Monday, December 8, 2008

Artist Atem Aleu on the "Origin of Death"

In his 2005 painting, “The Dinka Say that Woman is the Origin of Death,” Cultural Production graduate student Atem Aleu revisits the well known Dinka myth of the coming of death in the world. In the early days of the world, a rope linked earth and sky: thus, anyone who died one earth could ascend the rope and be reborn in heaven. A woman pounding became angry at birds eating the spilled grain and thus killed a baby bird with her pounding stick. In retaliation the mother bird cut the rope, condemning all of humanity to enduring death.

See the painting in detail at:

and hear an audio commentary. (The entire website

was developed by Cultural Production student Nadia Hemady, in collaboration with other students in my Museums and Public Memory class in Fall 2006.)

Among the many fascinating features of the painting is the upper left section, in which in scroll like fashion the surface of the canvas appears to have been rolled back to reveal the consequences of the coming of death, including a women mourning as she holds a hoe, and a small figure (presumably a child) chased up a tree by lions. I have read these scenes as referencing the long trek in the mid 1980s by the “Lost Boys and Girls” from southern Sudan to the refugee camps in the Ethiopian highlands, when many children were stalked by carnivores. (I should note, however, that the artist insists that his reference is only to the mythical time in which the ancient story is set. ) In any event, my sense is that the images “behind” the lifted up sections of the painting are those that span temporal epochs: on the left, we see the mythic horror of death’s beginning, reiterated in the recent history of genocide; on the right we see the bird that is both the mythic bringer of death, and also a modern signifier of peace, heralding the signing the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the world’s longest running civil war. The text like quality of this section of the painting is appropriate for prophetic discourse, in which past and present are encompassed within enigmatic imagery.

See the Waltham Daily Tribune's recent article about Atem Aleu, at:

We look forward to the February 2009 exhibition by Atem Aleu of his new work, which engages with memories of genocide in Southern Sudan and Darfur through lithographs and oil paintings.

NOTE: The South Sudanese Cultural Documentation Center at Brandeis University is a collaborative effort between the M.A. Program in Cultural Production (Brandeis University) and the Sudanese Education Fund.

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