I didn’t grow up a comic-book super-fan (more like occasional reader), nor grew to become enticed by Hollywood’s silver-screen adventures of super-heroes from the big-3 comic-book universes: Marvel, DC, and X-Men. Marvel’s recently-released trailer for the Black Panther movie (set for release on February 16th, 2018) may just have changed all that. Its rendering of cultural visuals managed to rejuvenate and remind my somewhat jaded senses that not unlike vibranium – the jealously-guarded meteoric ore with energy-manipulating qualities that makes superhero T’Challa’s Wakanda a superior kingdom on earth in Marvel’s fictional send-up – kuntu exists as an aesthetic force in the real-world Bantu universe.
It’s ironic really, being reminded by the Marvel universe – an industrial pipeline from Stan Lee’s comic-book pages to Walt Disney Studios’ silver screen to mass consumption of Ars Gratia Artis [MGM Studio’s infamous logo]. Cha-ching! “Art-for-art’s-sake” strikes another blow for the forces of imperialism! Or does it? Drawing from Africa’s cultural treasury, Black Panther Director Ryan Coogler introduces Marvel’s fictional kingdom of Wakanda through striking, richly diverse visuals. Costumes from the real world – such as the lip plate typically worn by Ethiopia’s Surma and Mursi women (Isaach de Bankolé’s character), or the Basotho heritage blanket wrap worn by Angela Basset and others – each with their own distinct regional stories, now coexist in the fictional space accorded to T’Challa – the man who would succeed his murdered father T’Chaka as Black Panther and King of Wakanda.
I look forward to seeing how the story of one to whom ‘superhero’ status was granted in the 1960’s by Marvel Universe’s powers-that-be plays out in the movie. No truly. In the real Black world, the 60’s was purportedly the era of Independence from European rule for much of the African continent and of Civil Rights in America – during which time the Black Panther Party was founded. So I’ll be watching T’Challa’s throne… a throne which has literally been fashioned as if it were intended to resemble a combination of the crowns worn by two major African Goddesses and cultural gatekeepers: Auset ~ Throne Goddess + Hathor ~ Mansion of Heru…
“The world is changing. Soon there will only be the conquered and the conquerors. You are a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be a king…” [Omniscient voice in Black Panther trailer]
KUNTU is a cultural force with an art-for-life’s-sake mission. A proverb from Kemet states: “Men need images. Lacking them they invent idols. Better then to found the images on realities that lead the true seeker [AKA Queen Auset?] to the source [AKA King Ausar?]…” The stakes in African creative expression are potentially that huge – thus the guiding aesthetizing principle and raison d’être of kuntu in the Bantu universe of forces. Kuntu is the potent modal force which is able through artistic expression to receive, store, transmit, and transmute energies (e.g. sound-waves) in order to bond the invisible and visible realms. Ubuntu (“I am because we are…”) – the cultural pact between humanity and the forces in our universe of support – informs the art-for-life’s-sake objectives and criteria by which their aesthetic value is judged. Art-for-art’s-sake productions on the other hand generally objectify, distort, abstract, (mis)appropriate, etc. from the ubuntu life-world without deeper consciousness or purpose than perhaps the lure of commercial profit, self-glorification…etc., thus lacking kuntu – or aesthetic quality/beauty.
From what I understand, the motherlode of vibranium that’s located in Black Panther’s Wakanda is the reason this fictional kingdom has to masquerade as a so-called “third-world” country. Thievery and appropriation of African resources is real! Thus fictional Wakanda is shielded by an invisibility-cloak which is reminiscent of Mosi oa Tunya (meaning ‘the smoke which thunders’) – the great falls of the Zambezi River which borders Zambia and Zimbabwe. Drawing back that magnificent liquid curtain, Coogler provides glimpses in the trailer of a Wakanda that looks both futuristic (T’Challa’s flying spacecraft alone!) and traditional. To the initiated gaze, the wall behind Lupita Nyongo’s character is eye-catching because it depicts the legendary artwork of the Ndebele women of Zimbabwe.
Alongside the Zulu, Xhosa, and Swazi ethnic groups, the Ndebele emerged from intermarriages and assimilation of the Nguni people during their migrations to southern Africa over several centuries. From the mid-1800s, they fought bitterly against white Boer invaders who eventually captured and hanged King Mampuru, “confiscated” Ndebele land, and imposed a system of indentured slavery which is still alive today. Ndebele wall painting traditions originated within the context of these struggles against white alien forces of aggression.
Women began decorating their homestead walls to make political statements as their men – defeated and dispossessed from their own agricultural properties – were channeled into the migrant slave-labor system. The complex secret codes of communication the Ndebele women developed in attractive colorful forms over the years conveyed prayers and messages about political rights, territorial boundaries, fertility, and the family lineage of their originators. To the present day this unique wall art presents a defiant façade in the face of colonial farmer-landlords which bespeaks the regional identity, social status/conditions, cultural pride/resistance, and gender politics of the indigenous Ndebele people.
The façade of vibrant designs and colors are the finishing touches to a collaborative creation that is from its foundation an art-for-life’s-sake project. Ndebele homestead architecture itself reflects the communal family, each member’s social status, family role, and evolving gender relations within it. Generally wall and roof construction, and maintenance of spaces such as cattle folds are men’s responsibilities. Women, with the assistance of their children, plaster and decorate the walls and maintain household space. The family’s ancestral spirits, which are traced through the male line, are built a space (called umsamo by the Nguni) in the homestead behind the parent’s unit. Though traditionally regarded as a “male” space the umsamo in current Ndebele society may be decorated with the wife’s family herald. The hearth, symbolic of the woman and traditionally located at the center of the homestead, has in recent times been relocated closer to the umsamo. Such adjustments over time may have corresponded to balancing “hot” (feminine) and “cool” (masculine) forces which affect the home’s cosmological harmony – ubuntu / ma’at.
“The body is the house of the God/dess. That is why it is said ‘Wo/man know thyself’.” [African proverb from Kemet]. The Ndebele liken their homestead spaces to the body of a woman. The “womb” is where the parents reside and from which family fertility (children and wealth) originates. Her “breasts” are the cooking and eating areas in the home. A beaded apron which is worn as part of a bride’s wedding dress, is likened to the front courtyard of the compound. (The traditional Ndebele wedding ritual involves men dancing through the courtyard of the bride’s family homestead, hence ‘defiling’ it as the women make jokes.) Bearing a partially-complete design of the family herald, the apron itself is presented to the bride by her mother with the expectation that the beadwork on it will be completed after the daughter’s marriage, and that the family herald will be replicated in the wall paintings of the bride’s new home.
Ndebele wall decorations are thus proactive statements of territorial control by women through their mother’s training. The perimeter walls of a woman’s marital homestead won’t be built and painted until after the birth of her first child, thus tying the symbolism of this particular wall to her new status as a mother. Her husband (now a father) is simultaneously promoted by this blessed event to full participation in the community’s council of men, thus giving their family a voice in public affairs. As the age-old mystery of Goddess Auset attests, it is the African Queen who gives her African King the throne of his power. Perhaps the fate of Ausar at the hands of his evil brother Set in the God’s of Kemet story is meant as a cautionary tale… Like I said, I’m anxious to watch the full Black Panther-Dora Milaje(?) spin on this particular cultural puzzle. In the Bantu universe, the cosmological balance between divine masculine and his divine feminine – ubuntu – is not a light matter…
The African world in particular and humanity in general continues to bear real costs from the historical ravaging of its spiritual, natural, human, and cultural resources by vampiric adversaries with no sense of ubuntu. Those unwise folk who would disregard the African Queen’s cultural nurturing and guardianship role in favor of a queen Victoria – predatory wolf masquerading as a missionary sheep with her king James script, intent on ravaging the African world’s metaphorical ‘vibranium’ while leaving her fraudulent colonial stamp of ‘ownership’ – should take pause… consult with the ancestors… borrow from the cultural treasury with wisdom, humility and honor… and help replenish and preserve the family pantry. Reparations will not come through the babylonian chicken-roost of a self-centered ‘Gilly, Flora, Vicky [or] Becky’ whose very foundation and agenda = divide-conquer-appropriate-control into neo-colonial perpetuity…
In the traditional Bantu universe of the Ndebele, a well-painted home is the aesthetic measure of a good and beautiful ubuntu–conscious woman, wife, mother, sista and queen… a true force – kuntu – to be reckoned with. ❤ #WatchTheThrone #Ubuntu #ReparationsNow… ❤
Malaika Mutere, Ph.D. is author of a forthcoming novel based on African culture (stay tuned for more information), and Towards an Africa-centered and pan-African theory of communication: Ubuntu and the Oral Aesthetic perspective Communicatio 38 (2) 2012: 147-163