Before I enter the museum, I have to breathe. I have to take long breaths and consciously let go. I can’t just walk in off the street with all that worldly smut clinging to me. Even just getting there and circling the Fenway for twenty minutes looking for parking is stressful. So I have to let go. Drop the pace. Find the moon. Tune.
Then I enter and let myself be guided. Getting lost is rather the point, though it is impractical when one has to pee and can’t find a bathroom. Plus I’m shy and afraid to ask the guards for directions. They look mean. Especially that big one on loan from Spofford. So, off I go, hunting for those universal bathroom signs with the triangle lady/rectangle man and their floaty round heads, when I instead find myself not in the bathroom at all, but in the room of African artifacts. Goddamnit.
Oh, this is a clever trick of my unconscious (or something else) indeed, because I’ve been avoiding this room. This room is not like other “art” to me, to be viewed from my own, comfortable, self-indulgent perspective, basking in the reflected shimmer of oil paints or whatever.
I was unsure of how to approach it, but it was too late to turn back. They saw me. They’ve seen me every time I’ve come. What was I waiting for? With all due respect, little sister, you should have come to us first. Showing up in this room felt like being put on the spot to give a speech at a wedding. I was afraid of what to say, what I could possibly say, having nothing to say. I don’t know why I felt this way, but I did.
“You know exactly why,” says Mr. Octopus.
I received my little glass of the thick, dark liquid and drank. The ayahuasca worked its way through my system, taking a reading of me from the inside out. In a while, my solar plexus felt charged, on fire. I heard some African music (Ali Farka Toure’s “In the Heart of the Moon”) coming from the speakers on the other side of the room. I had to be near that music. It seemed to be calling me. I couldn’t stand, so I crawled to where the sound emanated. I wanted with all my being to touch this music. Oh, please, if I can just touch you, so beautiful.
Once I settled in by the speakers, I felt a sudden unexpected rush of emotion. A kind of summary of slavery and colonialism tore through me. It was not like reading about these things from a textbook. It was like having pain rip through you, entering your back and out through your guts like a horde of hungry poltergeists. I was left drowning and screaming and crying on the floor, eviscerated.
Then, through this music, I heard, with my inner ear, the warmest, kindest male voice “speaking” to me. I grew up without my father and have never known a father’s love until I heard this voice that I recognized as Father. With a love I cannot describe in earthly language, he said, “You are a daughter of Africa. Come home.” And I laid down in the amnion of my father’s music for a long, long time.
A classical music concert just started nearby. Late-comers rushed through the African room on their way in. I waited for the foot traffic to die down. Alone, finally, I spoke out loud to all the sacred vessels and to the spirits they served: I am sorry. I am sorry I didn’t come here first during previous visits to the museum. I sometimes don’t know what to do with all the love I have for you. You remind me of my spiritual longing and it hurts. I am sorry that you were taken and neutralized behind glass, treated as dead artifacts instead of the sacred conduits for beings that are very much alive. I hope that someday you will be returned home.
I felt inwardly that my apology was received and that I was now free to move about the room. I found a photograph of a Fon altar dating from the mid 19th to early 20th century. The description of the photograph describes a central figure with a top hat and pipe and goes on to say, “The figure probably represents Yovogan, a special minister named by King Guezo (ruled 1818-1858) to oversee foreigners and trading houses in Ouidah.”
My inner-knowing perked its little head up like a hot turkey timer. I looked more closely. Hmmm. Very suspicious. I don’t think that’s a politician sitting up on that altar. I could be wrong, but in the top hat and pipe I recognize deities: Elegua to the Fon and Papa Legba to Haitians. It’s possible that Yovogan channeled Elegua in ritual, or even imitated his dress in public, but in any event, I’m convinced that the writers of this placard did not do their homework. So I write a little sign of my own (hee hee hee) that says “I am not Yovogan,” and affix it above the photograph with a piece of chewing gum. (Hee hee hee).
Next, I move to the Nigerian carved stone head, chewing gum at the ready. The placard reads that “this piece was perhaps intended to memorialize the dead.” From what I understand, traditional Africans would not memorialize their dead like we do here in the west. For them, the dead are not reduced to memory. They are alive in another realm and very much involved with us who are still embodied. So, I write another sign that says, “I am not a memorial” and stick it to the glass.
At this point, a guard enters the room with his walkie-talkie, talking. He sits down. Are they on to me? I flat-out ask him, harumph, if he’s watching me, curious as to why I’ve suddenly become so bold when a few minutes ago I was too shy to ask directions to the bathroom. Caught off guard, literally, he stumbles with his words and finally manages to confess that he’s just trying to get away from his boss! Hee hee hee.
Anyway, now under surveillance, I have to quit my chewing-gum shenanigans. I wander as unsuspiciously as possible back over to the cases. I wonder what it would be like to dance behind a ritual mask, to channel those spirits.
There is a Chokwe mask used to honor female ancestors. Do the Chokwe want their mask back? And the Makonde? Do they want their mask back? And the Dan and the Fang and the Vai? Who are these people? I have heard of the Goths, the Vikings, the Celts, the Basques, the Bretons and many other European groups, but these names are all new to me.
Hello. I hope to meet you someday soon.
I never did find that bathroom.