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Re: [African_Arts] Re: Malawi & Art/Craft Distinction

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  • Lee Rubinstein
    Malawian society -- as is true of all modern African societies -- is rather complex because of the extreme propensities for migration from both northern and
    Message 1 of 8 , Jun 30, 2008
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      Malawian society -- as is true of all modern African societies -- is rather complex because of the extreme propensities for migration from both northern and southern areas.  Among the Malawian groups most commonly noted are peoples identified as Yao, Lomwe, Chewa, Nyanja, Mang'anja (the last two are Maravi sub-groups) as well as significant influences of Nguni from the South. Interaction with coastal communities and wide conversions to Islam have also had significant impact on Malawian identities, particularly -- I believe -- among the Yao.  

      In Animals and Ancestors:  An Ethnography (New York and Oxford:  Berg.  2000), the ethnobotanist Brian Morris provides a brief but good introduction to the cultural and ethnic complexity of Malawi and describes some of the confusion rising from the grouping of Malawian cultural communities -- who are indeed not defined or delimited by national boundaries --  in terms of historical and political associations.  He states:

      "... many historians of Malawi have tended to use the term Maravi (from which the name of the present state is derived) rather indiscriminately, and thus to conflate the political, cultural, ethnic and linguistic levels of social analysis.  This tends to simplify what has historically been a rather complex situation...  the people who came to be described as Maravi were essentially those who came under the political dominance of the various Maravi chiefs...  It is important... to recognize that Maravi is essentially a political concept or grouping, and that culturally all the communities of the Northern Zambezi region share a common heritage -- even if they may have had distinctive historical trajectories and traditions."  (pp. 16-17)

      Among the groups to which he refers are Nyanja, Mang'anja (Maganja), Chipeta, Nsenga (Senga), Sena, Nyungwe, Chewa (Cheva), Mbo, Ntumba, Yao (Nguru), Lolo (Bororo), and Makua (Makwa)...

      Yao figures have received some interest, and they are rare and quite intriguing, as you will see from this example form the Gelbard collection:

      One body of traditional work that is among the few highlighted Malawian traditions for which reference material is available is that of the Chewa and Mang'anja Nyau masquerade.  Axis Gallery has a nice presentation from a previous exhibition at http://www.axisgallery.com/exhibitions/maravi/index.html.  Doug Curran has a wonderful slide show of images of Chewa Nyau masquerade entitled "The Elephant Has Four Hearts."   However, you can also read excerpts from an article by Kenji Yoshida regarding Chewa initiation masquerade rituals via Google Book Search here.  (Just in case, the article is "Kalumbu and Chisudzo:  Boys' and Girls' Masquerades among the Chewa" in Simon Ottenberg's Playful Performers... .)  Other good reference materials include Barbara Blackmun and Matthew Schoffeleers "Masks of Malawi" in African Arts, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Summer, 1972), pp. 36-88 and Laurel Birch Faulkner's "Basketry Masks of the Chewa" in African Arts, Vol. 21, No. 3 (May, 1988), pp. 28-86.

      General references to Malawian masquerade traditions can be found here.  See references to the Chewa "Great Dance", or Gule Wamkulu on the site of the Malawi Project (link) and as part of the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology's 2007 exhibition "The Village is Tilting: Dancing AIDS in Malawi" (link).  [There are various searchable images regarding this exhibition.)  Also see masquerade video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4PsaUKy7Fs and http://www.musicvideos.the-real-africa.com/malawi/dance_video_gule_wamkulu.html.  There is also a book published in 2003 -- Winifred McCaffrey's Gule Wamkulu:  The Big Dance which explores the traditional masquerade in its Zambian context.  

      More recently, Laurel Birch Aguilar's article, "Metaphors, Myths and Making Pots:  Chewa Clay Arts" appears on pages 64-70 in the Spring 2007 issue of African Arts (Volume 40, Number 1). 

      "Chewa potters create new forms that are life-enhancing. A finished pot enhances the well-being, health, and hygiene of a woman’s home. It is a sign of a good life and good food. A good cooking pot is taken as a sign of a good marriage, and in contrast, a broken pot is taken as a sign of a marriage in trouble, demonstrated by a quarrelling [sic] couple throwing out a pot and breaking it. A husband should eat from his wife’s pot and never from the pot of another woman. A good husband must provide his wife with her cooking pots. If there are marital problems, the wife may show anger by refusing to cook, forcing her husband to fi nd his meal elsewhere. And ultimately, a broken marriage pot is a sign of a broken marriage..." (p. 68)

      I include this particular passage both for its applicability to the question regarding Malawian material culture as well as a brief response to the question regarding the art/craft distinction.  More frequently than not, the products of such traditional practices as pottery and weaving (including textile and basketry) are often seemingly relegated to the realm of craft (as opposed to art, which -- as Margalit noted -- is a term applied in market contexts in ways which are extrinsic and not reflective of indigenous perception and signification) and which are not customarily regarded on the same plane as woodcarving and metalwork.  Yet, as this passage shows, functional objects such as Chewa ceramic pots are infused with more subtle, deeper meanings which are frequently overlooked in spite of their encoded social meanings and indigenous production and usage.  Although pottery and weaving are not by any means practices strictly or universally limited to female artisans in their production, one can't but note the prevalence of female artisans in these modes of production and the marked tendency to marginalize and value less highly these indigenous works which are utilitarian and indicative of well-developed artistry and craft as well as highly expressive of cultural values encoded in material works...


      On Jun 24, 2008, at 7:37 AM, awr066 wrote:

      An obvious one would be the Nyau society masks of the Chewa tribe, 
      which I believe are still danced. The masks tend to be grotesque 

      Bob Ibold has one on his site:

      http://www.masksoft heworld.com/ Africa/Africa% 20Malawi% 20Chewa%203. htm



      --- In African_Arts@ yahoogroups. com, "RAND \(www.RandAfricanAr t.com\)" 
      <rand@...> wrote:
      > Someone recently asked me a question (see below) and I really didn't 
      have a good answer for them. I thought that any art found in Malawi 
      would probably be things from surrounding coutries. 
      > If anyone has any experience or suggestions that would be great. 
      > "My son is going to spend 6 weeks in Malawi working at an AIDS 
      clinic (he is a second year med student).
      > What tribes would have been settled in the area now called Malawi? 
      > What tribal art should he specifically look for?"

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