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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

 

We’ve Got Company

Ok! So I haven’t been great with posting on my blog as regularly as I should. If it’s not writer’s block going to town with me, it’s Life herself and boy does she go to town with you *sigh*. Anyway, I am pleased to say that I have been writing a lot more in the last few months even if it hasn’t been for this community and I must say that it has been really fulfilling and I am sure it will be rewarding in the long term.

In the next few months I will be going walk about and visiting with other, much bigger and/or more experienced villages (blogs) namely Africa on the Blog and IamTehn and as a result I won’t be able to give as much attention to this village as I should unfortunately *sigh*. But! Yes, there’s a but – a good one at that – I have found a way to keep things moving so fret not chile. You see, I realised that since others have been so gracious as to let me visit with them in their spaces for a while, why not pay that gift forward by inviting other people to visit with us here? Opportunities to learn and to grow are always multifaceted after all and because I strongly believe in sharing and that story telling; be it through written or spoken word, drama, visual art or music; makes up part of the foundation and backbone of humanity I have been taught by my new hosts to share my space with other writers so that even if I might not be posting my own stuff I will still post stuff written by others and let them tell their stories and share information with you in this our little village. Some of the contributors who will do me the honour of gracing this little space of ours have their own villages aka blogs and I will include a link to their blogs at the bottom of their posts in their bios and for those that do not yet have a blog of their own, I am hoping that this experience will be just as fulfilling for them as it has been for me that they will be inspired to join the bloggersphere community and create one. Knowledge is power and the revolution will be blogged! Viva!

Now as you may have already deduced, I am not the draw-up-a-schedule type of person so these posts will come a sporadically as mine have done in the past. I call it being spontaneous, experts in the medical field call it ADHD (whatever, it’s all the same thing really). Anyhoo, one can’t plan inspiration after all, not their own and certainly not other people’s so the posts will go up as and when the contributions come in. At this point, I welcome people to email me at gauradoreenvictoria@yahoo.com if they are interested in telling their stories in this here village. Ideally they will stick to the general themes/categories of this blog but other than that, your opinions are entirely your own and you’re welcome to go wherever your will desires as long as your opinions, be they divergent from my own or not, remain respectful, positive (no harshing the juju of this sacred space with negative and destructive energy please) and constructive to the greater debate/discussion on forging an empowered and egalitarian future for humanity as a whole and more specifically the Afrikan and other persons of colour.

Right, formalities out of the away let’s get right to it. The first guest contributor is a tremendously vivacious Zimbabwean Swazi woman called Philisile Mudekunye. She is a gifted poet who also happens to be a brilliant medical doctor in Richard’s Bay, South Africa and I have the pleasure of sharing with you one of her beautiful poems titled Afrika’s Lament. Enjoy!

Peace, love and light

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2013 in Uncategorized