In Zen Flesh,Zen Bones Paul Reps tells a Zen Buddhist story in which the seeker for knowledge about the metaphysical nature of existence portrays his journey along these lines:
At first,I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers.Then when I learnt more,I saw that mountains were not just mountains and rivers were not just rivers.Then when I had grown further in knowledge,I saw rivers as rivers and mountains as mountains.
These lines suggest one of the abiding questions in all disciplines,from the arts to the sciences,understood as quests to understand the world : is the world as we see it all there is about the world : rivers as rivers and mountains as mountains? The development of systems of knowledge can be interpreted in terms of efforts to answer that question.
Some argue that, like the Zen seeker, however much we learn we always have to return to the world as it is obvious to us,seeing rivers as rivers and mountains as mountains.
In the light of the value of contemplating what is immediately accessible,what is directly visible,not something abstract or supernatural,in the understanding that the simple appreciation of what is beautiful is wholesome for the mind,I invite you to contemplate with me a picture of beauty :
She is Obiageli Katryn Ezekwesili,Vice President for the Africa Region at the World Bank, but the reason I am bringing up her image is not to highlight her achievements or her ideas.It is to reflect on her appearance.
What strikes me about her public image is her combination of austerity and elegance,combined with the natural power exuded by her physique. An immediately striking feature is her face.It has the potent configuration of an uncompromising geometric form,more powerful than beautiful. Yet she does not lighten that force through any effort at hairstyling.Her hair is always cropped low.
The power of her physique is reinforced by the outlines of her clothes. Her contours are not reshaped by an effort to project a more conventional feminine style but are instead accommodated and adapted through clothes that are simply but elegantly cut,emphasising lines that accentuate the potential grace of the body,thereby indicating a form of the feminine that suggests a minimalist aesthetic,a sense of beauty that emerges from her conservative religious background.
The second image,with Ezekwesili standing between two trees,is skillfully composed to maximize the visual power of her form and the relationship between her dress sense and the distinctive character of that form,in a synthesis enhanced by the vision of colour and light from plants and sky that frames the composition. The vertical elevation of the robust tree trunks resonates with the rounded solidity of her physique. A song emerges between the rhythmic splashes of white,green and brown on the tree trunks and the rhythm of geometric radiations on her clothes in which triangular forms recede and converge from and to a nexus,in oscillations of white and black.
She might not know it,but the Christian,possibly Pentecostal and fundamentalist World Bank Vice President has worn on herself a classic representation of the cosmos as emerging from a feminine matrix. This design is also perceivable as a configuration composed of the constellation of feminine and masculine energies in giving birth to the cosmos,in which the conjoined triangles represent both elements in harmony,with the black quadrilateral center of the structure reminiscent of the primal matrix.
These cosmogonic ideas are evoked by the similarity of the pattern on Ezekewesili's dress to Hindu yantras in which intersecting triangles emanate from a centre,evoking cosmic becoming and the possibility of individual and collective unity with the cosmos.The dress's design also suggests the Akan Adinkra symbol of Kuntunkantan in which intersecting circles create a quadrilareal at the point where all the circles intersect, evoking ideas of genesis and contingency of being.The symbol with which this design is identical in all particulars is the conjoined triangular structure in the art of Nkanu,Congo initiation rituals,in which within an initiatory context of death and rebirth in which boys die symbolically to their childhood and are reborn as men,this image symbolizes the feminine principle,which,in conjunction with the masculine is fundamental to the adult task of taking forward the species.
The dark quadrilateral at the centre of the diverging and diverging triangles in the design of Ezekwesili's suit recalls the unformed prima materia,the ultimate potentiality represented by the Biblical narrative : "In the beginning everything was without form and void" and the primordial fecundity of the Fulani creation story: "In the beginning there was a huge drop of milk".
Like the geometric constellations radiate outwards from the creative centre : "The spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters and God said let there be light!".In the Fulani tale : "Doondari came and created the stone,the stone created fire,fire created air...Doondari took the five elements and made them into human".The geometric configurations reconverge towards that centre as the creature made by Doondari from the elements of stone,water,air and other elements,the being made from earth in the Bible into whom God breathes life,reflects on their origins and travels back in mind towards that origin....
The generative associations of this sartorial design, moving from cosmic beginnings to their manifestation in the human species on the blue planet and swinging back to the cosmic centre,are reinforced and summed up in the location of the structure of conjoined triangles, radiating from the dark equilateral centre, on the skirt at the level of the crotch, thereby evoking the generative capacities of female biology through the generative progression of geometric form.These biological possibilities are understood in African,Asian and European cultures as an expression of terrestrial and cosmic becoming. The positioning of this geometric structure on the skirt in relation to the anatomy of its wearer is a position intended by the designer,who like designers generally, is sensitive to the subliminal symbolism represented by design even if they are not always aware of its meaning. Sensitivity to symbolic patterns is vital to successful design because art forms are, to a significant degree,variations on archetypal patterns recurring across time and cultures.
This design, therefore,can be resolved into a classic evocation of the Hindu,Buddhist and,to a lesser degree,the Nkanu concept of the womb matrix,in which the feminine form is used in subsuming feminine and masculine forms as they conjoin to bring existence into being,a process of becoming recapitulated on another plane as human beings contemplate such symbolic structures in order to arrive at an integration of self,and an integration of self and cosmos.
The big bones and faint outline of veins palpitating with blood that shape the hand fully visible by the tree,along with the rugged sensitivity of the face,a compressed block of granite enlivened by intelligence,the broad upper chest accentuated by the fine but basic necklace,in harmony with the blouse the blackness of which assimilates light,completes the symphonic juxtapositions of colour and shape that make this composition,in relation to the natural design of the woman's body and the coutorial elegance of her clothing,so memorable.
In the third image,unicellular organisms divide and redivide into a multiplicity of life forms as they emerge from the ocean depths to populate the earth at an evolutionary crossroads, the wearer of the dress that shows them forth as they grace an ample bosom, talking about issues relevant for economic and social evolution on her continent of attention,the Dark Mother.
1st image: World Bank
2nd: Source unlocated
3rd: Daylife Publishers
4th: Flikr World Bank photostream
Reps,Paul,Zen Flesh,Zen Bones.Harmondswoth;Penguin
Khana,Madhu,Yantra:The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity.London:Thames and Hudson,1997.
African conceptions of the feminine
Adepoju,Toyin,"Space of Becoming: A Selection of Texts in a Visual and Verbal Dialogue on the Feminine as Metaphysical Matrix in Classical African Thought Exemplified by the Orisa Tradition " at Scribd, and Facebook
Damme,Van Annemieke,Spectacular Display:The Art of Nkanu Initiation Rituals. London:Philip Wilson,2001.
" Genesis",the Holy Bible
The Fulani Creation Story in Senanu,K.E. and Theo Vincent.A Selection of African Poetry,Essex:Longman,1988.