I was forced to re-evaluate my definition of culture (and perhaps the many meanings of the word ‘civilization’) one night in Northern Tanzania when a group of Maasai tribesmen suggested that I drink the hot blood of a freshly slaughtered goat.
This is life, Jim, I thought – but not as we know it.
Drinking the blood was more important to them than it was to me, so when I politely declined I think they were secretly relieved.
We were sat in a circle in a smoky hut in their boma. I still had to eat the goat meat (but I was OK with that.)
I was with my friend, Geoff, and we had made the long, hot and dusty journey out to the boma earlier that day. We were the only non-Maasai people there but Geoff spoke a little Maasai (Maa). The Maasai in our boma spoke no English (why would they?).
Anyway – what has this got to do with you and culture?
The aims of the visual arts course include enabling students to explore and value the diversity of the arts across time, place and cultures and specifically to become informed and critical observers and makers of visual culture and media
At that time, and as it is for many of us, there were a number of cultures in which I lived and worked – for example, a school culture, an expatriate culture, the culture from which I had come, and the multiple cultures of the host country.
In visual arts, we want you (students) to explore and value arts across cultures and to become makers of “visual culture and media”.
But one of the difficulties that many students have with incorporating cultural ideas in their work is tendency to be too literal, to include stereotypical and obvious ideas. Was my encounter with the Maasai ‘cultural’? Absolutely! I was briefly but directly involved with people from a very different culture to my own. It was a privilege.
The following day we left the Maasai and returned to Moshi. Over the following weeks I was immersed in the layers of meaning provided by this encounter, and wanted to make some visual response.
I did it in terms of colour – red (of course) and the colours of earth, mud and dust. I also tried to include something of the brilliant blue cloth often worn by the Maasai that seems to glow in the frequently harsh sunlight.
But it was no more than that – a response. It did not ‘depict’ or try to interpret a culture, it did not include figurative images or representations of the Maasai etc.. It was not particularly obvious – in fact without some explanation it would be pretty meaningless. But it was meaningful to me and it felt good to create, however obliquely, a piece that was inspired by my overnight encounter.
You have the curatorial rationale and the exhibition texts to explain ‘meaning’. Your audience can be asked to think and work out what is going on. The visual qualities can take over.
Your art can be mysterious, complex and difficult to understand, and still be effective and successful.
The IB says (Guide page 9)
Culture is defined as learned and shared beliefs, values, interests, attitudes, products and all patterns of behaviour created by society. This view of culture includes an organized system of symbols, ideas, explanations, beliefs and material production that humans create and manipulate in their daily lives. Culture is dynamic and organic, operating on many levels in the global context—international, national, regional and local, as well as among different social groups within a society. Culture is seen as fluid and subject to change.
Culture can be seen as providing the overall framework within which humans learn to organize their thoughts, emotions and behaviours in relation to their environment, and within this framework “cultural context”, which specifically appears in both the taught syllabus and assessment tasks of the visual arts course, refers to the conditions that influence and are influenced by culture. These include historical, geographical, political, social and technological factors.
Also, page 21
For this visual arts guide “cultural context” refers to the conditions that influence and are influenced by culture. These include historical, geographical, political, social and technological factors.