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Chinua Achebe on Art as a Form of Citizenship: Lessons in Creativity as “Collective Communal Enterprise” from the Igbo Tradition of Mbari

“There is no rigid barrier between makers of culture and its consumers. Art belongs to all and is a ‘function’ of society.”

Chinua Achebe on Art as a Form of Citizenship: Lessons in Creativity as “Collective Communal Enterprise” from the Igbo Tradition of Mbari

“The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people,” James Baldwin wrote in his superb meditation on Shakespeare. “Art must be life — it must belong to everybody,” Marina Abramović insisted in her artist life manifesto. Since long before Abramović, since long before Baldwin, since long before Shakespeare, the Igbo culture of Nigeria has embodied and enacted the notion that there is poetry — there is art and artistry — in the lives of the people, the ordinary people, unleashed into communal belonging through their ritual of mbari — the ceremonial celebration of the creative spirit, dedicated to the Earth goddess Ala.

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) explores what mbari can teach us about the crucial interleaving of art and society in a long-ago essay titled “Africa and Her Writers,” excerpted and discussed in Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children’s Literature (public library) — Jonathan Cott’s collection of erudite, sensitive, soaring conversations with such titans of feeling in word and image as Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, and Astrid Lindgren, originally published just before I was born (and reprinted in 2020 with a foreword I had the joy of writing).

Achebe writes of the mbari temple as a spare but striking structure that, despite its simplicity, often becomes “a miracle of artistic achievement — a breathtaking concourse of images in bright, primary colors,” sculpted from Ala’s own material — “simple molded earth.”

Figure of Ala in an mbari. (Photograph: Herbert M. Cole. University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.)

Achebe describes its making and makers:

Every so many years Ala would instruct the community through her priest to prepare a festival of images in her honor. That night the priest would travel through the town, knocking on many doors to announce to the various household whom of their members Ala had chosen for the great work. These chosen men and women then moved into the seclusion in a forest clearing and, under the instruction and guidance of master artists and craftsmen, began to build a house of images. The work might take a year or even two, but as long as it lasted the workers were deemed to be hallowed and were protected from undue contact from, and distraction by, the larger community.

What emerges from this tradition is the bold, unfussy affirmation that art is not only a form of consciousness accessible to all but a form of citizenship — that the responsibility for its making, the right of its enjoyment, and the dialogue between the two are an essential and natural part of our civic conscience. Achebe writes:

The making of art is not the exclusive concern of a particular caste or secret society. Those young men and women whom the goddess chose for the re-enactment of creation were not “artists.” They were ordinary members of society. Next time around, the choice would fall on other people. Of course, mere nomination would not turn everyman into an artist — not even divine appointment could guarantee it. The discipline, instruction, and guidance of a master artist would be necessary. But not even a conjunction of those two conditions would insure infallibly the emergence of a new, exciting sculptor or painter. But mbari was not looking for that. It was looking for, and saying, something else: There is no rigid barrier between makers of culture and its consumers. Art belongs to all and is a “function” of society.

Mbari depicting a maternity clinic with three uniformed nurses attending to a woman in the act of giving birth. (Photograph: Herbert M. Cole. University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.)

Achebe recognizes that while this notion may be a natural part of the “holistic concern” of traditional societies, it is “abominable heresy in the ears of mystique lovers” — the ego-pricked ears of those who exalt the artist as a special class of citizen, apart from and above the rest of society. With a wry wink, Achebe offers a necessary disclaimer “for their sake and their comfort.” Echoing Thoreau’s distinction between an artisan, an artist, and a genius, he writes:

The idea of mbari does not deny the place or importance of the master with unusual talent and professional experience. Indeed it highlights such gift and competence by bringing them into play on the seminal potentialities of the community. Again, mbari does not deny the need for the creative artist to go apart from time to time so as to commune with himself, to look inwardly into his own soul. For when the festival is over, the villagers return to their normal lives again, and the master artists to their work and contemplation. But they can never after this experience, this creative communal enterprise, become strangers again to one another. And by logical and physical extension the greater community, which comes to the unveiling of the art and then receives is makers again into its normal life, becomes a beneficiary — indeed an active partaker — of this experience.

“Spirit worker” pounding clay from anthills for the apprentice artist to sculpt with. (Photograph: Herbert M. Cole. University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.)

Complement this slender portion of Cott’s wholly magnificent Pipers at the Gates of Dawn with Achebe on how storytelling helps us survive history’s rough patches and his superb forgotten conversation with James Baldwin, then revisit Baldwin on what it means to be an artist and Iris Murdoch on why art is essential for democracy.

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A Cat: Leonard Michaels’s Playful and Poignant Meditations on the Enigma of Our Feline Companions and How They Reveal Us to Ourselves

“If you think long enough about what you see in a cat, you begin to suppose you will understand everything, but its eyes tell you there is nothing to understand, there is only life.”

A Cat: Leonard Michaels’s Playful and Poignant Meditations on the Enigma of Our Feline Companions and How They Reveal Us to Ourselves

“A cat must have three different names,” T.S. Eliot proclaimed in the iconic verses that became the basis of one of the longest-running and most beloved Broadway musicals of all time. “You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better,” Caroline Paul wrote generations later in her gorgeous memoir of finding the meaning of life through a lost cat. Between our longing for love, our urge to name what we barely understand, and our yearning to know the ultimately unknowable lies the eternal allure of the cat as an intimately proximate but impenetrably distant human companion.

That paradoxical pull is what the great short story writer and novelist Leonard Michaels (January 2, 1933–May 10, 2003) explores in one of his least known, loveliest and quietest masterpieces, simply titled A Cat (public library) — a posy of prose poems, of miniature meditations playful and profound, on the imponderable nature of our feline companions, illustrated with consummately expressive line drawings by artist Frances Lerner and brought back to life a quarter century after its original publication with a new introduction by Sigrid Nunez.

Michaels writes:

A cat is content to be a cat.

[…]

Nothing is more at home in the world than a cat. Flowers, compared to a cat, seem too assertive, even vulgar — their peculiar colors, their showy shapes. Sprawled in sunlight, a cat dissolves, pours free of its shape, and becomes one with the ground. Sliding along your leg, it gives you a sense of fusion. A cat makes itself one with anything. It is at home in the world. A cat defines a home.

“There is no terror like that of being known,” Emerson wrote in his journal as he faced his inability to let himself be loved. This, perhaps, is why the knowing gaze of a cat’s enormous alien eyes so penetrates the human soul with a terrifying enchantment. Michaels writes:

Face-to-face with a cat, you see almost no mouth. Its expression is unforthcoming, uncommunicative. Eyes and ears. A tiny, cool, exquisite nose. Without much mouth, the face seems uninterested in eating, and the eyes seem large and salient, as though a cat wants only to observe, to know things. A cat’s whiskers, like exquisite antennae, read the airiest messages.

With great subtlety of insight, Michaels plays with our perennial tendency toward projection — on our lovers, on trees, on “our” cats (which are, in their essence, “not owned by anybody,” as Michaels reminds us):

You look at a cat, and it looks at you. You have the scary idea that a cat is a kind of person. You look more carefully and let the cat’s eyes tell you what it sees. It sees you are a kind of cat.

A cat always looks into your eyes, as if it knows that you see it with your eyes. As if it knows? What a mad idea. A cat doesn’t even know it has eyes, let alone know that it is seeing you with its eyes. And yet it knows, it knows.

There is, of course, the obligatory contrast between a cat and a dog, nowhere more pronounced than in the existential challenge of loneliness. Michaels writes:

When it comes to loneliness, a cat is excellent company. It is a lonely animal. It understands what you feel. A dog also understands, but it makes such a big deal of being there for you, bumping against you, flopping about your feet, licking your face. It keeps saying, “Here I am.” Your loneliness then seems lugubrious. A cat will just be, suffering with you in philosophical silence.

In one of the lushest passages in this tiny gem of a book, Michaels considers the cat’s tail as an appendage of consciousness — the alien, impenetrable consciousness that seems to fold universes of knowing into its modest cortex. Three years after Ursula K. Le Guin observed in her superb essay on beauty, mortality, and growing older that “cats know exactly where they begin and end” and that the tail is “a cat’s way of maintaining a relationship” with space and selfhood, Michaels writes:

The tail of a cat lashes, curls, and swishes slowly. It stands straight up. It vibrates. It blooms before battle and looks three times thicker. It is a flag of feelings — courage, shame, pleasure, fear. It can become the hook of a sickle, or a shepherd’s crook, or a rod, or a plume, or an S, and it can press down to seal a cat’s heinie. It is the poetry and prose of a cat. When a cat is thoughtful, the tail moves like a part of the mind. It is a moody river, a smokey flow. It is a sentence, the material shape of an idea. It is an announcement, a revelation, and an artistic gesture, beautiful even if only to express boredom.

Another passage emerges as a splendid missing verse from poet Mark Strand’s lyrical celebration of clouds:

A cat bunched up and sleepy is like a cumulous cloud. Stretched out on its side, flat along the ground, it is like a stratus cloud. Clouds piled up high are like a great council of cats in silent meditation.

The cat’s great gift, Michaels intimates, is not that of being our silent witness but of being our mirror, revealing us to ourselves in its nondisclosures, revealing the deepest truths in its withholdings:

If you think long enough about what you see in a cat, you begin to suppose you will understand everything, but its eyes tell you there is nothing to understand, there is only life.

Complement the slender and splendid A Cat with The White Cat and the Monk — a lovely ninth-century ode to the joy of companionable purposefulness, newly illustrated — and Muriel Spark on how a cat can boost your creativity, then revisit the lavish Big New Yorker Book of Cats.

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Wonder and the Grandeur of the Universe as the Antidote to Human-Manufactured Bias and Divisiveness: Marilyn Nelson’s Stunning Poem “The Children’s Moon”

A lyrical time-capsule of human history being made under the unblinking eye of cosmic time.

Wonder and the Grandeur of the Universe as the Antidote to Human-Manufactured Bias and Divisiveness: Marilyn Nelson’s Stunning Poem “The Children’s Moon”

In one of her love letters, Margaret Fuller — who laid the foundation of American feminism, advocated for black voting rights generations before women won the vote, and believed in every fiber of her being that genius is “common as light” when given the chance — wrote of “that best fact, the Moon.” A century, a Civil War, and two World Wars after her, amid the golden age of space exploration, the great Italian scientist, humanist, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi considered the spiritual value of our cosmic dreams in his gorgeous essay “The Moon and Man,” insisting that “for good or evil, we are a single people: the more we become conscious of this, the less difficult and long will be humanity’s progress toward justice and peace.”

Marilyn Nelson shines a sidewise gleam on that best, most unifying fact in her stunning poem “The Children’ Moon,” written in the voice of her own mother — one of the first black women to teach at an all-white elementary school, spearheading a classroom of twenty white second-graders at an Air Force base school in Kansas four months after Brown v. Board of Education.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree

Performed at the On Being gathering in 2018 and published a year earlier in Mrs. Nelson’s Class (public library) — the conceptually brilliant anthology Nelson edited, featuring persona poems by twenty different poets, each taking on the voice of one of the bodies in her mother’s classroom to imagine what the experience of making history together might have been like — the poem is a stunning reminder that the human capacity for wonder at the grandeur of the universe and the natural world, a capacity “common as light” among us all, will always eclipse the capacity for diminishment and divisiveness along artificial lines, lines drawn not by the reality of nature but by the selectively consensual non-reality we call culture, lines that constrict and confine and desecrate what is best and largest in our nature.

THE CHILDREN’S MOON
by Marilyn Nelson

In my navy shirtwaist dress and three-inch heels,
my pearl clip-ons and newly red-rinsed curls,
I smoothed on lipstick, lipstick-marked my girls,
saluted and held thumbs-up to my darling Mel,
and drove myself to school for the first day.

Over the schoolyard a silver lozenge
dissolved into the morning’s blue cauldron.
Enter twenty seven-year-old white children.
Look, children, I said as they found their desks:
The children’s moon! A special good luck sign!

We pledged allegiance, and silently prayed.
George Washington watched sternly from his frame.
I turned to the blackboard and wrote my name.
I thought I heard, She’s the REAL teacher’s maid!
I thought I heard echoes of history.

But when I turned, every child in the room
had one hand up, asking, What is the children’s moon?

Complement with Nelson’s entrancing performance of her existential-scientific poem “Faster than Light” at the third annual Universe in Verse and savor her On Being conversation with Krista Tippett (who also read an existential-mathematical poem in the same show), then revisit other titanic poets of our time performing their own work: Marie Howe reading “Singularity,” Ross Gay reading “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt,” Elizabeth Alexander reading “The Venus Hottentot,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading from “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” and Jane Hirshfield reading “Today, Another Universe.”

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The Science and Splendor of Australian Butterflies: How Two 19th-Century Teenage Sisters’ Forgotten Paintings Sparked a Triumph of Modern Conservation

A bittersweet story of staggering talent, obsessive curiosity, countercultural courage, and posthumous redemption.

A century after the self-taught German naturalist and artist Maria Merian laid the foundations of modern entomology with her stunning pictorial studies of butterflies in Surinam and a century before Vladimir Nabokov applied his glorious intellectual promiscuity to advancing the field, the Australian sisters Harriet and Helena Scott unleashed their immense talent and curiosity on the natural history of butterflies and moths. A century after their death, their stunning, scrumptious paintings would furnish one of the most heartening conservation triumphs in history.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print and as a face mask. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)

Daughters of the Bombay-born Australian entomologist Alexander Walker Scott, Helena and Harriet were barely out of childhood when they started harmonizing their father’s scientific studies with their shared artistic gift. When the girls were in their teens, the family moved from Sydney to Ash Island — an isolated patch of native wilderness in the middle of Hunter River — where they filled their days and their minds with activities reserved for the era’s boys. The sisters spent twenty years adventuring into nature — probably wearing pants, certainly climbing trees — and documenting their astonishment, their awed curiosity, in field notebooks and collecting boxes and elaborate paintings. They lived on the timescale of the insects they studied, staying up at night to observe and illustrate in real time the metamorphoses unfolding in the span of hour, minutes, in creatures with life-cycles of days — transformations so subtle that the sisters often used the single hair of a paintbrush to render the delicate details.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print and as a face mask. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)
Detail from Helena and Harriet Scott’s art for Australian Lepidoptera.

A generation before Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology and a century before Rachel Carson made it a household word, the Scott sisters spent innumerable hours in the wilderness, studying the plants that sustained the insects, seeking to understand and document the intricate relationships of life. At a time when most natural history illustration depicted animals in black and white, islanded on the page as specimens extracted from their natural context and splayed for the human viewer’s eye, they chose to honor the vibrant living creatures within the web of life.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print and as a face mask. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)
Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)

Paper, imported from England, was so precious that they used each sheet twice — painting on the front, writing on the back, in a tiny script that could compress the maximum amount of information, the greatest volume of coded curiosity, into the finite physical space. They organized and catalogued their father’s specimens, watched the glasswing, Acraea andromacha, lay her innumerable eggs inside the passionflower, watched the caterpillar turn pupa turn butterfly, and rendered what they saw in consummate detail.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott. (Australian Museum archives)

In an era when scientific illustrators were often uncredited in the works they illustrated, an era when hardly any women were published authors and of the few who were, most published under initials or male pseudonyms, Alexander Walker Scott made the bold and loving decision to print his daughters’ names in the book’s title itself, honoring them as collaborators. After a thirteen-year delay due to its exceedingly costly production bent on preserving the vibrancy and integrity of the original art, the two-volume Australian Lepidoptera and their transformations, drawn from the life by Harriet and Helena Scott was published in 1864.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print and as a face mask. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)

Although they could only afford to print a fraction of the 100 artworks Harriet and Helena, now in their early thirties, had painted as teenagers between 1846 and 1851, the book just about bankrupted the Scotts without garnering the recognition they had hoped for. Soon after its publication, their mother died of a heart attack — a devastation to the young women who shared a close bond with her and whose grief was compounded by the sudden loss of the freedom their mother’s domestic care had afforded them to pursue their artistic-scientific career. The family was forced to sell Ash Island and move into humbler dwellings back in Sydney. Harriet wrote to a friend at the Australian Museum of natural history:

In a week or so we shall leave this place poorer than we ever were in our lives, and I am and shall be until poor Papa gets something to do, working to gain a livelihood for us three. We give up every article that belongs to us and if I can take my drawing materials I shall think myself fortunate. With these I hope to be able to make enough to live in a very small way for a time.

Helena and Harriet Scott

Shortly after the migration, Harriet and Helena were thrust into even deeper dispossession and grief — their father died. Forced to lean on their talent not along their passions but against their survival, they began taking commissions decorating wedding photographs with drawings of wildlife and plants, they painted commercial dinner plate sets, they made botanical illustrations for railway guides, they illustrated the first holiday cards featuring native Australian wildflowers. Scholars consider them Australia’s first paid female artists.

Even so, the income was not enough for the sisters to subsist on. They made the difficult decision to sell their life’s work to the Australian Museum, of which their father had been a trustee. The museum, where the scrumptious Scott collection now lives among the country-continent’s largest and oldest natural history and rare books archive, bought it for £200, or around £25,000 today.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)

For a century, the Scott sisters’ work lay brown-papered in the underbelly of the museum, until curator Marion Ord rediscovered it with a gasp of awe and set about bringing it back to life in a book celebrating the museum’s bicentenary — a book on which conservationists began leaning to restore and rewild Ash Island, which industrial farming had left razed of trees and bereft of insects in the twentieth century.

A turning point for the conservation effort was the discovery of a crucial document among the Scott sisters’ papers: Helena’s full list of the plants growing on Ash Island in 1862 — a function of the sisters’ understanding of ecology before the term existed. More than 240 species, ranging from trees to ferns to fungi, were each meticulously catalogued as a complete phylogenetic listing.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)

A century after Harriet and Helena Scott returned their borrowed atoms to the web of life, more than 250,000 native trees have been replanted on their beloved Ash Island with the help of hundreds of volunteers, restoring the flood-plane rainforest of their childhood. Ash Island is now a national park.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)
Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)
Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)

Australian Museum curator, historian, and archivist Vanessa Finney tells the Scott sisters’ previously untold story in the consummately illustrated Transformations (public library). Complement it with Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter’s groundbreaking studies and illustrations of mushrooms, which mycologists still use to identify species, trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s natural history paintings of exotic, endangered, and extinct species, some of them native to Australia, and the remarkable story of her young contemporary Elizabeth Blackwell, who taught herself botanical illustration and created the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants to save her husband from debtor’s prison.

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