Saturday, December 01, 2007

African art of the Maasai

Maasai African Art form Kenya and Tanzania.
As the Maasai traditionally eat neither fruit nor grain, milk, either fresh or curdled, is the basic food staple, and is often drunk mixed with blood (the mixture is called nailang'a) in the dry season, when milk yields are low.
It is generally stored and carried in long, decorated gourds which are washed with urine (despite our western preconceptions, urine is totally sterile when fresh, and thus acts as a mild antiseptic). Milk itself - the gift of Ngai's cattle - is symbolized on ceremonial occasions by the application of a mixture of white chalk and water to the bodies of participants.
Once a month, blood is also taken from living animals, usually to be mixed with milk. This is done as follows: a noose is tightened around a cow's neck, causing the jugular vein to swell. A short blunt arrow with a 1cm tip and its shaft bound with twine, is then fired at close range from a loosely-strung bow to puncture the vein. The blood which spurts out is caught in a gourd. The wound is not fatal and is stopped afterwards with a wad of mud and dung to stop the bleeding: all in all, not that different from people giving blood. The Maasai believe the blood makes them very strong. Curdled blood is called osaroi.
The Maasai believe that Ngai (God) entrusted all the world's cattle to them for safe-keeping when the earth and sky split at the beginning of time, and this is how they justify raiding cattle from other tribes. The story goes that Ngai (a name synonymous with sky) was once one with the earth. Then earth and sky separated, and Ngai delivered cattle to the Maasai by means of the aerial roots of the wild fig tree, which is sacred.
For the Maasai, cattle are everything: food, material, culture, ritual. Cattle are life. "I hope your cattle are well", they say in greeting.
More than any other Kenyan people, the pastoralist Maasai are a cattle-herders par excellence. Cattle provide almost everything they need for survival, and much more besides. They are a symbol of wealth and a source of pride, and a person's entire life revolves around the herds: the need to pasture and care for them, the need to protect them, and the need to move with them in search of fresh pasture and water.

A-Bemp headdress in African art.

The A-Bemp Headdress in African Art

At adolescence, young boys of the Baga enter a new stage. They form wrestling groups, and much of their ritual has to do with combat.

They also continue to conduct their own ritual, some of which involves masquerade. A headdress shaped as the figure of a large bird has long been one of the most popular masquerades of young men and boys. It is called 'the bird' -'a-Bemp' or 'a-Bamp'. The basic headdress is simply a bird form with a long neck, a long beak, a pot-bellied body, and broad striped wings over the back. A stake extends down from its belly, used to insert into an armature that the dancer wears on his head.

The headdress can range in form from softly naturalistic to extravagantly abstract and composite. Many of these figures bear twin miniature birds on their backs, often in conjunction with a miniature house. A checkerboard pattern often appears on the bird's front.

There are infinite departures from this basic form. Attachments may depict the Baga woman, model canoes, and airplanes. Some examples are almost completely abstract and extremely complex, incorporating bird and serpent forms as well as indeterminate geometric shapes.

One detail stands out, as a curiosity, in all this; the model house. A house is also seen on another headdress, the Banda. The house is the symbol par excellence of the gratification of sexual desire. Traditionally, it was only at marriage, preceded by the requisite initiation, that the young man built his own house. It was to this house that his brothers carried his bride on their shoulders following her marriage, and it was this little house that his marriage was consummated.

The a-Bamp headdress does not consistently represent any particular bird in nature. Many examples have head crests, suggesting the elegant large stalking birds of the sea inlets with their crowning tufts of feathers. The dance of the a-Bamp is athletic. The dance skips around the perimeter of the circle formed by the audience. He crouches and then leaps up; or, crouching, he tilts to the right and left. Occasionally he may twirl, accelerating his steps, and end by lifting the headdress above his head and spinning it around. Accompanying the dancer are men beating the large slit gong, box drums and smaller drums suspended under their arms. The dance generally takes place at night, so a young man may follow a-Bamp with a torch made from a lit bundle of grass.

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