J.D. Welch - User Experience Design

Constructing Power

Assemblage and personal empowerment

About This Paper: The project here was to presuppose that one had been given an unlimited budget to mount an exhibition and hold a symposium on some specific facet of African Diaspora arts. The written portion is supposed to be a sort of brochure/proposal/serious paper all in one. It's organized rather strangely, but I think the discussion is still quite interesting, and I liked the format so much I ended up doing my thesis in the same style.


In all cultures, artistic production involves a dialogue between the artform and its creators and those who view the objects. When we view objects in a museum, they speak to us in a visual language hard to replicate in words. In the case of African and Afro-American personal empowerment objects, this visual power is heightened and the dialogue expands to include conversations with spirits, dead ancestors and possessed diviners, and emphasizes the personal relationship between the object and its user. Viewers of this exhibition have the opportunity to listen on and participate in these divinely inspired conversations.

Works of tremendous visual and ritual power, Kongo minkisi, Fon bocio, Vodou pakèt kongo and wanga, and the work of renowned contemporary artists Renée Stout and Betye Saar are placed on an equal plane with one another, considered for their shared aesthetic qualities of highly symbolic mixed media assemblage. Come with us on a journey that takes us to West Africa, Haiti and back to the United States and explores the most personal of artistic goals: to empower oneself.

Organization Of The Exhibition

Presenting an exhibition of objects removed from the everyday culture of the viewers poses an entirely new set of problems for the designer of the exhibition. In the case of this exhibition, the objects are stunningly beautiful and can be appreciated as interesting artworks regardless of context. To present them without proper background information, however, would be to discount hundreds of years of rich and fascinating ritual tradition. On the other hand, the wealth of information required to fully understand these objects in context would be a tremendous burden to laden upon a non-specialist museum-goer. I pose a compromise involving a new (and increasingly popular) method of presenting background information, but more about that later.

Objects should be arraigned in a non-linear, non-chronology or geography-based system. To draw an equals sign between Old and New World traditions is done far too often, and does not recognize the agency on the part of individual artists, ritual specialists and patrons in the creation of these objects. The element to draw these pieces together is the assemblage aesthetic that is employed in all the traditions examined. Objects should be presented in a darkened space. Lighting should be fairly high-key, but not overtly showy or theatrical I'm opting to not show works in plexiglas vitrines as the relation that these objects have to one's personal space is important to their overall aesthetic, and to close them off under glass will literally and figuratively distance viewers.

I would like to see close-up photographed details of the pieces included hanging around the objects, perhaps presented as collages on walls (see Nooner-Roberts et al. 1994:118-19), to underline how the tremendous visual power these objects posses influence their efficacy. Instead of explanatory text labels, an audioguide will be available (to all patrons, at no charge) with a recorded entry for every piece in the exhibition including a very brief history of the object and tradition, some possible meanings, and why it is significant. Whenever possible, artists/craftsmen/diviners, etc. should be interviewed and firsthand reports of researcher's field experiences should be included to place objects in as much context as possible. This guide would not follow any programmed sequence, but entries could be randomly accessed.

The audioguide for the 2000 Whitney Biennial gave me this idea. It includes an entry recorded by each artist, commenting on his or her own work. The effect is marvelous: to stand in the gallery listening to the artist discuss the piece you're staring at makes the museum experience much more personal than a didactic text label ever would.

Additionally (while I can have whatever I want), I would include an area set aside from the main gallery space for an "exploration center," where computerized, multimedia programs including extensive video and audio information about each artform could be accessed on an individual basis, so those interested could conveniently explore the traditions and artforms. I don't like the idea of having an "orientation gallery" with, say, a video presentation that generally explains each tradition as I like the idea of individual discovery better, but something to introduce the thesis of the exhibition might be necessary to avoid confusion and frustration.

As for the contemporary work by Stout and Saar, I feel the same. Although these works do not share the codified ritual significance of their Vodou, Fon and Kongo counterparts, they are additional superb examples of the assemblage aesthetic and of objects created for personal empowerment. Therefore, I think it is perfectly justified to present them in the same manner, as stated above.

Objects To Be Included

The general aesthetic of assemblage is the essential formal element of the artforms presented, and therefore objects should be selected for their expression of the various modes of the assemblage aesthetic. Discussed by many scholars of Old and New World traditions, Cosentino (1995) goes so far as to assert that "the persistence of the ancient Fon aesthetic of assemblage remains the "purest" link between the religious art of Haiti and Africa (43, his emphasis)." Blier (1995b) describes four Fon terms meaning " 'bringing together,' 'uniting,' 'agglomeration,' and 'gathering together' (75)."

Generally, the objects look like random conflagrations of dissonant and dissimilar materials, including wooden sculpture, rope, animal fur/skins, cowerie shells, mirrors, pigment, paint, textiles, organic materials such as leaves, dirt, palm wine and rum, as well as purchased crucifixes, chromolithographs, photographs, etc. In these contexts, a broad range of media are acceptable; as Charles Simic states: "You don't make art, you find it. You accept everything as it's material (cited in Cosentino 1995:29)."

The process of creation is another important aesthetic event, as in the case of Fon bocio or Vodou wanga, involving a duo or trinity of people including the artist who creates the basic sculpture, the diviner who activates the object by assembling the elements that give it its power, and the client who uses the object in a specific ritual context (Blier 1995b: 64-69).

Minkisi are a general class of Kongo religious sculpture. Collected as "nail fetishes" by English and Belgian colonizers in the nineteenth and twentieth century, these figures played an important role in a (now lost) ritual system:

The rituals for which such objects were part of the material infrastructure are no longer performed; even the vocabulary that described them is archaic and obscure. To understand what we see, we must engage in a painful archaeology of reconstruction (MacGaffey 1993:33).

Kongo minkisi were used, in the extreme, as "self-serving attempts to improve one's lot at the expense of others (60)," and as a means for chiefs to communicate with their ancestors. The term for the spirit that is invoked is also nkisi (pl. bakisi), and they are identified by the realm of their influence. Formally, minkisi figures are assemblages of various materials bundled in bags or attached to carved figures. These objects were usually accompanied by other pieces of the nganga's (ritual specialist) equipment (35). As Thompson (1993) notes: "their intricacy of texture and detail (63)" contributes to "ngirukulu, 'astonishment,' in the mind of the beholder, suggesting the presence of something extraordinary (MacGaffey 1993: 63)." The "medicines" attached to the nkisi are of a more symbolic than pharmacological use, chosen more for figurative reasons:

White clay signified the white skin of the dead, their moral rightness, and their clairvoyance. It was associated with red, the color of bloodÉWhite contrasted with black, the color of witchcraft and of organic processes such as death and sex. (62) [White, black, and red are the primary colors in Kongo ritual arts, and are revisited as a basic pantheon in Vodou ritual objects.]

Minkisi empower the nganga to affect the lives of those who he consults with, the chiefs who commune with ancestors to secure earthly power, and the individuals who seek defense against the "witchcraft" of others against them.

Sample Audioguide:

Nkisi Lunkanka (Before 1919, BaKongo, Zaire, The Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, Sweden (ill. in MacGaffey 1993:81).

Used to enforce agreements that transferred slaves, refugees or clients from one clan to another, this object was used to reinforce a chief's power, as minkisi were "functionally interchangeable with human beings (80)." By activating this object, its "victims" were inflicted with a variety of physical punishments. Various "medicines" are attached to the figure, including a piece of tortoise shell so that Lunkanka is hidden from human view. The blades are driven into the figure to arouse its power; this is done not by the nganga, but by those who "make the contract (83)" to invoke the spirit.

Fon Bocio and their New World counterparts, the so-called "voodoo dolls" are still used in West Africa and consequently much more firsthand research and commentary is available. Literally meaning "empowerment cadavers," these objects provide a variety of empowerment functions:

[they] are believed to help individuals in various ways to alter events in the course of their lives for positive or negative ends. Some protect the house from thieves or illness, others promote success in trade or work. Still others encourage bountiful harvests, good weather, safety on the road, or abundant children. Drawing from traditions of alchemy, suturing, genre expression, body signifiers, and psychological catharsis, these works also played a critical role in empowering individuals in contexts of political and social difficulty (Blier 1995:74).

The basic sculpture upon which many bocio are built are created with the deliberate goal of making the means of production apparent. Rough modeling and expressive carving dominate the wooden anthropomorphic figures to create an aesthetic of "raw energy (Blier 1995b: 64)." The basic object created by the carver is far from complete, however, and the process of "activating" the bocio is critical to its efficacy. Activators range in expertise from professional diviners (bokonon, note the linguistic similarity to the Vodou b?k?) to friends and family who create for relatives, friends and neighbors (70). Activities associated with activating bocio predominately include expressions of "speech (and associated saliva), heat (in the form of pepper and alcohol, among other things), knotting (attaching or twisting), and offering (sacrifice, killing) to a higher force (vodun, ancestors, etc.) (74)."

Fon bocio arts have a complement in the Americas in the form of the so-called "Voodoo doll." The wooden (or stone) Fon objects are, in Haitian tradition, small cloth-covered figures used for similar functions. Blier explains the change in formal elements:

The cloth figures discussed here with their relatively nonthreatneing "doll" looks, nomenclature, and textile coverings probably were more acceptable to local [colonial Haitian] authorities than the more provocative and emotionally charged wooden bocio forms used in African and early African American contexts (49).

Sample Audioguide:

An Aja male figure from Togo (ill. in Blier 1995b: 127) is good example of the techniques of bocio woodcarving, that I to say the rough, expressive carving and the integration of organic materials to the overall assemblage, was commissioned when a family member fell ill. "The areas on the figure which corresponded to the those body parts where the sick person is experiencing pain are bound up with cloth witch is soaked with chicken blood (127)."

The royal bocio of Glele (ill. in Blier 1995b: 344) takes the form of a carved loin sheathed in silver and shows the considerable variation the bocio form takes. Activating objects still compose this work, although in this case they are hidden underneath the metallic covering. Glele, the "king of the lions" is thus empowered and described to "be able to transform himself into associated animals in order to survey and govern the state (344)" exhibiting a civic function similar to minkisi being used to communicate with ancestors to secure authority.

Moving to the New World, a group of Haitian cloth figures in the collection of Karen McCarthy Brown (ill. in Blier 1995b: 50-51) continue the bocio tradition in Haitian Vodou. Figures of this type are used to influence problematic human relations:

When a love relationship is desired, she [Vodou priestess] binds the two dolls face-to-face. When the dissolution of a relationship is desired, the binds them back-to-back. For restive, "hungry" spirits, she prescribes a meal of their favorite foods. To treat a violent marriage, she makes a charm for the wife by filling a jar with ice ('to cool him down') and molasses ('to make him sweet'). Then she wraps the charm in some article of her husband's clothing and turns the whole thing upside down, a clear signal within the Vodou science of the concrete that a revolutionary change is desired (49).

Vodou Pakèt Kongo are the "signature element of Kongo (Thompson 1995:108)" in Haitian religious art. They are "like nkisi in KongoÉ persons to be "awakened" by bells and special singing. They are dressed as persons, too, with royal feathers and criss-crossed ribbons (109)." Interesting as strong evidence of the continuum of Kongo religious practices to the New World, they are worthy of consideration as objects apart from their historical precedent. The use of assemblage techniques in these objects summarizes the New World assembled aesthetic, the "creole lushness (113)" that characterizes (especially) Vodou and Santer?a objects. The "astonishment" aspect of these works comes from the use of rich materials: "a constant tendency towards rich, kingly silks, satins, plumes, sequins, and beads, a creole situation of maintaining a memory of rich antiquity in the midst of violence, poverty and change (113)." The influence of European Baroque is important also, as slaves in Haiti would have surely been exposed to rich, ornate (overdone) styles of dress and decoration that fit nicely into the rich, ornate aesthetic of assemblage. Using local visual symbols of power would have functioned to impart tangible power upon the objects and empowered the producers and users, as they were able to participate in the local visual displays of power.

The nkisi ideographic element of the n'kuumba "navel of the head" is featured prominently in pakèt kongo objects and functions to "warn that vital messages are coming in, like a live radio with an antenna" serving as an axis to heaven (110). The wrapping of "medicinal" substances is echoed in the bag-like form that makes up the base of many pakèt kongo. Many pakèt kongo feature a significantly more abstracted conception of the figure than their Kongo counterparts.

Sample Audioguide:

Rèn Kongo (ill. in Thompson 1995: 114-117), or Queen of Kongo figures

display the simple arms-akimbo gesture that identifies themÉ We see her power, resonant and clear, not only in her gesture, but also in the breaking out of the bag of a towering stemÑthe hidden navel again. [One such sculpture] makes the hands-on-hip gesture of aggression but is surmounted with a crucifix, associates it with the crossroads (114).

and with the influence of Christianity on both African and Haitian traditions.

Pewn cho (ill. in Thompson 1995:111) are based upon a small nkisi (nkisi wambi) and function to "fight for its owner, [to go] to meet the combat for you (111)." These small, wrapped bag-like objects encapsulate a great deal of Kongo cosmology yet are activated and operated in a uniquely Vodou manner. The description of the ritual of its creation is worth quoting at length:

Then the helpers brought in red cloth, black thread, a coin and three powders. Danje explained the French coin 'to bring me money.' He laid this piece of silver at the center of the square of red. He mixed the three powders (apparently sulpher, saltpeter and nitre) and tightly bound them with the cloth with the black threadÉ He finished, with a flourish. Meanwhile, the three ingredients within the bag had started a chemical reaction generating heat. Danje held this literally 'hot point' within his right fist tightly. Then he gave the pwen to meÉ the burning was too much for me. I placed the charm on the table. Whereupon Danje-Mal?, laughing deeply, placed it within a fist made of his left hand, emphasizing the limitations of flesh unprotected by the spirit.
Then, blessing me, he told me: 'this is the pwen cho, he will protect you. Feed him perfume every Monday.' So saying, he handed me the charm, and told me to splash cool water over a cemetery cross, sentinel of the power of the other world, at a meeting of the two paths outside the altar on a hill. I did so. I returned to the room. It was empty. Only the smell of gunpowder, honey and medicine remained. I now had in my possession a Haitian nkisi made for me by a god. Five hours later, men working in the Port-au-Prince airport, inspecting my bags, sniffled in surprise and crossed themselves. They knew (112-113).

This kind of firsthand discussion of personal experiences is the kind of thing I think is important to include in the explanatory material to accompany these objects, to try to contextualize them beyond a simplified explanation of a general class of objects. Even though most viewers will probably not be familiar with Vodou terms, the importance of the colors red, white and black, of fire, of possession and other elements of this ritual, they will get at least a glimpse of the complexity and reverence with which these objects are made and used. At any rate, it makes for a damn exciting story.

Vodou Wanga are created by bòkò, the ritual specialists who works as a "freelancer... entrepreneur, and has a reputation who will 'work with his hands,' that is, for healing and revenge (McAlister 1995:305, her emphasis)," in contrast to the more "formal" ogungan or manbo who establishes religious family networks. Wanga are works of art turned into a "work of magic" by the bòkò, in much the same way that an ogungan activates a pakèt kongo or a nganga a nkisi. Observers of McAlister's wanga bottle comment that it "never stops," that it "moves and swirls in its own way (306)," echoing the general principle that objects of this type are living organisms as well as works of stunning beauty. These objects reveal a strong similarity to the Kongo nkisi and follow a similar iconographic and iconological orientation with other Kongo-influenced Vodou objects. The difference is that wanga are produced by ritual specialists who act more as "sorcerers" than "priests." They activate objects accordingly, including the inclusion of the Vodou concept of the zonbi into the spiritual mix.

Sample Audioguide:

The Sorcerer's Bottle commissioned by Elizabeth McAlister (ill. in her 1995 article: 304,307) provides a wonderful example of wanga objects and is accompanied by an extensive description of its creation and an investigation into the tradition and its implications. Many of the formal and ritual qualities expressed are similar to many objects in this exhibition. An important difference, however, is the power displayed by the bòkò over the dead. In his words: "The two skulls [shavings of] are working inside the bottle. They are zonbi. They died once, at the hands of man. They are working for me. When they die by God, they'll finally die (314)." This concept is of New World origin and shows the agency on the part of displaced Africans to invent and recreate traditions that are topical to their current situation.

As to the zonbi's function: "[They] can help you. If I have somebody sick, if they've thrown death on him then zonbi will take it off (318)." As for maintaining the power of the object and the zonbi inside, McAlister is advised: "I should feed it a meal without salt. Open the bottle and set the food in front of it. And if the good luck stopped working, I'd sense it. Because a zonbi can get tired and not be able to work anymore. Then you have to change them. 'You can get new ones to put in the bottle. Just like putting a car in the garage to change its battery (318).'"

The bòkò is empowered as the controller of the zonbi to do spiritual work for him and his client, who is empowered in the more "usual" sense of using the ritual object for personal gain.

Contemporary Sculpture by Renée Stout and Betye Saar draws heavily on the African and Afro-American traditions explored in this exhibition and these objects attest to the strength of both the assemblage aesthetic and personal empowerment themes. Though these objects are not "activated" or considered sacred, they serve as vehicles for these women to empower themselves using personal history and political themes.

Originally influenced by a nkisi nkondi at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, many of Renée Stout's pieces refer to African traditions, expressing a "diasporic intimacy; the ability of displaced Africans to keep alive memories of the continent they came from through a wide range of covert and overt practices (Lipsitz 1995:9)." In contrast to the somewhat continuous development of many Diaspora-influenced traditions (such as the "direct" descendant of Fon vodun, Haitian Vodou), Stout developed her style based on family artistic tradition and conscious re-discovery of African traditions (14).

Fetish #2 (1988, Dallas Museum of Art, ill. in Harris 1993:130) "signaled the transformation of Ren?e Stout from artist to alchemist, from poet to priestess (Harris 1993: 131)" and is the most striking of her nkisi-type works, inserting the life-size form of her own body into a power figure to protect and heal herself (131). Stout's naked body is adorned with a mirrored compartment and medicine-filled bilongo. In her own words, the piece "[uses] my own figure to empower myself, to give myself strength to deal with the things you have to deal with every day (132)."

In a similar act of personal empowerment, Madam Ching's Museum of Love (1994-95, installation with several works, ill. in Berns 1995) expands the autobiographical nature of Fetish #2 and serves as an act of empowering self-revelation. Drawing upon African and Haitian traditions, Stout casts herself as the "conjurer" Madam Ching and creates an astounding series of works expressing the "ebb and flow of [her] own love relationships (Berns 1995: 23)." In this series, Stout adds narrative text to

let viewers in on Stout's secrets, or to inform them about the spiritual system or ritual formula being invoked. Her original use of narrative adds believability at the same time it introduces drama and ritual into the lives of her characters (51).

Traveling Root Store #2 (ill. in Berns 1995:47) displays a traveling case, an array of "medicines" attached to the lid in small plastic bags, containing a laptop computer, its keyboard altered to meet the specific needs of Madam Ching. Keys are replaced with symbols from a ritual language, "the monitor shows her [Madam Ching's] request of Erzulie: 'She wants to know what to do next. Please send sign,' and Erzulie's reply: '4 pink candles, 1 yellow candle, 5 oranges, and aphrodisiac incense (56).'" While this piece is stunning visually and rather humorous to contemplate, it speaks of serious themes. Stout asserts that "conjuring" is a scientific and highly functional. This suitcase "helps link Stout's universe with that of her ancestors, (57)" functioning much as the nkisi did for the chief wanting to commune with his ancestors.

In a similar vein, the work of Betye Saar is significant for its synthesis of thematic elements; in this case, Saar activates her objects as symbols to assert her power as a woman and as an African-American. Her discovery of "occult" and African traditions produced "some of the most poignant and pointed visual statements of black feminist protest to come out of the early [19]70's (Nemser 1975:321)." Like Stout, Saar incorporates personal effects in her work. She follows the tradition of Joseph Cornell in constructing her works in boxes, presenting assembled objects as collections (325).

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972, ill. in Nemser 1975:332), according to Saar, "[takes] the figure that classifies all black women and [makes] her into one of the leaders of the revolutionÑalthough she is a pretty strong character anywayÉ She's got a revolver in one hand and a rifle in the other (322)." In her object-making, she reaches for similar personal goals as Stout: "I am still growing and going in different directions from where I started out but much of my work did go into making social statements. For me it was like therapy. I had to do it (330)."

Stout and Saar's distinct Afro-American expression involves them to take on the roles of artist, activator and client, differing from the multi-participant ritual arts of the Fon, Kongo or Vodou. It would be interesting to use the inclusion of these artists to test a theory influenced by Suzanne Blier's 1993 discussion of art historical scholarship: that if labels are removed from works created by contemporary western artists, in what ways would these objects be approached? I wonder if museum-goers would mistake the works by Stout and Saar as objects made contemporary African or Haitian artists or if they would believe that black women from Pittsburgh and Pasadena created such "African" objects.


*Blier, Suzanne Preston. 1998. The Royal Arts of Africa. New York: Abrams/Prentice Hall.

1995a. "Vodun: West African Roots of Vodou." Sacred Arts of the Haitian Vodou. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

1995b. African Vodun: Art, Psychology , and Power. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

1993. "Truth and Seeing: Magic, Custom and Fetish in Art History." Africa and the Disciplines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Berns, Marla C. 1995. "On Love and Longing: Renée Stout Does the Blues.""Dear Robert, I'll See You at the Crossroads" A Project by Renée Stout. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

*Brown, David H. 1996. "Toward and Ethnoaesthetics of Santería Ritual Arts: The Practice of Altar Making and Gift Exchange." Santería Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Cosentino, Donald J. 1995. "Imagine Heaven." Sacred Arts of the Haitian Vodou. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

*The Dallas Museum of Art. 1989. Black Art Ancestral Legacy. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Harris, Michael D. 1993. "Resonance, Transformation and Rhyme: The Art of Renée Stout." Astonishment and Power. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Lipsitz, George. 1995. "Diasporic Intimacy in the art of Renée Stout.""Dear Robert, I'll See You at the Crossroads" A Project by Renée Stout. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

MacGaffey, Wyatt. 1993. "The Eyes of Understanding: Kongo minkisi." Astonishment and Power. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.

McAlister, Elizabeth. 1995. "A Sorcerer's Bottle." Sacred Arts of the Haitian Vodou. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

Nemser, Cindy. 1975,95. Art Talk: Conversations with Fifteen Women Artists. New York: Icon Editions.

*Nooter, Mary H. 1993. "Secrecy: African Art That Conceals and Reveals." African Arts 26 (4).

Nooter-Roberts, Mary, and Vogel, Susan with Chris Mueller. 1994. Exhibition-ism: Museums and African Art. New York: The Museum for African Art.

*Shepherd, Elizabeth, ed. 1990. The Art of Betye and Alison Saar: Secrets, Dialogues, Revelations. Los Angeles: University of California.

Thompson, Robert Farris. 1995 "From The Isle Beneath the Sea: Haiti's Africanizing Art." Sacred Arts of the Haitian Vodou. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

1993. "Illuminating Spirits: "Astonishment and Power at the National Museum of African Art." African Arts 26 (4).

*1983. Flash of the Spirit. New York: Random House.

*Vogel, Susan. 1991. "Always True to the Object, in Our Fashion." Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.

*=Useful sources not directly cited in text