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Bey Repping the Orisha Like a Bawse: Photoshoot Demands the Decolonization of Culture and Knowledge

Image by Awol Erizku

Image by Awol Erizku

Beyonce Knolwe’s pregnancy announcement, which she made over a week ago, has inspired debate. The debate has been about the pregnancy itself and the manner in which she made the announcement. Knowles enlisted the expertise of the tremendously talented Ethiopian-American photographer, Awol Erizku to conduct a photoshoot, featuring herself, her five year old daughter Blue Ivy, the unborn twins and a vibrant festival of colour and flora which almost reminds one of Chinese film director, Zhang Yimou’s famously colourful oeuvre. The commentary has ranged from praise to criticism (read: mainly white women’s tears and haterade on tap) to “objective” analysis and while, as a non-fan (but admirer nonetheless), my interest in this was inspired by this commentary emerging from various social media platforms and news outlets, it is in fact, the rather lacking and somewhat problematic commentary coming from certain quarters of the art academe that has motivated this article.

The stunning Surrealist images produced by the artists not only invite the observer to join in the celebration of the new life growing inside Knowles’ womb but they compel one to dive into the world of a resilient Afro-spirituality long buried deep in colonial religion and whose expression is condemned to the fringes of social and epistemic consciousness. This expulsion becomes quite apparent when one interrogates the observations and conversations that have ensued post release, and more particularly the ones getting the most attention from mainstream publications.

In an article by Kate Storey, academics Dennis Geronimous and Jim Nikas gave their insights on the symbolism captured in Beyonce and Erizku’s master piece of a photoshoot. The complete erasure of the rather distinct influence of Afrikan Spirituality (Ifá to be precise) in the symbolism was palpably strong in the piece and yet it was also woefully unsurprising because, well, what are black people after all, if not non-beings without consciousness and therefore without religion? I must hasten to say here that I don’t dispute the presence of a Latinx spiritual influence (in fact, I seek to expand on its analysis) and even some European artistic influence as per [art history] analysis in the piece. It is precisely because there has been a reference made to Latinx spirituality that religious cultures such as Santería in Cuba and Candomblé in Brazil, for example; that are syncretisations of Ifá /Yoruba Religion (most notably) and other West and Central Afrikan spiritualties with Catholicism for the express purposes of conversion (on the part of the colonising/enslaving oppressor) and protection and preservation (on the part of the oppressed Afrikans) that they should have been the logical destination of Niko’s analysis, for instance. Most of the images in the shoot are undeniably deeply rooted in these religious systems through the use of symbols representing the Orisha, in all their various representations across the Black Atlantic.

In an equal world, that is to say, a world where the black occupies their place in it as a human versus the ontology of the anti-human ascribed to them, I’d have expected the experts called for comment as well as the journalist who sought out their opinions to have known this because as far as Surrealist art goes, this is probably the most direct representation of a culture and a philosophy but alas, we do not live in such a world so it is no wonder that they do not know or perhaps even worse, they do know but choose to disregard it because it is not considered “Universal”.

Afro-Portuguese writer, theorist and interdisciplinary artist, Grada Kilomba captures this paradigm quite beautifully in her book Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism when she highlights that the concepts of knowledge and science are “intrinsically linked to power and racial authority” and emphasizes this point through a series of questions around what knowledge is accepted as such, who creates it and who it is meant for? She also asks “who is at the centre” and who is left outside at the margins. Kilomba defines the centre as the core of the academic space, which she claims, and rightly so, is “not a neutral location”. Her postulations help us understand why it is that despite the glaring presence of Ifá as the motif of Bey’s work in both Lemonade and the photo shoot, the expert voices that have been solicited thus far still erase it from this “centre”.

Image by Awol Erizku

Image by Awol Erizku

virgen-de-regla

Image by Yumie Esnard

A more well-rounded analysis would not have just acknowledged the obvious link to Eurocentric deities such as Venus and Flora as was the case in the aforementioned piece but would have made the necessary connections between these deities with the Vierges Niores (Black Madonnas) quite prominent in the Caribbean and South America. Surrealist artists from the region, such as Wilfredo Lam (Cuba), for instance, have long been capturing this imagery in a commitment to ensure the ongoing portrayal and revival of the enduring Afro-Cuban spirit and culture.

Working Title/Artist: Wilfredo Lam Jungle Goddess Department: Modern Art Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 11 Working Date: 1942 mma digital photo #DP102750

Working Title/Artist: Wilfredo Lam Goddess with Foliage
Department: Modern Art
Culture/Period/Location:
HB/TOA Date Code: 11
Working Date: 1942
mma digital photo #DP102750

Another more obvious hint that the analysis should have looked a little more South of the globe is the fact that the chosen date, i.e. the 2nd of February, for the big reveal is also the day set aside in Salvador, Bahia Brazil to celebrate one of the main Orishas, who also features rather prominently in both Beyoncé’s video album Lemonade and her shoot – Yemaya or Iemanjá. Yemaya is the Orisha of the seas and oceans, fertility, motherhood, safety of children, protection, love and healing in Ifá/Yoruba Religion, Santería and Candomblé cultures across the Black Atlantic. She is also the mother of all the Orisha in Yoruba culture’s Ifá/Yoruba Religion and its variations in the Caribbean, where she is also known as the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Regla or Virgin of Regla.

Image by Mikael Quites

Image by Mikael Quites

Image by Awol Erizku

Image by Awol Erizku

Elizabeth Perez, in her book The Virgin In The Mirror: Reading Images Of A Black Madonna Through The Lens Of Afro-Cuban Women’s Experiences (2010) writes:

“Affectionately called La Negrita, Regla is the only Marian image in Cuba considered to be black, and Yemayá is the only spirit, or oricha, explicitly described as such by devotees.”

As we know all too well, racism’s functionality necessitates the erasure of black people and more specifically the womxn, which is why when Ethiopian-American artist and cinematographer, Arthur Jafa, says in a conversation with bell hooks, that “the camera automatically functions as a white gaze” even when it is a black person who stands behind the camera, as is the case here with Erizku, it makes complete sense that Yemaya, Osun and the other Orisha are completely absent from the critical narrative. This point by Jafa coupled with Regla’s Blackness undoubtedly explains why the likes of Nikas and Geronimous completely ignored the metacommentary of Afro-spirituality embedded throughout the preceding video album, Lemonade, and the recent photoshoot. This war on Africannisms is made even more obvious in Perez’s book when she notes that La Negrita has often been overlooked by scholars who instead, opt to fetishizingly focus on the Cuban copper-coloured Mulatta Virgen de la Caridad whose equivalent in Mexico would be, as referenced by Nikas, the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Observed through a less anti-black and by extension, anti- black aesthetic lens, the photoshoot as well as Lemonade can be seen as more than just an ode to the Orisha – with links to Santería or Candomblé specifically and Ifá/Yoruba Religion as the sine qua non – but an actual performance of ceremony. Various Orisha are worshipped at different points of Lemonade and in the photoshoot. For example, in the photoshoot, Beyonce acknowledges Orisha Osun with the yellow scarf and the water which also captures the spirit Yemaya. The Black Madonna symbolism drawn from the Caribbean religious chromolithographs (which the Lucumí, for instance, considered to be in line with the Yoruba aesthetic codes that required anthropomorphic imagery for the deities) found in many a (mostly working class) Afro-Latinx homes across the Catholic Black Atlantic, captures Yemaya. She also acknowledges the Orisha Sango, the father of Osun’s twins with the red scarf, Orisha Ibeji (Sango and Osun’s twins) with the bare/exposed belly where her and husband Jay Z’s twins are nested who was (while Ibeji is a set of twins, they are considered as one entity) taken in and raised by Yemaya when Osun cast them away after being accused of witchcraft for giving birth to twins.

Image by Awol Erizku

Image by Awol Erizku

The fact that Beyonce chose to release the image heralding the news on the 2nd of February as opposed to the 1st day of the (Black History) month of February as well as stick to this motif from Lemonade, right through to the photoshoot, demonstrates a certain level of consciousness (and perhaps even genuine veneration) of the spiritual and religious implications of said motif. Many artists and thinkers before her have made use of Surrealism as a weapon of resistance against imperialism and these include Aimé and Suzanne Césaire. Aimé Césaire, in an interview in 1967, characterized Surrealism as “a process of disalienation” that was both aesthetic and political vanguardism and Suzanne, in her work, Surrealism and Us: 1943, writes:

Thus, far from contradicting, diluting, or diverting our revolutionary attitude toward life, surrealism strengthens it. It nourishes an impatient strength within us, endlessly reinforcing the massive army of refusals.

With this magnificent representation and documentation of Afro-spiritual/theological aesthetics, Beyonce Knowles and Awol Erizku gesture, be it deliberately or serendipitously, towards acts of further dissention in the world of art. As writer Firoze Manji states in his article on Guinea-Bissauan revolutionary leader Amilcar Cabral “for Cabral, and also for Fanon, culture is not some aesthetic artefact, but an expression of history, the foundation of liberation, and a means to resist domination. At heart, culture is subversive”. This photoshoot demands a decolonisation, not just of art/culture but of all knowledge so as to ensure the black and brown world’s true emancipation.

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Posted by on February 8, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Coloniality, Cold War Politics and the agitation for the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir.

Erudite post by Mukoni Ratshitanga. Worth the read.

Mukoni Ratshitanga

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NOTE: I wrote the first version of the article below on Sunday June 14 following the South Gauteng High Court’s interim order to the Department of Home Affairs preventing Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, from leaving South Africa pending consideration by the courts of an application for his arrest brought by a nongovernmental organisation. I have updated the article in view of developments since June the 14th. The thrust of the argument presented earlier remains the same though it is elaborated in some areas.

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Coloniality, Cold War Politics and the agitation for the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir.

Mukoni Ratshitanga

Not since the International Criminal Court issued an indictment for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in March 2009 has the world witnessed such intense and concentrated global media reporting and commentary on the issue as in the hours after 14h00 South African time on Sunday June 14.

This followed a…

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Posted by on June 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Would your ancestors be shocked by “traditional” marriage?

the adventures of cosmic yoruba and her flying machines

I saw this post on Cracked; 5 reasons ‘traditional marriage’ would shock your ancestors, and I knew I had to something similar. Nigerians today have ideas on marriage in the past, especially about how women behaved as wives, that may not be the reality. I’ll be focusing on Yoruba people here because that is what I am more familiar with but please note that different cultural practices exist among Yoruba people. So what was commonplace among say the Egba may not have been common among those from Ilorin. Nonetheless, the more I learn from this history hobby of mine the more I am surprised at the how different things apparently were, not only according to historians, scholars etc but also according to my mother and friends with similar interests.

Without further ado here are my reasons as to why your ancestors would be shocked by “traditional” marriage with a…

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Posted by on June 10, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Beneath the surface: In search of Afrikan knowledge & greatness

Beneath the surface: In search of Afrikan knowledge & greatness

Conversation Zimbabwe

I moved back home a couple of months ago. I had spent the last two years yearning to return, but I have found my short time back quite difficult and rather triggering to say the least. Most people will quickly jump to the conclusion that this is in part related to the country’s economic situation and even the political situation but it is actually more to do with the socio-cultural environment that the country presents to a young returnee of strong Afro-consciousness convictions.

I am especially saddened by the blatant self-perpetuation of anti-black ideology that exists in Zimbabwean society and subsequently Zimbabwean thinking particularly when we speak of how we value, or rather, don’t value Afrikan traditional philosophies and indigenous knowledge systems. In his book Peau noires, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks), Martinique postcolonial theoretician Frantz Fanon points out how colonialism entrenched the belief that the culture, history and…

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Posted by on June 3, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Don’t get it twisted, (white) privilege is totally a thing

Don’t get it twisted, (white) privilege is totally a thing

Conversation Zimbabwe

*Generalisations abound*

“We need to be clear that there is no such thing as giving up one’s privilege to be‘outside’ the system. One is always in the system. The only question is whether one ispart of the system in a way that challenges or strengthens the status quo. Privilege isnot something I take and which therefore have the option of not taking. It is somethingthat society gives me, and unless I change the institutions which give it to me, they willcontinue to give it, and I will continue to have it, however noble and equalitarian myintentions.”Harry Brod, “Work Clothes and Leisure Suits: The Class Basis and Bias of the Men’s Movement” in Men’s Lives (ed.) Michael S. Kimmel & Michael Messner

In her thought-provoking article, “Musings from the Groin of a Self Absorbed Zimbabwean (Part 1),” Felicity Sibindi briefly discusses the…

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Posted by on April 1, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

On Decolonizing Education and the Perils of Speaking Good English

On Decolonizing Education and the Perils of Speaking Good English

Black Girl Speak

When asked about the legacy of colonialism, I point out that we must still speak a colonial language in order to be granted the courtesy of humanity. To be intelligible to the power structures which govern our lives, we must first submit ourselves to its language, to its frameworks and reference points, to the culture which continues to visit violence upon our bodies. I wonder, where was my black when decolonization was happening?

In watching the protests, led by the Student Representative Council (SRC), at the University of Cape Town, I am struck most profoundly by my jealousy.

It is outside of term time – most people will have gone ‘home’, you will put up the event page for a solidarity action, under Oxford’s statue of Cecil Rhodes, at half past midnight. By the morning, 75 people will have clicked attending – You will count 24 people in the…

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Posted by on March 25, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

The Exoticisation and Otherisation of the Afrikan by the Afrikan

Written by Doreen Gaura for POVO Journal 2014: Inaugural Women’s Edition

In the last decade or so we have seen an increase in Afrikan visibility and participation in the marketing of the continent as a commercial and creative hub. We have embarked on re – branding the image of Afrika i.e. moving away from the traditional Afro-pessimistic narrative to a more positive vibrant one as well as reclaiming the marketing rights of our own continent and cultures. This paradigm shift has reaped benefits for more and more, mostly young, Afrikan designers, artists and entrepreneurs both on the continent and in the Afrikan diaspora.
It is a cause for celebration particularly in light of the reductive, Afro – pessimistic narratives that have plagued us for centuries and enabled the violent dispossession and subjugation of our people. However, I fear that while it has created room for Afrikans and our cultures in the global market as well as facilitated cultural exchange amongst ourselves as Afrikans on a much larger scale, I feel that this new visibility and celebration of our various cultures and the different aspects thereof has done very little to facilitate a shift from the exoticisation of the Afrikan and Afrikan culture.

If anything, it would appear to have not only validated it because that same narrative is now being vocalised by Afrikans “so it must be true”, but we now participate in the exoticisation of ourselves and our cultures.

I can personally think of many examples of this that I have either observed or encountered personally over the years both as a Zimbabwean immigrant living and working in Cape Town, South Afrika and as a Zimbabwean emigrant returning home every year for a visit. During my last visit to Zimbabwe I was called “exotic” by strangers for spotting natural/afro-textured hair and donning afro inspired clothing and accessories. I found this both very problematic and somewhat offensive at the same time even though on all three occasions it was intended to be a compliment.

The term “exotic” does not sit well with me, particularly when it is said in reference to people (of colour) or to POC cultures and heritages and this is because of the historical baggage that comes along with that term. Historically, and even in the present day, the term exotic mostly serves the purpose of propping up and sanctioning the otherisation of the “exotic” subject so as to fetishise and objectify them/it making them/it inferior to what is considered the “norm”. This thinking operates on the premise that there is a singular norm and anything that deviates from this alleged norm then automatically becomes unusual and abnormal.

The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the US defines exoticisation as:
…a process by which a human figure is cast as foreign, not in the concrete sense of belonging to a foreign country or ethnic group, but in the phenomenological and ethical sense of being “other.” The other is considered an object of interest and contemplation for the viewing subject, who presumably represents a cultural norm. The hallmark of exoticization in European and American literature is the construction of the other as strange and mysterious—often in some desirable or attractive but nevertheless distanced way—as if she did not exist within a plausible cultural or psychological context.

What I take issue with when I’m referred to as exotic, particularly by fellow Afrikans and more especially by fellow Zimbabweans is that the things that aren’t foreign about me BECAUSE I’m a brown/black Zimbabwean or Afrikan are the exact things that my viewer considers exotic and distances themselves from; things such as not relaxing my hair or not wearing a weave or even not identifying as a Christian but instead as an Afro – spiritualist. This of course speaks to the politics of decolonisation and betrays to what extent we are really a nation (and perhaps even a continent) of Anglophiles whose idea of normal is really Euro-centric and it is often through this Anglophile/ Euro-centric lens that we engage with our cultures or identities and wind up falling into the trap of commodifying them as opposed to promoting them.

The commodification and exoticisation of ourselves, our cultures and our identities also seems to entrench the socio economic and political issues that already plague our communities. It appears to disenfranchise certain communities (particularly the rural ones) who by the way are usually the ones who preserve, live and identify with these cultural aspects more than those who wind up profiting from commodifying and commercialising said cultures. We end up replacing the current perpetrators of the exploitation of our people and our cultures. Also it is very problematic how we seem to be only embracing our cultures because we feel that there is business to be made from them for as long as the west is still enamoured by the idea of the exotic other.

The exoticisation of Afrikans is nothing new and we have seen this in stories like the Allan Quartermain series and various other aspects of pop culture that romanticise and fetishise the idea of Afrika as an endless majestic wilderness filled with adventure and “primitive but mysterious and alluring jungle people”. It is this sort of exoticisation that we seem to have internalised and adapted somewhat. Since the emergence of Afropolitanism, which has come under much justifiable criticism we have seen more and more young Afrikans appearing to be engaging with both their own as well as other Afrikan cultures. I say appearing because of late I have wondered to what extent most of us actually engage, if at all, with the plethora of Afrikan cultures we are enthusiastically commodifying and consuming.

I started to question this when I noticed that in conversations with fellow young people, be it in South Afrika or Zimbabwe, around “afro-print” couture for example, most people treated the plethora of prints being used in the fashion industry as though they all emerge from a homogenous culture, called “Afrikan”. Not many bother to learn more about the origins of the prints they were using or buying and what, if any, significance or meaning they hold to the bearers of that particular culture. Because we use whiteness as the standard or default for normal, modern, urban, progressive, sophisticated etc we appear to be more interested in engaging with our identities using Euro-centric rules and norms i.e. moving away from the roots of said identities while maintaining the things that have received the West’s endorsement and approval and that can fit seamlessly into the neoliberal capitalist imaging of the world at the expense of the sacred aspects of our identities. What appears to be a celebration and promotion of Afrikan identities is in most instances a celebration and promotion of Western identities and norms just with an Afrikan twist to it.

It is true that doors have been opened up and conversations started about our Afrikan cultures with business opportunities being provided for our Afrikan designers but to what extent are the designers engaging with the cultures they are “marketing” in order to be considered representatives of said cultures? Is a Kente inspired printed fabric the same as a Capulana print one and therefore can be used interchangeably? Are the symbols in these prints just meaningless pretty squiggles and designs on a piece of cloth or do they represent something? To what extent are the rest of the beneficiaries of those cultures being included in this distribution of their identity? Is the appropriate respect being awarded to the sacred aspects of the things we are marketing? Is commodifying Afrikan cultures creating multiple and nuanced narratives or just creating an illusion of representation and adding an Afrikan voice to the already existing reductive narrative of the “exotic other”? In my opinion these are all pertinent questions that elicit the necessary conversations that I believe we should be having as young Afrikans.
That we are not is indeed problematic or has the potential to be. Don’t get me wrong, I am not entirely against the marketing of our cultures ourselves as I am for the idea of (re)discovering, (re)claiming, and (re)framing/branding our identity first as black Afrikans then as members of various ethnic and cultural groups that fall under that banner (of Afrikan) that is removed from the imposed monolithic common identity that is “human” which is usually understood as a synonym for Europhile but I believe that we need to stop viewing and identifying ourselves using a Westernised/ white gaze.

Others may wonder if it is still necessary to be talking about such things and if these things still matter but for as long as we and the rest of the world determine our value by our ability to produce Afrikan flavoured versions of Western convention and form because we are “inferior” we still have lot of talking, learning and unlearning to do. Of course, there will always be the risk of opening ourselves up to continued exoticisation by others through this promotion and celebration of ourselves and our cultures, that is unavoidable, but at least we can aim to dismantle the ever reductionist narrative somewhat and more importantly we can cease to legitimise and reinforce the problematic racialised inferiority imposed on us by ideas of Euro-centric supremacy.

 
 

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