Monday, December 22, 2014
Headless People and Head Hunters
By Biko Agozino
According to Achille Mbembe, in his book, Postcolony, Europeans tend to see Africa as "a headless figure threatened with madness and quite innocent of any notion of center, hierarchy, or stability ... a vast dark cave where every benchmark and distinction come together in total confusion, and the rifts of a tragic and unhappy human history stand revealed: a mixture of the half-created and the incomplete…in short, a bottomless abyss where everything is noise, yawning gap, and primordial chaos".
The exhibition of Mbembe sculptures from a ‘Nigerian community’ of that name at the New York Metropolitan Museum (until September 7, 2015) appears to follow Achille Mbembe’s script by suggesting that the wooden sculptures from the 15th century Africans ‘with human heads’, including one ‘without a head’ can be cleanly classified into polar opposites of ‘killers and nurturers, All Surprisingly’ or into ‘Warriors and Mothers’, according to the New York Times reviewer, Holland Cotter who narrates how a Malian arts dealer sold those images of African ‘gods’ to a German collector in the 1970s and then vanished when the collector wanted to buy some more of the astonishing sculptures.
Such a Cartesian way of thinking in rational grids that compartmentalize complex reality into mutually exclusive categories that make them easier to master is typically a Western obsession compared to the chaos principles of African Fractals with emphases on interconnectivity, fractional dimensions, infinity, self-similarity, recursion, and scaling that characterize Africana designs compared to the authoritarian lineal geometries of Western designs or hierarchical Euclidean three-dimensional designs of American Indian Native arts, according to Ron Eglash in his African Fractals book. Achille Mbembe might be mistaken in believing that chaos is always negative – the internet is designed as a web with chaos theory to defy the dictatorial will to control, for example.
The reviewer of Mbembe sculptures, Holland Coitter, simply assumed that the Mbembe community exists only on the Nigerian side of the border with Cameroun and ignored the fact that Cameroun and Nigeria used to be administered as one country once upon a time in recent history with the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons as a liberation party campaigning for the restoration of independence under the leadership of Azikiwe; or that a Cameroonian theorist bears that communal name, Mbembe, as a testimony against the arbitrary division of interconnected African communities by lineal colonial boundaries; or that Congolese communities use the exact same name to identify a river monster believed to be capable of stopping the infinite flow of the river.
The structuralist division and compartmentalization of interconnected phenomena is also evident in the gendered division of labor between ‘killing and nurturing’, or between ‘warriors and mothers’ as if men are incapable of nurturing and women incapable of killing or as if only men are capable of being warriors in the African landscape peopled with ancient warrior queens and Amazons or even modern crusaders and jihadists of both sexes. One of the sculptures of a ‘nurturing mother’ is apparently that of a loving father with a flat chest just enjoying the blessing of carrying his own offspring on his laps for an ancestral blessing imperceptible to the patriarchal western eye, despite the rise of the culture of stay-at-home dads in western countries today.
When the Westerner sees a sculpture of the African holding a ‘human head’, the rush is to conclude that this must be a headhunter with the severed head of an enemy despite the fact that headhunting is now a non-violent practice of executive recruitment in capitalist industries. Of course, this is a common meme in colonialist anthropology to ideologically suggest that decapitation is a universal human trait found not only among genocidal imperialists but also among the Africans who gave to the world the gift of the philosophy of non-violence and whose democratic communal organizations were dismissed as ‘headless societies’.
According to the New Zealand legal theorist, Moana Jackson, colonial anthropologists went to the ridiculous extent of suggesting that the Maori have something they called a ‘warrior gene’ that justified the genocidal policy of wiping them out under British colonialism, despite the fact that the Haka remains a harmless trading of insults by ‘warrior’ performers. Similarly, American anthropologists identified Venezuelan tribes as being naturally warlike in line with a supposedly universal human trait by coincidence at the very same time that the Americans were vainly trying to persuade the Vietnamese with the aid of napalm bombs that mass murder was indeed a human trait, only to discover that the Venezuelan tribes, just like the Maori and the Mbembe and even Americans themselves, are better characterized as a peace-loving people instead of being ideologically mischaracterized as people with mythical warrior genes to justify militarism.
Sculptures of human heads do not necessarily depict ‘killers’ contrary to the ideological interpretation of the New York Times reviewer. Sculptures of human heads or masks are rather common tropes found in many cultures around the world for the performance of non-violent human cultural traits of spiritualism or in the realm of entertainment. In the case of the Mbembe, the sculptures of ‘warrior gods’ were actually appendages to drums that the people played not just for killing or warfare but obviously for fun or for the burial of their dead and the celebration of birth. But to western eyes familiar with the frequent contemplation of ghastly scenes, sculptures of human figures holding ‘human heads’ can only represent the literal figures of ‘killers’ or ‘warriors’, perhaps to justify the genocidal history of the killings of the ‘killers’ by the killer-killer master race from the west.
A more nuanced interpretation of sculptures of mythical heroes ‘holding a human head’ on the carving of a drum is to see them as the harmless depiction of the fact that the people are holding their own lives in their hands; that they must hear the messages of the drum with their own heads or risk the dismemberment of the Mbembe into separate colonies when they should unite across artificial colonial boundaries to ensure the reproduction of their pan African culture by men and women who must nurture the future generation together rather than be deceived into the limited typification of the men simply as ‘killers’ or ‘warriors’ and the women simply as stereotypical ‘nurturers’ or ‘mothers’.
Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech and the author of Counter-Colonial Criminology: A Critique of Imperialist Reason.