earth” respectively.
The goddess Nwt is the feminine aspect of the god Nwn(w) which represents the larger eternal universal from which all of creation derived. Nwt is often depicted swallowing the “sun-god” Ra at night and giving birth to him in the morning. This is one of the rare cases where the sky is feminine and the earth is masculine. Usually it is the reverse in other mythologies around the world.
This image is self-explanatory. However, I want to point out the power of the Black woman as even recognized by the ancient Greeks who were in awe of her beauty and mind:
“It was evident that African women were the favorites of Greek poets. One poet wrote praising them to the skies, saying: ‘With her charms Didymee has ravished my heart. Alas I melt as wax at the sight of her beauty. She is Black, it is true, but what matters? Coals are black; but when they are alight they glow like rose cups.’ Such praise was commonplace among the Greek poets.” [Dr. Edward Scobie, Global Afrikan Presence; Chapter Five: “African Women in Early Europe,” Page 116]
Lastly, the above image has several connotations for which I will only explain a few. In Africa, in general, wealth and prosperity is connected to feminine energy. In the Yoruba tradition, the king will not be prosperous in his reign unless he gets the backing and the blessings of the Ìyáàmi (society of women, meaning “My mothers”). As told by Baba Dah Mitchai Oyadare ÌLÉTÚNJÍ ADÉOYÈ, and as grounded in the tradition of Ifa, women are the secret of the world and nothing prospers without the right women in your corner (male or female). This is reaffirmed by the Edo proverb in the picture, “He whom a woman backs up cannot fail.” The woman is the fertile ground for which things grow (why the earth is usually symbolized by a woman: i.e., “mother earth”).
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In our last picture our model represents the goddess As.t (Aset, Isis; Coptic Ese). She is the counterpart to Wsr (Wasir, Osiris; Ciluba Wa-Shil) who is the god of vegetation, the life-principle, water and the underworld. The goddess Aset in reality is a variation of the goddess Waset (/wAs.t/) which is the goddess of “riches and prosperity.” The word As.t is simply wAs.t without the w- prefix. We see our model (Aset) multiplied three times to signify this idea of “increase of wealth” and beauty (coolness). Even the ancient Greeks knew the value of the Black woman and her connection to expansion. As noted by Dr. Edward Scobie in his work Global Afrikan Presence (pg. 116)
“But, Greek lovers of the African woman did not restrict their worship only to the love-sex vision. There were contradictions. The Greeks saw other virtues in African women, virtues not directly related to the passions of the flesh which the Black female body incited in them. For instance, their Goddess of Chastity, Artemis, was Black. The Greeks chose an African princess, Minerva, to represent their Goddess of Wisdom; thus placing the African woman, not only as an object of sex, but as a virtuous, spiritual and intellectual being capable of elevating man to loftier heights.” [Chapter Five: “African Women in Early Europe”]
As we discussed earlier with the Ìyáàmi in Yorubaland, we see the same thing in ancient Egypt with the enstoolment of king Menkaure by Hathor and the goddess of the Aphroditopolis nome, Ta (in the Cairo Museum).
The goddess Hathor (Hwt Hrw) is in reality another variation of the goddess Ast (Isis). A matter of fact, the goddesses Isis, Hathor, Nebthet (Isis' sister) and Waset are depicted exactly the same, just with different emblems depicted on their heads respectively. All-in-all, as a result of the ability to give birth and expand the community, the woman in the ancient world came to personify this notion of expansion and prosperity (children were seen as a sign of wealth). In many traditional African societies, women still run the market.
It should also be noted, as discussed by Thompson (1981), that in African art a woman’s bare breasts represents, in part, this notion of prosperity and wealth. For the Yoruba specifically, if a woman is holding her breast in the image, it is a sign of “giving” (Thompson, 1981: 13). The breasts are also symbolically seen as sources of knowledge (http://www.randafricanart.com/African_maternity_figures_various_people.html). Just as a young child grows strong from being breast-fed, in the same fashion, since the mother is the first teacher, knowledge (one’s spiritual milk) does the same thing to the mind beyond this biological period of development.
These are just some of the ideas I wanted to convey in these images. Again, I am inspired by a lot of African art and philosophy and upcoming images will draw from this vast store of inspiration, but done in a modern context. Some women may be offended by the nude body. To offend is not my intent. African art is full of nude or partially nude depictions and this is the spirit of the theme I am trying to capture. On one hand one may admire nude carvings or abstract photos of the female body, but a depiction of a real life human body stirs up mixed emotions. The question is why? How is one more comfortable with the Simulation but not the reality? These questions are at the heart of this series. This is why she is partially nude. She represents the (naked) “truth,” Obviously, then, the subject with the clothes represents one who is still caught up in the illusions of life (at least in the pics focused on Simulcrum and Simulation). In Egypt truth is represented by the goddess Ma’at (who could also be argued to be a variant of Isis). Ma’at (the goddess of order, justice, reciprocity, balance, harmony and truth) is often depicted with bare chest and in the Book of Coming Forth by Day it is said that “no one has unveiled her face.” This is why the face isn’t depicted in the images above. However, the god Thoth (Djehuty) was the patron of scribes who is described as the one "who reveals Maat and reckons Maat; who loves Maat and gives Maat to the doer of Maat." Thoth is the god and personification of wisdom, knowledge and science. Thus, the Egyptians are saying that only wisdom/knowledge can reveal (unveil) the face of Maat (truth) and in these pics I represent the concept of Thoth (Thought/Djehuty), as the man allegedly represents ‘logic’ in many peoples’ eyes.The next series of images will be my interpretation of Yoruba themes, so be on the lookout.
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