Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Re-Enchantment of Art 2: Tribal Voices

Sometimes you must look backwards, at your origins and roots, before you can proceed forward into the unknown.

Many contemporary anthropologists have learned the lesson that writing ethnology is literary writing: anthropology is a literary discipline as much as an ethnographic, research-oriented one. Fieldwork is still essential: going out and living with the culture and people you intend to study, becoming a participant-observer rather than a fictively "objective eye" reporter. When you immerse yourself in a culture that is not your birth-tribe's culture, you learn as much about your own roots and birth-tribe as you do about the other, since it is impossible not to reflect on your own life in the context of reflecting on the lives of others. We travel to learn about our homes. We learn what is different, what is alien, what is Other. This Otherness that we encounter when we travel to the field is the mirror of our own Otherness.

Without stealing or appropriating another culture's beliefs, without co-opting anything, without being superficial and naive about it, there is deep artistic and social value in listening to the tribal voices. In terms of art, fine artists have often looked to tribal art for renewal, for inspiration, and ideas. Picasso and his contemporaries were openly inspired by African tribal art making the rounds in the museums of Paris about the time that Cubism was being developed; there was a direct influence on Cubism. Is that stealing from a tribal culture? Perhaps not: if the artist then runs with it and incorporates it into his or her new art: a fusion, rather than merely copying. Influence is only theft if all it does is imitate, without going beyond and developing into something new. If it's more than just quoting, if it's more than merely reproducing, there is a chance of renewal.

Yet artists don't have to look to indigenous cultures alone for inspiration. Every culture has its own tribal voices, even those cultures considered post-tribal, urbanized, and industrialized. What is more tribal than inner-city ghetto culture? Or graffiti "tag" culture? Tribalism always reappears and reemerges in unexpected ways. Hip-hop culture all too often expresses the darker shadow side of tribalism, yet still it coheres as a tribal way, and that is its power.

Since the philosophical and scientific Enlightenment, 300 years ago in Europe, Euro-American culture has increasingly come to live in its head, forgetting sometimes that it even has a body. We intellectualize everything, and think we can solve our problems by thinking them through. Thus, we ignore easy and obvious solutions that had been available to us, before we forgot about them, that are body-centered, even body-prayers, and that connect us with the land.

My own birth-tribe, which I can trace back to the Vikings and to the Celts, has a rich source of tribal wisdom to draw on. There is northern European traditional shamanism from ancient Ireland. There are the Sagas, preserved in Iceland and written in Old Norse, which tell the tales of men and gods from the Viking era of conquest and settlement. There is a legacy of daily contact with the masks of god, with the divine and numinous in many forms.

it is this recovery of the daily encounter with the numinous and liminal that can re-enchant our art. It is the awareness that what is magical lies close to the surface of the everyday world, if we but pay attention. It is the sense of wonder that every child has, which is eventually beaten out of them in school, and by life, but which can be recovered. Even a life's darker moments are liminal.



In a festschrift volume about mythopoetic writer Robert Duncan, Sean Golden contributed an article which contains an excellent overview of the unified Celtic approach to art, literature, music, and indeed to life. This stands well as a descriptor of both ancient and modern Celtic modes of making art: a tribal heritage I can also call my own. This excerpt also appeals to me because it addresses my own pursuit of abstract realism in photography.

Illuminated manuscripts, the greatest examples of Celtic painting, typify Celtic art with their intricate abstract forms which reveal a simultaneous realism. Whole borders of manuscript pages are taken up by interlocked spirals and concentric circles which, distinguished at first only by color, depict birds, hounds, or serpents whose elongated necks and limbs entwine their neighbors. They clasp each other in their jaws and ancillary lines followed out to the sides reveal legs and claws, but the body has been subjected to abstract patterning. Abstraction and naturalism as a visual pun introduce an exuberant humor. An example from the Book of Kells will illuminate this.



One page is devoted entirely to the word Quoniam. The Q dominates half the page, containing u and o within itself, while the letters niam are relegated to a lower corner. A troop of human figures wind their way among the letters. A translation of the Latin introduced by this word explains why—"Forasmuch as many have taken in hand. . . "—it is a verbivisual pun. The pun is the essence of Celtic art and literature, and many passages cannot be adequately translated because they are, like [James Joyce's] Finnegan's Wake, densely packed, multilayered sequences of puns whose meanings are simultaneous and often contradictory. Verbal facility, the felicity of puns, emphasis on individual words, particularly proper nouns, etymologies—all of these form the content and structure of Celtic literature. The tendency towards abstraction reveals itself through strict and intricate rules for meter and sound. This insistence on a careful and intricate patterning of sounds to which content is frequently subordinated parallels the abstract quality of Celtic art. The Celtic mind took in everything whole.

—Sean Golden, "Duncan's Celtic Mode," in Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous (New Directions, 1979), p. 212

The "verbivisual pun" aspect of Celtic art leads towards my own experiments in illustrated, illuminated, visual poetry. Like my Celt ancestors, I like how puns within a poem can create multiple layers of meaning, adding what I sometimes call resonance or depth of meaning: the further in you go, the more layers you find, sometimes contradictory, sometimes all the way down to the substrate where the gods are born. I like visual puns as well as literary puns, and when I illuminate a poem (illuminate rather than merely illustrate, leading us towards that combination of words-and-image that is visual poetry, haiga, etc.) I think about how to access and emphasize some of the "hidden" meanings of the text. Not hidden, actually, but off to the side, or not obvious on the surface.

Celtic tribal perception was gestalt perception: taking in everything as a whole, rather than breaking it down via reductive analysis. There are plenty of details to look at and analyze, but the overall form and shape, its shimmer and weave, are more important. When I write music, or poems, or make art, I leave room for indeterminacy to come in, and surprise me. As the artist, I like to amaze even myself, first, before any one else sees the work. In music, I often think in terms of gestural shapes and forms, in which the actual notes are subordinate to the phrase and arc of the form.

What do our tribal voices say to us? What do they remind us to feel and be? This is what they say:

Be mythic in your art (not inflated in your ego). Stand on the shoulders of the tribe of giants who are your ancestors. Use their wisdom, which they acquired across millenia of living. Reclaim your own rootedness and groundedness in the earth itself, through the feet of your tribal history. Respect the land you husband, rather than own. (Who can own the land? We'll all here only a short time, while the land endures for millions of years.) Find connections with the animal and plant spirits that surround you, connections which sustain and nourish. They are a dialogue with the spirits of the place where you live. Remember that nature is not other than us, it is not separate from who we are, and it is not merely "dead matter"—it breathes, just as we do. The cycles of the moon, sun, and the planet we live on are all interwoven, and affect us more directly than we often let ourselves be aware of. Stop living in your head, and move back into your body. It's through the body, the dancing feet, that we feel the land, and know ourselves to be part of it. Hike barefoot wherever possible.

By way of closing, here's an incredibly inspirational and sharply pointed video from Yothu Yindi, the indigenous Australian band. I saw them on two US tours in the early 1990s, and was utterly enchanted; both with their musical fusion of Aboriginal and rock musics, but with their political message delivered in an artistic, toe-tapping way.



The opening lyrics to "Tribal Voice" are central to what we're talking about here, so I'll give them the last word. Listen!

Tribal Voice

There’s a wakening of a rainbow dawn
And the sun will rise up high
There’s a whisper in the morning light
Saying get up and meet the day

Well inside my mind there's a tribal voice
And it's speaking to me every day
And all I have to do is make a choice
'Cause I know there is no other way

All the people in the world are dreaming (get up stand up)
Some of us cry for the rights of survival (get up stand up)
Saying c’mon c’mon! Stand up for your rights
While others don’t give a damn
They’re all waiting for a perfect day
So you better get up and fight for your rights
Don’t be afraid of the move you make
You better listen to your tribal voice!

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