The Progress of Love, The Menil Collection December 2, 2012-March 17, 2013

The Menil and the Pulitzer continue dialogue around The Progress of Love

The Menil Collection and The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts launched a dialogue earlier this month in which six professionals respond to three questions sparked by the exhibition, The Progress of Love. You can read the first round of dialogue here: How are romantic relationships being redefined and visualized in the 21st century?

This week we asked our contributors, Where does love live in Africa?

Ryan Dennis, Public Art Director at Project Row Houses: In 2006 I had the opportunity to travel to Ghana as part of an African American Studies course offered at the University of Houston. I still encounter and interpret the effects of my experiences to this day. I can still feel the energy and visualize the beauty of everyone whom I met when I touched ground. That trip, and the recent experience of viewing Zina Saro Wiwa’s Eaten By The Heart, Part 1 structure a framework through which I can (more deeply) understand my relationship with my Ghanaian-born-and-raised dad.

My dad came into my life when I was six years old, after my mom and biological father divorced. Up until that moment, I performed culturally appropriate and learned acts of love. I recited “I love you” constantly, kissed family members on the cheek, and gave, what seemed to be, excessively long hugs. As a child, of course, you tend to mimic behavior. In the presence of my dad, I attempted these physical displays in pursuit of reciprocation, and was often left wondering why my efforts were not met with much physical affection in return. I can recall initiating embraces that left my dad looking slightly uncomfortable.

It is undeniable that my dad did, and continues to, love me. While many of us are conditioned to express love through the physical, what happens when the physical is not part of what an individual knows or is accustomed to? Is love lost? My dad has shown love through the ways he communicates, the way he provides support, and the things that he has done for me over the 22 years he has been in my life. When I was in Ghana I did not witness overt physical displays of affection happening between lovers, mothers and children, and friends, however, I could still feel love’s presence.

My relationship with my dad, and my time spent in Ghana suggests to me that love is a consolidation of experiences that are not spatially circumscribed. Thus in response to where love lives in Africa, I find that it is not so much a question of “where” but rather of when and how.

Love is everywhere in Africa.

Massa Lemu, Artist and recent Critical Studies Core Fellow at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: Love resides everywhere in Africa. It is shared, it is communal. It is in the air. Whether it manifests as maternal, familial, romantic, marital or extra-marital, love is both private and public. A romantic relationship is mainly a private affair but when it endures and grows into marriage it becomes public. The marriage bond will have to be approved by family and friends and if approved it is celebrated and publicized. In most urban areas of southeastern Africa where traditional and Christian/Western customs prevail (or a hybrid of the two cultures exists), a wedding ceremony involves both public traditional and Christian/Western protocols. All and sundry are invited to witness the young couple express marital vows. Both the traditional and Christian ceremonies involve feasting and the generous exchange of gifts between the two families to publicly express their approval of the new marriage. This public expression of consent and commitment is also a way to stake claims and strengthen marital bonds. The new family grows under the close observation of family, friends, and relatives becoming part of an extended but close knit nuclear family of brothers, sisters, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, uncles, aunts, cousins and nephews. A baby born will belong to this extended family. However, as the interviewees in Zina Saro Wiwa’s video Eaten By The Heart (Part 1) indicate, the expression of affection and intimacy between two lovers remains a private affair. Things are changing gradually due to exposure to Western culture, but traditionally in most African societies couples do not touch, hug, or kiss each other in public. Such intimate gestures of love and affection are reserved for the privacy of the home.

Solkem N’Gangbet, Former Program Director of Houston Museum of African American Culture, and museum consultant and independent curator: Why do we want to know where love lives in Africa? Is the answer different for America or Asia? Do we expect stories about the love that is distilled into hour-long cooking or communal sharing of delicious food? Or stories about timeless solidarity and charity? Do we expect lessons in pure love from the cradle of humanity?

If there are, of course, some culturally specific ways in which love is expressed on the continent, Africa’s cultural heritage, as a whole, is currently intertwined with modern trends and cosmopolitan influences.

Love is a human feeling like pain or fear or frustration. It lives in each and everyone, as anywhere else. Perhaps we want to know where in Africa love shows? What are its tokens? All the more since Africans tend to be particularly undemonstrative when it comes to expressing love in public. Still. Is a young professional in Dakar, Johannesburg or Yaoundé showing love to her (romantic) partner in a fundamentally different way from a young professional in Chicago, Buenos Aires or Berlin? They live very similar lives, listen to similar music and use the same electronic devices and social media. They show love in very similar ways, each with his or her own personal flavour.

The differences between social classes and groups within one continent, and even within one country or even one city, are probably more profound than the differences between similar groups across continents. Elderly women in a traditional rural town will most likely manifest their love in different ways than young male students in the city.

Just as in the West, Africa has places where ‘contracts’ can refer to gay marriages or a virgin spouse. Love lives within us all. Ultimately, the way it manifests itself depends on the circumstances and socio-economical environment, not so much on skin colour or country of birth.

Temitayo Ogunbiyi, Artist in The Progress of Love: In my Africa, love is the connection between members of a community. Where else do 5000 people show up for one person’s funeral or wedding? Where in the world will you see a dozen men dobale (prostrate) to formally ask for a bride on behalf of one’s friend. Now this love seems to be a continuation of a long-standing tradition, it’s not always due to an extraordinary sense of ride-or-die friendship, I don’t think. It seems that people show up at these events to network, jubilate, or show-face in the hope that when each of them has a function, everyone will attend and contribute. These communities and the customs from which they emerge are resilient. Therein, those considered to be of good character reap benefit for themselves, their relations, and their friends—and their friends’ friends. Still the lengths to which some, actually many, go to show support for another, I find to be extraordinary at times. It can be really moving, to be honest, to see how people show up for one another. Beyond one’s presence at such functions, there is also the physical affection I see that projects love. I agree with many of Zina Saro Wiwa’s interviewees in Eaten By The Heart (Part 1), it’s not necessarily in ‘a kiss’, if you wanna know if he/she loves you so, especially not in Lagos. The most common kiss displayed publicly in Lagos is the air-kiss-on-the-cheek. On average, these pecks can feel far less sincere than a hug, but slightly more intimate than a weak handshake. Typically, those from Yankee (The United States) give one, those from Jand (UK) give two, the Lebanese give three, and some can give five plus. There can be long, awkward pauses that ensue when one pulls away too early or is left hanging when offering an extra peck in any of the previously described situations. It seems the value placed on expressing love, and how these expressions may be understood, is variegated and full of surprises—even the most mundane acts may be enveloped in love while with the most intimate acts, nothing is guaranteed.

Amy Powell, Cynthia Woods Mitchell Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston: Romuald Hazoumé’s ONG SBOP (Organisation non gouvernementale, Solidarité béninoise pour occidentaux en péri / NGO: Beninese Solidarity with Endangered Westerners) (2011-ongoing) approaches this impossible question with a sense of humor, irony and earnestness. The artist formed an NGO in his native Benin whose purpose is to collect funds from everyday folks to assist white people in Europe and North America afflicted by poverty and crisis. The installation at the Menil includes two video elements couched in an installation reminiscent of Hazoumé’s large-scale works made of oil canisters. In the videos, we see celebrities from Benin raising money for the NGO: Danialou Sagbohan, Zeynab, Eléphant Mouillé, John Arcadius and the fabulous Angelique Kidjo. Step one is the reaction. Potential donors express disbelief, resentment, laughter, shock, and anger at the prospect of giving their hard earned, or in many cases not-yet-earned, cash to rich countries. And yet, Hazoumé’s volunteers press on. They use the encounters as platforms for debate and discussion about what Africans have to offer. “Did you know” (a typical pitch begins) “that in their country les blancs do not care for others. They will let their neighbor die of starvation and injury before helping them.” More shock. “I did not know this” is often the response. More pitch: “In Africa, we have love. We can show them how to care for others; we will teach them that love is not only about money.” And then, nearly every time, coins come out of pockets and purses to go into the fund. White Westerners, saved.

The work doesn’t let us romanticize where we find love in Africa. Rather, it provokes something in the exchange between us and them, perceived rich and perceived poor, in order to complicate prevailing notions of economic development and what is entailed in saving the world, while also probing cultural differences in capital and community.

Zina Saro-Wiwa’s Eaten By The Heart (Part 1) is a video installation and online documentary project asking, among other questions, “How do Africans kiss?” One man describes cultural differences he encountered upon moving to the US. He remembers the first time he found a meat-like tongue in his mouth and recounts his efforts to understand this foreign body, which eventually lead to new pleasures in the physical act of kissing. This same interviewee later says, “love is not just tongue in your mouth to me, it’s deeper than that.” Birth, family relationships, funeral preparations, and care for the body are all vital components for him. I was struck by the ways that this work, like Hazoumé’s, suggests we find love in relation between self and other, between longstanding social rituals and new ways of knowing the world.

Charlotte Walker-Said, Writing Fellow at Webster University in St. Louis: Love in Africa lives in the feet. Africa is a continent of movers who use their feet to show their capacity to love. The wealth of Africa is always on the move—wealth in its people, who cook and drive and sing and mine and harvest and program and manufacture and give birth and construct and govern in villages and cities all over the African continent and far beyond in the glittering new metropolises of the East and West. Africans move because they love. They wish to participate and belong to the wealth the world creates and takes, and so they move to show their love of others, their love of belonging, and their love of creating. The history of Africa is a history of migration, from the earliest Bantu migrations thousands of years before the current era to the migrations of Africans across the Sahara who carried gold and salt and religious scripts, to the migrations of warriors, farmers, and unfree laborers to the West African empires and across the Atlantic, and the miners and dockworkers and brewers and shopkeepers who migrated to the colonial cities across Africa. These migrants sought love through inclusion, knowledge, opportunity, faith, and prosperity and they demonstrated love through their movement. In Mozambique, I met villages entirely of women and children, as the village men migrated to South Africa to work in mines for years-long contracts. Upon their return these men and women would celebrate love with running and dancing, their feet hitting the ground hard with thrill and enthusiasm. And after several months, men would once again demonstrate their love with their feet, returning to work for wages to sustain their love. And Africans across the world share their love and their love of movement with the world’s citizens, who in turn must move ever gradually towards each other to seek out love and inclusion, knowledge, opportunity, faith, and prosperity.