Friday, February 14, 2020

Some thoughts on representing "the other"

Bapende Chief
14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2020
The Bapende Work Song found on Folk Music of the Western Congo does not come with any images associated with it. The song is a work song that was performed in the process of villagers building a house for their chief and was recorded by Leo A. Verwilghen in 1954. A photograph of a xylophone player is the only of the Bapende people included in the booklet that all Folkways' series come with. A Google image search on the Bapende yield an incredibly rich array of photos associated with Bapende ceremony. The song however is not a sacred song so I refrained from using any of the images showing those ceremonial masks and costumes that are associated with the Bapende and celebrated in Western art appreciation. While usually shying away from using images owned by giant image databases such as Getty, I settled for a small black and white photograph made by Michel Huet and owned by Getty Images. The fabric used on the chief's hat has the same pattern as the headdress on one of the Rundi women that I painted and subsequently adopted not too long ago. The pattern is made of triangles that create intricate negative space patterns. 
The photo also clearly shows facial markings on the chief (either tattoos or scarification) that I assume functions as identification of a chief. I've been thinking about identity a lot lately, reading Reasons and Persons by the philosopher Derek Parfit and using the topic repeatedly in the art appreciation I currently teach. Body art, including the ever so popular art of tattooing, is a medium closely associated with personal identity. Yet, in many non-Western cultures the identity expressed is not a personal identity but a belonging to a certain group, religion, class, family and so on. The function of the tattoo is almost the exact opposite than the expression of individuality as it is used for in Western society. The person as individual, and the idiosyncrasies are more of the threat to the social structure than that they are celebrated. Many ceremonies, the sacred nature of these, are meant as a means to rise above (or beyond) oneself as an individual. To denounce personhood and become a sacred being shared with the ancestral (spirit) realm. It is perhaps rather unfortunate that over time the sacred meaning of ceremony and the subsequent loss of individuality has been used to simply control  ever larger groups that make up a society. So it happens that without any dissent the Bapende villagers happily get together and construct the roof over the new chief's building while performing the Bapende Work Song watched over by Leo Verwilghen.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

It's not all that esoteric

14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2020
Cocaine in My Brain was a huge Top 40 hit for Reggae star Dillinger during my coming of age years in the Netherlands. It made it all the way to #1 in 1976. I'm sure the single Marijuana in My Brain from the following year was intended to replicate that success but failed to do so. You'd expect more given the Dutch affinity with marijuana. The band Doe Maar had a smash hit in 1980 with their marijuana anthem Nederwiet. I bought the Dillinger single in 1987 (I used to write dates on 45s). Dillinger, named by the legendary producer Lee Perry, was born Lester Bullock on June 25, 1953 in Kingston, Jamaica. I just finished painting Dillinger and have now just six more to go for the Top 100 2019. I figure I forward some of the (not so esoteric) paintings from these series that were painted last year. First Nick Cave, who after so many years made the list again due to the Peel Session Sampler LP that I played a few times last year. The record features Big Jesus Trash Can by Cave's band The Birthday Party. Adam Horovitz returned because of an MTV video  Live in Glasgow that can be watched on YouTube, and Captain Beefheart's Owed t'Alex appears on the compilation The Dust Blows Forward from 1999. It originally appeared on Shiny Beast from 1978.
Captain Beefheart
14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2019
Nick Cave, The Birthday Party
14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2019
Adam Horovitz, The Beastie Boys
14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2019

Sunday, February 2, 2020


Sun Ra
14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2020
Sun Ra was born in Birmingham, AL as Herman Poole Blount in 1914 but he never liked to be reminded of that fact; "That is his-story, my story is my-stery." He claimed to be from Saturn but returned to Birmingham when his health was failing and died there in 1993. Searching the web for an image to paint I came across an interesting story by Mike Walsh called Stranger from Outer Space. I settled for the illustration Walsh used, and the article directed me to the movie Space is the Place that I diligently watched, the whole extended version of it. He's out there, for sure. The film features the Arkestra with singer June Tyson. The title track, which appears during the end credits, made sure that Sun Ra reappears in the top 100 2020. The entry for 2019, illustrated here, is from a video on YouTube of a concert in Berlin in 1983. The track is called Happy Birthday/Stars that Shine Darkly and the Arkestra features Archie Shepp on tenor. I can't resist to yet again quote Sun Ra, again from Walsh's article: In tomorrow's world, men will not need artificial instruments such as jets and space ships. In the world of tomorrow, the new man will 'think' the place he wants to go, then his mind will take him there. -- Sun Ra, 1956

Friday, January 31, 2020

Playing Cards

Ahem Mediferai
14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2020
Tamara Ivikovna Sajnav
14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2020
Zeze Musicians, Wagago, Tanzania
14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2020

Ahem Mediferai: From the album West Africa: Drum, Chant & Instrumental Music (1976). Chant performed by three male and four female Tuareg singers led by Ahem Mediferai. Recorded in northern Mali by Stephen Jay. The strong diagonal in the photograph of Ahem Mediferai on the back of the album, and its artist's impression on the front, made me experiment once again with the diagonal 'playing card' (mirroring) axis. I did three the past week, still a long way away from a deck.
Tamara Sajnav: The notes to this song by Alena Uican from the cd Sibérie 4 – Kamchatka: dance drums from the Siberian Far East are odd and short (by Henri Lecomte): "Born in Rekinniki in 1969. She does not work so she can raise her child. This song evokes movements of sea mammals, which she imitates while singing." Life is very mysterious; the more you learn, the less sense it all makes. The image in the painting is of a Koryak woman who appears on the cd cover. The cd is dedicated to the music of the Koryak, the instrument seen is shaman's frame drum as is Uican's.
Zeze Musicians: The zeze is a stringed instrument found throughout Tanzania. The Wagogo of central Tanzania are especially associated with the instrument. The Wagogo Soothing Song can be found on the LP Africa: Ceremonial & Folk Music [Explorer, 1975] and was recorded by David Fenshawe. Two zeze players, a drummer, and mixed choir can be heard in a song that was intended to lull a child to sleep who couldn't. I doubt it if it worked; the performance is quite ecstatic but the zeze has a very soothing sound. The musician depicted appear on a very small photograph on the back of the album and are likely the zeze performers heard on the recording.

Monday, January 6, 2020


Abelam man, 1917
14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2020
The Abelam are one of those groups of indigenous peoples that speak to my imagination. Like the Jivaro, Selk'nam, and the Andamanese, the Abelam of Papua New Guinea belong to those most remote and prehistoric one can imagine. Situated just south of the equator along the Sepik River, running from the Highlands of Papua north to the Pacific Ocean, the Abelam were first seen by westerners a mere hundred years ago remaining with characteristics of the stone age. No metallurgy or writing system they knew of, tools are just of stone or bone. I first learned of the Abelam through the collection The Music of Primitive Man [Horizon, 1973] that featured two short outtakes. One, Abelam Warning, belongs to the most outlandish recordings I've ever heard and was listed in a top 100 some ten years ago. Last year I came across the cd Music of Oceania: The Abelam of Papua Niugini [Musicaphone, 1983, Germany] and downloaded several tracks. Nggwal mindsha, antiphony to the ancestral spirits is now part of the latest top 100 edition. The sleeve features a photo of a characteristic Abelam ceremonial house. As primitive as the technology of the Abelam is, their ceremonial houses are exquisite and display highly advanced building techniques. The music was recorded by Brigitta Hauser-Schaublin who also wrote a lengthy paper of the distinguished architecture of the ceremonial houses. The first mention of these houses, and the Abelam for that matter, was recorded by another German, Richard Thurnwald in 1913. The individual in the painting above was situated in front of a ceremonial house in a 1913 photograph by Thurnwald. There are no women depicted in early photographs of the Abelam, and in more recent pictures women only feature as bystanders. Figures in ceremonial costume, at dances and in front of ceremonial houses are all men. Unlike in more recent photographs, in which men wear western style shorts or ceremonial attire, they are seen nude (at least the one that I painted). Remaining in recent photos is the unique hair fashion of Abelam men coiffed into a near perfect circle, like a halo, or sun disc. Noteworthy too in the appearance of the individual I painted are the feminine looking breasts. Perhaps this individual, standing while others in the photograph are sitting in front of him, is an important person, maybe a shaman. An often seen characteristic of shamans is gender ambiguity. I may be reading too much into this photo but a mind may wander and wonder at the marvels of such distant people.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

No Way and No First

Nowayilethi Mbizweni
14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2020
The first painting of 2020 is of Nowayilethi Mbizweni. This is my third painting of her and together they make an interesting triptych. The recording in (last year's) top 100 is again from Dargie's film Umngqokolo: Thembu Xhosa, Overtone Singing 1985-1998. On the particular section in the top 100 she's not performing solo or as a duet like she was in a previous top 100 but fronts the Ngqoko group seen in the movie. The group consists of about fifteen singers, mostly women but a few men are included too. Nowayilethi sits in front next to (her sister perhaps) Nofirst Mbizweni. The rest of the group are standing behind them. The term 'umngqolo' refers to the type of throat singing Mbizweni is known for and I now learned how to properly pronounce it with the Xhosa clicking sound included.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Garifuna Celebration

Garifuna Settlement Day Festival
14 x 11 inches, oil/mixed media on canvas, 2019
The Garifuna are descendants of West Africans and the Carib and Arawak peoples. The song Abelagudahami appears on The Spirit Cries: Music of the Rainforests of South America & The Caribbean (Smithsonian, Library of Congress, 1993). It was the first album of the Endangered Music Project series initiated by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. As with so many indiginous Americans the history of the Garifuna is one of persecution and displacement. Native to what is now the Virgin Islands they ended up in Honduras and spread to neighboring Belize and Nicaragua. The Garifuna heard on Abelagudahami are from Belize. Despite the 'endangered' label on the cd they are today thriving in Belize.
This will be the last painting and posting of the year. I didn't paint quite a hundred pictures. Happy New Year, dear readers!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

South African Politics

Princess Constance Magogo kaDinuzulu 
14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2019
The image above appears on the cover of the LP The Zulu Songs of Princess Constance Magogo KaDinuzulu as part of The Music of Africa Series produced in the 1960s by Hugh Tracey. The album is number 37 in the series and was also recorded by Hugh Tracey. The recordings are from 1939. The song in top 100 this year is from that album and is called Helele! Yiliphe Ielyiani? meaning 'which regiment is that?' in the Zulu language. I have no clue what the song is really about but the word regiment hints at a political subject. The princess was the daughter of King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo of the semi autonomous Zulu Nation (r. 1884-1913) and sister of King Solomon kaDinuzulu (r. 1913-1933). Her son Mangosuthu Buthelezi (b. 1928) is a politician and Zulu leader who founded the Inkatha Freedom Party (1971) and remained in the South African Parliament until just a few months ago. Princess Constance remained an advocate for Zulu culture and music throughout her life. You can read more on Princess Constance here.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Tibetan Monks

Tibetan Monks, 1903
14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2019
The monks presented here were originally photographed by William Hayman during a controversial British military expedition into Tibet in 1903. Tibet was then still a secretive mysterious country and the British set out to remove Russian influence. The expedition also introduced the first images of Mount Everest to a western audience. I've painted them to illustrate a lament sung by Tibetan monks. Lament for the Dead: Chant appears on a 1951 compilation on Folkways titled Music of the World's Peoples, Vol. 1. The following paragraph appeared in the online VAN magazine:

This field recording from the Smithsonian Music of the World’s Peoples series, captures, according to the liner notes, “Lamas chanting in unison with percussion and bells accompaniment.” The deeply resonant baritone voices, combined with the barely audible, overtone-rich bells, create an almost unbearably chilling sound. This is a lament for the dead by the living, but the sound seems more to emanate from somewhere beneath the earth—from the dead themselves. [Jake Romm – A Giacinto Scelsi Playlist: Sacred Sounds and Sacred Syllables, 2017]

Friday, December 13, 2019


André Didier
14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2019
The 1946 Ogooué-Congo Mission, led by the 23-year old ethnologist Noël Ballif is best known for recordings of Babinga Pygmies made by Gilbert Rouget. They were one of the first recordings ever made of Pygmy music, perhaps the most popular of all ethnomusicological recordings. Many recordings made during the expedition landed on Music of Equatorial Africa on Moses Asch's Folkway label that was released in 1947. The recordings on the LP however, weren't made by Rouget but by another member of the 12 headed Mission, André Didier. At the time the region in what is current day Republic of the Congo, aka Congo-Brazzaville (not to be confused with The Demoncratic Republic of the Congo or Congo-Kinshasa) was part of French Equatorial Africa and the section that is now Congo-Brazaville was then Congo Moyen (Middle Congo). The Middle Congo also included parts of what is now Gabon and the Central African Republic. There are various recordings of the Babinga on the record as well as a host from other ethnicity. One such group are the Bongili, whose "Work Song" is part of the Top 100 2019. Not much is found online today about this ethnic group but their language also called Bongili, is a know and common Bantu language in the Congo. The work in "Work Song" refers to the labor of beaten out bananas (both fruit and peel) for the purpose of a banana paste. A girls chorus and pestles are heard behind a soloist (the chorus takes turns). The notes on the album were written by Rouget.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Maranao Lullaby

Maranao Woman and Child
14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2019
The LP Music from the Mountain Provinces contains a lullaby that was recorded in 1988 by David Blair Stiffler while he was held captive in the Philippines. Stiffler and his travel companions were abducted at gunpoint by an MNLF rebel group. They were taken to a hut in the mountains on the island of Mindanao and held for over two weeks before they managed to escape. He was given permission by his captors to record a woman he heard singing a lullaby to her baby but later all his equipment was confiscated. They escaped with only the clothes on their backs, their lives, and one cassette tape. Music from the Mountain Provinces was intended for Folkways but after its founder's passing it remained on the shelves until it The Numero Group eventually released it in 2011. The woman, and her baby, in the painting are from the Lanao Province on Mindanao. She was photographed inside a refugee camp. The Maranao are a Muslim minority in the Philippines. Political unrest, rebel groups and ethnic fighting have been the norm in the Philippines for decades especially on Mindanao.

Friday, December 6, 2019

A Qiarpa

Group of Inuit Women
14 x 11 inches, oil on canvas, 2019
The Qiarpa (chorus) this painting represents was recorded at Eskimo Point by Ramon Pelinski in 1980. It can be found on the cd Canada: Jeux Vocaux des Inuit (Inuit de Caribou, Netsilik et Igloolik (Disques Ocora, 1989). The performers on most of the 90(!) tracks on the cd are credited by name but not this particular track. The chorus of the heading appears to be a class of young students being instructed on the traditional singing styles of the Inuit, demonstrating just how much the indigenous culture is alive in contemporary times. The painting shows half of a group of female throat singing (kattajaq) singers who were invited to perform in Strasbourg, France for the occasion of an exhibition of Inuit sculpture in 1984. A video of the performance is embedded on a site selling the cd.