, 2022-08-18 07:51:35,
Jumping off Wallace Stevens’s classic poem, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” 13 Ways of Looking asks authors to show the visual inspirations for their latest projects, with accompanying background on how these images directly or indirectly influenced their book. Third in the series is Maud Newton, author of the memoir-history Ancestor Troubles.
I first encountered my friend Michael Aaron Lee’s “Forest #4 (Three Dee)” in 2015. The landscape seems ripped from a Nathaniel Hawthorne story, reminiscent of the woods the minister in “Young Goodman Brown” wanders, where Satan seems to lurk behind every tree. As in Hawthorne’s fiction, Lee’s hellish thicket might be an external landscape, but is more likely an internal one.
My partner and I acquired the painting from Michael in 2014, just before I started working on Ancestor Trouble as a book. One of my own ancestors was accused of being a witch in Puritan Massachusetts, well before the Salem witch trials, and over the years the painting and that legacy have become connected for me. The five foot by five foot canvas dominates a wall of my house, a reminder of the fears we humans carry with us collectively and individually, and the dangers of superimposing a fundamentalist worldview onto the world that surrounds us.
The most important works of art I pondered throughout the process of writing the book are the reliquary sculptures of the Fang people depicted in Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary, a book that accompanied the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2007-2008 show of the same name. The cover images here are of, according to Harvard’s Peabody Museum, male and female reliquary guardian figures by an unknown artist of the Fang people of southern Cameroon or Equatorial Guinea.
As curator Alisa LaGamma argues in Eternal Ancestors, the relics of the Fang, Kota, and Hongwe peoples, among others of Central Africa, are the unacknowledged underpinnings of the most celebrated works of Western modernism. Picasso, Matisse, and their contemporaries marveled over and were deeply influenced by African carvings of human figures that contained (or were attached to a platform containing) sacred relics: an ancestor’s skull and other physical remains.
As I write in the book, by some accounts, the sculptures were meant to guard the bones; by others, they were intended to evoke the ancestor’s spirit. Many of the carved…
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