The Loss of Literary Giant, The Power of Art

Two events of late seemed to converge in my mind, making this big, blue marble seem more like a little, blue marble in my hand.

achebeThe first is the passing of a literary giant, Chinua Achebe, whose “Things Fall Apart” you should have already read already. If not, get thee to your local bookery, um, bookstall, er, bookmonger, or big-box book shop. (Let me interject to say that I’m very disappointed we don’t have more synonyms for bookstore, nothing with a ring to it like bouquiniste in French. But I digress, though I vow to use bookmonger more often.)

With the loss of this man, often called the “Father of African Literature,” I’ve given much thought to my own  invitation to African letters.  I must admit, I came to  Achebe much later in my literary addiction. My gateway was the French-speaking countries of North and West Africa and the Caribbean; my hosts included Léopold Senghor, Camara Laye and, even earlier, Aimé Césaire.  Since then, I’ve read the likes of Tchicaya U Tam’si, Kateb Yacine, Ahmadou Kourouma, Mariama Bâ, Patrick Chamoiseau,Werewere Liking, Assia Djebar—the list goes on.  I’ve used Césaire in poetry workshops, I’ve heard Wole Soyinka speak, I’ve shared margaritas with Alain Mabanckou.

I know it is a cliché to say that reading opens up the world to you, but there is truth in it.  And the world must be opened.  If we are ever to get along, or help each other, we must understand each other.  As Ferlinghetti declared, the world is a beautiful place to be born into. But it’s so much more, it’s big and its beauty is never-ending, we simply need to look for it.

Chinua Achebe captured this succinctly when he said:

“I believe in the complexity of the human story and that there’s no way you can tell that story in one way and say, This is it. Always there will be someone who can tell it differently depending on where they are standing; the same person telling the story will tell it differently. I think of that masquerade in Igbo festivals that dances in the public arena. The Igbo people say, If you want to see it well, you must not stand in one place. The masquerade is moving through this big arena. Dancing. If you’re rooted to a spot, you miss a lot of the grace. So you keep moving, and this is the way I think the world’s stories should be told—from many different perspectives.”

I am grateful for the perspective of Chinua Achebe.

*****

The second was my latest trip to the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas to view the recently-closed exhibition “The Progress of Love.” Rather than try to sum it up, here’s a summary from the official site:

“The Progress of Love is an unprecedented, transatlantic collaboration between the Menil Collection in Houston; the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria; and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis that explores the universal emotion of love. The three concurrent but unique exhibitions that make up The Progress of Love constitute a narrative arc, addressing love as an ideal, love as a lived experience, and love as something lost.

The Progress of Love at the Menil presents works by more than 20 artists from Africa, Europe, and America and examines the ways in which language, mass media, cultural traditions, and socioeconomic forces foster images and expectations about love. The exhibition pays particular attention to the effects of the digital era, asking whether our ideas about love are now coming into closer alignment across the Atlantic.”

Saddened though I am that I am unable to head to St. Louis and Lagos to experience all three exhibitions, I was enthralled by the offering at the Menil.  Rich, moving, smart, my only disappointment was that I couldn’t stay longer.

Much of my time was eaten up by the installation piece of Romuald Hazoumè, from which I had much difficulty in pulling myself away.  So enamored was I that I wrote an ekphrastic poem inspired by the work; it is a tribute to the NGO SBOP—Solidarité Béninoise pour Occidentaux en Péril (Beninese Solidarity with Endangered Westerners)—featured in the piece.   According to the pamphlet available in the installation, “SBOP wants to reverse the trend: the citizens of under-developed countries could also help those of developed countries…and also help themselves.”

 The Progress of Love

As you can see in the photo, the installation is quite complex:  at the back, a wall; on the left, a TV showing documentary footage of the fundraising efforts by various Beninese celebrities; on the right, a TV showing still images of all the community agencies offering aid to people in Cotonou, Benin. In the center, a “closet” entered through a “bead” curtain (made from folded beer bottle caps) in which copies of clippings from articles about the NGO in French and African newspapers are mounted. In front of the wall, chairs, a table, and a desk made from used five-gallon oil/gas containers (a common theme in the work of Hazoumè).

The film follows Zeynab, Eléphant Mouillé, Danialou Sagbohan, John Arcadius, and Angélique Kidjo (the aforementioned celebrities) as they stroll through market and street, asking for contributions to the NGO. The residents of Cotonou are dubious, the plight of the white westerner difficult to fathom. But SBOP is convincing, and slowly but surely under-developed countries help the developed.  The gesture is unmistakable, the assistance real.

The poem (which you can find here) comes from this footage as well as the comment that has appeared of late in American social media, in which people complain about first-world problems (my cell/wi-fi doesn’t work, the bus was late, my A/C is out, etc).  These complaints contrast sharply with the willful ignorance of the problems we do have.   It is an early draft, far from complete, but its timing seems appropriate.

*****

I write this because my perspective on the world has been influenced by the work of Chinua Achebe.  I write this because, through literature, I have found a voice in which I may offer my own perspective.  I write this because, through the stories and histories of Africa, my shelves and mind are ever-expanding and continually understanding.  I write this because of the travels, real and imagined, inspired by the writings of Achebe and Senghor and others; because of the friends to whom their art has guided me.

Pick up a copy of “Things Fall Apart.”  Spend some time reading about “The Progress of Love.”  Take a journey that is no more out of reach than your bookshelf and your internet browser.

This is for Sani and Lamaka.

In memoriam, Chinua Achebe.

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