Art, Seen?

The word, “Seen” with a question mark (as used in this title, “Art, Seen?”), in Jamaican vernacular translates to “Art, do you understand/agree?” I first heard the word used that way as a small child growing up in the eastern Jamaican parish of St. Thomas. It was used by the Rastafarians that I encountered on my way to and from school as I wandered along Lyssons Beach. Later on, the word caught on with many in the general population. The use of the word as a question means that you are always questioning and contemplating, seen?

Seen, June 2012
Nigerian Art at the Cantor Museum, Stanford University:

“Art” from the 650-mile long Benue River valley in central Nigeria recently opened at The Cantor. I say “art” in quotes because most of the pieces in the exhibition were created for utilitarian purposes. The more art I see, the more universal the creative process seems to be. Take for example, Munch’s, The Scream and Gaultier’s pointy bustiers — representations of both were seen in these early 20th century creations by the Benue River valley peoples.

“scream”, spirit vessel, clay, from the Ga’anda Spirit Pantheon
another scream, clay vessel
screaming, again

The objects presented are drawn from international collections, most of which seem to be from either Paris museums or private Parisian collections. I couldn’t help but wonder if Gaultier had seen these works in Paris and maybe, drawn inspiration from them. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Does it even matter?

doll-like leather figure, by the Tiv peoples

One of the two artists represented (who created art for others) was Soompa of Mapeo. He was of the Chamba peoples and was active during the 1920s-1940s. He created beautiful male-female double figures in wood.

Both of these figures were in the exhibition. The one to the left is owned by UCLA’s Fowler Gallery and the one to the right belongs to a private collector in Paris. Both photographs are courtesy of the Fowler. (

Two of my favorites from the exhibition are:

  • a male wooden figure by the Yungur/Mboi/Bana peoples, believed to be created in the 19th century, or before. It too, is from a private collection in Paris. Its highly eroded surface suggests that it predates the 20th century; and
  • the rainmaking wands made of iron, used in, you guessed it, rainmaking ceremonies.
eroded wooden male figure
Rainmaking wand, iron, Mumuye peoples, mid-20th century
Of  Interest

In the video montage, “Introducing the Benue River Valley”, and also in the exhibition, there were photographs of people dancing in masks and wearing scarecrow-looking clothes of grass and various materials. These figures in all their regalia would be quite frightening to a child. I saw these same figures as a young girl, growing up in Jamaica. They were the Junkonoo that paraded around the Morant Bay town square at Christmas time. Even more fascinating was the mention of the Idoma and Jukun populations who were separated by the Tiv, relative strangers to the Benue River Valley. I wonder if the Jukun had anything to do with the transfer of Junkonoo customs to Jamaica? Hmmm.

Face mask on metal pole, probably by the Tiv peoples

For more on the Benue River Valley exhibition, visit: The exhibit runs until October 14, 2012.

A good informative article on the Jamaican language is Hannah Appel’s, “Jamaican: Language.”

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