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TideWriters Tales
African Art of Astonishing Beauty
By Zachary Loesch

     Brenda Banks, of Farnham, is a thoughtful soft-spoken woman who has cultivated an interest in the folk art and traditions of western Africa. Her art collection and personal library of reference materials have made her home a museum in which one confronts African spiritual and decorative traditions embodied in works that inspire both admiration and astonishment, especially when one learns a little about the religious myths that are often depicted on ceremonial objects and are even used on everyday items to instill symbolic content. 
Brenda, a graduate of Rappahannock Community College’s two-year nursing program employed at Rappahannock Hospital in Kilmarnock, began collecting African art more than fifteen years ago. She communicates an enthusiasm for these pieces that is soon shared. Each item has a story to tell and Brenda’s explanation of the religious and historical traditions from which each item emerges provides background for a better understanding of African culture. She spoke briefly recently about her collection and the broader spirituality her study of African art has brought to her life.

     “I live on land my great grandfather, Alfred Veney, once owned. He lived in a log cabin that stood just across the highway from our home. My grandfather, Harrison Veney, was a waterman who fished for menhaden. In later years he drove a mail truck that delivered mail from Fredericksburg to the smaller post offices serving Lancaster, Richmond and Northumberland counties. My father, Thomas Veney, retired from the merchant marine service after twenty one years. All of these men and their families lived here. This neighborhood is home to numerous great aunts and cousins. We take pride in our community. 

     “I enjoyed exhibiting my collection at a local library because it provided the setting to teach people of all races and especially children about how beautiful African art and folklore can be. This is very important for Black children because African culture is not taught in our public schools. Our educational system is rooted in the Western tradition of the people who brought our ancestors here as slaves. Much of my collection comes from the regions of western Africa that were the ancestral homeland of the Black American. My family’s bloodline includes white and American Indian ancestors also. The kingdoms and communities of Africa that produced these works of art were agricultural societies that enjoyed some basic technologies such as glass and metal work. These people lived lives perhaps similar in many ways to the lives of European people during the Middle Ages. One wonders if some accident of history resulting in a reversal of the relative status of the two races would have yielded a similar outcome. I seek to promote a better understanding of African art as a means of promoting respect and cooperation between races.”

     Brenda showed me plaque from Benin that depicts a king and his court. The relative size of each figure indicates his social status. The king, located at the center of the plaque, is represented in a figure whose feet are slightly elevated and do not touch ground. This artistic convention indicates the king’s spiritual status and authority. He holds a ceremonial drinking vessel. Some of this majesty is shared by the armed guards who flank this central figure, one to either side, left and right. Their weapons and clothing are marks of their office. Between the bodyguards and the king are four musicians, two on either side. Their diminutive size indicates their lower social status, yet their musical performance is an essential element in the piece, lending a magical or ceremonial quality to the king’s presence.

     The nail fetish is actually a piece of heroic sculpture from the Kongo Kingdom. It features glass eyes and a small box or pouch in its stomach carries an herbal substance. Magical leather pouches hanging from the belt of such a figure might typically contain herbs, roots, bones or some other item or article valued for its spiritual content. As a herald or messenger of the gods the figure’s head and abdomen would be anointed and adorned. A libation poured on the figure might consist of chicken blood and egg yolk. Nails hammered into the small figure are meant to release its spiritual power, a bit of sympatric magic perhaps suggested by the story of a spiritual warrior who endures adversity. One might ask, “Does this figure differ greatly from the Christian depictions of the arrow riddled Saint Sebastian or the religious statuary that often decorate suburban American gardens?” 

     Brenda displayed another item laden with magical and spiritual associations. A sorcerer’s divination tray used to advise proper response to circumstances confronting the questioner is a particularly compelling piece. The shaman or spiritual advisor would place sand or sawdust upon the tray. Sixteen palm nuts are tossed from right to left across the material placed on the tray. Lines left upon the sand or sawdust would be interpreted on combinations of lines and patterns that suggest incidents or proverbs from familiar fables or folk stories. The advice for moral conduct is implicit in each parable called to mind.

     The utilitarian nature of items embellished by African folk art has to be admired. The queen’s stool typifies the dual nature of spirituality and practicality that are the defining qualities of the collection Brenda has assembled. According to Brenda, the spiritual quality of art in Africa cannot be separated from daily life. By extension this line of thought argues that a spiritual quality pervades the perception of everyday life in this art. The queen’s stool from Cameroon depicts a divine spider. Spiders were sometimes used to determine guilt from innocence in legal disputes. The litigants would place articles of clothing in a box overnight with a large spider. Whose ever clothing the spider was found to be sleeping upon the next morning was found to be at fault and the proceedings were resolved accordingly.

     Brenda and her husband Bill reside in a comfortable home filled with the pictures of the children they share between them. Bill retired from a job with General Motors in Lansing, Michigan. Brenda works as a medical and surgical ward nurse at Rappahannock General Hospital in Kilmarnock. Brenda attributes some special guardian powers to a mask from Angola that hangs on the wall of their home. Other pieces that command attention are a game board carved in the posture of prayer, a covered ceremonial vessel, and the marvelous cloth used in blankets and clothing. Brenda’s sofa is piled with African fabrics, some of which feature a tessellated or checkered pattern. Brenda showed me a beautiful Kente cloth from Ghana made of silk. A smaller item, a sort of beaded apron made of cowrie shells and worn by women in the mountains of west Africa, was also quite nice. Brenda credits the Dogon people of that region with great spiritual insight.
Brenda would like to thank her friend from Warsaw, Jo Brown, for inspiring an interest in African art and folklore. Jo is a person with a great appreciation for Black art and African culture. Brenda looks forward with eager anticipation to the exhibits she has planned for the Black History observance of February 2002. One of these upcoming displays will be at the Richmond County Museum in Warsaw and the other will take place at the Northumberland County Library in Heathsville. She is available to speak to schools and civic organizations. 

© 2001 Zachary Loesch All Rights Reserved

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