Friday, December 12, 2008

Arboreal Symbolism in Post-Conflict African/Diaspora Art

I've long been fascinated by creative deployments of tree symbolism among contemporary African and African Diaspora artists. Trees are often deployed to re-root persons and communities in the wake of dislocation and violent conflict, in the interest of bodily, spiritual and collective healing. Trees, which are like and unlike human beings in such dramatic ways, often enable alternate imaginings of personhood, in ways that important link different temporal epochs and spatial locations.

In a forthcoming article in Electronic Antiquity, I discuss the work of the Atlanta-based African-American artist Kevin Sipp, who has produced a series of remarkable tree sculptures incorporating diverse elements, including sound system components. In his "Strange Fruit" tree-inspired works (one of them seen above) Sipp creates sculptural forms based in part on Kongo nkisi, that serve as alternate homes for the unquiet souls of those killed in lynching, interrupting cycles of violence, pain and retribution. He understands his work as ministering in particular to urban young gang members, the reborn souls of of lynching victims, who through trees and the haunting music broadcast from them, may yet a place of re-membering, re-collection, and spiritual solace.

Mozambican artists have comparably worked with the detritus of violent conflict in the "Transforming Arms Into Ploughshares" project, fusing the broken down elements of automatic weapons into a great Tree of Life. See:


In this instance, the breaking down of the guns not only ensures that the "guns will never kill again," but also, it would appear, in Boas and Levi-Strauss' sense, helps reduce prior histories to minute, recombinable elements, so that the mythic bricoleur may fashion, "New worlds from fragments." Equally important is the collective, collaborative process at the heart of this project, in which a group of artists joins together out of their individuated histories of pain and loss, to forge an integrated tangible image of new vitality, transforming histories of death into the regeneration of life.

A fascinating new variation of this theme is seen in the recent sculptural work (Untitled, 2008) of Dinka artist Atem Aleu, a graduate student in the Cultural Production program; Aleu developed the work in the sculpture class of Cultural Production faculty member Tory Fair. (In the above photograph, Atem is seen to the left of his sculpture; Mangok Bol, the administrator of the Cultural Production program, is seen to the right). The metal form calls to mind a missile or bomb casing, of that sort that still dot the scarred landscape of Sudan in the wake of the recent conflict. Yet the curled metal sheets also evoke the trunk of great tree, displaying in soldered relief forms images evoking the genocidal violence of the second Southern Sudanese Civil War. The great roots of the tree shows traces of the desperate long marches of the refugees through desert and jungle, journeys along which many perished in agonizing ways. A truncated arm of the tree evokes the ubiquitous spectacle of amputees; our view into the tree’s interior, significantly, is blocked: as the artist explains, in a similar fashion the voices of may of the war’s victims were blocked from external interlocutors. Yet towards the summit of the tree one glimpses the possibility of redemption, in the shape of ancestral faces that in effect flower out of the tree. Once again, swords are turned into plougshares and legacies of horror are transmuted through art into the possibilities of collective rebirth.

Atem Aleu’s exhibition of sculpture, painting and lithograph will open on February 10, 2009 in the Schwartz Gallery at Brandeis University.

1 comment:

Amahl said...

These are moving art images! In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is a different dynamic. As Carol Bardenstein has written, real trees are planted to disguise the locations of past Palestinian villages - so trees are made back into weapons, of sorts.