If you have gone past the Main Street Projects in Houston recently, then you have seen the new mural by local artist Hiyme Brummett. It’s a pretty cool design, which Brummett attributes to the Gurunsi peoples of present-day Ghana and Burkina Faso.
Brummett, according to his bio on the El Rincon Social site, “uses symbols from cultures across the world – from Africa, Germany, New York, and his native Texas to construct memories that are simultaneously maps to forgotten global social landscapes and personal experiences.” Appropriately, given Brummett’s interest in “telling stories,” this mural comes with an accompanying text, a poem, which came to Brummett in a fit of inspiration:
I wish to tell you a story said the young man. I hope you find wind in seashells and gold in the water. The map is only showing you little and later these images will explode with color and false tragedy. A painting of mine has left on a cargo ship for the North Coast of Africa. When it wishes to arrive it will contain colors and marks made by handless children I grew up with at a younger age. I hope the home it has found will be brilliant like many dreams I have had of walking barefoot along simple jungles shaking from snakebites.
I will leave it to readers/viewers to draw any connections between the text and the images, but to me, this mural raises other, more interesting questions — questions about tradition, context, process, materials, and everybody’s current favorite bugaboo, “cultural appropriation.”
In what has thus far been my most popular post, I decry Gonzo 247’s recent, award-winning mural in downtown Houston for existing outside any identifiable muraling tradition. I castigate the artist for his ahistorical “random abstract curlicues” because, in the absence of a symbolic or stylistic context, the swirling colors lack meaning. They are nothing but that which they are — empty, shiny, sparkly baubles.
The same cannot be said of Brummett’s mural. Brummett’s mural is very much rooted in one very specific tradition. This mural very explicitly borrows its shapes and colors, as I stated above, from the Gurunsi peoples of west Africa. I know this because Brummett shared an article about Gurunsi painted homes with me. (Check out this link for some really great images of a whole painted village — it’s like MC Escher in 3D — super cool!)
The paper given me by Brummett has many problems, but as an undergraduate’s assignment (the author identifies the professor who assigned it on the title page), I suppose the sweeping generalizations are forgivable.
“Africans have a rich history of art,” writes the student, “though it is not art in the western sense. Their art all has a meaning and purpose beyond being beautiful, remove it from its context and you have taken away its purpose and its reason for being created.”
These sweeping generalizations about various multiple, distinct, heterogeneous cultures covering a landmass larger than the US, China, India, and most of Europe combined are so cluelessly ignorant as to almost be cute. You want to pinch the student’s cheeks and pat her on the head, tell her to hang in there, but that last clause still manages to nail it: remove [this style] from its context and you have taken away its purpose and its reason for being created.
And what is the context from which this style of decorating buildings emerges? A detailed description can be found here, and it’s a compelling read. I recommend the whole, short article, but here are some highlights:
Wall decorating is always a community project done by the women.
Brummett is a man, working by himself, not a group of women who share the same village. Their social activity is very different from his solitary act.
By early morning, the yard is lively as women gather around piles of mud, each a different color. These piles, and the white chalk that will be rubbed over part of the design, are the women’s palette. Cow dung is added to the mud and stomped with bare feet until the mixture is well blended and smooth.
Brummett works with latex paint mis-tints and other such scraps and leftovers, gleaned from big-box hardware stores. This material is in stark contrast to “locally sourced” materials such as mud from the village, chalk from nearby, and dung from the village cows. Similarly, throwing a can of latex paint in the mixer at Home Depot is hardly comparable to all the village women gathering to mash together mud and dung with their feet.
The work on the walls reflects the informal organization of the community. Women of all ages come together, with the older women taking the lead and guiding the younger women. The most senior woman is responsible for taking a stone and incising the first line.
Again, one man working alone reflects not “the informal organization of the community,” but the formal, hierarchical organization of Main Street Projects. The curators of Main Street Projects invited Brummett to paint his mural; Brummett then took the lead and made all the lines.
The decorated walls function on many levels. To someone from outside the community, they are beautiful abstract designs. To those inside the community, they carry meaning and invoke spiritual protection.
This analogy still applies. To passersby on Main Street, Brummett’s mural may indeed appear as “beautiful abstract designs,” though to Brummett, the insider, the mural carries some other meaning. (See Brummett’s text, above.) The article continues:
But mud designs also serves to protect the walls themselves. The decorating is usually done just before the rainy season and protects the outside walls from the rain. The incised lines break the flow of water in heavy rainfalls. Adding cow dung, compacting layers of mud, burnishing the final layer, and varnishing with néré all make the designs withstand wet weather, enabling the structures to last longer. In the end, the decorations are as practical as they are beautiful.
And here the analogy falls apart, once again. Brummett’s designs serve no such practical purposes, nor were they made in a collective, convivial ceremony, a community ritual. Divorced from their original context, they are “merely” decorative. They may be visually stimulating (I, for one, like looking at them), but to call them “Gurunsi” is dishonest. They are in the Gurunsi style, indeed, but without the substance (quite literally, without the mud and dung and ritual).