Monday, November 7, 2011

Through African Eyes

My first comprehensive course in archaeology was an exposure to a field that was very much unfamiliar to me—a world of highly distinguished archaeologists, anthropologists and other specialists along with their span of theories, hypotheses and suppositions, as well as a myriad of data analyses and interpretations regarding material remains and the archaeological record. Guiding me throughout the semester was my TA, an African graduate student from Cameroon, who had met with me to discuss the topic for my final paper: the passage of time as seen through the eyes of the rural Luo people of western Kenya. I thought that I would begin with a “powerhouse” introduction of key concepts constructed by prominent scholars such as Lévi-Strauss, Bradley, Gosden, Shanks and Tilley, only to be cutoff abruptly. “No, no, stop!” he said. “Stop thinking. Tell me simply what the Luo are perceiving, that is all.” Startled by his comments, I said nothing (most likely I was too afraid to speak much less think). And it was then that I realized how much my “enlightened” perspective was considerably embedded and strangled within the “static” notion of contemporary Western thought. Yet, how do you look beyond yourself, beyond what you know so well? What exactly does it mean to see through African eyes?

These questions bring to mind an article written in 1993 by social anthropologist Tim Ingold titled,
The Temporality of the Landscape. It’s a wonderful study reflecting on the active nature of time within the living environment whose focus also attempts to bridge unifying themes between archaeology and anthropology through an adoption of what he calls a “dwelling perspective” in which the landscape becomes “an enduring record of—and testimony to—the lives and works of past generations who have dwelt within it, and in so doing, have left there something of themselves.” Moreover, Ingold asserts that human life is, after all, a process that involves the passage of time, and for both the native dweller as well as the archaeologist, the landscape relates a story. “It enfolds the lives and times of predecessors who, over the generations, have moved around in it and played their part in its formation.” So in essence, is the archaeologist able to peer through ancient indigenous eyes by “walking around in their shoes,” accessing a past embodied within the earth itself as well as within its material culture?

Considering this question makes me think of the ancestral San and their ardent interaction with the landscape through the multitudinous artistic creations painted boldly across cave walls and boulders throughout southern Africa. Indeed the San clearly impose their wills on these rock faces, rarely conforming to natural backgrounds, for instance, by their extension of outline and color from dark original surfaces onto light exfoliation scars, disregarding any contrasts or for that matter, paintings from previous artists thereby superimposing their conceptions on top of others and embedding the San’s indelible imprints upon the landscape and upon time. In my own effort to envision “a walk in San footsteps,” I dissect photographs of images, and admire the artist’s skill as well as study the composition itself: subject, gender, color, dimensions, ruminating on any possible inherent meanings residing in the works. To enrich my appreciation, I review perspectives from scholars who have endeavored to look through San eyes such as David Lewis-Williams, who describes the graphic rock art as collages of entoptic imagery construed by shamans in trance, generating a kind of “universal ethnography” shared by all humans as these perceptions are not culturally specific; and from John Parkington, who believes that even though the paintings may be informed by an altered state, they are deliberately constructed, built up through a series of choices, and to acquire an understanding of San subjectivity, i.e., achieving an insider’s view, you must consider motive as well as meaning and composition as well as content (Parkington 1989). An additional insight by Africanist Peter Garlake, who asserts, “In Zimbabwe, I have given more weight to the paintings as visual conceptualizations. I see the art as reflecting wider concerns than trance, though focused on the nature of spiritual energy or potency” (Garlake 2002) which compels me to wonder what exactly inspire and propel forces outside the trance state. Yet among these persuasive interpretations, what plainly emerges for me about African rock art is how these “stimulated” visions are as personal as they are unique, individualized experiences. Essentially these artworks even as products of trance encounters or largely informed by them, regardless of whether there is implicit meaning and conceptualization, reside only within the shaman’s own physical eyes with which he is incapable of sharing a direct and specific view of these visual images with others. Perhaps this is where the “act” of creating art becomes a channel for unveiling these intimate insights for those around him and for posterity as he deftly applies paint upon the “canvas.” Indeed no matter how much we try to walk within the footprints of the past, we will never know precisely what is truly perceived much less experienced. And what seems evident is how this vibrant, vivid San rock art has been intentionally endowed throughout the landscape of their time and reaches out to us in the here and now.

Shaman in a Trance, painting by Jean Haynes

This contemporary rendition of a trance-induced shaman emphasizes the eyes that Haynes depicts as two “opaque windows” that will soon illuminate the shaman’s personal experiences through his creations of rock art.

After much “walking” (and a little running), I did finally write about the perception of time conceived by the rural Luo people of western Kenya. And I surmised by the paper’s grade that my TA knew I did my best, that is, I did my best to see through African eyes.

(All photographs are from Google Images)


  1. I like how you address what a challenge it can be to come at anything from a new perspective--in this case, the challenge we face as archaeologists and anthropologists when dealing with cultures that function outside our preconceptions. I struggle with this in the sense that while evaluating a culture from an outside perspective has inherent problems, I feel that sometimes, if dealt with indelicately, the archaeologist's desire to look at culture from within the culture in question can seem condescending or insulting--by suggesting that the archaeologist isn't doing his analysis in the modern "right" way but instead humoring the alternative perspective/technique, or by implying that an archaeologist can enter into a new cultural understanding at will (i.e. that the culture he studies is transparent enough for this to be possible), respectively.

  2. Siu Ying this is a very thoughtful reflection on the nature of representation and its shared and individual aspects. I enjoyed the way you bring in reading from your other classes