One theme I try to address in this blog is how the history of world events (think of the history taught in schools) and personal and family history affect the creative process. The story of Nomge’s creation is an example of world events and personal history converging into art. In Nomge’s case, however, the world history is African-American history which is still not uniformly taught in schools as the integral part of American history that it truly is.
Nomge is the work of Philadelphia artist, teacher and activist Maisha Sullivan-Ongaza, who first traveled to the African continent to visit Nigeria and Kenya more than thirty years ago. That trip was the first of a regular series of travels to countries throughout Africa that she continues to this day. Along the way, she developed a vast expertise in African culture and history that she used as host of a local radio program, “Fertile Ground.” But sometimes the most important journeys we make are the inner ones. I think that’s what led Maisha to create Nomge.
Most artists have the itch create. Sometimes this urge kicks into overdrive: ideas that might have laid dormant within the artist for years start to resonate and insights seem to come from nowhere. Materials such as fabric, metal or beads might start “talking” and telling the artist how to use them. The experience often makes the artist feel like an external force has taken control of her and that she is more instrument than artist. The process can seem almost religious, but I think it is a result of ideas, memories and emotions lurking in the subconscious and spewing forth almost uncontrollably at the point when the artist is ready to give them a voice or form. I don’t think my rationale makes this process any less miraculous.
Four years ago, Maisha decided to have her DNA tested to learn about her African forebears. She found out that her that her maternal ancestors were Bamileke people who came from Cameroon, a little country tucked next to Nigeria on the West coast of Africa. Knowing the country your ancestors came from is something many people take for granted. But for those who have lived all their lives with a with a hole in their family histories, the discovery can generate powerful emotions and, for those who have the courage, an invitation to embark on a path of self discovery. Art can help the process because it is a constructive, therapeutic way to express feelings. And all over the world, it is a traditional method of paying homage to an ancestral legacy.
From what Maisha told me, I can’t help but believe that at least some of these elements came together and compelled her to create the Cameroon-inspired Nomge who is named after one of the more than 250 ethnic groups who live there.
Maisha started with a “T” shaped wood armature and anchored it in an old Gullah basket she lined and filled with plaster. She sculpted Nomge’s head and arms with Ultralite Sculpey colored with pigment. Nomge’s hair is a combination of cocoanut shells, heishi, bauxite shells, and strands of Maisha’s own hair. Maisha obtained the vertebrae beads on her first trip to Nigeria. She does not remember what animal they are from-possibly a snake. She stained them with walnut ink. Nomge’s necklace is made from African trade beads.
Maisha made Nomge’s body soft so she could bead on it, and she used beads from her travels collected over the years. The bronze pieces are from Nigeria. The coin on the front with the hole in the center (see top picture) is from 1957 when Nigeria was still a British colony.
The leather shoulder pouches are inspired by Gri Gri from West African culture. Gri Gris are talismans normally filled with prayers and protecting, healing herbs like Echinacea and golden seal. The Gri Gris on Nomge’s shoulders contain the names of Maisha’s ancestors and children. There is an African saying, Maisha told me, “Thanks are due to the shoulders who hold the head high.” The Gri gris are meant to honor her ancestors without whom she and her children would not be here to contribute to the world.
The smaller Gri Gris on Nomge’s sides contain the names of the children Maisha works with in her program along with lemon rind and honey, because life can be bitter and it can be sweet.
The various bone pendants and amulets belonged to Maisha’s late husband. The red leather ( stained to age it) comes from a jacket that Luther Vandross owned and wore on his “Power of Love” tour. Maisha’s friend Dzinga was Luther’s first cousin and gave Maisha the jacket after he died. It has found new life in Nomge.
Maisha didn’t buy any new materials to make Nomge. “She wouldn’t let me,” Maisha laughed, ” Every single time I went and tried to get new beads for her, she wouldn’t let me! I would get lost or have car trouble or something else would happen. It was her way of saying ‘You don’t have to go all over to find me. Whatever you need in life is already here. Everything you need is right here. ‘”
Nomge’s final instruction to Maisha was that she would be finished in 2010, and she was. Maisha put the last bead on her on New Years’ Eve, 2010.
I suspect that Maisha carried Nomge inside for years until the series of events she related to me ended with Nomge’s arrival in her house on New Years Eve, 2010. It must have been a joyful event when Maisha welcomed Nomge home.