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JoeRohde.net

 

By the shores of Lake Eyasu, in Tanzania, is a small camp called Kisima Ngede. Simple tents, shaded over by thatched palapas, look out over the ancient dry lake, where vervet monkeys patrol the palmy shoreline. From here my family and I embarked on one of our more memorable African experiences, an early morning game hunt with some of the last remaining hunter-gatherers on earth, the Hadzabe.

Long ago, almost all of Africa was in the hands of people like this, the Khoi-San of Southern Africa, the Pygmies of the Congo rainforests, and these, the Hadzabe, somehow isolated from their click-speaking brethren far away in the south. Long ago the hunter-gatherers were pushed out of all the arable land by the expansion of Bantu-speaking farmers, the people we think of today as "Africans." Then, more recently, as a result of the traumatic modern era, they were all either wiped out, absorbed into other ethnic groups, or forced into the most uninhabitable, unwanted, and least productive land. This last was the fate of the Hadzabe. There are several Hadzabe groups in Tanzania, but the group we visited was squeezed between national parks where hunting was forbidden and licensed hunting reserves where hunting was restricted to rich clients. Thus, the original stewards of this land, whose presence for over forty thousand years had negligible ecological impact, were made refugees by modern concepts of property, conservation, and law. To add injury to the irony of this insult, illegal squatters had moved in to farm on the meager tracts left remaining to the Hadzabe. This may not sound like a formula for a great family holiday experience, but that is wrong. despite all of this, the Hadzabe were gracious, generous, and enthusiastic hosts. The bargain they had made was that we could accompany a group of Hadzabe on their morning hunt in return for some food, chickens and vegetables. The exchange was as rational as could be, since our presence on the hunt was likely to ruin it anyway.

We met our Hadzabe hunters in their camp, which was just that, not a village, but a camp. Those Hadzabe who still live a traditional lifestyle have no villages,they follow game and build simple shelters wherever they stop. Where we met them, the only object that might have been called architecture was a grass shelter about the size of a big washing machine. It was dome-shaped with a sort of opening in front, and looked like nothing so much as an oversized birds nest turned upside down.

Three young men in shorts, each carrying a bow and a sheaf of iron-tipped arrows, led us off into the dense thickets of acacia. I think they expected to rapidly outdistance us in the thick undergrowth, but myself, my wife, and my two boys, then aged eight and eleven, are experienced outdoors travelers and kept up quite well with the hunting party. We started out in pursuit of a civet, but ended up cornering a jackal, which our hosts promptly and efficiently killed, quartered, roasted, and ate, at least those parts which they didn't bring back to camp. We knew this would happen. Before departing, through he intercession of a translator, we were clearly told, and here I paraphrase,"Look, we're hunters. We are going to find an animal, track it, kill it, and eat it. This is how we survive. We don't want any weenie, bleeding heart guilt trips about this, okay?" We had agreed, and so, when the moment came that this jackal breathed her last at the end of a spear, we were silent and respectful. No matter what we thought, we were witnessing something which has been acted out by these people, their ancestors, and our own African ancestors, since we became humans. Even my kids, at their supposedly tender ages, were also keenly aware that we were likely to be among the last to witness this, as the Hadzabe and all the ancientness their lives represented were certain to be squeezed out of this existence and into a mold prepared for them by the rules of the modern world, which offered them little promise more than labor and wages.

We were sad for the jackal, sad too for the Hadzabe. But they were not sad. They celebrated, sang, and danced in their dusty camp, lifting my children into the air in the exultation of the day. One could imagine then that time stood still, that we were sharing in a prehistoric moment transported to the beginning of human time. But time does not stand still. This moment was now, in our time. Satellites circled unseen, high in the morning sky above our dancing hunters. And yet, in dancing their celebration, our Hadzabe hosts were creating another kind of time, outside of history and outside of change. That time was as eternal as the first morning.

I didn't exactly intend to buy this earring. I was in Mahabalipuram, in Tamil Nadu, a state in Southern India. According to my own self-imposed rules, I had already gotten my India earring in Rajasthan. But several factors impinged upon my decision.

First, was the recurrent assertion, heard over and over, that Southern India was the real India, the true India. If this was so, then my Rajasthan earring was not quite the ticket, and anyway, Rajasthan really is like another country and perfectly happy to be so.

Which brings me to the second factor. As a federation of states, India really is like a bunch of pretty different countries with a sometimes agreed upon central coordinating committee called the government. By those rules, I should have had five earrings by the time I got to Mahabalipuram.

But the truth is that the third factor was overwhelmingly dominant. It was brutally hot. I had taken refuge in a tiny air-conditioned shop run by a Kashmiri jeweler who commuted between his Himalayan home in Srinagar, politically tense but cool, and this utterly tropical, sweltering town of mostly tourist-related businesses woven between the famous Descent of the Ganges monolith, and the famous Shore Temples of Mahabalipuram, and the less famous but equally cool Tiger's Cave, a sight I had longed to lay eyes on since I was seventeen, but when faced with the eyeball-blistering heat of midday, chose to give a cursorial once-over and return to the van. (If you don't live in or haven't visited a place like this, just imagine your head in an pizza oven full of wet towels.)

Anyway, we sat and talked in the little shop under the breathy whisper of the air-con, until I was recovered enough to trek back towards my hotel. I bought the earring to be nice, because I didn't buy the gorgeous but very expensive Chola-style replica bronzes he was trying to push. As jewelry it's not exceptional. Identical pieces are for sale at any petuli-oil-scented import store in the USA. But Mahabalipuram was a personal pilgrimage site for me, so I'm glad I got it.

This is a drawing of a Nepalese phurba, pronounced, more or less, poor-bah. Phurbas are often called ritual daggers but this metaphor is inaccurate. They are pointy, yes, but phurbas are not meant to be daggers. They are supposedly descended from tent pegs. When a priest, lama, or shaman begins any kind of religious ceremony, he, or she in the case of shamans, must pin down the wild, uncontrollable spiritual forces whirling around the location like an evil wind. The phurba does this. Some phurbas still retain the obvious little notch that a real tent-peg has, where the cord attaches. This is often stylized into a nose or beak of a creature, in many cases the mythical Makara, a sort of elephant-dragon. Phurbas can be Buddhist, Bon, Animist, even Hindu. Subtle differences in symbolism allow the connoisseur to tell. Wooden folk phurbas like this one are usually made by the user, I am told. No two are truly alike. I think this one is probably a Tamang animist phurba. In modern Kathmandu, where this was bought, there is also always the possibility that it's just fake and was made for sale. Nonetheless, even fake phurbas are intriguing little works of folk art. I particularly like the droll human-faced critter on top, about which I know precisely jack.

In Hawaii, where I grew up, there weren't many wild animals out in the forests. Big ones, that is. There were, and are wild boar, which are both big and dangerous, but not very common, at least not where I used to forage, in the hills behind Honolulu. When I was young there were supposedly a few wallabies galumphing around, and I think I might have seen one once out beyond Koko Head. Some stray chital deer here and there, folks claimed. All of these are introduced species, as are the pigs, though they were partly introduced by the ancient Hawaiians. In fact, it's rare to come across a native species that isn't a fish. A salt-water fish.


Because of this, a young boy like myself could do two things with impunity. First, I could wander anywhere I wanted in the island's thick wet jungles because the worst thing I was likely to get was a centipede bite. Second, I could catch and keep almost anything I found because none of it was protected, except the exceedingly rare native species, which I was never going to find. This bounty drew me to wander, at a young age, into environments that most people would look at and say, "Here there be tigers."

My brother was at the doctors office almost every single week, sometimes more than once. Compounding his visits with any of our large family's regular visits made the doctors office like a second home. I knew him as Dr. Felix. His office backed up against the Nuuanu stream, which ran out of the perpetually overcast, wet, and rainy mountains beyond. Huge vaulting monkeypod and banyan trees shaded the stream in a canopy of green high above. It was a simple matter to walk out the back of the white bungalow that was the office, down the ferny slope to the water, and then to follow the clear burbling path upwards into darkness. I would return with plastic bags filled with scintillating fan-tailed guppies. For the time that I was gone, there was no office, no medical smell, no muffled voices from the parents trying to wring some hopefulness from the analysis they would hear, no humiliation because we could not pay for the services we did receive, no fear that it would all get worse, suddenly, fiercely, and without preamble, as it had gotten worse the day my brother was dropped onto his head as a baby, by a distracted housekeeper. That world was gone. In its place was a jungle ornamented with dappled sunlight, laced with serpentines of roots and branches, and lush with clear water bejeweled with exotic fish. For the price of a few mosquito bites, I could be free and safe in a world filled with unexpected treasure. For years, I responded by sacking these sanctuaries and bringing home my living booty of frogs, fish and bugs. Here, I present a huge cane toad whom I kept in a trash can.

Later, long later, we left those deep shadowed valleys behind for the tawny hills of Southern California. There, I would follow other streams up other valleys, plundering lizards and frogs from the rocks, thrillingly aware that bears and lions did prowl the aromatic chaparral and oak around me.

Ultimately I woke up to the selfishness of taking these creatures away from their homes to die at mine, and gave up the collecting part of my rambles. I still love to walk along the streams, my eyes searching for the flicker of an eyelid, the darting reflection beneath the sparkle of the water, the sudden movement among the fallen leaves, but I no longer need to strike, like some overgrown heron spearing prey in the rushes. There is a universe of peace in the contemplation of a freckled sand lizard, whose only thoughts are the warmth of the sun on his miniature mosaic of a back and the anticipation of the next tasty ant who will throw a shadow across his rock.

 

 

Structure 33 at Yaxchilan is instructive. Superficially it looks geometric and angular, like the familiar buildings far away at Uxmal or Kabah. But what you are seeing here, in this picture, is the substructure of a stucco facade that is mostly gone. This grid of stone would have been covered in a sculptural billboard of fluid, curvilinear detail executed in the much more malleable medium of stucco. Look closely and you will see a central seated figure, who would have been dressed in an elaborate costume, whose huge flaring headdress would have been spread across the upper, missing portion of the armature. Flanking this central character are ranks of other figures standing or seated, hard to tell. The lower roof where we see all that checkerboardy business would have been covered in more sensual sculptural imagery. The two corners of the lower roof would have had huge sculpted faces of the witz creature, often mistaken for Chac, with his long droopy nose. This would all have been painted, and while many reconstructions depict these elements painted a single color like red or green, I think these colors are undercoats, all that would remain after a thousand years. The fine linework and delicate detail has likely washed away. People who paint elaborate murals like those at Bonampak and Calakmul don't just paint things red and walk away. When picturing the ancient world of the Maya, one shouldn't be imagining a zigzaggy tequila-label world of chunky souvenir-serape patterns, but a lavish, baroque world, comparable to India or China. I think this is important, because this world is lost. We should know what we lost.

I did a series of paintings of Hawaiian ki'i interacting with kitchy tiki stuff, sort of "Revenge of the Actual Tikis." The image is one of the gouache sketches. "Ki'i" is the Hawaiian equivalent of saying "tiki." We say tiki because English explorers like Captain Cook and his merry crew visited Tahiti way before Hawai'i, and, based on their exposure to Tahitian language, were used to saying "tiki" instead of "ki'i." Also used to saying "Tabu" instead of "kapu," and "tapa" instead of "kapa." Sort of like if a race of super-wealthy, incredibly militarily powerful natives from Papua New Guinea came to the US after visiting Germany and insisted on saying, "Guten Morgen" and "Danke" and when we corrected them with "Good Morning" and "Thanks," they'd get all defensive and huffy and say, "Oh, get over yourself, it's the same thing." Probably be frustrating.

So...the ki'i. My original notion was to just portray the two objects side by side. The regal, ancient, somber ki'i just standing near the zany, part-colored, grinning tiki mugs and bottle openers. But when I juxtaposed them, the expressions on the ki'i seemed to take on new relevance. I stress here that I have not changed the expressions on this or any of the ki'i in any of these paintings. That would be disrespectful to the spirit of these images and to those who still revere them. I was going for ironic, which takes accuracy. Check me. This is what the ki'i really look like. This little figure is in the Bishop Museum, in this exact pose. All I did was add the mug.

In some paintings the ki'i seem to be taking action, chucking mugs off tables and such, although I never alter their expressions or their posture from the original. In other paintings, the ki'i seem to be just looking on with an expression that usually looks like "What the...!!!" Someday I'll do a show. But first I need to add more figures from other cultures around Oceania, the Marquesas, Easter Island, Fiji, etc. Some carvings from Papua New Guinea look seriously pissed off.

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