Ancient hunter-gatherers shared a symbiotic and ritualistic connection with other living creatures, treating them as equals with superior attributes. Bonds of respect and kinship between stalker and prey included prayer, incantations, and rites. Failure to observe these ceremonies would result in an empty chase and starvation for the tribe. This poem by West Indian writer Eric Roach reflects the “I-and-you” concept as an unbroken covenant.
At Guaracara Park
Speed was survival there in the green heat
where the lithe hero dashed from the leopard’s leap,
fled to cover from the feral fang, or ran the antelope across the plains.
“Primitive” art from Africa, the South Seas, and the New World, with its complete negation of progress, seemed to embody the promise of a new beginning. German Expressionists were fascinated by the strange forms and anti-intellectualism of the images. French artists such as Matisse found justification for abstract designs in their simplified geometry. Amedeo Modigliani came to cosmopolitan Paris in 1906 and succumbed to the enchantment of Africa’s tribal, attenuated Ivory Coast style. In paintings and sculpture he drew inspiration from the oval faces and elongated features of traditional masks and statuary.
“Art” in native languages often has no separate existence from quotidian life and religion. Indigenous manufacture possesses a lingering fascination for us that can’t be segregated from its sympathetic vibration with nature. Throughout the Americas and Caribbean, animal spirits and natural phenomena are held sacred. Martinican author and politician Aimé Césaire is never out of sync with his environment:
If there were nothing in the desert but
a single drop of water dreaming far below,
a wind born spore dreaming far above,
it would suffice.
Apart from its symbolic value, primitive art endures to fire our imaginations. Native practitioners communicate directly with their materials to “make visible” traces of dreams and chimera. This 19th-century Inuit poem from the arctic tundra takes us back to basic sentiments.
it’s quiet in the house so quiet outside the snowstorm wails the dogs curl up noses under their tails my little son sleeps on his back his belly rises and falls…
is it strange if I cry for joy
Recipes from the Canadian north represent the modern native Inuit collective. This one for traditional bannock bread comes from Coral Harbour, Nunavut.
Inuit Fried Bannock
3 cups flour
3 tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp. sugar
2 cups of water
Oil for frying
Combine dry ingredients. Slowly fold in about one cup of water and mix, adding drizzles of the remaining water until a sticky dough results. Heat 1 inch of oil in a deep, wide pan. Test with a tablespoon of dough to check for sizzle. Carefully place rounded tablespoons of the dough into the hot oil and fry on each side, about 2-4 minutes until brown. Drain on paper towels. Serve with butter and jam. Variation: Add a cup of raisins or other dried fruit to the dough.