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The Unknown/The Unnamed, Sana Musasama’s provocative exhibition of ceramic sculptures—powerful homage to the victims of humankind’s unspeakable inhumanity to one another.

In a statement, Musasama says, “This work was born out of the devastation of the 9/11 attacks and the hundreds of workers and others whose identity was buried under the rubble, the faceless whispers out of concentration camps, the endless mass graves throughout the world. It stems from my global travels (including Cambodia, Vietnam and Rwanda) into the homes and hearts of the people I’ve encountered; these pieces represent their silent voices, which remain Unknown/Unnamed.”

Musasama’s deeply felt sculptures reflect her unrelenting interest in and keen sensitivity to the human condition worldwide that she has witnessed as it played out in life dramas that tragically are accepted as communal customs. Her earlier work focused attention on cruel societal secrets and practices—female genital mutilation, foot-binding—with serious physical and emotional consequences.

Her current body of painted and glazed ceramics no longer represents a call to take notice. Rather, these wall-mounted sculptures and assemblages collectively convey an overwhelming majesty not dissimilar to a requiem. Some with mesmerizing curvature are seen as evocative assemblages before it is noted the elements are relics of traumatizing life experiences, such as barbed wire and nails. Others, elongated ceramic forms, suggest scrolls that, in essence, are a roll call of unidentified victims.

The power of Musasama’s new sculptures arises from her forms and selection of iconic elements and the sense of reverence she achieves that make unforgettable our individual associations with the nameless and the voiceless.

Musasama is a native of New York City. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the City University of New York and an MFA from Alfred State College of Ceramics, Alfred, New York. She has done specialized ceramic study with the Archie Bray Foundation, Helena, Montana; the Gakium Designer College, Tokyo, Japan; the Tuscarora International School of Ceramics, Tuscarora, Nevada, and Mende Pottery, Mendeland, Sierra Leone. Musasama has taught and lectured on ceramics throughout the world, including Vietnam, Thailand, South India, West Africa, France, Netherlands, Japan, China and Costa Rica.  This summer, she has been teaching ceramics to Israeli and Palestinian artists at the Givat Haviva Institute in Israel.

Musasama has been included in numerous one-person and group exhibitions throughout the United States and in Paris.  Her work is represented in many public collections, including the Studio Museum in Harlem; the European Ceramic Center, Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands; the Archie Bray Foundation, Helena, Montana, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York.

 

Outer Beauty / Inner Anguish
June Kelly Gallery
March 2001
by George Nelson Preston, Ph.D.

This is an exhibition in praise of the vulva. It’s both a homage and a memorial that speaks of the vagina as quite literally a crucible of class, culture and gender warfare of the fiercest sort. The exhibition entitled Outer Beauty/Inner Anguish is the ceramic sculptor Sana Musasama’s treatise on the ancient and extant practices this clitorodectomy, excision and infibulation. The Gallery’s press release describes this as “{a}n exhibition of …emotionally stirring works that protest female circumcision and other abuses of women throughout the world…: These mutilations are accompanied by ritual in Africa and parts of Asia, Asia Minor and the Balkans. And if this sounds awful, the forms are no less than wonderfully beautiful, stunning in the inventiveness given the works’ limited literal and formal point of departure. Before going further let me say that I write from the viewpoint of a multidisciplinary art historian trained in anthropology and art criticism. I am a bonafide African chief, born in the USA, and a certified pagan whose religion is defined as such on one of his son’s birth certificate. As a lover of art, I would find these words beautiful, knowing nothing of their narrative, and after knowing their narrative content, my enjoyment of this work does not change. Musasama’s is a transforming and transcendent art.

This body of work was a courageous undertaking for the artist because of the complex personal issues surrounding the phenomenon of female genital mutilation. For Musasama, an American with a deep sense of belonging and commitment to African culture, even contemplating this project was fraught with conflicting emotions, values and allegiances. People still generalize Africa, and the prevailing view is that Africans universally practice and condone clitorodectomy. At the core of it all are the antagonistic agendas of those who would want to shamelessly own the cultural patrimony of Africa and women’s movement advocates who see clitorodectomy as a universal gender issue of absolute wrong and brook no cultural relativism.

But if there are any places, any cultures that are characterized by relativity in defiance of the defining generalities we literally lust after, it is Black Africa. I have spent about twenty-five percent of my adult life since 1968 living among the Akan people of southern Ghana. To the Akan and their neighbours, the Ewe of Togo and the Baule, Anyi, Evalue, Evakim, Attie and Ebrie of the southwestern Ivory Coast, genital mutilation is as intellectually perplexing as it is to us. The practice would appear to be most disturbing to people who place a premium on the experience of sex. Such societies also have more liberal ideas in general on gender roles and a woman’s right to control her own body. Thus the Chokwe of Angola and the Luba of Zaire would join us and the Akan in our inability to understand genital mutilation. Where they stop short on agreement with us is the right of an outsider to intervene. I do not intend here to compile a list of the African societies that are pro or con the issue of clitoridectomy, but I think I have demonstrated that it is not remotely a universal practice in Africa. You may also note that it is not condoned by the Koran. For the curious who want to know where clitorodectomy is practiced or shunned in Africa, and the ritual and cosmogenic rationales of it, I refer you to Boris de Rachewilz’ excellent study, Black Eros (1956; Eng. Ed. 1964) and, while not by any means the social science of de Rachewilz, but, at times as enlightening is Felix Bryk’s Voodoo Eros (19640).

Musasama has on exhibit over two dozen painted and glazed terracotta forms, displayed as “wall mounted pieces.” The mask-like forms are about the size of human face and hung at face level. Musasama’s formal themes and variations are based on combinations of redefining the lips of the labia, clitoris and the blades, needles and fibers used to mutilate it.

A dedicated visitor to Africa, Musasama recently related to me a perplexing experience of her first trip to Africa many years ago. She described the beautiful friendships that she had developed during a sustained visit to the Mende peoples in the bush (African for outback) of Sierra Leone. She was herself a young woman and many of her friends and constant visitors were also young. One day, they were gone, completely disappeared. And when they returned to the village they treated her as if they had never known her. “Our ritual of sisterhood was no more,” says Musasama. The young people of the village had been taken to the grigri bush for thirteen months in what is described alternately as the bush camp, circumcision camp or “bush school.” It is the place where young girls and boys, segregated by gender, are taught tribal lore, secrets of the initiated and circumcised. What this means for women in Medeland is that the foreskin of the clitoris is cut away. What Musasama may not have noticed at the time is that custom dictated that they treat their own families with the same estrangement for a predetermined time. They had been transformed. Their former, pre-socialized selves had been transformed. They had been “devoured” by the spirits of the forest and “regurgitated,” born again.

I have asked my male friends of the Senufo (a people of the northern Ivory Coast and Southern Mali) why their ancestors formerly practiced female circumcision and I was told that it was intended to “control women’s sexual behaviour.” They also described the traditional Senufo practices of sexual intercourse as extremely boring and repressive, in particular for the woman. These men expressed the high desirability of women who had not been subjected to the ritual. Back in 1970-71, I questioned women of the Grushi peoples of southern Burkina Faso who had undergone female circumcision, and they were extremely varied in the responses. One of the woman said it was the traumatic event that cemented her conversion to Christianity once she was old enough to make the choice. She had appointed herself the sexual policewoman of her friends’ personal lives. Her best friend, who was the object of unsolicited police protection, passed it off as simply part of her culture. She wouldn’t have it done to her daughter, she didn’t condemn her people for it, had no views about right or wrong, felt sexually well adjusted and was not interested in converting to Islam or Christianity.

In the brochure essay, T.S. Murphy writes that these “dramatic ceramic sculptures…are powerful evidence that {suffering of the girls} never left Sana. With her provocative pieces, she is reintroducing us to rituals that enslave, hurt, kill and transform.” These words fit the political context of the issue. Reintroduce us? Hardly. Enslave us? Yes, most likely for many. Hurt and kill? Yes, and there are fatalities. Transform? Yes, but in the sense of the African, in the manner ordained by cosmic order, whether their world view embraced female and male circumcision, solely female circumcision, or only male circumcision?

This body of work and exhibition represent a cathartic experience for the artist, and I mean this in the sincerest sense of the term. Musasama’s knowledge of female genital mutilation caught her off guard at a time when her visit to Sierra Leone was not intended to reveal that aspect of Africa. She has since sorted out things. She has returned. Her work bears no news of the battle between the cultural relativists and those who would march on the mutilators with live ammunition. The acts of female mutilation will go on until they self-destruct. We are powerless to stop this carnage unless we are willing to go to war over this issue. The Taliban have blown up the ancient statues of Buddha in the face of worldwide protest. And what did we do? The Russians could not dislodge them with their Katushkaya rockets and T-model tanks. The cosmos moves on and according to scripture: “God sees every bird that falls.” Musasama’s homage to the right of female initiation is outside of the political discourse, beyond uncritical love of “Mother Africa,” beyond the civil rights movement. It is highly personal and void of polemic. It provides us with the only thing we can do about the practice of female circumcision, and that is simply to witness that it exists.

June Kelly Gallery
591 Broadway
New York City NY 10012
212.226.1660
www.junekellygallery.com

 

Outer Beauty / Inner Anguish:
Ritual Initiation Entrapment & Power
The Art of Sana Musasama

“…In order for the human race to continue, Women must be safe and empowered.”    — Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues

Simple. The above statement and the ideas behind it are simple, I thought. There is the idea, the concept, but how do we conceptualize this principle? Here we are in the twenty-first century, an age of technologically-advanced men and women who are more powerful now than we ever before. Here I am, a fairly intelligent man living in the so-called age of enlightenment, yet like many of us in this society, I stay within my boundaries/bondage. Keeping a global perspective without getting too close to our subjects gives us the illusion of being safe yet informed about the world.

Sana Musasama’s impulse told her to explore the world, to go outside of her boundaries/bondage. For the past twenty-five years in her work and travels, she has exposed the unexposed. In her work she has spiritually and physically placed a piece of her soul and the landscape it has covered. I thought I informed globally. Sana Musasama’s work made me understand globally there is one struggle. “We all are in some form of bondage,” says Sana. “My work is a reaction to free us from concepts and judgments within those boundaries.” Sana seeks to speak out, artistically, about the various systems that deny women the right to free expression and to a full reflection of their lives and bodies.

“Twenty-five years ago, while I was living in Mendeland, Sierra Leone, there were these young girls, ages ten to fifteen, who would visit my hut every day. We began rituals of them combing my hair, trying on my clothing, putting on my lip-gloss. They taught me the formal greetings (in Mende), how to sit like a Mende woman, eat with my tongue never allowing the food to touch my lips. They showed me how to cook on three rocks and wash my clothes in the river, beating them on washing stones. They taught me the birth chants and I learned, too soon to recognize the death song. Suddenly, one morning there were no young girls in the village. They returned thirteen weeks later changed. Our ritual of sisterhood was no more.

They no longer had the sparkle of wonderment in their eyes; they weren’t silly young girls any longer. They didn’t want to have anything to do with me, I could not understand, I didn’t know why. I know now, they were circumcised.”

Female circumcision, known in the Western hemisphere as female genital mutilation (FGM), has been practiced for several thousand years in almost thirty African, Middle Eastern nations, and in parts of Asia. There are ancient texts that indicate that this practice dates back to 2000 BC in the Nile Valley. This ancient ritual has been performed as a rites of passage, to preserve female chastity, to entrap what is viewed as an “aggressive organ,” to maintain clean blood lines, to prevent lesbianism, to calm a woman’s spirit, for social acceptability and for economical survival in many cultures. Although it isn’t mentioned in the Koran or the Bible, Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Africa perform this act for religious requirements, as an act of purification/power over a woman’s body, thus her life. This ritualistic surgery is performed on two million girls each year, 6000 girls per day, and five girls every minute.

Their silence/screams never left Sana and she wanted to explore their feelings in her work. We always notice the outer beauty of women without acknowledging the silent suffering that never reaches the surface, because women have become masters of disguises in their suffering, their inner anguish. It is kept in, not to disturb others and often to keep the status quo of their community/conscience. Sana wants to bring attention to that in her work, in her travels silence/suffering is the same wherever you find it, whether it’s in Africa, India, Asia, or in your home/heart where it doesn’t draw attention to itself.

In Outer Beauty/Inner Anguish, Sana’s art is fused with her interest and love of women wherever they are. She has loved, touched, seen, felt, and lived the lives of these women in her work. She is reintroducing rituals that enslave us, hinder us, hurt us, damage us, killing us, yet transform us. What happened to those young girls in Mende Land transformed them and Sana seeks to transform the viewer through her art.

Sana is evoking the ritual of “telling of that silence/suffering. She is creating a dialogue about gender and cultural imperialism, while questioning the burden of culture and custom linked with gender. How do we eradicate/educate a 6,000-year-old custom? What repercussions/resurrections are in place for these women? How do they stitch their souls back together again? Is this a question of economical survival or patriarchal survival?

Sana Musasama has opened up a dialogue between the art and its viewer, between continents and its citizens, between these women and their experiences. She has also opened up a conversation about boundaries/bondage and the safety of women. She discusses their outer beauty, and their inner anguish; whether it’s FGM, foot binding (Asia), honour killing (Afghanistan), dowry burning (India), neck and leg rings (Thailand), battered and murdered women (USA) or child prostitution and rape, which is worldwide. Sana’s work has given them a voice. As global citizens we must step outside of our boundaries/bondage. All we have to do is listen and learn. Simple.

TS Murphy
© January 2001

 

The Maple Tree Series

It is easy to respond to the spirited inventiveness of Sana Musasama’s totemlike ceramic sculpture in this small but impressive presentation of five pieces from a series inspired by her research into the 19-century abolitionists known as the Maple Tree movement. Often marching with branches, they advocated maple syrup tapping as an alternative to the slave-based sugar cane industry.

While each large, fanciful form comes across as an energized tree trunk, twisting, tilting and bending, it also serves its historical message with effective symbolism. One five-foot, bead-encrusted shaft, for example, is topped by a hand intended to show the limb as a vulnerable labour tool. A nurturing earth carpet surrounds the work and holds five-fingered multicoloured shapes that seem to metamorphose from leaf to hand and back again. Other works suggest their nurturing with patterns of coloured shards that spread over the floor like a root system.

Human scale reinforces the metaphors. A horizontal piece resting on a bed of shards and ceramic leaves has the organic presence of a reclining nude. Smaller forms within the partially open trunk suggest animal life.

A great variety of shapes derive from nature yet have a fanciful appearance. Most are developed as opportunities for complex meanings.

To see more of Sana’s work or to contact her, visit her website http://www.sanamusasama.org

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