6 What Is Important to Us?

Chapter 6 map and artwork timeline
Figure 6.1: Map and timeline of artworks discussed in “What is Important to Us?” by Marizela Garza. Review image captions below for details about each artwork and copyright information.

What is important to us?

Let’s get back to that big question that led us down the rabbit hole of “What is Divine?”: What unites us? We looked at the unity of not being divine but what about the smaller-scale unities of communities? See what I did there? 😉

Humans like to group themselves based on the similarities they share with certain people. These are our communities, based on geographic, religious, ethnic, social, etc. similarities. We develop communities based on hobbies like sports and music, age group, or careers. These communities often form around a set of values, or priorities, shared among members of the community. For example, many suburban communities based on geographic membership often share values of household maintenance, security, or social engagement. LGBTQIA+ communities often share values about representation, support, and activism. These values define what is important to communities. Beauty ideals, as discussed in “What is Beautiful?”, can factor into these values. It is clear that different communities may prioritize different values.

The importance of solidarity

Remember our discussion of social norms in “Who Am I?” Such norms are imperative to communities, so much so that norms are sometimes values, such as politeness in public settings. Norms also instruct community members about what is expected of them. Not everyone follows the norms, but they wouldn’t be called norms if it wasn’t normal to follow them. The fact that some people don’t follow norms can be dangerous to the cohesion of a community. Sociologists and anthropologists call this cohesion ‘social solidarity’. If there are too many ‘bad apples’ (according to the expectations of ‘good apples’), cohesion/solidarity can suffer and communities may not work like one hopes.

Among several groups of people of West Africa (Fig. 6.1), the loss of social solidarity is an ever-present threat (as it is in most societies). It is so important to maintain social solidarity that several societies developed a way to combat the danger of norm-breaking through a men’s group known by many names. Among the Bamana, this men’s group is called Kòmò, often called the Kòmò society. Like in Maasai and Astrolabe Bay cultures discussed in “Who Am I?”, portions of a society organize around a common goal, like initiating young boys or girls into adulthood. These internal groupings are, confusingly, referred to as societies, like “Greek Societies” (sororities and fraternities) often found on college campuses. Different societies’ goals vary. The goals and inner workings of the Kòmò society are very secret. The visible actions of this men’s society come in the form of public events where masked performers act out the finding and destroying of ‘evil’ (those practices that defy social norms in the opinion of leaders). Oftentimes these performances include characters that clearly depict unwanted behaviors, such as drunkenness.

The kòmòkun (Fig. 6.2) is the mask of the Kòmò society. Kòmò members commission sculptors to create a wooden mask out of a single piece of wood. In the secrecy of the Kòmò society, members enhance the mask by applying powerful natural items such as animal horns and other remains, porcupine quills, feathers, and secret substances (potentially feces and blood). Check out “On the Surface: A Cultural and Scientific Analysis of Two West African Komo Masks’ Surfaces” (O’Hern 2012) and the follow-up “Beyond the Surface: Where Cultural Contexts and Scientific Analyses Meet in Museum Conservation of West African Power Association Helmet Masks” (O’Hern et al. 2016) for investigations of such added substances and ethical considerations of studying this topic.

Figure 6.2: Bamana Maker(s) of West Africa. Kòmòkun. Late 1800s-1900s century CE. Wood, metal, antelope horns, porcupine quills, organic materials. Brooklyn Museum of Art Collection; CC BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 69.39.3_version1_ps1.jpg).

Applying these special substances results in a mask that looks like a creature that will strike fear in those who defy social norms. Kòmò men wear the mask and perform their duty of maintaining social solidarity in public performances by mock-battling ‘evil-doers,’ such as the characters exhibiting drunkenness or undertaking harm against their neighbors. We don’t know what other Kòmò ceremonies and rituals impact community cohesion because they occur behind closed doors or only for certain people’s eyes. Whatever occurs, it is part of the social solidarity of Bamana society to maintain social norms and reduce the likelihood that people will transgress.

To look at another example, let’s say a community member experiences a personal hardship, like an illness, or the whole community suffers through a difficult period, like a drought. These are inevitable parts of life to which communities must respond to ensure that the community survives. If one family’s illness is not treated, it may spread. If a drought occurs, the community needs to reorganize its resources so that harm is minimized. These responses often develop as community mechanisms to maintain social solidarity. If some or many community members suffer, the whole community may suffer. Response mechanisms like social health services, government-funded welfare, or volunteerism are common around the world today. In the historic communities of central Africa, response mechanisms were often organized by people with special knowledge dedicated to the wellbeing of the community and the maintenance of social solidarity. We’ll call these people ‘ritual specialists.’ We prefer this general term over a term like ‘shaman,’ because shamanism refers to a specific set of practices among indigenous groups of Siberia and has been applied (somewhat controversially) to many Native American traditions.

Nkisi (Fig. 6.3) served the needs of a community in central Africa, under the guidance of a local ritual specialist, called an nganga in Kikongo (a language spoken in west-central Africa). This Nkisi probably derives from the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (Fig. 6.1; formerly Zaire). Present-day peoples of this region of Central Africa, including the Kongo, Vili, and Yombe cultures, were once unified as the Kongo Kingdom (ca. 1390-1857 CE).

Figure 6.3: Kongo Maker(s) of Central Africa. Nkisi. ca. 1900-1950 CE. Wood, cloth, resin, organic material, natural fibers, approx. 29”. UTA African Art Collection. Photo by Leah McCurdy and Cheryl Mitchell; CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Among Kongo and related peoples, ngangas are some of the most important and powerful people in society. These individuals instruct community members on overcoming their suffering, including illness, drought, conflict with a neighbor, or the stresses of trade. Nkisi is the result of the interaction of nganga(s) and many community members over time. Each Nkisi is an accumulation of many interactions, each focused on an individual or family need. Minkisi (plural for nkisi) start as ‘plain’ objects: a wood sculpture of a human man or male dog, or other everyday items like baskets or glass bottles. Prior to use, the nganga empowers the figure with a mixture that may contain natural material, like plants or shells, or other powerful material (some include gunpowder or small bullet casings) and calls the spirits to the vessel. Over time and with use, the bare object is then adorned with fabrics, feathers, paint, and other ornamentation. The Nkisi in Figure 6.3 probably was adorned with a tall headdress of wrapped fabric and upright feathers and would’ve held a spear or other object in the cupped hand. The bundled cloth attachments and metal objects concentrated at the neck and torso of the Nkisi are the accumulations of use over time, probably years.

So, what do we know about nganga instructions? After the figure is sculpted and adorned, it is offered either in a communal place (such as the center of a village) or residence (where family members could access it). At the point a community member requires intervention regarding something they would like to resolve or suffering they are feeling, they will consult a nganga. In large communities today, there are several nganga who specialize in specific interventions, such as healing needs, conflict mediation, or widespread concerns like drought. This may have also been the case in the past. As an example, let’s say a community member’s child is suffering from an illness. That parent would seek out a nganga they feel will be successful in helping to alleviate the illness. Based on knowledge and experience (including herbal remedies, effective prayers, divine beings who oversee health), the nganga would provide the parent with a ‘prescription’ (an Western medical term applied as an analogy for nganga practices). These are secret recipes and instructions, held closely guarded by ngangas, that they think will combat particular issues. As far as scholars know, these prescriptions often included recipes for plants, other forest materials such as resins, animal products, or soils, as well as potential human products such as blood or saliva. Materials likely were chosen for a variety of reasons, such as practical benefits (like the alleviation of pain) and metaphorical significance.

When collected and combined, these materials form a powerful substance, often called ‘medicine’ or bilongo, that is valuable in the amelioration of the specific suffering at issue. Bilongo is offered to a nkisi in different ways, depending on the nkisi type. Nkisi in Figure 6.3 actually combines multiple mechanisms for offering Bilongo. The substance could be rubbed inside the kondu gland, the projecting circular section at the navel of the sculpture, covered in this case by a piece of fabric but sometimes covered by a mirror or piece of glass. Bilongo can also be concealed in pieces of cloth, formed into bundles (via twisting, braiding, or other means) and then tied to the nkisi. If prescribed, the nganga and/or the community member seeking assistance may also pound a shard of metal (sometimes literal nails used in construction and oftentimes just fragments of metal) into the wood body of the Nkisi after offering the medicine in the kondu gland or as a bundle.

The offering of bilongo and/or insertion of a nail (and other activities of offering) is accompanied by prayers and other rituals dictated by the nganga, that articulate the request and benefit sought. This process energizes the spirit housed within the nkisi. That spirit works on behalf of the afflicted to mediate with divine forces (called bakisi; including ancestors and the god Nzambi). Many minkisi document (literally serve as records of) many different requests by different people over time. Some minkisi demonstrate more longevity and/or interest in their abilities because they feature many more offerings than others of their kind. This suggests that some minkisi were more successful than others or more needed, and thus more frequently sought by community members. For example, a Nkisi Nkondi, meaning ‘hunting spirit’, was frequently used for instances when a community member seeks revenge against someone they feel has wronged them or when leaders need to enforce norms upon a rule-breaker.

The nkisi tradition reflects an art that was available to everyone, not just kings or wealthy people. Everyone may not have had full access to the benefits of the nganga or nkisi, if payment was required for services, but historic photographs show that minkisi were often public objects on view for everyone in a community. It is relatively rare for such powerful objects to be visible to all community members, including children. Perhaps the reason for this visibility is because even when not in use, minkisi stand as memorials of divine benefit and hope in the face of future suffering. Such a presence in the community may help to sustain social solidarity. FYI: Minkisi are commonly called ‘Power Figures’ or ‘Nail Figures’, and sometimes are called ‘fetishes.’ Check out “Fetishism Revisited: Kongo Nkisi in Sociological Perspective (MacGaffery 1977) to learn why ‘fetish’ is an inappropriate term to apply to Nkisi and other objects.

In many communities, social solidarity is created and maintained through kinship (familial connections). If you can trace your ancestry in connection with someone else’s, they are your family. Like the Yoruba tradition of Ìyá Nlá discussed in “What is Divine?”, familial connections often ensure that you will treat others kindly. Shared heritage is an important value.

Among cultures of the Northwest Coast region of North America (spanning the Canadian coast of British Columbia and US states of Washington and Oregon; Fig. 6.1), ancestral heritage is one of the most important facets of identity. Individual identity derives from community identity traced back through ancestors. Among the Kwakwaka’wakw (formerly known as the Kwakiutl) peoples, animals of their native lands of present-day Vancouver Island and the corresponding coast of British Columbia became symbols for ancestral lineages. You may think of totem poles when animals are mentioned in this context. The Kwakwaka’wakw are one of the Northwest Coast cultures that produced totem poles (though not all do).

The Kwakwaka’wakw culture consists of clans, each represented by a crest animal, including orca, thunderbird, raven, grizzly bear, wolf, and others. Clans comprise ancestral lineages (sometimes called ‘bands’) made up of family members who trace their ancestry back to a common ancestor and specific mythology of that ancestor. Crest animals often feature in totem poles but are the specific focal points of Kwakwaka’wakw transformation masks.

Bear Transformation Mask (Fig. 6.4) is a figural carving of the head of a bear, carved and painted in the traditional Kwakwaka’wakw artistic style called ‘formline’ by scholars. This style is particularly noticeable in the layered shapes of the pupils, eyes, eyelids, and eyebrows. The arched or parabolic forms with pointed ends are common decorative techniques. The color palette of Bear Transformation Mask is also quite traditional, featuring tints of red and blue with black and the natural wood color.

You’ve probably noticed the big line down the front of the bear’s snout and that the features don’t precisely align. Why would that be? It’s because this sculpture opens! The rectangular components at the far right and left are hinges that allow two halves of the face to open and reveal something else inside… Check out Figure 6.5 and watch Raven Transformation Mask (Fig 6.6; Go to 2:15-2:30 for good images of the transformation). Vy's signature

Image of Bear Transformation Mask by Northwest Coat Maker(s) near Vancouver, Canada
Figure 6.4: Northwest Coast Maker(s) near Vancouver, Canada. Bear Transformation Mask. Before 1940 CE. Pigment on wood, approx. 12.5”. The British Museum Collection; CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Image of Bear Transformation Mask by Northwest Coast Maker(s) near Vancouver, Canada
Figure 6.5: Northwest Coast Maker(s) near Vancouver, Canada. Bear Transformation Mask. before 1940 CE. Pigment on wood, approx. 12.5”. The British Museum Collection; CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 6.6: “Raven Transformation Mask” uploaded by John Cussans on YouTube (April 7, 2019).

Bear Transformation Mask (Figs. 6.4 and 6.5) reveals ‘Namugwis, who according to some mythologies was a bird (probably a seagull) who transformed into a man when he landed on the earth. As the Kwakiutl Band Council (2018) describes, this mythology is somewhat debated among the various clans and bands. It is generally true that transformation masks depict a crest animal in their closed form and open to reveal a clan or band ancestor, in animal form (as in Fig. 6.5) or more commonly in human form (as in Fig. 6.6).

So, how does this relate to social solidarity? Transformation masks are worn and performed at ceremonies called potlatches (an Anglicized term based on one indigenous word, among many, that describes these events). A potlatch is a gathering of the community to celebrate important events such as house inaugurations, marriages, births, deaths, and, most importantly, the transfer of leadership from one chief to his successor. Potlatches include feasting and dancing. Feasts are provided as gifts to the guests by the chief who hosts the potlatch, considered a form of wealth redistribution by scholars. Those who benefited from the generosity displayed at a potlatch are expected to reciprocate in the future, when they accumulate enough resources to host a potlatch of their own.

Potlatch dances, as seen in Figure 6.6, are expressions of heritage, ancestry, and mythology. Dancers wearing transformation masks perform the mythologies of the local band and/or clan, thereby ensuring that everyone remembers their history. These performances also serve to see ancestors in contemporary life. The ancestors are among us, demonstrate their power of transformation, and their presence in all aspects of life.

In many ways, potlatches relate to social solidarity. Community members are reminded of their heritage. Young children may be introduced for the first time to mythologies and heritage memories at potlatches. These communal events, offered in the spirit of generosity, also involve an expectation. Individuals are responsible to the community to repay the benefit they have received, in the name of the ancestors and shared heritage. Reciprocation and devotion to heritage demonstrate commitment to the community.

The importance of place

Heritage is often tied to particular places. Geography and landscape often feature prominently in what a community values, including the places where ancestors lived. For example, Kwakwaka’wakw clan crests, and ancestral mythologies, relate to animals native to the Northwest Coast. A monkey or tropical bird crest would be totally inaccurate to the place.

Let’s take a journey down the Pacific Coast of the Americas, from the border of present-day Canada and the US to present-day Peru. At the ‘elbow’ of the southern Peruvian coast, a peninsula juts out into the Pacific. The Paracas Peninsula is now part of the Paracas National Reserve, protecting marine habitats and archaeological remains of the ancient Paracas culture. You may have heard of the Paracas because of their mummified burials. The Paracas were expert weavers and produced enormous textiles to wrap their dead in layer upon layer of cloth. Along with the arid desert climate, this cloth wrapping resulted in the (probably unintentional) mummification of many Paracas burials. We’ll return to Paracas embroidered textiles in “Why Do People Take What Doesn’t Belong to Them?”

For now, let’s talk about something the Paracas and the Kwakwaka’wakw have in common. As communities living along the Pacific coast, they were both witness to the migrations of whales as water temperatures and currents changed seasonally. One species, the orca, is known to range up to Alaska (passing the Northwest Coast) and down to the Peruvian coast. Both the Paracas and Kwakwaka’wakw, as coastal peoples, would have observed large marine life like orcas during relevant seasons, either from boats or as whales beached to hunt seals. Both cultures probably observed the prowess of the orca, as an apex predator, and thus attributed qualities such as strength, resilience, and intelligence to them. Thus, when imagery of orcas is invoked, these qualities are metaphorically relevant.

So, how does the orca factor into Paracas culture? Paracas peoples created an abstracted image of an orca (with a fish as prey in front of the orca’s face) on a hillside (sketched in Fig. 6.7; original here). This image is approximately 200 feet long. Does it remind you of anything? Heard of the Nasca lines?

Image of Digital Transformational Sketch by Marizela Garza of the original artwork: Orca geoglyph by Paracas Makers of southern Peru.
Figure 6.7: Digital Transformational Sketch by Marizela Garza of the original artwork: Paracas Makers of southern Peru. Orca geoglyph. 800-100 CE. In situ. View the original artwork here. Refer to Figure 0.1 to view the transformational sketch process.

The Nasca lines and geoglyphs were produced very near to this Paracas image and other Paracas geoglyphs. Paracas examples are older (800-100 BCE) than the Nasca imagery (200 BCE – 600 CE). The Nasca are effectively the descendants of the Paracas culture, if not genetically then in many cultural traditions. The Paracas were creating geoglyphs well before the Nasca created the images of monkeys, hummingbirds, and trees on the plains of the coastal desert. Interestingly, the Paracas chose to create their geoglyphs on hillsides, not on the flat plains.

Before we move on, it is important to dispel the myths that anyone other than human beings created these geoglyphs and associated lines. No lasers or spaceships were required. The geology of the coastal desert is the key to understanding how HUMANS made this imagery. The coastal desert is an odd environment created at the contact (or subduction zone) of two tectonic plates. When one plate slides under another at a subduction zone, this causes a lot of pressure at the edge of the overlying plate, causing what is called uplift. This process of uplift often results in the development of mountain chains, like the Himalayas, as mentioned in “Where Are We Going?”! Along the South American Pacific coast, this process started to occur around 60 million years ago and (slowly) continues to this day. The Andes Mountains are the result. There are extreme environmental differences on either side of the Andes: coastal desert on the west and Amazon rainforest on the east.

Due to this gradual continual uplift and continental movement, the Andes Mountains continually erode. This erosion is visible as a layer of dark stone overlying the sand of the coastal desert. Over millions of years, the Andes (and most mountain ranges around the world) literally crumble and erode onto neighboring ecosystems. The coastal desert retains the material of this erosion on top of the original sand layer.

Paracas and Nasca peoples definitely knew about this layering because both groups practiced agriculture and had to develop strategies for growing crops in the arid environment. It is not well known why Paracas and Nasca peoples were motivated to develop large-scale geoglyphs but we definitely know how they did it. If you walk around the coastal desert, and shuffle your feet a bit, you will dislodge the upper layer of dark Andes erosion material, and reveal the lighter sandy material beneath. All it takes to create large orcas on a hillside or monkeys on a coastal plain is to gather a community and shuffle your feet together. This obviously required coordination, which was likely facilitated by political and/or spiritual leaders who chose the imagery. Paracas leaders chose the Orca imagery because of the symbolic qualities discussed above and potentially for other spiritual connections. The Nasca chose their imagery for similar reasons, and probably because they developed trade across the Andes to the Amazon forests (where they would have encountered monkeys).

The monumental geoglyphs and long-distance lines would not be developed in this way or in another place in the world because they rely on the specific environment of the coastal desert. The Paracas and Nasca communities relied on the coastal desert as the place of their survival. The connection to significant animals and local flora demonstrates the importance of place.

In a more literal sense, Mural Fragment with Elite Male and Maguey Cactus Leaves (Fig. 6.8) represents an importance of place among the Teotihuacanos of present-day central Mexico (Fig. 6.1). Teotihuacan was an ancient city of the Valley of Mexico, where present-day Mexico City and historic Tenochtitlan (the Aztec/Mexica capital) were eventually built. Teotihuacan predates both those later cities but developed later than the Olmec of the Gulf Coast region and was contemporaneous with the Early Classic period of the Maya to the east.

Image of Mural fragment with Elite Male and Maguey Cactus Leaves by Makers of Teotihuacan, Mexico
Figure 6.8: Maker(s) of Teotihuacan, Mexico. Mural Fragment with Elite Male and Maguey Cactus Leaves. ca. 500-550 CE. Pigment on plaster, approx. 32.5” x 45.5”. Cleveland Museum of Art Collection; CC0 Public Domain.

Teotihuacan started as a small settlement and eventually grew into the largest urban place of its day, eventually comprising a population of around 125,000 people. Review this map of Teotihuacan, including both the central precinct and the residential hinterlands, to get a sense of the size and urban development of the city. Do you notice any resemblance to modern city maps? When you look closely at the central precinct, check out how grid-like the city was. These look like modern city blocks!

Teotihuacan was organized along a central sacred corridor (now known as the ‘Avenue of the Dead’ because there are several tombs located along it; Fig. 6.9 left). The corridor was a pathway between several important structures including (what the Aztec/Mexica called) the Pyramid of the Moon (at the north end), the Pyramid of the Sun (centrally located; Fig. 6.9 left), and the Citadel (at the south end). The avenue and those buildings formed what archaeologists call the ‘ceremonial core’ of the city, where important civic-spiritual rituals and royal events would take place.

Image of View from “Pyramid of the Moon” looking toward the “Avenue of the Dead” and the “Pyramid of the Sun” at Teotihuacan, Mexico, in 2018

Residences surrounded the central ceremonial core (Fig. 6.9 right). Archaeological excavations of the residential areas suggest that the farther one’s house was from the central core, the less well-connected one’s family was. Some of the royal family of Teotihuacan lived between the Pyramids of the Moon and the Sun, just off the main avenue to the east, in the Xalla Palace (labeled here). A group of wealthy people lived in the Tetitla complex (also labeled on the map), farther from the ceremonial core than the palace but closer than many of the distant barrios (neighborhoods; labeled on the map). For example, the so-called Merchants Barrio on the east side of the city sits over a kilometer away from the central core.

One of the largest residential complexes, built sort of like apartment complexes today, was the Tlacuilapaxco compound located just northeast of the Xalla palace. Given its proximity to the ceremonial core, this was a high-status home. Like many other high-status residences at Teotihuacan, Tlacuilapaxco featured large murals with repetitive imagery, including that seen in Mural Fragment with Elite Male and Maguey Cactus Leaves. One striking thing about this mural is the use of red pigments. Many archaeologists have studied the pigments used in Teotihuacan murals including Lopez-Puertolas and colleagues (2019) in “Characterization of Color Production in Xalla’s palace complex, Teotihuacan.”

In addition to artistic production and use of colors, we can learn about the significance of a place from the mural fragment. A human figure stands in profile, lavishly adorned with necklaces, knee fringe, anklets, a plumed back ornament, and a zoomorphic plumed headdress. The figure’s mouth is open with a scroll-like decorative object emerging from it. This object is known as ‘speech breath’ or the visual representation of speech or singing in Mesoamerican art. Thus, we can be certain that this figure is represented as either saying words or singing, probably during an important ritual, given the amazing regalia he wears. The figure’s left (lower) arm is slightly extended in front of his body, with the hand holding a decorative ritual object (possibly a bag of incense). His right arm is extended farther with fingers separated. When viewed closely, it appears that a stream of water flows from his fingers.

What does that water flow upon? In front of the water stream, there is a rectangular object that appears to be a bundle wrapped in cloth. The horizontal lines are straight and uniform in length, suggesting some sort of harvested resource. Most scholars think this is a collection of reeds bundled together and tied at the center. There are 4 curious objects with needle-like ends that appear to be inserted into the bundle. If you’ve lived in or visited Central Mexico, you may recognize these objects as the spiny leaves of the maguey cactus (the species often used to make tequila, traditional medicine, and fabrics). We’ve identified the component parts, but what does the whole mean? Some scholars think that this is a set of symbols used to represent a ‘place name,’ such as ‘the place of the maguey cactus and reeds’.

There is another very similar mural fragment (housed in the de Young Museum collection) that actually features not 4 but 5 maguey spines in the bundle. These two mural fragments may have been removed from the same or two neighboring complexes: Figure 6.8 from Tlacuilapaxco and the de Young fragment may be from Techinantitla, just north of Tlacuilapaxco. Check out Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees: Reconstructing the Murals of Teotihuacan (Berrin and Millon 1988) to learn more about how these objects came to be in museum collections.

If the bundles in these murals relate to place names, then they may relate to two different, but perhaps connected places. Indeed, some scholars think that these bundles don’t refer to general places but specific plots of land, which may be differentiated because one has more maguey cactus than the other. The bundle of reeds may also indicate that the place or plots of land contain a water source, since reeds generally grow in watery places. If true, these places would be important, indeed. Maguey and water were both important resources in the arid environment of the Valley of Mexico.

Now, we can get to the question: what is this guy doing? He is probably a priest, wearing the regalia of the feathered serpent deity (known as Quetzalcoatl to the Mexica/Aztecs). The feathered serpent is a hybrid of a snake and bird, combining the qualities of the sky and the land, including water, into one deity who was probably related to fertility and agriculture among the Teotihuacanos. A hybrid zoomorphic representation of the feathered serpent is present in the upper border of both murals.

The priest of the feathered serpent offers prayers and blessings through his speech/singing and through providing water. This may symbolize the coming of the rains, provided by the feathered serpent, or a ritual in which water was literally spread over plots of land. It is likely that the priest is blessing places important to the people who lived at these complexes. These may have been plots of land that the family owned and wanted to ensure would be fruitful. The original viewers and patrons of these murals may have been able to read more into the imagery, such as the symbols embedded in and around the speech breath, which might offer more details about the nature of the words or song that the priest offered. Overall, these murals probably are memorials to the blessing of a significant place connected to the families who lived in these complexes. We’ll think more about Teotihuacan and place in “Can We Live Together?”

The importance of literacy

We can’t cover everything that every community in the world finds important. We’ve considered some primary values such as solidarity, heritage, and place that can be seen in many communities around the world. Literacy (the ability to read and write) is not necessarily a value that all communities, or even most, found important prior to the globalization of European and Euro-American traditions. Prior to European contact, many societies did not use or need a writing system because they passed on knowledge orally, visually, or in other ways. Beyond these cases, the importance of literacy definitely is not only a European or Euro-American value.

Think back to “What is Divine?” and “What is Beautiful?” where we discussed the Islamic tradition of calligraphy. It is intimately tied to the origins of Islam: the Prophet Muhammed receiving the revelation from Allah and the eventual codification (standardization through writing down) of that revelation into the Qur’an. We studied a beautiful Safavid Qur’anic manuscript in which the naskh script expressed the message of Islam. To those outside the Islamic tradition, calligraphy is most associated with the Qur’an but calligraphic inscriptions feature on a wide variety of objects and in many contexts. Let’s take a close look at Bowl with Calligraphic Inscription (Fig. 6.10) to explore this variation.

Image of Bowl with Calligraphic Inscription by Central Asian Maker(s) of Nishapur
Figure 6.10: Central Asian Maker(s) of Nishapur, Iran. Bowl with Calligraphic Inscription. 900s CE. Earthenware, slip-painted and glazed, approx. 14” diameter. Aga Khan Museum Collection; CC BY-NC 2.5 CA.

The minimalistic design of this bowl may attract you since popular design today often prioritizes the ‘less is more’ design aesthetic. The primary black on white contrast and the brief pops of red are striking to the eye. The concentric circles are also quite appealing, from the central black dot, to the inner black line, to the circular inscription at the edge of the bowl. Scholars think that this choice to paint the text along the edge of the bowl was an innovation of artists of Nishapur, Iran, during the Samanid Period (900-999 CE). This aesthetic was emulated by many contemporaneous and proceeding artists around Asia, as these early examples found their way into new lands via trade.

The artist who painted this inscription chose to experiment with a traditional Arabic script known as kufic. One of the oldest Arabic scripts, kufic was used in the oldest known Qur’ans and the oldest known Islamic monuments from the late 600s and early 700s CE. All traditional Arabic scripts are ‘joined-up’ (cursive) with the letters merging with each other. And all Arabic scripts are read right to left. Typically, kufic script has a very linear and perpendicular quality with long horizontal segments (connecting letters within words) and vertical segments dictated by the form of each Arabic letter. Some kufic styles appear almost geometric. The Nishapur artist who painted this bowl chose, in the black inscription, to compress the details of each letter to emphasize the horizontal (in this case curved) and vertical components. These choices reduce the readability of the inscription but make it very aesthetically interesting.

Contributor Dr. Lina Jammal provides a more readable version of the black Arabic inscription on the bowl, while the Aga Khan Museum (2021) provides the English translation:

 السخاء والجود من أخلاق أهل الجنّة

“‘Generosity is the disposition of the dwellers of Paradise’”

While this inscription relates to a religious concept (i.e. paradise; discussed in detail in “What Happens When We Die?”), it is also about morality and how that morality relates to secular (everyday) life. This type of inscription is an aphorism (a popular saying; a truism) that reflects social norms of the community. In this case, the moral of generosity is attributed to all those who are able to reach paradise (according to the Islamic tradition of the afterlife). Other aphorisms found on similar bowls include:

من كثر كلامه كثر سقطه

“He who multiplies his words, multiplies his worthlessness”; alternate translation: “He who talks a lot, spills a lot.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art citing S. Heidemann 2/2011  

التدبیر قبل العمل یؤمنك من الندم الیمن والسلامة

“Planning before work protects you from regret; good luck and well-being.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art citing Ekhtiar et al. 2011, 108)

إن السلامة ما صمت و إنّما یبدي بطانة ذي العیوب کلام

“Peace is that which is silent and only his speech will reveal the [inner thoughts] of the man with faults.” (Brooklyn Museum n.d.)

To learn more about Arabic inscriptions from a variety of art contexts, check out Islamic Inscriptions (Blair 1998). Inscriptions are an incredibly important part of arts associated with Islam and Muslim communities and literacy is an important part of life, in general. The Islamic faith expects everyone to become literate, as a personal ability to read/recite the Qur’an is paramount to worship. From the late 600s CE, as Islam spread, literacy was prioritized in conversion. The Qur’an was translated into many different languages and writing systems so that barriers in learning Arabic would not necessarily halt an individual’s knowledge of the faith. It was also the case that people learned the Qur’an via oral memorization and recitation (the original means of transmission prior to codification) as Islam spread. This importance of literacy in Islamic societies eventually spilled over into everyday life. In fact, reading, and to a lesser extent writing, were more common in historic Islamic societies than most other contemporaneous societies (such as medieval Europe). This is because more people within Islamic societies were literate (including so-called lower classes) than in other societies wherein literacy was a privilege only of those with high status and access to education.

Relatively high rates of literacy were also known in historic China, especially during the Tang and Song Dynasty periods. Access to education and literacy were primarily restricted to families with connections to the Confucian bureaucracy (review our discussion of Confucianism in “Who Am I?”) or those wealthy enough to pay for education. Among those who were literate was the smaller and more exclusive community known as the ‘literati.’ This was the class of scholars, poets, important artists, officials of the court, and intellectuals who were considered literate, not just in general reading and writing but in the traditions of Chinese arts and literature. We’ve already met a member of the Joseon Korean literati: Shin Suk-ju from “Who Am I?”

Scholars like Shin Suk-ju earned their knowledge and position through keju (imperial subject examinations, aka civil service exams). Developing in the Tang Dynasty (with origins from the Han Dynasty) and formalized in the Song period, exam requirements dictated that men study topics prioritized by the Emperor’s court: Confucian literature, statecraft, law, arithmetic, military topics, and even arts like painting. If a man passed an exam (of which there were many levels), he would earn a degree and could advance to more difficult exams or take a position according to his newly earned credentials (tongsheng ‘child student’ > shenghuan ‘student member’ > juren ‘recommended man’ > gongshi ‘tribute scholar’ > jinshi ‘advanced scholar’). Those that reached the highest ranks became ‘scholar-officials’ and served in the imperial bureaucracy, impacting the government, political policy, and society at large. Women participated in activities associated with the literati community, including reading and writing poetry, painting, and considering Confucian ideals but they were not eligible to take imperial exams. You may have taken an exam influenced by this historic Chinese system. The history of standardized testing in US public education traces back to imperial exams in China. To learn more, check out “A Brief History of Imperial Examination and Its Influence” (Kwang 2017).

This community of literati did not stop reading and writing after their exams. For most, their passion for literature and intellectualism continued throughout their lives and was expressed as a representation of their continued merit as a scholar-official. One of the common activities of these men would be to view paintings of renowned artists, either contemporary artists or those of the past, and offer commentary in their own words. Zhang Yanyuan, the author of Fashu Yaolu (法書要錄 Compendium of Calligraphy) and Lidai Minghua Ji (歷代名畫記 Famous Paintings through History) from the Tang Period, mentioned in “Where Does Art Come From? An Introduction,” was one such scholar-official focused on painting. In fact, as his works demonstrate, the appreciation of calligraphy developed first among the literati of China, then the standards of that appreciation was applied to painting.

Streams and Mountains without End (Fig. 6.11) visually exemplifies this tradition. The work was painted by an artist of the early (or Northern) Song Dynasty period on an incredibly long handscroll (approx. 36 feet long!). The length of these handscrolls mean that original viewers (prior to photography) would rarely see the whole image at once. Instead, viewers would unroll the scroll in small sections, viewing the details of each section and then moving onto the next. Figure 6.12 offers a video from the Asian Art Museum demonstrating this handscroll viewing process.

Image of Streams and Mountains without End by Northern Song Dynasty Maker(s) of China
Figure 6.11: Northern Song Dynasty Maker(s) of China. Streams and Mountains without End (painting top; full scroll bottom left; inscriptions bottom right). ca. 1100-1150 CE. Ink and color on silk hanging scroll, approx. 14” x 7’ painting (36’ total scroll length). Cleveland Museum of Art Collection; CC0 Public Domain.

Figure 6.12: “Viewing a Chinese Handscroll” uploaded by Asian Art Museum on YouTube (Sep 26. 2018).

As Viewing a Chinese Handscroll (Fig. 6.12) demonstrates, there is not just a painting on these scholarly handscrolls. Before and after the painting, there are inscriptions added either by the artist or by scholars who viewed the painting, sometimes many years after the original production date. Streams and Mountains without End has 9 inscriptions, 2 of which are quoted below (Cleveland Museum of Art 2021):

造物元無心,山川秀氣聚。畫手亦無盡,各出新意度。 誰將妙林泉,淡墨寫縑素。重巒疊嶂間,三兩人家住。 茅舍隔素籬,小橋通細路。溪上數葉舟,雅有物外趣。 嵓崦藏招提,依稀認窗戶。山色四時宜,雲煙自朝暮。 不知塵世中,此景在何處。收拾買山錢,投老好歸去。 泰和乙丑三月三日平原王文蔚謹再拜,書于河東縣署之野趣堂

The creator has no intentions, Making mountains and streams from pure air. The painters too are also innumerable; Every one of them has some new ideas. Who has picked these tasteful forests and springs, And laid them on this white piece of silk with light ink? In the midst of layers of peaks and piles of overhangs, Two or three families have found dwellings. The thatched huts are separated by sparse fences. A little bridge leads to several narrow paths. On the river boats float like leaves. The tranquility gives a flavor that is beyond this world. Behind a rock, a monastery is hidden, Doors and windows of some buildings are faintly recognizable. The appearance of the mountain is proper for all four seasons, Cloudy and misty from dawn to dusk. I wonder where in this dust-filled world Can scenes like this be found! Gather your pension money; When old, this is a good place to go. The third day, third month, the year of yichou in the Taihe reign (1205), Wang Wenwei of Pingyuan wrote this at Yequ Tang in the magisterial office of Hedong.


I have studied the composition and the design of this painting and have noticed its brushwork in the ancient manner. The mountains are bright and the rocks are moist. Far and near, the bridges, paths, trees, human figures, and other objects are clear and give the flavor of real landscape. None but the greatly talented hands of that time could have achieved this. There is no need to ask the name of the painter; the work itself can be classed in the divine order. Considering the fact that the writers of the colophons of three dynasties, Song, Jin, and Yuan, have not been able to trace the source of the painting, its origin must indeed be ancient. A work that survives age and crisis is a work with the virtue of longevity. It is not for me to make further speculations, but only to hope that Wenxian will treasure this with great care. In the spring of the gengshen year, the Hongwu era (1380), I, Yang Mao, at eighty sui [have seen this].

Wang Wenwei wrote of wanting to retire in this landscape in 1205 CE, about a century after the painting was created. Almost 200 years after that in 1380 CE, Yang Mao viewed the painting, read all the previous inscriptions (aka colophons), and lamented that the skilled painter remains unknown. These inscriptions demonstrate that the writers viewed the painting carefully, considered its meaning and relevance to their lives, and reflected upon the history of the literati practice of viewing paintings.

Did you notice all the blocky red components on the Streams and Mountains without End and on the scroll in the Viewing a Chinese Handscroll video? Those are seals, recorded on the silk using red ink, to document individuals who have owned each scroll and/or prominent persons who viewed them. Streams and Mountains without End contains 49 seals, including those of multiple emperors, and date from circa 1300 to the early 1900s CE.

Of course, we cannot ignore that, as Wang and Yang state, the painting is excellent. Streams and Mountains without End is one example of a long tradition of shan sui (mountain-water) painting in China (relates to the karesansui garden discussed in “What is Beautiful?”). Mountains and water features are the primary subjects of these paintings and the techniques reflect mastery of detailed brushwork and interest in the bare beauty of monochromatic black ink on silk. The naturalism in such paintings primarily relates to Daoist values and symbolism. We’ll expand upon the metaphorical meaning of this type of imagery in “Why Does Size Matter?” To sum up for now, Confucian ideals embedded in the literati community of viewership and commentary intersects with the Daoist tradition through imagery and historic meaning. As we’ve seen, these intersections originally developed in China and then strongly influenced the social and bureaucratic structures of Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.

In Japan, writing in the Chinese style, using the Kanji script to write the Japanese oral language, emerged as early as the Yayoi Period (ca. 300 BCE – 250 CE). By the Edo Period (1600-1868 CE; aka Tokugawa Period), artists such as Hon’ami Koetsu developed a tradition of lacquered boxes (like Fig. 6.13) that served the Edo literati of Japan in their scholarly pursuits. PS: This was also when The Courtesan Komurasaki of the Tamaya (Fig. 5.4) was painted by Kitagawa Utamaro).

Image of Lacquer Box by Edo Period Maker(s) of Japan
Figure 6.13: Edo period Maker(s) of Japan. Lacquer Box. 1800s CE. Lacquer on wood, approx. 6”. Cleveland Museum of Art Collection. CC0 Public Domain.

Lacquering requires an artist to build up countless layers of tree sap over a painting on wood, to seal that painting and wood object but also to establish an unparalleled luster and shine. The fact that this laborious process was applied to such small objects indicates that the Lacquer Box was important. Boxes are meant to hold stuff, so what did this box hold? Any guess based on what we’ve been talking about? Writing utensils! On the far right, the photo shows the interior of the box, with an ovaloid well that would hold the charcoal inkstone and water. The box is just long enough to store a few of the scholar’s favorite writing brushes and other implements that he needs to produce inscriptions and poetry.

Like Streams and Mountains without End, Lacquer Box reflects the intersections of Daoist shan sui and Confucian-driven literati priorities. In fact, Lacquer Box depicts a specific mountain from Chinese mythology called Mount Penglai, known as Horai-zan in Japan. The original Chinese myth, from the Classic of Mountains and Seas, connects Mount Penglai to the islands of the immortals and attributes mystical properties to it. Chinese and Japanese scholars would study the Classic of Mountains and Seas as an example of classic literature that held valuable geographic information, both for physical travel and for spiritual consideration.

The subject matter of Lacquer Box definitely reflects the older painting tradition of Streams and Mountains without End but there is an obvious difference. Check out all that gold! Edo lacquer artists were very skilled at embedding powdered gold leaf into lacquer layers to build up the metallic sheen and fetch a high price, from a developing middle class. During the Edo period, the literati community of Japan transformed as urbanization and political changes brought many different people together in cities, like in the Yoshiwara pleasure district where Courtesan Komurasaki worked. Unlike in previous periods, merchants, artists, theatre performers, and others of the growing middle class were now entering the literati community. The rise of woodblock printing and accessible/cheap reading material greatly increased literacy in Japanese cities like Edo and broadened literati social life to include a wide variety of people. This meant that many people needed personal writing boxes. For many Edo patrons, the flashier, the better!

The importance of observation

Literacy and intellectualism according to the traditions of East Asia or Europe do not apply everywhere. For example, in the dense forests of central Africa, Bambuti cultures engage in a distinct type of intellectualism – that of observation. The forest is most important to Bambuti cultures. The forest offers everything they need to live and fascinates the mind with sights and sounds.

Bambuti cultures (singular: Mbuti) are hunter-gatherer pygmy societies primarily living in the Ituri Forest of northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (Fig. 6.1). The term pygmy is applied to a group of people when their average height is significantly shorter than the global average (approx. 5’9” for men). For example, the Mbuti average height is about 4’6” and the Twa peoples of southern DRC average about 5’ tall. Pygmyism is distinct from dwarfism as it is applied to an entire population versus individuals within a population. It is important to note that while terms like pygmy and dwarf are used within scholarly communities to describe people, these terms often carry baggage of negative perceptions built from years of prejudice against people because of their difference, including racist theories about evolutionary histories. Mbuti peoples, for example, have been subject to horrific treatment including slavery, genocide, and capture. The story of Mbye Otabenga (Ota Benga), captive at the Bronx Zoo in 1906 CE, attests to the discrimination these groups have endured and continue to face today. Learn more about Otabenga in “Ota Benge Honored” (Graves 2017). More recently, there have been genocidal conflicts undertaken against pygmy populations during the ‘Second Congo War’.

After considering that context, let’s focus on Mbuti art traditions to celebrate their culture. In terms of arts, the Mbuti are most known for their music, dance, and pongo or murumba (barkcloth). You can view several Pongo examples here and sketched in Figure 6.14. Notice the highly patterned quality of each example? Motifs such as dots, parallel lines, concentric circles, hatching, and various colorblocked shapes are common in Pongo. Most traditional examples only feature black paint, while newer examples can incorporate colored pigments.

Image of Digital Transformational Sketch by Marizela Garza of the original artwork: Pongo by Mbuti Makers of Democratic Republic of the Congo
Figure 6.14: Digital Transformational Sketch by Marizela Garza of the original artwork: Mbuti Makers of Democratic Republic of the Congo. Pongo. ca. 1900 CE. Barkcloth and pigment. Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection. View the original artwork here. Refer to Figure 0.1 to view the transformational sketch process.

These patterns are not merely aesthetic. They are painted to express the light and shadow, along with the sounds and silences, of the forest. The Mbuti are bamiki bandura (‘children of the forest’) focused on the observation and celebration of ndura (‘forestness’). The forest is a sanctuary to which Mbuti people will sing and speak, as if to a friend. Dances and songs, including the ‘leaf-carrying’ and ‘honey-bee’ songs, are offered in reverence to the forest. This reverence derives from intense study of the forest, listening to the deep silences, carefully attuning to the insect hums, considering the play of light among the trees, and noticing the natural patterns of reptilian scales. The abstraction of Mbuti Pongo is a reflection of this scholarship of the forest, developed through conceptual thinking.

Pongo, and the forest that inspires them, decorate the important events of Mbuti life. They are worn as clothing for both men and women at celebrations of rites of passage, weddings, and funerals. Men and women cooperate to produce Pongo. Men collect the inner bark of several special tree species and pound it into a fiber-like cloth. Mud may be added to darken the surface. Women are responsible for dye/paint production from forest pigments. Pongo painting is a communal activity, undertaken together and as a reflection of the importance of the forest and the Mbuti life within it. Mbuti painting and scholarship of the forest should be better known around the world as an example of how intellectualism and scholarship can take many forms, not just the forms prioritized in Europe and Euro-America (to which this textbook is admittedly tied). To learn more about it and spread the word, check out Mbuti Design: Paintings by Pygmy Women of the Ituri Forest (Meurant and Thomspon 2005).

The Wrap-up

Again, this discussion of community values and priorities is not exhaustive. What other values or important concepts would you add based on your experience in different communities? Just like the question “Who I Am?”, we often ask the question “What is Important to Us?” throughout our lives, as our priorities shift. That reflection also helps us to understand the world around us, as we notice where our values and priorities relate to and/or differ from those of other communities. Keep exploring by checking out the resources below.

News Flash

Where Do I Go From Here? / The Bibliography

Aga Khan Museum. N.d. “Bowl.” Accessed August 5, 2021. https://www.agakhanmuseum.org/collection/artifact/dish-akm546.

Berrin, Kathleen, and Clara Million. 1998. Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees: Reconstructing the Murals of Teotihuacán. California: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Blair, Sheila S. 1998. Islamic Inscriptions. New York: New York University Press.

Brooklyn Museum. n.d. “Bowl with Kufic Inscription.” Accessed August 6, 2021. https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/4901.

The Cleveland Museum of Art. n.d. “Streams and Mountains without end.” Accessed Aug 6, 2021. https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1953.126.

Graves, Katherine. 2017. “Ota Benga Honored.” The Critograph, Last Modified September 14, 2017. Accessed August 5, 2021.

Ko, Kwang H. 2017. “A Brief History of Imperial Examination and Its Influences.” Society 54 (May): 272-278. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-017-0134-9.

Lopez-Puertolas, Carlos, Linda R. Manzanilla-Naim, and Maria Luisa Vazquez-de-Agredos-Pascual. 2019. “Characterization of Color Production in Xalla’s palace complex, Teotihuacan.” in STAR: Science & Technology of Archaeological Research 5, no. 2: 221-233.  

MacGaffey, Wyatt. 1977. “Fetishism Revisited: Kongo Nkisi in Sociological Perspective.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 47, no. 2: 172-184. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1158736.

Metropolitan Museum of Art citing Ekhtiar et al.. 2011. Bowl with Arabic Inscription.” Accessed August 6, 2021. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/451802.

Metropolitan Museum of Art citing S. Heidemann. 2011. “Bowl with Inscription.” Accessed August 6, 2021. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/449721?=&imgNo=0&tabName=object-information.

Meurant, Georges and Robert F. Thompson. 1995. Mbuti design: paintings by pygmy women of the Ituri forest. London: Thames and Hudson.

O’Hern, Robin R. 2012. “On the Surface: A Cultural and Scientific Analysis of Two West African Komo Masks’ Surfaces.” Masters thesis, University of California Los Angeles.

O’Hern, Robin R., Ellen Pearlstein, and Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi. 2016. “Beyond the Surface: Where Cultural contexts and Scientific Analyses meet in Museum Conservation of West African Power Association Helmet Masks.” Museum Anthropology 39 no. 1: 70–86.

Takeda, Sharon S. 2018. “New Acquisition: Collection of African Ceremonial Barkcloth Paintings.” LACMA Unframed. Last modified April 25, 2018. Accessed August 4, 2021.


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Where Does Art Come From? by Leah McCurdy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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