28 May 2009

instrumental in happiness

And so at last The Very Understanding Girlfriend has returned from her African sojourn and the feeling of emptiness has thankfully departed from our house, replaced by a tangible aura of happiness that is two parts bliss and one part cheese. I wrote before about how different everything feels when I know she is out of the country, and now that she is back its as if the summer has arrived and light is streaming into every corner of every room, the place is alive and glowing, though perhaps just a little more disheveled looking.

Bliss.

Of more relevance to this post, however, is the fact that she did not come back empty-handed, bringing with her possibly the best present from any of her trips. What you see in the photo above is a collection of musical instruments from Mozambique; Each globe is a Chigovia, a flute-like wind-instrument made from a hollowed-out gourde and played like an ocarina. The stringed instrument is a Chivoconvoco, single stringed and played with a wooden bow like a violin, though rested against the hip rather than the shoulder. The book was published in 1980 by the Mozambique Ministry of Education and Culture, and is a guide to local instruments, beautifully illustrated with hand drawn sketches of each instrument and its region of origin.

What makes this even more impressive a present is that she bought them directly from the musician who made them, and has photos of him instructing her how to use them. Why is this impressive? Because it is a record of the craftsman responsible for bringing it in to the world.

One of the most depressing things for me while wandering through the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and even more so in the spectacular Musee du Quai Branly in Paris with its glass-encased towering collection of over 8,000 indigenous musical instruments, is the lack of information on display accompanying African art and craftwork. If you look at a European painting in a museum it will display the artist's name, nationality, years of birth and death, title of the work, year painted etc, etc. Glancing at an African mask, instrument or other object in the same museum you will see something along the lines of "ceremonial mask, Ghana, 15th Century to 19th Century", and that's about it. They can't even narrow its origin down to within a hundred years, let alone have any idea who was responsible for its creation.

Similarly, you can be reasonably sure that any European art displayed was bought from its creator and while it has changed hands a number of times since then, each time the owner was fairly (if not outrageously) compensated. In stark contrast the lack of information associated with most works of African and other majority world origin in western museums stems from the fact that these collections are composed mainly of items plundered and stolen from their home countries during colonial rule. Walking through such exhibits, while inspiring, is also always fraught with a strong sense of guilt for the actions of Europeans throughout the last five hundred years.

In such a context having a provenance such as the musician's name and photos of him playing the Chivoconvoco I now have in my hands is an amazing gift in and of itself, beyond the intrinsic value of the exotic instruments themselves. An incredibly thoughtful present, and proving yet again why she is The Very Understanding Girlfriend; she gets me like no other person on Earth.

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