Tuesday, November 14, 2017

How Orwellian : Africa's Great Civilizations on art and civilization

mask of the Ooni note the holes around the mouth and hairline to attach a beard and wig. Also note the odd crease lines on the neck.

PBS's Africa's Great Civilizations clip from episode 3 (about minute 43) :

Henry Louis Gates (host) : This astonishing sculpture is the mask of the Ooni. Obalufon the Second, monarch of one of the most important kingdoms in all of west Africa in the middle ages, the Kingdom of Ife. This is one of 40 or so brass copper sculptures executed with dazzling naturalism under the king's patronage. 
woman : They are technically among the most truly remarkable works of art created anyplace in the world. These are striking heads that are quite naturalistic but they're also this idealized naturalism so that none of the warts and wrinkles of the face is shown. If you look at them there is almost this serenity and calmness in them and give a sense of timelessness which are really, really beautiful.

Henry Louis Gates (host) : While European artists were still grappling with perspective and often struggling with the human form these African artists were making magnificent lifelike sculptures. It's not just the technical achievement of the sculptures its also their sheer artistry...

What he says in bold, taken separately, are true. But when put together he is drawing a comparison between the two and making an equivocation of 2 different things. Drawing and sculpture are 2 distinct mediums.  Being in the round, an object in 3d can be measured from any direction and compared to the model. They can even be put side by side and compare the profiles. Or a pantograph could be used. Or molds taken.

In contrast with drawing a slight shift in position changes the perspective. Even with a camera obscura or a grid window while they could help even a small change in the position of the artist would distort the image.  Even with photography it can take some skill to copy an image well and make an image that doesn't look copied from a photograph.

Let us compare a sculpture from a European artist of the same time period and see how it compares to the Ife artist:
Head of an Angel circa 1250, Paris, France

The sculpture above was carved from a piece of limestone.  I wouldn't call this "struggling with the human form" (assuming the nose was broken off and not forgotten by the sculptor). It is remarkably lifelike and quite subtle. I'm not going to try to puff this up by disparaging the African artist because I think the Ife head is well done.

St Donatus, Meissen Cathedral south wall of choir, Meissen, Saxony, Germany circa 1255-1260
Above is another example, this time a full figure, that I don't think is struggling with the human form (this one has a nose).

Would he have described African drawing as "grappling with perspective and often struggling with the human form while these European artists were making magnificent lifelike sculptures"? The series had several cringeworthy moments where the host takes on the role of cheerleader.


The Great Zimbabwe, mortarless stone walls as high as 36 feet (11m), seen from above

PBS's Africa's Great Civilizations clip from episode 4 (about minute 25) :

Associate ProfessorEdmund Akaba, University of Miami : It tells us that Africans were building cities in the 13th century and 14th century and 15th century contrary to this notion that Africa is, to some people, it's a place where there are animals and you have a couple of villages. But it shows that there was substantial technological and architectural development and that all these exploits were the work of Africans. 
Matenga : There is the debate about what is a civilization. Civilization has been rather sort of wrongly defined as the ability to write, leave text. I believe, in its own way, this place is a text.
Henry Louis Gates (host) : It is a text. (his voice rising)
Matenga : It is a text because a text is about communicating messages.
Henry Louis Gates (host) : mm-hmm
Matenga : So, this is a medium through which you can communicate messages.
Henry Louis Gates (host) : This is a sublime manifestation of the human spirit.
Matenga : Absolutely.

I agree that defining civilization as the ability to write is a wrong definition. Although I am unclear as to why he calls it a wrong definition and then wants to use that definition.

I always thought Civilization is the ability to build a city - to be able to sustain a place with a general civilness beyond kith & kin and beyond a population size where people can all know each other.

Congratulations! Africans built cities. He mentions other African cities and one had 15,000 people and another 20,000. For some reason, unlike the comparison with European artists above, he didn't draw a comparison to the progress of other places at the same time : Paris, France had a population of over 200,000 in 1300. Venice over 100,000, Beijing, China 400,000

"I believe, in its own way, this place is a text."

WTF. and then the host responds "It is a text." WTF.  Just WTF.  So a dog peeing on a tree is sending a message. In it's own way, urine is a text. I look forward to his next documentary series : "Great Civilizations of Dogs"

Writing is about knowledge. Being able to pass on the knowledge of thousands and thousands of people over thousands of years helps to build and keep a civilization.  A written language is not a prerequisite to civilization but I would suggest it is close. I would even suggest that it probably is a prerequisite for a modern civilization. Did a lack of written language prevent societies from expanding and sustaining? I suspect so.

movie notes : Queen Margot (1994)

Queen Margot American movie poster
I don't think a scene of these two wrapped in a red blanket was actually in the theatrical release of the movie

Queen Margot (1994) is a French historical movie and I highly recommend it.

It is a 1994 movie based on the 1845 Alexander Dumas novel which in turn is based on French history from 1572. I don't particularly trust anything that is "based on a true story" so I'm a little uneasy about the historical veracity of a movie based on the novelization of history written 273 years after the events took place and the movie is close to half a millennium (422 years) away from the actual events

For much of the movie I had no idea what was going on in context of French history. Fortunately, it's characters follow human impulses and it wasn't hard to understand what was going on. I'm pretty sure the movie covered all 7 deadly sins (gluttony, lust, greed, hubris, despair, wrath, vainglory, and sloth).

La Reine Margot - Queen Margot french movie poster
the French movie poster

Isabelle Adjani is a fragile beauty but none the less a beauty and I couldn't keep my eyes off of her. In contrast, Henry III of Navarre is played by Daniel Auteuil an ugly frenchman (not to be cruel but he doesn't have conventional movie star good looks. He did a good job though). In the poster at the top of the post, they focus on Adjani and her other costar Vincent Perez.  Adjani is full of emotion but unlike her contemporary Juliette Binoche doesn't spend all her time crying (Binoche seemed to have a talent for beautifully weeping).

Margot and Catherine de Medici (Adjani and Virna Lisi who at times is a little scary looking and seems to age 20 years in the movie) 
The costumes and sets are wonderful. The violence in the movie starts slow but builds and then peaks with the St Barthelomew's Day Massacre. It is often a beautiful movie. At times this movie is like a French painting of Gericault or Delacroix come to life.

I didn't keep a death count during the movie because I usually only do that with action movies but I should have. It was a lot.

I actually sat in the theater during the entire end credits listening to the music. In particular, I found one song compelling; what I assumed at the time was a late medieval French folk song isn't. Obviously I don't speak French, the song "Elo Hi" is in Hebrew.

Elo Hi by Ofra Haza

La reine Margot – Soundtrack is an album by Goran Bregović, with the music that he composed for the 1994 film La Reine Margot, by Patrice Chéreau. Like most of Bregović's work, the melodies in this soundtrack are heavily influenced by Balkanfolk music tradition, but he also refurbished and recycled some of his previous work while he was the frontman of Bijelo dugme, one of the most influential Yugoslav rock bands of the 1970s and 1980s
An unexpected source of music for a French film.