Thursday, November 17, 2011

It Belongs in a Museum?

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of attending the closing ceremony for the Discovering Rastafari! exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.  My friend Jake Homiak, anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, curated this exhibit which opened four years ago, bringing his three decades of experience in Rasta culture into an impressive, comprehensive display of the movement's history and philosophies.  I didn't know about this exhibit until spring of 2010, when one of my professors happened to read about it.  She knew I was beginning my thesis proposal for a topic related to Rastafari, so she forwarded me some information, and I emailed Dr. Homiak (at that point in time, a complete stranger) for some advice about fieldwork in Jamaica.  Within an hour, he called me on the phone, and we spoke for about 45 minutes.  Without his help, I would never have pulled off the thesis I finished in April of this year.  So I was delighted to see him for this special occasion, and also to see Bongo Shephan Fraser, a Nyahbinghi priest who guided and took good care of me throughout my two weeks in Jamaica.

Dr. Homiak (left) holds a copy of my thesis which I gave him
at Saturday's event.  I'm holding an edition of Rootz magazine
in which a brief history of the exhibit is chronicled.
Upon entering the rotunda for this special event at NMNH, we were all greeted by Nyahbinghi chanting and drumming that echoed throughout the room.  The song being chanted was "Over Land and Sea," a Rasta repatriation hymn that took on a special meaning for me during my stay in Jamaica.  That's another story.

That's Bongo Shephan on the far left, wearing white, playing the green, gold, and red fundeh drum.
He's wearing an Ethiopian shirt that I bought him at a Rasta shop on South Street in Philadelphia.

After the opening chants, several people took to the stage to express their gratitude to all who made the exhibit a reality.  Among the speakers were Dr. Homiak, Prince Ermias Selassie (grandson of H.I.M. Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia), and representatives from the major mansions (sects) of the Rastafari movement.  My girlfriend and I enjoyed some delicious Jamaican food and drink while listening to a local reggae band, Proverbs, and then took a quick tour of the exhibit.

The entrance to the exhibit pays homage to the gates of Rasta yards, rich with scriptural professions, symbolism, and iconography.  Note the Ethiopian Coptic-style cherubim in either top corner, the Stars of David (bottom), and the title, Discovering Rastafari!, written in a font that imitates Ge'ez (Ethiopic) script.

Given a relatively small amount of space, Homiak and his colleagues did an incredible job of packing a great deal of information into this exhibit.  It gave a brief history of Emperor Haile Selassie, whom Rastas worship as Jah (God), showcasing images and memorabilia from his 44-year reign in Ethiopia, including a sword that he presented to General Dwight D. Eisenhower in gratitude for his service against the Axis powers in World War II.  The exhibit also provided some background about the Pan-Africanism that preceded the Rastafari movement in Jamaica, especially the influence of Marcus Garvey.  Important documents from the early years were on display, such as The Holy Piby, The Promised Key, and the June 1931 issue of National Geographic.  Homiak explained to me that this issue of NG, which includes several color photographs and 60+ pages on the 1930 coronation of Selassie, was carried around by some of the first Rastas in Kingston, who would use the articles and pictures to show others how Selassie had fulfilled the events prophesied in the book of Revelation.  There were also several items in the exhibit - robes, drums, Boboshanti brooms, iconography, roots beverages, staffs - that gave visitors a glimpse into a rather diverse faith and culture that has spread all over the world and taken on many forms of expression.  A looped video complemented the items on display, exhibiting the indispensable sounds of Rastafari: the music and the Iyaric language, or Dread Talk.

A key aspect of the Discovering Rastafari! mission was to show the world that Rastafari is not strictly Bob Marley and marijuana.  While they did a great job of providing a comprehensive view of the movement, and some may have chosen to exclude reggae altogether, there was a small space dedicated to reggae music and its crucial role in spreading the message of Rastafari around the world.  Images such as the one below showed how reggae in 1970s Jamaica, while certainly appealing to people of all faiths and backgrounds, revolved around the person of Ras Tafari, Haile Selassie the first.

The Rastafari still commemorate the anniversary of Selassie's visit to Jamaica
in April of 1966, known as Groundation Day.  Those who witnessed
his arrival describe the events of that day as a supernatural occasion.

Several years of planning went into making Discovering Rastafari! a reality; but from what I have heard, the exhibit was not without its opponents.  I am not well informed of their arguments against it, so I am in no position to criticize their views.  I can only attempt to sympathize, both with those who were not happy about the exhibit, and with those who exulted in the Smithsonian's recognition of their culture and history.  I can understand, in some sense, that a very rich tradition with a unique worldview cannot be adequately contained within four walls in a small room; so I can see why some might deem it blasphemous to attempt to represent Rastafari in this way.  I can also understand the suspicions many Rastas may have about any institution, especially one within the heart of Babylon, presumably created to serve the ideologies and isms of the western world; so I can see why someone might accuse the creators of this exhibit of trying to misrepresent Rastafari.  There may have been other objections, equally valid - not because of their accuracy, but because most of the 81-year history of the movement has consisted of a struggle between the Rastafari and oppressive entities who have mischaracterized the Rastaman and his lifestyle.

I have an easier time sympathizing (and rejoicing) with those who saw this exhibit as an opportunity to share the beauty of Rasta livity (a term for the faith, lifestyle, culture) with an uninformed world, especially in an academic setting.  A few scholars, Homiak standing out among them, have earned the trust of several well-known figures in Jamaica's Rasta communities, demonstrating a supportive objectivity that enables a sense of pride and validation for those Rastafari who welcome such academic analysis.  Having written a thesis about certain aspects of Rastafari, in which I did my best to demonstrate a deep respect for their livity, I was moved by the excitement in the rotunda and the exhibit on Saturday night.  The Rasta bredren and sistren present that night were glowing with gratitude for what took place in that museum for the last four years.

We all look for some type of validation for our lifestyle choices, our beliefs, our identities.  When we hear about a museum, a documentary, a book, or some kind of spectacle that puts our precious traditions in the spotlight, we might be quick to react with suspicion or cynicism.  We might experience a mixed bag of feelings about who's representing us.  We might look at our own cultural treasures as things that can't be contained on paper or in pictures, but can only be lived and experienced.  And in some sense, people don't belong in a museum (to borrow a phrase from Indiana Jones), because our complexities and contradictions could never possibly be contained in a building.  But I think we are drawn to galleries and exhibits, movies and magazines, because we need to be challenged to see something, familiar or not, from a different angle.  And when you're being represented by a compassionate and skilled artist, photographer, or curator, you can rest assured that people will come away with a wealth of reasons to respect you.

(all photos courtesy of Jomary Sánchez-Montañez)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this summary - it is a shame that the exhibit is now closed, but I know you will help "carry the torch" and keep the music/mission/culture alive. You are a part of this story, now and forever. I'm glad myself and the Secret Society of the Chinese Water Deer were able to share this with you.