Editorial page editor Adam Van Brimmer recently wrote a column on the Baobab Show at Plant Riverside, noting that subject matter experts are needed to provide context on the design of the show, which has sparked off strong reactions on social networks and in the press.
As a researcher who has lived and worked with indigenous cultures in West, East and Southern Africa, I can shed some light.
Part of the difficulty in commenting on the artwork in the living room is that the art, while arousing differences of opinion, is not itself at the heart of the controversy. I think the problem is with the context and the way the art is presented.
Display masks, which are believed in parts of Africa to capture the soul of the person who created them, and realistic busts of indigenous people under and sometimes on the same display as the heads of hunted animals, that’s where the problem lies. .
Masks and other representations of culture are sacred. The shaman’s jacket on the wall is sacred. If beautiful sacred objects and representations of culture are to be displayed in order to be shared, they must be shared in a way that honors them. Displaying a depiction of a part of a human being (the busts of Woodrow Nash) beneath a part of a hunted, killed and ridden animal creates a story of wealth and power used to control and exploit people and nature.
While this may not have been the intention, the context of African history and the treatment and enslavement of indigenous cultures cannot be ignored.
Some have commented on the theme of the hunting safari in the context of the rapid decline of large animal populations in Africa’s protected areas. And while there is the argument that managed hunting in Africa provides resources to local communities, there are other ways to support these communities without encouraging an industry that leads to illegal hunting and poaching.
These activities have caused a 60% decline in populations of nearly 70 key species in Africa, according to a study by the University of Cambridge. Many parks are unable to maintain healthy populations and the situation is worse outside of these managed areas. Kessler, as a leader in hotel design, is someone many people see as a role model. Why not help us move towards a healthier future by depicting majestic elephants living in their natural landscapes instead of using carved wooden elephant heads mimicking hunting trophies and plastic tusks for the basics of lamp imitating real tusks? It only adds value to an industry that is devastating these animals and making it less likely that they will thrive and be there for future generations.
The bar named Baobab after “the tree of life” would be best represented by representations of whole, healthy and prosperous animals. There are few experiences that can compete with seeing giraffes, lions, zebras, elephants, and other animals in the wild. Why not change the design to represent a sustainable future for Africa, a future in which cultures are honored and represented with respect in the context of African history, and one in which future generations can embrace? marvel at the wildlife and environment of Africa which is like nowhere else on Earth?
Humanity started in Africa and has learned and evolved in many ways. I am delighted to see the design of the new Baobab Lounge evolve to better capture and reflect the deep cultural and natural beauty and history that I believe the Kessler family hope to share with the community.
Carrie Young, PhD, is a researcher and university professor specializing in sustainability issues in the United States and Africa. She lives in Savannah.