blog, psychic transition">
of Other Solstice
African Art Magic
Boccio from the Fon people of Benin in West Africa, Ca. Mid 20th Century - vessel character comprising various materials (mixed media) covered with millet, chicken blood, etc. to give it power
Story + Photographs Copyright 2004 by JR
All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without permission.
Long-time readers of this book of essays of may recognize the figure above. He's prominent in Essay 36 — The Full Moon Poem, which not coincidentally is about fear, magic and growth.
He's back, because I was telling him my fears today after finishing work at Joel Cooner Gallery and chanced to ask Joel for more information about this remarkable little figure.
Joel told me what I've included in the caption under the photo above. He also showed me African Vondun by Suzanne Preston Blier (ISBN 0226-05858-1), which he said I could read in the gallery but not take home.
My cursory exploration of the book quickly led to a more thorough, albeit rapid examination of its pages. My spine tingled. My brain buzzed. I felt suddenly more intellectually connected to the cosmos, as I rapidly paged through the book filled with photographs, descriptions and the thesis of psychotherapy and magic in that primitive place.
I would have happily read through the entire volume, but I still wanted to beat rush hour traffic. I certainly will return to that amazing book and would have bought it at Amazon.com but it costs $37.50.
Probably worth it, but this is only one of the more fascinating side trips in my exploration of the magical side of my Self. Besides it's right behind my desk one day every week.
Here you can more clearly see the skull attached to our little friend's back (an area, according to the book, associated with pain and enemies). Notice also the binding cord wrapping the torso and the string of cowrie shells on this side and the chain (visible in the image at top) on the other side.
Current psychotherapy is steeped in European — and to a lesser degree Asian mythology. Yet here I was discovering an even more ancient — certainly more primitive — form of deep metaphysical understanding, embodied — made into art — in the form of these figures, one of which was standing under a spotlight in the next room (and to which I had already begun to tell my fears).
I had discovered the potential form of an intriguing and powerful art- and performance-related opportunity to use African mythology in the form of ritual magic to help defeat my neurosis.
I.e, Using good juju to combat bad juju.
Art vs. psyche.
Except I probably won't be pouring chicken blood and millet on my ritual figure to give it the power it needs to stop my fears and cure my ailing psyche.
4. rituals .a. A ceremonial act or a series of such acts. b. The performance of such acts.
1. An object used as a fetish, a charm, or an amulet in West Africa.
2. The supernatural power ascribed to such an object.
1. The spirit or soul.
2. Psychiatry. The mind functioning as the center of thought, emotion, and behavior and consciously or unconsciously adjusting or mediating the body's responses to the social and physical environment.
Psyche Greek Mythology.
A young woman who loved and was loved by Eros and was united with him after Aphrodite's jealousy was overcome. She subsequently became the personification of the soul.
Piecing together some of my hurriedly gathered quotes from Blier's book, I gathered a loose outline of the material, madly scribbling quotes from many of the earlier chapters:
"In southern Benin and Togo art assumes a critical role in psychotherapeutic practice."
"In general, aggressive response in the context of personal difficulty is widely promoted, worked out at the level of ritual and the psyche, rather than through interpersonal means..."
"Transference is critical."
All the definitions in gray type on this page are from my trusty, CD-based American Heritage Dictionary.
2. In psychoanalysis, the process by which emotions and desires originally associated with one person, such as a parent or sibling, are unconsciously shifted to another person...
"The protection from acts attributed to witches was one of the primary roles" of these figures, which over the years have acquired such names as "fetishes," "idols," "gris-gris," and "devils."
Boccio, the current proper term for these ritual sculptures "comes from the combination of empowered (bo) and cadaver (cis)."
Vondun, in the book's title, comes from vo (hole or opening) and the symbol for the hidden or the secret — "of what we cannot explain but which troubles us and makes us uneasy," write Blier. The conical base of the fetish shown above formed a stake-like protrusion for positioning him into the ground during ceremonies.
Of course, most of us know it as voodoo.
1. A religion practiced chiefly in Caribbean countries, especially Haiti, syncretized from Roman Catholic ritual elements and the animism and magic of Dahomean slaves, in which a supreme God rules a large pantheon of local and tutelary deities, deified ancestors, and saints, who communicate with believers in dreams, trances, and ritual possessions. Also called vodoun.
2. A charm, fetish, spell, or curse holding magic power for adherents of voodoo.
3. A practitioner, priest, or priestess of voodoo. In this sense, also called hoodoo.
These figures are "purposely grotesque" and made of stone, bone, leather, rags, feathers and "comprise vessels of empowering materials — horns, small pots, gourds scored on the surface with cord or cloth" and "emanate qualities of tension, anxiety and danger."
Their component pots, gourds, horns, etc. are filled with a variety of natural, herbal and other powders, and "each container represents a different type of problem or response."
The powder is "blown into the face of an enemy or rubbed into the forehead or hands of the carrier to protect from accidents."
"Works themselves are never meant to be understood but remain enigmatic and obscure to local residents."
The belief is that if anyone other than the maker knows of a work's precise materials and methods of construction, he or she will have power over its commissioner.
Most of the people in the community would not talk about the figures, the author reports, and they would avert their eyes from photographs of it.
This aversion, she said "... has grounding in the highly personal psychodynamic roles these objects play in local communities and a certain understandable hesitancy in discussing works so closely tied with an individual's innermost thoughts and fears."
Not unlike the reluctance of many people in this country to discuss the process of their own psychotherapy.
Although the one example of this genre which I have become most acquainted with is a fairly solid, maybe three feet high figure, the author shows a variety of smaller, rag doll-like figures that are essentially softer and for more personal use.
I believe this is a club with a fetish on it. I'll have
to ask next time I see Joel. Ain't it grotty?
Some people equate voodoo and other primitive religions with devil worship. This is, I believe, absurd and has more to do with Hollywood and dime novel nightmare visions than anything closer to the truth.
I do know of at least one preacher and congregation, which has acted upon their collective belief that primitive looking art should be destroyed.
Ignorance and fear, as I know too well, can lead us to do some pretty stupid things.
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