During the rainy season, the Wodaabe, a multinational West African nomadic tribe, participate in a richly elaborate “courting” ceremony called the Guérewol. During this ceremony, men dress in a white skirt, an intricate head dress made of feathers, and wear elaborate make-up. Posture and standing erect is also an important part of the Guérewol ritual; as is the ash from the Guérewol fire, which is considered to be lucky.
Aesthetics are a large part of the Guérewol, but there are religious aspects to it as well or at least there were at one time. The painting of their faces is done in ways that make their eyes and teeth to appear as white as possible and they dance in a way that the light shines through them, penetrating their body. The Guérewol lasts for seven full days and represents a war to save the future of the Wodaabe.
In Niger, the dance has become a major tourist attraction, but that does not detract from the artistic integrity of the ritual. Cultural importance can still be displayed through the consumption of once localized folk art. In many ways this concept reminds me of the indigenous art forms that I saw while studying in Mexico over the summer. Items such as alebrijes, black pottery, and the Guelaguetza (a Mexican folk dance festival) are so amazing to witness, especially when some of these folk traditions span thousands of years. I took a pottery workshop in Oaxaca and some of my maestro’s finished creations were similar in design and color to the ones at the museum at Monte Alban and the Museo Nacional de Antropología.
Throughout the world, folk art pieces are now heavily produced for tourists, but they are still made in a relatively authentic manner. They are not produced in a factory, at least not in the typical U.S. citizens’ view of a factory. In Mexico, production of alebrijes is a family business and everyone contributes to the finished product. This seems to be a great opportunity for these people to increase their standard of living while maintaining elements of their traditional lifestyle. If they are able to ship their products to the U.S. and a fair trade organization guarantees a non-exploitive transaction, one that gives them a living wage, then that seems like a good deal for the artist. Although, I must admit it is not as cool as purchasing it in the place of origin, and many times from the artist directly. There is an authenticity and soul in folk art that cannot be captured when purchasing something at a store that sells mass produced variations. Folk art, such as alebrijes or the Guérewol in Niger, also serves as a great way of remembering a trip, while also serving as a great conversation starter when asked. This leads to the amazing opening sentence “I got that when I spent a summer in Oaxaca, Mexico with IU South Bend.” Mass produced folk art yields no such memories or opportunities.
Having a chance to make and witness all the indigenous art forms at Oaxaca has been an awesome experience and I would love to see the Guérewol in person. I would love to have everyone reading this to join me because the shared experience of a study abroad trip is simply indescribable.