Friday, September 26, 2014

The Known Unknowns

The 9th entry in a series on D&Dable art history
Initiation mask, Papua New Guinea
" we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones."
-Donald Rumsfeld

"Psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek says that beyond these three categories there is a fourth, the unknown known, that which we intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know."
-Wikipedia, Sept 25

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

-H.P. Lovecraft

Art historians want you to have context. This requires ignoring the fact that context doesn't cover the only quality that makes art special. According to context Jim Belushi and John Belushi are basically the same guy--from the same culture, background, class, time, place. Context doesn't tell you which one is funny--and funny is the only reason you'd be paying attention to a Belushi in the first place.
Ekoi headdress, Nigeria or Cameroon, early 20th C

When confronted with art from far away, well-intentioned people like to hit you over the head with how little we understand. And understanding is good, it leads to respect and respect keeps people from making other people mad. But respect doesn't get you invited to parties--only love does that. And RPGs are a party, after all.

The good news is, art wants to be loved. Art doesn't care if you know it's a Belushi of the Belushi Clan of Humboldt Park late 20th C, it only wants you to know it is John and not Jim. It is what it is, but more importantly, it is good.
Zapotec dog being totally metal.
The default response to understanding is respectful distance. So the reason you can now get what is basically Italian food and hear what was once a West African beat almost anywhere in the world isn't because anyone understood those things--it's because they loved them. Wait, you have to learn everything about this before you can do anything with it may be an attitude that makes sure professional contextualizers have tenure, but it is rarely the one that the artists themselves would endorse, and it is never the one they take when they go to work. 

The only point of that whole ramble is this: don't let your ignorance intimidate you. Go ahead and love things and feel free to think about what you love in them. Otherwise art history is just you on the floor pouring over maps of greater Chicago watching K-9 and wondering why you hate your life.

This is not a comprehensive or in any way responsible survey of all the art of Oceania, Australia, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Americas and any other place I left out of the other entries. It's just some stuff I love.
Bhurkumkuta, Tibet, 15-16th C
The fact that most Westerners associate "Buddhism" with Zen simplicity and that Tibetan Buddhism's most popular modern ambassador presents as a kind of blandly retweetable Upworthy humanist obscures the fact that Buddhist Tibet was historically a hotbed of Insane Monster Art full of complex philosophical concepts expressed through esoteric figure symbolism.

The sculptures below depicting the yab-yum, which is, as you can see, a male deity (often with with a lot of arms) fucking a female deity without a lot of arms.
He is not holding a duck in each hand I think he's holding
a flame in each hand. Which as a professional I can tell
you is not easy to do during a scene.

(It has a whole spiritual meaning which there are
a lot of people on the internet dying to tell
you about if you're into that kind of thing.)

Tibetan sculpture has a lot of the movement and vitality of Indian art but also some of the fine, attentuated detail of Indonesian and Chinese sculpture. Though, like the guys who do Space Marines, they consistently have a problem doing legs.

I assume you know the temples of like Cambodia Vietnam, etc are frikkin amazing but in case you didn't know that Java does too, here's Java:
Plaosan Temple, Java, 9th C
Prambanan Temple Complex, Java, 9th C

And in Bali they have a kind of sculpture which has a very specific wavelike line not quite like what you'd see in mainland Southeast Asia or in the rest of the islands, plus these distinctly Balinese Crazy Eyes:

I believe those are Garudas

Buddhist and Hindu art are kind of like their own visual genre overlaid over the various cultures where it spread. It's not unusual for other art from the same area to look radically different.

Not far away, in the rest of Indonesia...
Batak divining rooster
Malaggan Mask, New Ireland. The morphology's like
nothing else I've seen outside Yellow Submarine.
It's often overlooked how important individual expression
is in pushing tribal art beyond being just an example of a local style.
Malaggan mask, New Ireland
Masks from the middle Sepik river cultures in New Guinea:

The point of warmasks, like the New Guinean "mudmen" masks below--is to make the warriors look fucked up and thus freak out their enemies. So if they look freaky to you, that is a completely culturally appropriate response. 

Generally speaking, a lot of the apparent grotesquerie in tribal art is conscious grotesquerie--the images represent or incarnate the spirits of the dead and the dead are scary. The fact that the dead are scary is, as James George Frazier pointed out, probably the most widely-shared belief in all of human culture. So if you don't find the images scary and alienating you aren't understanding.

These guys below are called korwars and are apparently a kind of ancestor figure, they
possess the power to prevent bloggers from getting their text to properly left-justify:

I have never seen a korwar like this. I am, in fact,
a little dubious, but that's what the website says it is.
Either way: it is incredible.
In West Central Africa, they have these things called nkondi (or, formerly "nail fetishes"). The idea is either that you nail your prayer into the figure or that you hammer the nail in to wake the figure up to pursue your foes--I am not qualified or educated enough to say which, if either, of those is exactly right. I am, however, eminently qualified to point out that both of those interpretations are D&Dable as fuck.

The dog figure is apparently named Kozo and protects women. Kozo has two heads to see both our world and the spirit world.

And this guy is called Mangaaka:

These here are other kinds of nkisi or objects in which spirits dwell:

This is the god Gou, made from scrap metal some time before
1858 by an artist named Akati Ekplekendo
And, of course, in Africa there's the masks, some of which are also meant to aid in possession by the gods or spirits:
from Mozambique
Bronze, 16C, Yoruba

Fang mask for the ngil ceremony
Tsogo people (from Gabon)
Mask of the Ekpo Society, from Gabon, a sort
of masked spiritual secret police, if I understand correctly.
Requires research, but definitely D&Dable. This is one
example of African art being mysterious and scary
on purpose--even to people within the
So far as I know this is just a cool elephant someone decided to make:
Silver, from the Fon people, 19th C
This is by a 20th century Nigerian artist named Twins Seven Seven, who, again, made deliberately mysterious images based on a personal symbolism--it's called Invisible Bird On Red Planet. He had style.

These images are from a place in Utah called Newspaper Rock--the petroglyphs were made by several different Native American cultures:
One thing about Native American cultures is, since they were in America, and Hollywood is in America, and so were cowboys, we actually have movies about Native Americans. This gives us a little more visual context for what the rest of their lives looked like.

For example, in Dances with Wolves we have an attempt to make the Sioux look one way and the Pawnee look a whole other way. Whether or not it's accurate, it at least makes it easier for an RPG person to imagine adventures there as having variety and detail.

We're not so lucky with, like, sub-saharan Africa or Oceania. It's not compelling if the only image from a culture you can imagine is "guy in a loincloth with a spear"--nor is it accurate. Somebody should get on that.

These are Tlingit war helmets. I sure hope some day somebody makes a movie where people fight wearing these:

And someone really needs to do a better job of showing us what was going on down south than Apocalyto did...

A 15 C. Chimu mummy wore this, in Peru

Mictlantecuhtli, God of the Dead. 600-900 CE, Mexico

Aztec--the repeating geometric patterns help identify it

Aztec snake

Olmec Jaguar
Zapotec funerary urn
Zapotec bowl

These are from a gold-filled Moche tomb in Sipan, northern Peru from around 100 CE. Moche art has less of the repeating  rectilinear motifs that you see in Aztec art:

These are from Teotihuacan, which is translated many ways, but the one I like best is "The place one goes to become a god". It was around from 100 BCE to about 600 years later and nobody knows exactly which culture made it. It's in Mexico...

There was a Zapotec "neighborhood" in Teotihuacan. The
Zapotecs were around a long time and their stuff is super

Next up:


  1. Great post. Cheers Zak. Really enjoyed it. Fantastic images. Plenty of food for thought for what to bring to your game. Having briefly run some HotDQ (which was not good) with Kelvin G in the blandest, blandest setting FR, seeing this material is very refreshing. :)

  2. Zak, I love the way you work and play with art.

  3. I posted this before on one of the other entries, this series is my favorite of your work, thank you for doing it.
    Great stuff.

  4. Well executed. Very interesting stuff. Thanks.

  5. Love those african nail statues. Always gave me ideas like 'there is a powerful spirit in the statue, and it needs to be contained, hammering in a new nail each year does that.'