An interdisciplinary community of students and scholars exploring critical questions about human experience.

Month: April 2019

Curation: Michibiku Ozamoto’s Name Plate, Manzanar Relocation Camp

For the curation assignment, Chris and I were assigned to the National Museum of American History. After looking at different exhibitions and objects currently on display, we decided to select objects that spoke to the stories of different Asian American experiences in the United States. My object was a wooden name plate used during Japanese internment that is currently located in the Righting A Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II exhibition.  Japanese internment describes the period during World War II where individuals with Japanese ancestry were targeted by the United States and placed into relocation, or internment, camps in order to protect national security. The name plate belonged to Michibiku Ozamoto as indicated by her last name on the plate in bright white letters. Accompanying the name, the object contained the numbers “24-4-3” that indicated she was in Block 24, Barrack 4, and Apartment 3 within the greater Manzanar relocation camp. In fact, the name plate was made from wooden scraps from the internment camp. However, I find it important to highlight the anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States prior to internment and how that shaped later anti-Japanese policies before addressing the specifics of internment.

A key point of connection between Chris and I’s objects was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Chinese Exclusion Act actually increased Japanese immigration to the United States. West Coast businesses needed labor, specifically farm labor, and asked the Japanese government to send over workers. Before this period, there were not many japanese immigrants due to the Naturalization Act of 1870 where only those of African or white descent could become naturalized citizens. This act effectively excluded japanese individuals. Soon the United States nativists started to have the same sentiments towards the japanese individuals as they did towards the chinese (especially in California).  News outlets started to post anti-Japanese articles. A Japanese and Korean exclusion league was formed. Nativists saw the Japanese as taking their lands, businesses, and not returning to their home country. In 1913, an alien land bill was passed in California to prevent Japanese aliens from owning land. In 1924, an immigration act prevented any individuals eligible for citizenship from being admitted into the country. Even those that did have citizenship were viewed as secondary citizens and ‘not quite’ american. These were the emotions building in the United States before December 7th, 1941 when the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor. Thus, all these emotions grew to hysteria.

On February 19th, 1942 President Roosevelt issued executive order 9066 that led to the mass incarceration of approximately 120,000 individuals with Japanese heritage. By march, people were located in the Manzanar relocation camp that my object was located in and throughout the years many times moved to more camps. There were supposed to be supplies, foods, and protections for those incarcerated; however, many had their properties liquidated, sold, and given away to other owners.  The Western Defense Command created military zones that forced japanese individuals to move into these camps. Japanese individuals were told by California Governor Olson that they were “being removed only to protect you and because there might be one of you who might be dangerous to the United States. It is your contribution to the war effort.” Unfortunately, the camps would not close until after the war and Japanese individuals would not be able to naturalize until 1952.

A final interesting point concerns the Japanese gardens on the camps. Manzanar means “apple orchard” in Spanish, but the camp was a desert. When the camps were built, Japanese individuals began to build beautiful gardens that brought their cultures into these areas. These gardens were ranked in contest and viewed in a strange way by people outside the internment communities. Thus, there was a consumerism and viewership associated with the incarceration of Japanese individuals.

— Chris Barry and Raven Baugh

Curation: Sculpture and the Chinese Exclusion Act

The National Museum of American History holds a significant amount of objects that get at the American experience. Hidden in those objects are the voices and experiences of the many different groups and identities that make up the United States. With those voices, a darker side of American history emerges, demonstrating how voices and identities have been excluded from the American experience as well as demonstrate questions regarding justice and injustice, inclusion and exclusion, and migration and spaces. Groups coming from Asia felt these question especially and the National Museum of American History presents objects speaking to the exclusion of Asian immigration and anti-Asian sentiment throughout American History. For our curiation, we decided to examine how these objects are presented, what historical narrative is being presented, what the narrative says about how Americans are officially choosing to reconcile this past, and fit the objects and their related historical experiences and discourses into a larger historical context. We choose to examine the explicit moments of exclusion of Asian groups, looking at the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Japanese internment during World War II.

In the “Many Voices, One Nation” exhibit, there is a sculpture that illustrates the exclusion of Chinese immigrants stemming from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This object is part of a section called “Places of Negotiation” with this object specifically looking at the spaces surrounding inclusion and exclusion. In the context of the section, the museum argues that despite this extreme and explicit moment of exclusion this moment can be seen in a larger movement of progress and a constant debate over exclusion and inclusion where in the long-term inclusion prevails. However, the section also suggests that these negotiations are a continuous and ongoing process by using the active and present tense in the title “Negotiating Inclusion.” Being juxtaposed with the image the Statue of Liberty with its larger shadow looming over the statue itself, the objects demonstrate where groups like Chinese immigrants base their claims and policy while also internal policy and attitudes about race and ethnicity. Within the larger structure of the exhibit, the museum claims that these voices are integral part of American history, both the good and the bad. By also showing institutionalized discrimination and exclusion and getting at the attitudes and dominating voices of the Gilded Age, the museum succeeds in demonstrating how while these voices were and still important and matter to our present construction of American identity and its connection to immigration and diversity

The object and this specific section focuses heavily on the discourse surrounding Chinese exclusion and the larger sentiments felt and expressed by white Americans at the time. The object itself illustrates a sense of natural hierarchy that existed in the United States at the end of the 19th century. A white, male figure with a liberty cap is sitting on top of an African American in a bald eagle’s nest. Struggling to climb up and ultimately being pushed out of this nest that symbolizes America’s deliberate attempt to entirely remove Chinese immigrant the United States  and public places. Through the depiction of the Chinese immigrant in terms of their facial expression, the experience of the Chinese immigrants can be slightly obtained. However, further teasing out and research provides a voice for these Chinese immigrants who had a very mixed, fluid, and intentionally unclear status. Chinese immigrants petitioned the federal government for remedy to this act, making claims based on the ideology that surrounds the object in which the sculpture is juxtaposed with, the Statue of Liberty. These Chinese immigrants claimed that they were a part of American culture and deserved a place to be included in the conversation. They were American and what America represented and tried to portray to the world.

The object speaks primarily about white American attitudes towards Chinese immigrants; however, the object also raises questions of labor, race, and citizenship during the Gilded Age which can be teased out and further explored. Chinese immigrants moved to the West Coast being drawn in by the promise of the Gold Rush. After that, Chinese immigrants worked on the completion of the transcontinental railroad with powerful railroad companies exploiting for the the Chinese immigrants for sake of cheap labor. The immigration labor was only allowed in frontier spaces and even that allowance was temporary. Once the railroad was completed and these spaces developed into ‘American’ spaces with more people settling and moving into the West, the status of the Chinese changed from one of need for cheap economic labor to an immediate threat to the purity of an American identity (one very different from the American identity and experience in which the exhibit is trying to sell) and the labor that working class Americans deserve. The hierarchy in the sculpture illustrates the emerging interest and placement of race science into American culture where specific ethnicities and races are superior or inferior to others and purity must be supported and was an integral part of an American identity at the time. In this moment of exclusion, the federal government expanded into how it could and would protect Americans from these so-called invaders that were originally invited in to help lay the foundations for the continental United States and ward off against these fears and anxieties over the purity of the American identity.

— Chris Barry and Raven Baugh

Curation: The Indian Removal Act

For my curation assignment object, I chose the Indian Removal Act document at the Museum of American Indian, Washington DC. This act was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830, and has strong connections with the themes of migration and identity. Under this act, thousands of Native Indian Americans were forced to migrate from their homeland in Southeastern United States to the Western parts of Mississippi river. While the Act itself is symbolic of the wide-scale racism and ethnic discrimination present in the US in the 1800s, the very process of forced relocations is just as significant – the latter came to be known as the “Trail of Tears,” signifying the plight and the suffering of the Native Americans in light of this relocation. Resultantly, the enactment of the Indian Removal Act remains one of the most shameful and deplorable acts in all of the US history.

While the act itself was signed into law by Jackson, the proposals for the Indian removal date as far back as the administration of James Monroe, whose Secretary of War, John Calhoun (who later became the Vice President of the United States), devised the first plans for such a removal. Under the original act, the Indians “…may choose to exchange the lands where they now reside.” Notice the use of the word “may” – it denotes voluntary transactions between the parties.  That is, the act only went insofar as giving the President the freedom to negotiate the exchange of land with the Indians. The original act contains no mentions of any sort of forced or coerced relocation. However, this reality of the situation was anything but voluntary. While the previous presidents respected the sovereignty of the Native Americans, going only as far as making efforts for acculturation of Native Americans, Jackson made this issue his top priority. As a military general in his younger days, Jackson himself led several battles against the Native Americans. Hence, he adopted a staunch stance towards the them, arguing that such an act would protect the Native Americans from the negative influence of the white culture.

While in theory, the act was directed against all native Americans, only the five biggest Southern tribes were targeted in particular: Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole. Ironically, however, these five tribes were already significantly civilized and cultured, often adopting European and American practices into their culture. In fact, when the act came into force, some Cherokees challenged the decision in the Supreme Court of the US (See Cherokee Nation v. Georgia). However, the Supreme Court sided with Jackson, arguing that the Native states were not recognized as sovereign, official states by the Court. Further, when the Seminoles refused to leave their ancestral lands, the government sent in troops to forcibly remove them, resulting in the Second Seminole War. This war was the longest and the most expensive of the Indian wars in the history, resulting in the lives of as many as 1500 US soldiers and $15 million (equivalent to approx. $400 million today).

What followed thereafter was the actual process of migration, or the infamous “Trail of Tears,” where thousands of indigenous Americans (approx. 67,400) embarked on a journey across America, spanning hundreds of miles, primarily on foot. The first group of Cherokees left their homelands in October 1838, and reached their new homes in March 1839. This journey spanned four months and occurred during the months of harsh winter. Resultantly, thousands of Cherokees died along the way. An estimate reveals that more than 4000 Cherokees, almost a fourth of the total Cherokee population, died along the way, as a result of diseases, cold, and hunger. The figures for the number of deaths in other tribes are still contested but are likely run in thousands as well.

The Indian Removal Act raises important questions not only about identity and migration, but also about human greed and philosophy. In the aftermath of the removal act, the Southern American citizens occupied the indigenous lands and began cultivating cotton. What followed thereafter was the cotton boom in the South, resulting in great economic prosperity. The South became synonymous with money and power; the states of Alabama and Mississippi had more millionaires per capita than any other states. From an economic standpoint, then, the removal act was a huge success. But were the losses suffered really worth the prosperity? This wealth was generated by the enslavement of millions, which directly led to the Civil War. Even if we ignore the Civil War, we cannot disregard the price that the native Americans had to pay for America’s economic prosperity. The tribes had to start afresh in their new homes, thousands of families were disintegrated, loved ones were lost, and above all, the native American identity would never be the same again. In fact, in the words of Tocqueville,

“In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. “To be free,” he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We … watch the expulsion … of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.” (Tocqueville, on witnessing an exhausted group of Choctaw natives in Memphis – Pierson, 597-98)

Truly, then, the removal act is a great tragedy and it remains a huge blot on the history of the American society.

— Abhi Ruparelia and Nora Geer

Curation: Sandals from the Great Inka Road

For my object at the National Museum of the American Indian, I selected a pair of Inka sandals that were found in the Cusco region of Peru and are believed to be from around 1450-1532. I was drawn to the sandals because of their both figurative and literal ties to migration. The sandals themselves epitomize movement, as people wore them to move from destination to destination, but they situate themselves more broadly in the greater historical context of the Great Inka Road.

The Great Inka Road, consisting of over 25,000 miles of paths and bridges across mountains and along the coast, embodied the immense power of the Inca Empire. In the Quechua language, the Road translated to “road of power”, and it traversed the western edge of South America from Peru to Chile. In building such a road, the Incas sought to create a link between the four distinct regions of the empire, and all roads led to the center of the empire at Cusco. The Great Inka Road was almost solely used for official state business, such as delivering messages and packages between regions. Because of its high efficiency and organization, it emphasized the Incas’ great political and economic structure with which the Incas were able to grow so powerful. And the Great Inka Road itself symbolized an engineering feat unparalleled elsewhere in the world. Constructed without assistance from iron tools, wheels, a writing system, and stock animals, it superseded copious challenges in its construction.

Some key figures involved included chaskis, short-distance relay runners who actually wore the sandals. These Inca messengers delivered oral messages and physical packages across the Inca Empire in a supposed relay race. One chaski would run five to ten miles at a time at top speed until he reached the second chaski who would likewise sprint to the next chaski pit stop. They would pass on oral messages, packages, or khipus (rope record-keeping systems). With this system, important information or items could travel up to 200 miles a day and travel from Cusco to Quito within a week. The immense efficiency of this system again proved how extraordinary and organized Inca communication was. The chaskis enabled the Empire to function smoothly, provided that the chaskis memorized the messages correctly.

Chaskis truly did wear the sandals that I saw in the National Museum of the American Indian. They were lightweight and functional enough to allow the chaskis to run at their top speeds, but they often deteriorated after only ten miles because of their flimsy material. These sandals were made out of plant fiber, specifically from yucca, agave, or even cotton. Nevertheless, these sandals were vital to the chaskis’ success. A popular Inca folktale recounts the story of a chaski who was relentlessly late to his chaski pit stops. He prayed to the sun god for help, and the sun god gave him a pair of sandals. From that point on, the chaski was never late again.

This object connects to our discussion of migration and identity on many levels. First, the sandals symbolize literal movement as the chaskis strapped them on to help propel them across the Inca empire. They therefore also symbolize the importance of migration to Inca society. In constructing a something so organized as the Great Inka Road, the Inca emphasized the significance of connectedness in their world. In order for the Empire to possess its immense power, individuals had to “migrate” from region to region to disseminate information and certify that the Empire was functioning efficiently. The success of the Inca empire thus boils down to this humble pair of sandals; the sandals helped the chaskis complete their missions, the chaskis helped the ruler to spread important information, and this information helped to create the organization and productivity that characterized both the power and identity of the Inca Empire.

— Ahbi Ruparelia and Nora Geer

Curation: Drinking Vessels from Iran

The gazelle-headed drinking vessel from Iran reveals more than societal values and dining practices of ancient Mesopotamia. In considering every aspect of known information about the artifact, one can begin to understand individuals’ behavior as well as how human relationships formed and played out. While only the date, origin, and medium are known, the spouted gazelle-head vessel makes a case for the time immemorial practice of long-distance migration and interaction of peoples.

Geography and dating:

In relation to the rest of the spouted vessel collection in the “Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran,” the earthenware gazelle head stands out. Other vessels depict feline animals and are made of silver and/or other metallic material, but were all originally excavated from Iran. But excavation site does not always indicate the location of creation, as trade, looting, gifting and numerous other reasons can account for the presence of an artifact at a location. Through the use of absolute dating techniques, archaeologists can determine an artifact’s original location and sometimes even when it was created. For the earthenware gazelle vessel two methods would most likely be applied:

Thermoluminescence – clay, in its original, unbaked form, collects or absorbs radiation (electrons) at a constant rate every year. Once a potter has molded and fired their creation, this radiation is released, but after the firing, the object once again begins to absorb radiation. Once excavated, an archaeologist can fire the object again and measure the amount of radiation released, giving a pretty clear time period. While this technique is relatively new, it can be especially helpful in dating some of the oldest fired pottery.

Soil/clay sampling – In brief, different landscapes have their own soil or clay makeup, which remains relatively unchanged. By examining this makeup, archaeologists can pinpoint general regions where an object’s material source originates.

Archaeology and trade:

The image of the bovine creature is certainly not specific to Mesopotamia (containing the area that is now known as the Middle East). Rather, it is found other Mediterranean cities and cultures as well, the most notable and contemporaneous with the gazelle-headed vessel being ancient Greece – depicting Gods, the sacred, etc. (Rotroff). Even more connected with ancient Grecian culture is the structure and function of the vessel. The almost-horn shape – large opening, narrow base with a hole at the bottom for consumption – is both described and drawn in Hellenistic images of the symposia, generally understood as a large feast with abundance of wine. The structure of the vessel makes it so once a beverage is poured in, one must continuously consume it unless spillage is not an issue. While it is certainly possible these two cultures developed similar drinking vessels at around the same time, archaeologists have identified trade markers between Mediterranean cities that date back to the Naqada II/III periods, centuries before the Hellenistic and Achaemenid periods (Rosińska-Balik). More conceivably, trade and migration was established centuries prior, making the convergence and sharing of ideas inevitable by the 3rd century BCE.  If true, this vessel demonstrates the ongoing fluidity of identity, challenging the rigid identity barriers and categorizations of today.

— Emmie Poth-Nebel and Junru Zhou

Curation: Brass Canteen from Ayyubid Dynasty

The object I chose for my Curation Assignment is a brass canteen with silver inlaid in Freer and Sackler Museum. It was made in mid-13th century during the Ayyubid Dynasty in Syria or Northern Iraq. It is considered as “an interesting link between the Christian and Muhammadan art of the Near East” by the celebrated Islamic art historian Maurice Sven Dimand (Dimand 1934, 17).

The canteen both resembles and differs from the the majority of Islamic artworks. Similar to traditional Islamic potteries and miniatures, the border of the central medallion, the edge of the spherical side, and the cylindrical neck are decorated with kufic and naskhi Islamic inscriptions — two dominating variants of Arabic alphabets — of which repeatedly praise and impetrate good fortunes for the owner. For example, the inscriptions around the central medallion means, “Eternal glory and secure life and complete prosperity and increasing good luck and good fortune and pledges and everlasting favor and affluent living and abundant good fortune and lofty victory and enduring power, overwhelming safety, everlasting favor and perfect honor to the owner” (Atil 1985, 124). Vine and animal, two decorative patterns which frequently occur on Islamic artworks, are also detectable on the spherical side, the flat side, the shoulder, and the neck. However, the major element that diverges the canteen from the majority of Islamic arts is the depiction of human figures. Widely known for its rigorous practice of aniconism, Islamic art had almost never comprised any sentient beings until this time period. The presence of such abundant human figures not only suggests the rareness and innovativity of this canteen, but also indicates that this canteen might be an example of the exchange of culture during the 13th century.

The figure subjects can be categorized into two groups: 1) sacred characters related to the life of Christ, 2) individuals from the mundane world. On the spherical side of the canteen, there are four scenarios that art historians identify as Christian images:

The spherical part of the piece has a central concave medallion with the Madonna and Child seated on a throne with two saints at the side and angels above and below… The figure subjects represented in the panels, between the medallions, are scenes from the life of Christ. In the first compartment (beneath the spout) are two scenes: the Nativity, with the three wise men and shepherds, and the Baptism. In the next compartment (from right to left) we see the Circumcision of Christ in a temple with three domes. The third compartment shows an elaborate composition representing the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem; Christ is seated on a donkey while the inhabitants of Jerusalem are spreading carpets or are seated in the trees rejoicing at the arrival of Christ (Dimand 1934, 17).

Some of the scenes, despite of significant variations, are recognizable (such as the enthroned Virgin Mary and baby Jesus), while the rest still remains debatable for art historians. For instance, Ranee A. Katzenstein disagrees with Dimand and defines the three scenarios around the concave medallion as “the Annunciation, the Entry into Jerusalem, and the Raising of Lazarus” (Katzenstein 1983, 56). Also, one of the two saints accompanying Virgin Mary has a turban on his head, which obscures his real identity. The confusions and mysteries are mostly caused by the lack of attributes/individualization for each character depicted as well as the deficiency of coherent order. In one hand, the depictions of life of Christ illustrate the “Islam’s increasing awareness and acceptance of certain Christian themes and ideas,” while on the other hand, the evident reappropriation and adjustment of Christian figures should not be neglected (Katzenstein 1983, 65). The Islamization of Christian images implies that the artists might possess certain amount of knowledge of biblical stories but were plausibly unfamiliar with Christianity.

In addition to sacred scenarios, the canteen also contains mundane images. For example, “Around the hole is a frieze of warriors on horseback” (Dimand 1934, 17). Nonetheless, the identity of these soldiers are unclear. Some art historians argue that they are Ayyubid aristocracies playing polo game, some suggest that they are hunters, and others believe that they are armed Muslims and Crusaders fighting with each other. There are also musicians and people with drinking vessels, reinforcing the mystery of this object and obscuring its real function. In fact, the function and purpose of this canteen is still an ongoing debate among art historians. The official website of Freer and Sackler Museum claims, “The canteen may have been commissioned by a wealthy Christian, perhaps, as a special memento of his travels” (Freer|Sackler Museum, n.d.). In Katzenstein’s journal, she writes, “The impractical size and the weight of the canteen suggest that they served primarily ceremonial purposes” (Katzenstein 1983, 54). Other scholars such as Atil analyze how the canteen could be utilized by pilgrims in detail in order to demonstrate its practical function. Therefore, it is difficult to draw a defined conclusion on whether the canteen was created for secular or ceremonial purpose.

Albeit these hypotheses, mysteries, and confusions, the canteen is essential for modern generation to decipher the culture, identity, and human migration during the Middle Age. While appreciating the extremely fine craftsmanship, it is equally important to recognize this canteen as an epitome of the multicultural society. In other words, no culture/cultural identity is so-called independent or pure — they meld, influence, and define each other through interactions such as human migration. Meanwhile, the canteen can serve as a reminder of the intimate but often neglected connection between Christians and Muslims generated by human migration. Eventually, this canteen, along with all the mysteries around it, proves that whether human migration takes place naturally or compulsively, it unarguably encourages cultural fluidity, enriches the development of our civilization, and leads to the creation of fascinating and intricate artworks.

— Emmie Poth-Nebel and Junru Zhou

Curation: Akan Gold Weights

The Currents: Water in African Art exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art featured a wide variety of artistic works which revealed the ways in which water imagery influenced the cultures of different African groups. While the ideas of water and movement were related in many ways, the display of Akan weights suggested the direct impact that bodies of water can have on the migration of material goods, cultures, and people.

At the museum, the curator displayed 16 Akan gold-measuring weights, each modeled after an aquatic animal, in a glass case. The Akan people crafted these weights out of a copper alloy sometime in the 18th or 19th centuries along the coasts of Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire. This region was known for its abundance of gold, and the trade of such a precious material “tie[d] the peoples of Ghana into a trans- Saharan commercial network that stretched from the West African forest zone across the Sahara to ports on the Mediterranean” (Berry xxx). Even before the arrival of European powers, movement of peoples across the African continent was necessary for these types of exchanges to take place. The fact that the Akan dominated the gold trade suggested that they controlled the different elements of the transactions as well. For example, local goldsmiths, or adwumfo, made each weight by hand under the direction of its future owner. Since “nearly every Akan male of any standing possessed a certain amount of the weights,” the goldsmiths likely designed the weights to reflect the cultural beliefs of powerful figures in their society (Arhin 94). The use of cultural imagery in the act of trade allowed the Akan people to exchange ideas along with the gold as they came into contact with other migratory groups.

Since the owners of the weights often dictated the form in which they were made, many of the gold weights contained water imagery inspired by Akan proverbs. In the display at the National African Art Museum, the most popular shapes were those of alligators, fish, and crab claws. The frequency of water-related imagery indicated the significant influence that proximity to water had on the cultural values of the Akan people. In the traditional proverbs, water carried general associations of “fluidity, flexibility, and movement between worlds;” however, the exact meanings of such symbols were somewhat subjective (“Currents”). This degree of ambiguity allowed both the weight’s owner and those who saw it during gold trading to draw their own conclusions about the imagery. Even if someone outside of the Akan culture came into contact with the weights, they could still understand the water images’ relationships to motion without the context of the proverbs. With that being said, the creators of the exhibition gave viewers short interpretations of some of the weights; a fish in a crocodile’s mouth suggested that despite hard work, “the benefits might go to someone stronger,” and the crab claws symbolized “surprising weapon-like strength” (“Currents”). Regardless of one’s understanding of the proverbs which inspired the weights, their water-inspired design reflected the importance of movement and fluidity to Akan culture.

The other way in which the Akan gold weights reflected ideas about migration was through their connection to the slave trade. While these small objects did not cause the slave trade themselves, the arrival of Europeans hoping to trade for gold ultimately developed into the trade of enslaved people. The first Europeans to arrive on the Gold Coast were the Portuguese in the late 15th century, but many other nations followed suit in the centuries after (Berry xxx). This high demand for gold required the Akan to increase the speed with which they mined, and in order to do so, they enslaved other African groups. In this instance, the term slaves “ could mean simply subjects, or include free men”; regardless, many of them were migrants to the region (Arhin 92). This cheap labor source allowed the Akan gold traders to increase both their economic and cultural interactions with the arriving Europeans. As more and more Europeans traveled to West Africa to trade, the focus of the exchange shifted from gold to slaves. By the end of the 17th century, “slaves replaced gold as the staple of the trade” as a result of “the demand for labor in the Americas” (Arhin 95; Berry xxx). Europeans began to control the region and forced many Africans to migrate, thus representing the loss of autonomy and identity that could result from a clash of cultures. In this historical context, the Akan gold weights symbolized the beginnings of a massive example of forced migration.

The Akan gold weights ultimately represented the notion of migration on both a metaphorical and a literal level. On the one hand, the imagery used by the goldsmiths in shaping the weights suggested the importance of water to the Akan culture. Given that water allowed for the movement of goods and people across far distances, its influence on the material objects produced in the region indicated the value placed on motion and fluidity. On the other hand, the gold weights served a significant historical role in the migration of people to meet the demands of first the gold trade and then the slave trade. Diverse cultures came into contact as a result of the exchange of goods and labor in West Africa, and the weights represented one aspect of this process. The Akan gold weights hinted at the ways in which water’s connection to migration can impact many different facets of a culture or identity.

— Karen Fleming and Casey Murano

Curation: The Fisherman and the River Goddess …

Twin Seven-Seven’s painting “The Fisherman and the River Goddess with his Captured Multi-Colored Fishes and the River Night Guard” explores the connection between spirit and body and how the simultaneous movement and unity between these two modes of being shape identity.

The river goddess depicted by Twin Seven-Seven originates from Mami Wata, a prominent African water spirit who “embod[ies] hybridity, transactions of every kind, and constant innovation” (Drewal 9). Although Mami’s image is deeply ingrained in African culture, her true identity is both foreign and indigenous” (Drewel 10): because representations are modeled after models of her, it is difficult for the viewers to know which versions authentically align with her true identity.

The river goddess in Seven-Seven’s piece is one such variation of Mami Wata known as Oshun (Drewel, 2008). As the goddess of cool waters, she “straddle[s] the landscape of the Yoruba landscape” (Drewel 179).  Since Twin Seven-Seven grew up immersed in Yoruba’s culture, it is fitting that he should reference this specific variation of the river goddess in his work.  Yoruban tradition views “the cosmos as consisting of two distinct yet inseparable realms – aye (the visible, tangible world of the living) and orun (the invisible, spiritual realm of the ancestors, gods, and spirits)” (Gikandi 68). This attention to the connection between spiritual and worldly reflects major themes in Twin Seven-Seven’s work.

First, the relationship between the figures in the piece embodies this Yoruban teaching. Though the viewers know from the caption inscribed on the boat that the three figures include a guard, fisherman, and river goddess, distinguishing the mystical goddess from the human figures proves difficult because Twin Seven-Seven paints them all in the same style with similar physical features. This lack of distinction between the figures and consequent ambiguity creates a harmony between the spiritual and worldly. While Oshun’s divine identity is obscured by human interpretation, the fisherman’s ability is supported by divine interventions. However, upon closer investigation, the viewers may eventually notice some cues that reveal the figure on the far right as the river goddess. Indeed, this figure has physical features usually associated with water spirits: wild braids and a mermaid tale that camouflages itself with those of the other fish. The way the faces of the fisherman and Ushun are touching intimately conveys the intimate connection between the two domains.

Second, the contrasting materials Twin Seven-Seven reinforces connections between divine and worldly beings. By layering ink and pastel, Twin-Seven allows inherently different mediums to merge together in order to create a cohesive composition and experience for the viewer. Ink, on one hand, is a permanent, richly dark medium that by outlining forms commands a sense of presence like the physical world. On the other hand, pastels’ soft yet vibrant colors blur and smudge away like an ephemeral spirit. By balancing these two mediums so that neither the pastel’s hues nor the ink’s bold lines overpower one another, Twin Seven-Seven emphasizes that the best expression of identity is deeply connected to both the aye and orun (Gikandi 68).

While much of Twin Seven-Seven’s style developed from his personal immersion in Yoruban culture, he also learned to artistically express his identity through workshops with international artists. During the 1960s, artists from across the ocean came to Oshogbo to help Nigerians develop confidence in their own personal artistic abilities (“Currents”). That African artists like Twin Seven-Seven learned to expressively share themselves through art parallels the Great Migration and African American cultural revitalization that occurred in Harlem.  This connection is reinforced by the fact that one of the workshop leaders was Jacob Lawrence, a successful painter and printmaker of the Harlem Renaissance (“Currents”). Lawrence’s personal migration to Africa provides an interesting situation: he brought the influences of African American culture so the Nigerians who actually lived in Africa could also express their personal African identities. In some ways, this seems to call to mind the United Negro Improvement Association Philosophy in that those of African descent were united and committed to supporting one another. However, these artist workshops were based on self-sufficiency rather than recolonization of Africa. Not only did cultural influences extend overseas–like Lawrence, Twin Seven-Seven worked in an expressive style that simplified and flattened the composition in order to highlight the emotional experiences of the viewer–but the Nigerian artists learned to express their own personal heritage.

The boat, as a mode of transportation, symbolizes movement and migration. Furthermore, because the boat occupies a central place in the composition, its influence on shaping the identity of the figures is also emphasized. Like the figures and material elements in the work, the boat has two components of its identity–literal and metaphorical–that reinforces the intertwined spiritual and physical identity. On a physical level, the boat is used for necessary daily migrations, including the forced movement of fish. The boat functions as a container like the black ink outlines forms in the painting. However, the symbolic irony of this boat is evident by unnaturally small body of water it occupies. In the same way that the boat contains the fish and figures, the water contains the boat, inhibiting progress forward. The symmetry and similar size of the shore and boat bottom emphasize that although ideas and cultures move and life is composed of a series of migrations necessary for survival, true personal identity can only be expressed when stability is established: a sense of being that unites the aye and orun of life.

— Karen Fleming and Casey Murano

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