Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Marymount Series: Lions of Dahomey

Golden lions, a royal symbol of the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, acquired in Abomey, Benin, West Africa, in 2008. A hundred years ago, Abomey was the capital of Dahomey, which is also the name of the whole country before it was changed to Benin.  Dahomey was so named in the 17th century when King Abaka defeated his archrival, King Dan, cut his belly up in a sacrifice to the gods, built a palace just next to the place Dan's disembowelled remains were buried. Hence the name "Dahomey", meaning, the belly of Dan. What a blood-thirsty name!

The Dahomey kings practiced human sacrifices and as 41 was considered a sacred number, palaces and temples were often consecrated with sacrifice of 41 humans and 41 animals of different kinds. Many kings were also buried together with 41 of their over thousand strong contingent of wives, as well as 41 slaves, 41 bulls and what have you. There was also the tale of how a king slaughtered his wives by covering them in red palm oil and letting ants ate them alive, and how one of these wives came back to haunt him and he had to build a temple to appease her spirit.

Today, the town of Abomey is a sleepy place which is more village than town. Friendly locals greeted us wherever we went, "Bonjour, bonjour," that is, except when we took pictures of the ruins of palaces and temples of the old Dahomey kingdom. The town of Abomey may be a tourist town of sorts and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the remains of Dahomey have remained scared spots for the Fon people who live here, as well as for the Voodoo religion that they practice. To them, the spirits of the dozen old kings of Dahomey continue to live in the mud palaces and their ruins, and to take the pictures of these palaces (aesthetically adorned with primitivist paintings of sacred symbols) was deeply offensive. We snapped a few photos of the palace buildings and were immediately chased away by locals.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Marymount Series: Maroons of Suriname

Calabash musical instrument made by the Maroon people, who are descendants of African slaves who escaped from their masters into the jungles of Suriname and French Guiana in South America.  They intermarried with local Indian tribes and formed powerful alliances against Dutch and French colonial troops determined to capture them.  In the 1980s, they also rose against the military government of independent Suriname, in defense of their rights and land.  I bought this calabash in 2008 in the Central Market by the picturesque De Waterkant (Waterfront) in Paramaribo, capital of Suriname.  

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Marymount Series: Nubian drum

The Marymount Series: A drum from the Nubian people of Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan, acquired in 1995 near Abu Simbel in Southern Egypt. The Nubians were an ancient African race who once conquered Egypt and ruled as pharaohs with their own dynasties. They later converted to Christianity and eventually Islam after a period of resistance. Arabic has since become the main language of the Nubians, with the Nubian language coming under the threat of extinction.  Anwar Sadat, late third President of Egypt ( Egyptian Nubian father, Sudanese Nubian mother) and Gaafar Nimeiry, a late president of Sudan, were all famous Nubians.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Marymount Series: Che Guevara

The Marymount Series: A painting of Che Guevara  with political slogans, on canvas. An icon of the international socialist movement and eternal symbol of youthful idealism. Figurine of Afro-Cuban dancer in traditional Caribbean costume at the left edge - the real but lesser known folkloric manifestation of Cuba's cultural richness.  Both acquired in Havana, Cuba in 2001.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Marymount Series: Nimba of the Bagas of West Africa

Carving of the Nimba headdress, Baga people of Guinea and Guinea-Bissau of West Africa. The headdress has four legs, a pair of unusually large breasts, u-shaped ears and is carried on the shoulders of dancers under spiritual possession. The Nimba is the symbol of fertility and is often performed during harvest festivals, births and marriages as well.

I bought this carving at the airport of Conakry, capital of Guinea, while waiting for a flight to the Cape Verde Islands via Dakar, Senegal. Shortly before I bought this carving, a corrupt Guinea police officer accosted me in the boarding lounge, checking my passport and asking meaningless questions in an attempt to shake me down for bribes. Gordon, my Australian friend, came at the right time, interrupted and distracted him. We then walked boldly to another hall. When I was confident the corrupt officer was not following us, I bought this carving at a souvenir shop with my remaining Guinean francs.  This wouldn't have been possible if I was forced to empty my wallet to pay that annoying robber-police.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Marymount Series: Andean scene embroidery of Otavalo, Ecuador

Woolen embroidery of Andean countryside scene, bought in the market of Otavalo, Ecuador, in 2002. Brightly coloured and certainly cheerful, it contains depictions of the Andean farmer, ilamas, alpacas, sheep, mountain cacti, sunflowers, colonial churches and other symbols of everyday life in the High Andes.
I bought this from an indigenous Otavaleño trader in the market.  Otavaleño women, who often sport distinctive silky long hair, are famous traders in this part of South America.  They are also renowned for their colourful textiles which are widely sold, though they prefer to wear the plain vanilla traditional black robes over white blouses with intricate lace sleeves whilst in their hometown.  

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Marymount Series: Wheel of Life

A thangka (Tibetan silk painting) with motif of the Bhavacakra (Tibetan: སྲིད་པའི་འཁོར་ལོ་), purchased in 2007 in the Old City Centre of Kathmandu, Nepal.  The Bhavacakra, or wheel of life, is a graphical representation of samsara, the cycle of existence of all beings central of the Buddhist concept of reincarnation and karma.  The detail of this thangka shown in this photo depicts a fierce figure with a crown of skulls holding the wheel of life. This fierce figure represents impermanence, and different layers within the wheel depict the three poisons of ignorance, attachment and aversion, karma, the six realms of samsara and the twelve links of dependent origination (Wikipedia). 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Yao Textile of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region

Beautiful embroidered textile of the Yao tribe, Southern China.  The Yao, about 3 million strong scattered across the mountainous regions of southern China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, have traditionally lived in fortified villages (yao zai) in build of wood and bamboo. They are also renowned highland agriculturalists.  I bought this extravagant piece in Feb 2011 when I visited the misty Yao villages and spectacular terraced fields in the Dragon Spine Mountains (Longji) just north of Guilin in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (Gvangjsih Bouxcuengh Swcigih in the Zhuang language)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bulgarian Icon: St Demetrius of Thessaloniki

Woodblock print of the icon of St Demetrius of Thessaloniki (Άγιος Δημήτριος της Θεσσαλονίκης), printed by the Rila Monastery (Рилски манастир) of Bulgaria, acquired at the monastery in 1995. St Demetrius is an important military saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and its icons are found in many places in Eastern Europe where Dmitri is a common first name.  In Bulgaria, the saint is often shown as a twin of St George the Dragon Slayer. Instead of killing a dragon, St Demetrius is depicted subduing Lyaeos, a gladiator who killed many Christians.

When I asked a monk at Rila what this icon represented, I was told that it was St Demetrius killing the Turks.  The magnificent fortified monastery of Rila, nestled in the snowcapped Rila Mountains south of Sofia, was destroyed by the Ottoman Turkish invaders in the 15th century but gradually rebuilt as the guardian of Bulgarian culture and language during centuries of Turkish rule.  It was not surprising that this icon was reinterpreted in the light of Bulgaria's national independence struggle. During my visit in 1995, I was fortunate to witness the official visit of His Holiness, Patriarch Maxim, Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mola of the Kuna Indians of Panama/Colombia

Mola textile of the Kuna Indians of Panama and Colombia. These textile pieces, which tend to depict tropical and everyday scenes of Kuna life in geometric patterns, are often incorporated as front and back panels of a traditional Kuna blouse. The Kuna Indians, centred in Comarca de Kuna Yala in the San Blas Islands of northwestern Panama, were once a powerful tribe that controlled the coasts and waterways of the Caribbean coast of Panama and Colombia.  They resisted Spanish colonial rule for many years and in 1925 rebelled successfully against the Panama government during the Tule Revolution that led to the formation of their autonomous region in Panama today. 
I bought a number of mola pieces in 2002 when I visited a Kuna village just outside the Colombian city of Cartagena on the Caribbean.  I marveled at these friendly people who are proud of their indigenous heritage and their perseverance of preserving their culture in the face of ruthless modernity.  Nearby were the massive walls and monumental towers of the historic UNESCO-listed city of Cartegena, famously raided by Sir Francis Drake in 1586 and other French and English pirates throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.  Beyond that were the fabulous Caribbean beaches and high-rise resorts which were oases of peace in those days during the height of the Colombian civil war when I visited. Colombia has since recovered after a period of good governance of President Uribe and his near-defeat of the leftist FARC rebels.  I look forward to visiting Colombia again and visit other parts of the country I avoided in 2002.

Transdniestria: Banknotes of a forgotten rebel republic

Transdniestria, officially known as the Dnestr Moldavian Republic, is an unrecognized breakaway state which declared independence from the former Soviet republic of Moldova in 1990. The local ethnic Russians and Ukrainians were apprehensive about an independent Moldova which may reunite with its ethnic brothers in Romania. With the support of the Russian 14th Army, they defeated the Moldovan government forces and occupied a narrow strip of territory in the eastern part of Moldova. Today, Transdniestria, with a population of 500,000 in a territory about 4000 sq km (6 times the size of Singapore), continues to exist in a state of uneasy ceasefire. 

I got these Transdniestrian rouble banknotes during my 1999 visit across the ceasefire line. Inflation had rendered it more worthless than toilet paper - at least toilet paper has some utility value. PMRR 1 million was worth US$1 three months before my visit, but its conversion rate dropped to PMRR 3.3 million to a dollar when I arrived. One side of the banknote depicted Russian General Suvorov who conquered the land for the Russian Empire. The other depicted the presidential palace with a huge statue of Lenin outside. In fact, I was arrested briefly at the palace for taking a photo of the building. The black-coat security staff there, who were dressed exactly like those Italian mafia men one sees in the movies, kindly let me off after getting me to sign an offence record book and a statement that I would not break the same rule again.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sgtravelcafe 9/12/11: Mayan Heartlands by Colin / Kenya by Yifan

Friday 9th December 2011

Potluck & Chat @ 7:30pm
Just bring a small box of pastries, or a packet of noodles for about 3-4 people,
or a bottle or 2 of soft drinks.

Presentation @ 8:30pm
Brief Moments - Volunteering in Kenya - by Sun Yifan
Discover the Mayan Heartlands: 
Journeys Around Mesoamerica
by Colin Chan