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James A. McConnell Photography

Forest of Symbols

Forest Of Symbols

The title is from a magnificent book of Anthropology that was published while I was in college, The Forest of Symbols by Victor Turner. He’s most noted for his work on Rites of Passage and liminal experience. Turner focused on the deep intellectual life of the non-literate Ndembu people of Zambia.  And liminal settings… well, that would take some time to elucidate… a sort of solitary eeriness, twilight borderland between the known and unknown, with a sensation of impending change… which indeed may be good.

The best years of my childhood were in East Africa, where my family moved when I was nine. It was my first immersion in representational arts, both traditional and modern. 

I had the good fortune to meet Gregory Maloba, a colleague of my father's at Makerere College in Kampala who was also Uganda's National Artist, although he was originally from Kenya. Gregory took me seriously and patiently explained his journey from the rigidly proscribed rules of sculpture in his home community (representations of deities; to veer from the ancient forms was to put one's soul in peril) to his studies in Europe and his breakthrough into Modernism and Abstract forms.

I recall conversations with Gregory about Western Art as well and the broad parallels in its history... a path from wholly religious representation and sponsorship into the individual expressions that we grew to accept as Art itself. 

And it was in those childhood years I first took delight in recognizing African influences in my favorite Western artworks, from Modigliani, to Picasso, to Gaugin, and Klee, with new aesthetics and new visions.

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