Mali A. Olatunji took the photo of me that forms a part of this image in a park in New York, in summer 2012. In it, I am reading Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy: A Novel. I think he saw a certain link there, how ever tenuous, given that I was in New York for the launch of my novel Oh Gad! and Kincaid was and remains the most high profile writer from my home country Antigua and Barbuda, and an influence on my becoming as a writer (referenced in many interviews, including this one). Given that last statement, obviously, I’d read several Kincaid books to that point, beginning with the pivotal Annie John: A Novel, but not Lucy. And, yes, I’m actually reading not just pretending to. When you’re posed for as long as I was, it’s inevitable that you’re going to start reading the book you’re supposed to be pretending to read. And, boy, am I glad I did; it became one of my Kincaid favourites.
Anyway, this picture is part of a series of images (I believe) included in Olatunji’s new (first ever, long overdue) book.
Olatunji as you’ll read in this Colin Sampson article has a long record as a professional photographer both here at home and in New York, where he worked for more than two decades as the official fine arts photographer at the Museum of Modern Art. Sidebar: you’ll also note in the Sampson article a critique of how the community fails to utilize people like Olatunji who want to pass on what they’ve acquired over the years.
On that point, you’ll further note that the launch (details at the end of this blog) will be taking place at the Youth Enlightenment Academy, in the former BBC facility on the Sea View Farm Road at Lightfoot, where I held my adult writing workshops earlier this year but which didn’t have its formal opening until this month, July 16th 2015. For more on YEA, follow the link and/or contact founder and president Lawrence Jardine (770-6955) or Mali Adelaja Olatunji, who serves as the executive director (781-3999). This is a project Olatunji became involved with in an effort to take another stab, not his first, at passing on what he knows – as a photographer, as a student of philosophy with his own unique insights, as an aesthetician, and as an authority and aficionado of Antiguan and Barbudan culture. I can attest from the many spirited discussions and debates we’ve had over the years of our friendship that he is passionate about all of these things.
I’ve known about this book project for a while, and I’m looking forward to it, because in my understanding it’s not just another book featuring pretty pictures (nothing against pretty pictures; I love them too) but a book forwarding a particular philosophy, a uniquely African Antiguan philosophy, but doing so visually and in the process experimenting with a fresh aesthetic. I’ve variously heard Olatunji refer to it as a jumbie aesthetic and also as woodism. Here’s how it’s explained on the website of his publisher, Hansib, incidentally also the publisher of the second edition of my own The Boy from Willow Bend:
“Like surrealism, cubism and other original aesthetics, woodism is a visual summary of Olatunji’s way of looking at life. In particular, it is an aesthetic that sees the world through the wooded eyes of jumbies. Your jumbie is your soul or the spiritual part of you that survives the death of the body. In Antigua and Barbuda and much of the Caribbean, jumbies are believed to make their post-body home in trees, and in particular silk cotton trees. Hence we can see why Olatunji associates them with a woodist vision of existence.”
Olatunji’s approach involves layering images of trees and leaves over the objects and subjects to reveal the “jumbie’s vision”.
Given the way we still grapple with the jumbie iconography, it’ll be interesting to see how people respond to that idea. Given the breadth of Olatunji’s expression, it’ll be interesting to see how people engage with the artist’s vision. Sidebar-sort-of: you can read more of Olatunji’s insights re art Euro-to-Africa to the evolving Africa-inspired expressions of which he is a part, here.
That the book, The Art of Mali Olatunji: Painterly Photography from Antigua and Barbuda (pictured above), is now coming out is credited largely to Dr. Paget Henry. a professor of Africana studies and philosopher in his own right (his publications include Caliban’s Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy (Africana Thought)).
The book will be launched (and will go on sale) on July 23rd at 7 p.m. with a companion art exhibition featuring the photographic art off Mali Adelaja Olatunji. The night’s scheduled speakers are Lawrence Jardine, Founder, A&B Youth Enlightenment Academy; Paget Henry, Professor, Africana Studies, Brown University; Karen Allen Baxter, Exhibition Curator; Managing Director, Africana Studies/Rites and Reason Theatre, Brown University; Mali Olatunji, Photographer; Executive Director, A&B Youth Enlightenment Academy
I plan to be there. Do you?