Posts Tagged ‘Art’

The sculpture on my sister’s bookcase is dancing. Its face is a mask, a long stark rectangle painted white, with simple black dots for eyes and a bit of black paint on the nose and cheeks.

Dogon Dancer

The rest of it, however, is alive with color and pattern. It is a striking bright green overlaid with fringes of pumpkin orange, fiery red, squares of strong blue and stars of sharp yellow. Graphic black stripes with white dots accent this carnival of color.

Indeed, the colors are so strong, you would be hard pressed to pick ones more likely to elicit attention. Which, it turns out, is just what these colors were designed to do; the figure was fashioned from an insecticide canister. Like blaze orange, the colors scream warning.

The original container was mostly green. Like a snake. On top, there were yellow and blue areas used to highlight especially important information, set out like poison dart frogs in the jungle. Orange-red metal strips, tinged the same bright hues as inedible monarch butterflies, encircle the dancer’s elbows and wrists.

From nature we’ve borrowed the color codes for poison. Toxic animals need to advertise their toxicity to would-be predators. It’s not that helpful if someone needs to eat you to find out that you are poisonous. Wild colors are keep-away signals for hunters of all types.

This sculpture is made by the Dogon people who live in the landlocked country of Mali in west Africa. The insecticide cans are from a malaria eradication project. Mali has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world: nearly one in five children do not make it to their fifth birthdays. From this grim statistic, malaria reaps a significant share.

I admired the sculpture for some time before I realized the source of the material. The figure was covered with small white writing, which at first I saw simply as a background pattern, like a tune you have hummed for days before finally listening to the words.

To make the figure, the insecticide can had been cut, shredded and re-soldered. The important words of warning and caution were now assembled into odd and disturbing fragments of text. “Crawling” and “household” first caught my attention; then “skin, eyes and mucous…and plenty of water; …forcibly open; puncture …light or temperatures above; > 0.09% beta; Particular dangers; DOES NOT CONTAI: -50; then ventilate; Avoid contact with; To be applied in living quarters; Do not eat, drink, or breathe; Cover the food stuffs…” And so on.

I couldn’t tell what insecticide elicited all these warnings. DDT is perhaps the most notorious chemical used to fight the mosquitoes which transmit malaria and other diseases. It was banned in the United States in 1972, ten years after Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, raised widespread concern over the effects of pesticides on birds and wildlife. By thinning the shells of bird’s eggs, DDT pushed the bald eagle almost to the brink of extinction.

Spraying DDT, along with other chemicals, to control mosquitoes is still practiced extensively in many parts of the world. The details of these programs are highly controversial, although many have had stunning success in, at least temporarily, reducing deaths from malaria.

Which pesticides are used, how they are deployed, whether or not they can be used in huge volumes on agricultural crops or in far smaller amounts just to control mosquitoes, how fast the mosquitoes are developing resistance, and whether there are equally effective less toxic alternatives, are all questions debated back and forth between governments, scientists, health workers, and environmental groups.

The sculpture speaks to all these terrible complexities. Pesticides such as DDT, the names of which make many Westerners cringe, are saving lives in the third world. The transport vessels for these live-saving, life-destroying toxins are fuel for the creative spirits of impoverished peoples.

How fitting that the sculpture represents a dancer from a Dogon ceremony in which the dead are lead to their final resting place in the spirit world. The piece is such a striking melding of death and life, poison and art, modern and traditional.

Coming up next, the woman who sold the sculpture tells me the Dogon artists are starting to fashion insecticide cans into angels.

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