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Art through Functionalism in Hunter-Gatherer and Pastoral Society Christine Barrera

Aesthetic value is understood and cultivated through cultural perception. Aesthetics is the way one perceives, through feeling, something that is beautiful and endearing. The Baaka pygmies and the Nuer, groups of people located in different parts of Africa, have comparable aesthetic values. Functionalism theory suggests that all parts of a society function together to make a whole organism, and in a social context, that organism is a society. Things that are aesthetically pleasing in Pygmy and Nuer societies arise out of things that have a purpose and add to part of the functioning of the whole society. The Baaka are a group of people that live in the central African rainforest and are part of a larger group of people known as Pygmies. Traditionally, they are a hunter-gatherer society. The anthropologist Colin Turnbull explains in his ethnography The Forest People that this group of people rely mainly on resources in the forest to maintain their ways of life. Because every aspect of their life is dependent on the forest, they believe in the forest as a god. The forest protects them from the outside, and other bad things such as disease and death, but it falls asleep sometimes, just like other living being. This is when bad things can happen because it is not aware. The Baaka then

have to wake the forest up, and this is the purpose of the Molimo Festival. In eastern African, the Nuer are a group of pastoralists of which cattle permeate every aspect of their society in the same way that the forest is part of the lives of the pygmies. E.E. EvansPritchard wrote an ethnography only a few years before Turnbull called The Nuer. Cattle give the Nuer economic value, subsistence, and material needs. Because of their immense love and pride in their cattle, they find aesthetic value in things relating to cattle. The Baaka and the Nuer have different aesthetic perceptions, but because of parallels in the content of their lifestyles, their differing forms of aesthetics share in the context of social maintenance. Turnbull explains the aesthetic values in Baaka society. While the molimo festival does produce pleasure for the Baaka, it is more a production of functional value. The month long festival is in fact very tiring for the Baaka men because they sing to the forest until it is nearly dawn, and then some wake up soon after to play a symbolic tug-of-war game with the molimo, or they will spend the day hunting. Unlike arts in the West, the molimo does not have any physical aesthetic value. Turnbull conveys his Western aesthetic perception through his initial encounter with

the molimo; “I felt that I had a right, in the heart of the tropical rain forest, to expect something wonderful and exotic” (Turnbull, 1961: 75). His description of his non-functional, or Western aesthetic presuppositions makes the reader understand just how function can hold a role in art, and what is aesthetically pleasing may be judged through it’s functionality. The physical molimo object is strictly functional, and holds no more value than being a basic metal pole that will not quickly rot like the traditional hallowed out wooden molimo. It is taken care of and frequently given a drink of water from the river, but there is no value in applying elaborate decoration. The technique and the beautiful sounds that can be produced by the molimo is what have aesthetic value in Baaka society. A player can produces enchanting sounds with the molimo, as demonstrated by Amabosu. “As the men sang in the camp, the voice of the molimo echoed their song, moving about continually so that it seemed to be everywhere at once” (81). The festival is aesthetically pleasing through the way the forest is filled with sounds of the molimo, and through the dancing around the kumamolimo fire, and songs with lyrics such as “the forest is good.” Yet to reiterate, as engaging and enjoyable that these aesthetic acts may be, the purpose of

them is to reawaken the forest in order to maintain social order in Baaka society. The Nuer incorporate aesthetic values in everyday life and ritual through activities concerning their cattle. On a daily basis, men decorate each other in salutation with their elaborate ox-names. A man receives an ox-name first when he is initiated into manhood and receives a cow from his father. This becomes the preferred name for his friends to call him. Ox names are very significant in Nuer culture, and have a sort of aesthetic quality that is apparent through the frequency of their use in chants, poems or shouts that they use when they have speared a man, animal or fish. Besides these nicknames men use with each other, the function of naming of the cattle has aesthetic value as well. “In naming a Nuer cow one has to notice its colours and the way in which they are distributed on its body” (Evans-Pritchard, 1940: 41). In all the aesthetic and functional importance that Nuer base on their cattle, they have realized and named several hundred color varieties that a cow can be named from. Interestingly, some colors or color combinations are named after other animal names such as leopard and crocodile. Naming cattle, then, requires skill to understand this schmorgaspord of cattle names based on

colors and value of vaguely different colors and bodily distribution of color patches. To add more aesthetic and social value to the cattle, the Nuer cut their horns so that they curve at different angles as they grow. As Pritchard says, “if we were to count every possible mode of referring to animals… they would be found to number several thousand expressions…which bears eloquent witness to the social value of cattle” (45). The Nuer frequently incorporate a cattle motif into all forms of art including sculpture and poetics. Sometimes a cattle owner may get a boy to lead his favorite cow around the camp in the morning, while he leaps and sings behind the cow. Through this aesthetic act of cattle appreciation, the man reinforces his high ranking place in society as a man with a highly valued, beautiful cow. In the evening too, he will walk among the cattle ringing a bell and singing praises of his friends, his loves, and his cattle (37). The forms of art produced among Nuer society members is about cattle, but it seems to maintain the aesthetic value and happiness of the people in society. The Baaka use aesthetics however, for personal pleasure, but moreso in order to make the forest happy. “So we call out the molimo and it makes [things] good, as they should be” (Turnbull, 1961: 91). The function for the

molimo festival is in accordance with the environment, everyday food and firewood is collected from the families around camp. However, this only occurs when the Baaka think it is necessary, such as in the event of a molimo festival. This food is for the molimo, but it is eaten in large quantities unhesitantly by the men who sit around the kumamolimo. This act of ritual eating seems somewhat parallel to the cattle sacrifice of the Nuer, but Turnbull draws no connection to the festival feast and need of increased subsistence. If anything, the purpose of these ritual feastings is in accordance to celebration, and is a prevention of death (symbolically and physically). In the context of both Baaka and Nuer society, these forms of art take place only amongst the men in each society. Baaka women and youth pretend to fear the molimo. They are not part of the festival except in their acting naively which allows the festival to continue with its ritualized aesthetics with the men only. Despite the beauty and aesthetic significance of cattle in Nuer society, EE Evans-Pritchard notes that “to a girl the cows are essentially providers of milk and cheese and remain such when she grows up and is married”(40). Even so, the females find the cattle aesthetically pleasing, and just because they cannot own a

cow, they still engage in art and focus on the pleasure that cattle provide. In an example from Evans-Pritchard, he gives the verses of a song girls have sung that talks about the milk of a cow. “The shorthorn carries its full udder to the pastures/ Let her be milked by Nyagaak/ My belly will be filled with milk” (Evans-Pritchard, 1940: 47). Notably, while the song is a praise of the cattle, it is directly a praise of the cow’s milk, which is the main concern of cattle for women. Even while women are not direct participants in the maintainence of social order through aesthetic ritual like the men, they show support and belief in what the men do. Although womens aesthetic perception of the cattle is the same, they act this out in a parallel aesthetic and social sphere. It is relatively easy to see the Nuer’s functional aesthetic value of cattle as a result of the context of their way of life. The Nuer believe colors and certain designs on the cattle to be beautiful, but what is most pleasing and desirable in a cow is the look of strength and health. A hump on the back of the cattle that wobbles when the cow walks is thought to be especially beautiful, so this hump is manipulated and exaggerated when the cow is young. Part of the wealth that cattle provide is their culinary uses. The cattle are of dietary importance for the Nuer in many ways.

Milk, cheese and coagulated blood are all very desirable and can be consumed from a healthy cow while it is alive, but the Nuer value cattle that have died naturally and those that have had to be sacrificed. As they say, “the eyes and the heart are sad, but the teeth and the stomach are glad” (Evans-Pritchard, 26). From Turnbull’s account on the Baaka, it is difficult to say what exactly they find to be aesthetically pleasing about the Molimo festival, but the song and dance is used in a completely functional way. The forest for the Baaka is like cattle are for the Nuer. These things sustain the life of both groups through what they offer. But also, the Baaka sustain the forest through believing in its goodness and waking it up happily when needed. The Nuer care dearly for their cattle as well. Through the functional value of the forest and the cattle comes an aesthetic value that is in turn symbolic for everything that is important to the Baaka and the Nuer. Evans-Pritchard, E.E 1940Oxford University Press Turnbull, Colin M. 1961New York: Simon & Schuster