Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Baga, past and future

The story Frederick Lamp tells in his fascinating book Art of the Baga begins as a portrayal of timeless beliefs, but then deepens into a story of the decline and fall of those beliefs, and of their possible rebirth in new form. Here are a few snapshots from that story: 

The Baga believe, or rather believed, that they could create their own "spiritual power" (158). The amazing masks of D'mba, expressing the profound impact of mature women in society, are apparently a conscious invention. They aren't "spirits" but they are powerful. Everybody creates gods, but almost no one acknowledges having done so; the Baga seem to come closer than most.

Yet this intense spiritual world must now be gone. Even when Lamp wrote, in the 1980s, almost everyone who actually recalled the innermost secrets was very old. Those elders would not pass on what they knew, because the rituals in which their knowledge was to be shared were no longer practiced. So this knowledge was simply disappearing, unless, as Lamp hopes, the elders still have some method of transmission as secret as the knowledge itself. (253)

How did this elaborate world of belief come to an end? Lamp tells us that the Baga ritual culture was finally destroyed not by French colonialists – though they undermined its role – but by a wave of Islamization, accompanied by violence. This was not the Islamist fundamentalism that is so prominent today, but something much more local, in the mid-1950s. (224) What gave it such force? Perhaps, as is often the case with religious outpourings, politicians' calculation played an important part. But Lamp thinks that something else was going on too. He suggests that the ritual world of the Baga was so all-consuming, and so tilted in favor of Baga elders, that Baga young men were ready to throw over the old customs in favor of freedom. So the amazing and rich culture that we are tempted to mourn was an oppression to those young Baga who helped end it. (238-39)

And yet, in the 80s, Baga young people were trying to reclaim their cultural heritage – in part with the aid of a visiting art historian, Lamp himself, who became in his words "a patron of the arts, as the ceremonial organization or the council of elders would have been in the past." (256) It's reasonable to guess that these efforts have included a rebirth of the actual making of classic Baga masks. A Baga mask made today may not be a ritual object, but it may still deserve to be called "authentic," because it reflects a popular movement at cultural reclamation. And its purchase, say by a Westerner, may not be a further blow to an endangered culture, but a support for that culture’s resurgence. And perhaps it is not out of character for a people that once believed it could create a spiritual power to now believe it can reclaim its lost culture. In this sense, both the new masks and the entire effort at self-re-invention are expressions of the rich Baga tradition. 

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