Maroon Arts

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Maroon Arts

Throughout the Americas, from Brazil to the United States, there were Africans who escaped from slavery, banded together, and forged a new life beyond the reach of their former "masters." These people, and their present-day descendants, are known as Maroons. In many instances their communities were destroyed by colonial armies, but in others their long wars of liberation were finally successful, and they won their freedom (and territorial integrity) well before the general emancipation of slaves.

Among the numerous societies that have survived and retained a distinctive identity as Maroons (e.g., in Jamaica, Colombia, Brazil, Belize, Mexico, and the United States), those that were formed in the Dutch colony of Suriname, on the northeast shoulder of South America, have long been recognized as the largest and most culturally distinctive. Their population today is roughly 120,000. The six groups of Suriname Maroons (one of which crossed into neighboring French Guiana at the end of the eighteenth century), each with its own political leadership, share their history of rebellion and the main lines of their way of life in villages along the rivers of the rain forest, though they also differ culturally in many ways. The Saramaka and Matawai people of central Suriname speak variants of a language known to linguists as Saramaccan, while the Ndyuka, Paramaka, and Aluku people of eastern Suriname and western French Guiana speak a different language known as Ndyuka (closely related to the language of the smallest Suriname Maroon group, the Kwinti, the farthest to the west). The staple food of the eastern Maroons is cassava, and that of the central Maroons is rice. Musical forms, tale-telling genres, religious cults, patterns of wage labor, the division of labor by gender, and other aspects of life also vary significantly, especially between the central and eastern groups.

These Maroons (once known as "Bush Negroes") have a long-standing reputation as accomplished artists. Until recently this meant woodcarving, which is done by men, but the women's arts of patchwork, embroidery, and calabash carving are now recognized as well. As with other aspects of their cultures, the arts of the Maroons of central Suriname and those to the east display marked differences.


Maroon men have always carved a variety of objects needed for life in the rain forest, many of which they embellish and present as gifts to wives and lovers. The list is long: houses, canoes and paddles, stools, storage cabinets, trays, peanut-grinding boards, kitchen utensils, laundry beaters, combs, mortars and pestles, drums, and more. In the past they also created ingenious African-style door locks; today, the repertoire continues to expandin the form of elaborately carved planks used for the back seats of motorcycles, for example. Central Maroons often embellish their carvings with decorative tacks, inlays of different woods, and pyrogravure. Eastern Maroons have developed a very different style that combines woodcarving with colorful designs executed with commercial paints.

In addition to producing carvings for use in the villages of the interior, some men (mainly Saramakas) have, since at least the early twentieth century, been making objects for tourists, selling them at roadside stands or, through middlemen, to souvenir stores in the coastal cities. Today, as Maroons adopt an increasingly Westernized

lifestyle, a few young artists (especially Alukus and Ndyukas in French Guiana) are becoming full-time professionalspainting on canvas, exhibiting their work in museums, and selling to an international market. These artists have endorsed a long-standing staple of received wisdom about Maroon art: the idea that it centers on "readable" motifs with symbolic meanings, thus turning a Western stereotype of "primitive art" into a lucrative interpretive discourse.

Early writing on Maroon woodcarving described it as an original African art form, and visitors to Maroon villages were quick to imagine direct formal continuities with the arts of Africa. Today, however, it is known that African influences in Maroon art are subtle underpinnings to a dynamic and constantly evolving art history; specific forms and decorative styles are more marked by change and innovation than by rigid fidelity to an African past. Long-term research by the French geographer Jean Hurault has documented four distinct styles of woodcarving through time among the Aluku Maroons, and parallel work among the Saramaka has also produced a definitive sequence of styles. In both cases, the earliest evidence of a woodcarving tradition among Maroons dates back only to about the mid-nineteenth century, when the relatively crude beginnings were made with tools that are still in use: knives, chisels, and compasses.

A quick summary of Saramaka woodcarving styles will illustrate the nature of change, conceptualized by Maroon woodcarvers as a march of progresssomething along the lines of (as one elderly man explained it) the changes between automobiles of the 1920s and those of the late twentieth century. Carving during the second half of the nineteenth century, generally known to Saramakas as "owls' eyes" and "jaguars' eyes," consisted of crudely pierced circular and semicircular holes, crescent-shaped incisions, a small number of motifs in bas-relief, and limited use of decorative texturing. The next style"monkey-tail" carving, which came into vogue in the early twentieth centuryrepresented considerable technical refinement, with scrolls and spirals dominating the complex designs and the use of decorative tacks (purchased in coastal towns) expanding significantly. A third style"wood-within-wood"centered on sinuous patterns of interwoven bas-relief bands, combined with greater amounts of textural detail and a gradually diminishing use of tacks. Men carved wood-within-wood designs for much of the twentieth century, and they are still producing them, sometimes in conscious imitation of earlier designs, which they carefully copy from illustrations in books on Maroon art. Around the 1960s a fourth style, more angular than sinuous, was developed, as carvers began downplaying the prominence of bas-relief, increasing the role of incised lines (either running along the center of interwoven bands or creating nestled forms of concentric shapes), and allowing crosshatching and other texturing patterns to overtake piercing and tacks in importance.

Textile Arts

Maroon clothing has, from the first, been sewn from commercial-trade cotton rather than locally woven fabric. The cloth was first obtained via raids on the plantations during the wars of liberation. Following the eighteenth-century peace treaties, it was received as part of the tribute paid to the Maroons by the colonists. After the general emancipation of slaves in the colony, when Maroon men began conducting wage-labor trips to the coast, often for several years at a stretch, their earnings provided the cash to stock up on cloth, tools, kitchenware, kerosene, salt, and a variety of manufactured necessities (which today include outboard motors, tape recorders, and chain saws) for life back in the villages.

In Maroon villages, the basic items of dress are breech cloths for men and boys, wrap-skirts for women, and pubic aprons for teenage girls, supplemented by varying amounts of ritual jewelry, such as protective armbands and necklaces. In the early years, clothing for the upper body was minimal, but, over time, shoulder capes became more and more standard for men. Women used some of the imported cotton for their own wrap-skirts, which they simply hemmed on the edges and secured at the waist with a sash or kerchief. During the second half of the nineteenth century, they began to embellish the men's monochrome or subtly striped capes with curvilinear embroidery designs, sometimes supplemented with patchwork or appliqué. The contours were first sketched out with a piece of charcoal, and then executed in thread that had been laboriously extracted from lengths of cloth. The dominant colors were red, white, and black.

With the passage of time, patchwork and appliqué spread onto the whole garment, and in the early twentieth century capes were being sewn in vibrant compositions made up of monochrome fabric (still predominately in red, white, and black) cut into small rectangles and triangles and sewn into strips, which were then joined together to form the whole. Later, when coastal stores began stocking colorfully striped cloth, women used it for their own unembellished skirts, turning the leftover edge trimmings into a new art of narrow-strip patchwork, mainly for men's capes; this style has reminded many observers of West African kente cloth, even though it was invented many generations after the Maroons' last contact with Africa.

Cross-stitch embroidery, introduced by missionaries, was the rage for much of the second half of the twentieth century, but it in no way signaled the end of internal change in Maroon textile arts. New forms, such as elaborate yarn crochet-work and sinuous designs in reverse-appliqué, marked the 1990s, and a decade later men's capes were being made with an innovative double-layer technique never seen before.

Calabash Carving

The Maroon art of carving bowls from the fruit of the calabash tree has, over time, moved from men's hands to those of women, and from the exterior surface of the fruit to the interior surface of the shell that remains once the fruit's pulp has been removed. Nineteenth-century calabashes were often made into covered containers for storing rice and other foodstuffs, and these apaki, which displayed geometric designs incised and textured with men's woodcarving tools such as compasses and chisels, continued to be made throughout the twentieth century. Fairly early on, however, women began experimenting with the unused interiors of the bowls, making crude scratchings on them with pieces of broken glass. Their technical mastery of this recycled tool quickly evolved, producing a new, aesthetically organic art totally unlike the men's rigidly geometric style. The designs of Eastern Maroon women center on convex forms defined by scraped-away borders, and those of central Maroon women on concave shapes defined by internal scraping. Some calabash carvings can be read in terms of either their convex or their concave forms, suggesting the possibility of a common beginning for the art of the two regions, followed by a gradual divergence in the definition of figure and ground. Calabashes carved by women provide a range of objects, from spoons and ladles to bowls for rinsing rice and drinking water. The most elegantly carved are served to groups of men who eat together, providing both drinking cups and bowls for washing hands at the end of the meal.

Performance Arts

Maroons' appreciation of novelty and innovative ideas, which runs through the entire history of their visual arts, characterizes the verbal and performative arts as well. Speech itself is a creative domain, as cohorts of young men communicate among themselves in play languages they have invented, as older folks hone the fine art of speaking in esoteric proverbs, as women assign fanciful names to new cloth patterns from the coast, and as everyone enjoys mimicry, ellipsis, and witty manipulations of normal speech. Popular songs (whether, for example, in the form of Saramaka seketi, Aluku awawa, or Ndyuka aleke ) are created spontaneously, and change as rapidly as popular music in the United States.

Large-scale communal events, especially certain stages of the long and complex process that ushers a deceased person into the realm of the ancestors, provide an occasion for the performance of secular song and dance, a range of drumming traditions (including appropriate phrases on the apinti, or "talking drum"), and tales that weave back and forth from teller and listeners, with the narration punctuated by song and dance. Different classes of deities (warrior gods, forest spirits, snake-gods, and more) also participate, manifesting themselves through spirit possession. Special ritual singing is performed, and the ancestors are addressed through prayer. Culinary delicacies are provided for the whole crowd, and apart from close family members, who wear the drab garments of mourning, participants dress in the latest fashions. Romantic encounters are an expected part of the festivities. A large, joyful multimedia celebration stands as the community's ultimate honor to a departed brother or sister.

Life Beyond the Rain Forest

During the final decades of the twentieth century, political events in Suriname and French Guiana brought dramatic changes to the Maroons. Suriname moved away from its ties to Europe by becoming an independent republic, and French Guiana moved closer to Europe through rapid development in connection with the establishment of the Guiana Space Center, from which the European Space Agency launches satellites, in 1968. A six-year civil war in Suriname, and the consequent exodus of thousands of Maroons to French Guiana, produced further upheavals. The territorial sovereignty, political independence, cultural integrity, and economic opportunities of Maroons, not to mention basic issues of health and personal dignity, have fallen victim to these developments.

Adaptations in the artistic life of Maroons have been just one aspect of the larger adjustments being made. Woodcarving has taken a turn toward commercialization, and the previously unchallenged assumption that every man would be able to carve everything from combs to canoes is on the way out. Women have, by force of necessity, become increasingly independent, supporting themselves in coastal settings through the sale of their art or through jobs as domestics. More generally, the market in Maroon art, formerly a male domain, has come to include women's work as well, with the formation of cooperatives promoting the sale of embroidered hammocks, appliquéd beach-chair seats, carved calabashes, and more. And significant numbers of Maroons now live in Europe (especially the Netherlands), where they hold jobs, for example as schoolteachers or nurses.

Does this mean that aesthetic creativity, verbal play, richly elaborated oratory, the role of the ancestors, and a sense of community are things of a traditional past? No, at least not for a long time to come. The cultural life of Maroons has always displayed (indeed, thrived on) resilience and adaptability. From apartment blocks in Rotterdam to thatch-roofed houses on the upper Suriname River, Maroons are confronting the ever-increasing threats to their cultural life with the same strong sense of identity that allowed their early ancestors to carve out their independence against overwhelming odds.

See also Art; Healing and the Arts in Afro-Caribbean Cultures; Maroon Wars; Performance Art; Runaway Slaves in Latin America and the Caribbean


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sally price (2005)