Spirituality and Aesthetic Diversity
Curry, Rice, Breadfruit, and Frijoles
I soon realized that Aboriginals had suffered a similar history to Native Americans. Aboriginals lived in harmony with their environment for over 50,000 years until the advent of English colonialism, and a policy that sanctioned genocide. This was eventually modified to encourage Aboriginal integration into white society, especially after the discovery of uranium deposits on their reserves. But in recent years, Aboriginal peoples have become politically organized and have initiated a policy of self-determination as they reclaim their sacred sites, like Ayers Rock, and their cultural heritage.
In the hidden recesses of caves, Aboriginals continue their ritual paintings of creation myths, the hunt, as well as the theme of Love-Magic (fig. 35). In this painting, male and female are united as they drift within a spiral formation symbolizing life's continuity.
fig. 35: Australia: Aboriginal Love Magic
1979, acrylic, 54"x50", © Betty LaDuke
From Australia, I joined a small tour group to visit Papua New Guinea, a nearby island nation that won independence from Australian rule in 1970. As we journeyed by houseboat along the interior shores of the Sepik River, we visited villages dominated by elegant bamboo and thatch Haus Tamberans, or men s secret society lodges for ceremonial rites of passage. They were filled with intricate wood carvings of crocodile spirits, ancestor images, and creation stories. In Hidden Masks (fig. 36), the attractions of male and female are made visible from the snake and bird spirit forms they each inhabit.
fig. 36: Papua New Guinea: Hidden Masks
1979, acrylic, 68"x54", © Betty LaDuke
The Iban of Sarawak, Borneo, live in a tropical forest environment that they farm through a slash-and-burn process, taking only what they need from the forest to sustain life and community. Borneo: Iban Birth Rite (fig. 37) was inspired by the sacred puas, or large cotton blankets that women weave with intricate ikat symbolism. They serve as spirit protectors and cultural guardians when wrapped around the shoulders of the newlywed, the newborn infant, the healer, the infirm, and the dying.
fig. 37: Borneo: Iban Birth Rite
1981, 68"x54", © Betty LaDuke
Growing paddy or rice is a sacred process, and puas are integral to all aspects of the ceremonies that accompany each stage of rice production, beginning with the sharpening of tools for clearing the land, planting, protecting against insects and predators, the harvest celebration and finally the storage of the grain in their longhouse attics. The Iban have survived for centuries, but their future is uncertain, as their tropical forest environment is rapidly being destroyed by corporations from Japan, Europe, and the United States. Global climate changes are accelerating, related to cutting down the tropical forests. Eventually we will all suffer.
Mexico is like a mother that always beckons me home. Through the years I kept returning, to see the changes in San Miguel, Guanajuato, and the Otomi Indian villages where I had painted murals. I also visited Oaxaca, now the home of my first art teacher, Elizabeth Catlett, to interview her for my book, Women Artists: Multi-Cultural Visions. I also attended the week-long celebrations of Easter in the villages surrounding Oaxaca and created many sketches of these seasonal rituals.
fig. 38: Mexico, Easter Journey
1978, 68"x54", © Betty LaDuke
El encuentro, or the meeting, inspired Mexico: Easter Journey (fig. 38). On Easter Sunday, statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary, dressed in splendid velvet robes, are elevated on wood platforms and carried out of their church into the sunlight. They are carried in opposite directions around the church, accompanied by processions of mothers, fathers, and children singing and then praying at each of the cardinal directions until they meet again and re-enter the church. Christ and the Virgin represent a spiritual crossroad between heaven and earth, good and evil. Local farmers also bring their seedlings of corn, chilis, and frijoles to the church altars to receive the virgin's blessing.
Before Christmas, at the Mayan village of Chichicastenango in Guatemala, statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints are also carried aloft in an annual procession. In my painting Guatemala: Procession (fig. 39), Christ appears on a donkey surrounded by the masks worn by the Mayans who dance to honor and celebrate their indigenous roots. They also dance a re-enactment of the brutal Spanish invasion, with satirical masks representing conquistadores. Inside the church many candles are lit and prayers are offered
fig. 39: Guatemala: Procession
1978, acrylic, 72"x68", © Betty LaDuke
During a series of annual visits to thirteen Latin American nations from 1980 to 1985, I primarily focused on political and social issues exemplified by the creative expression of women artists and artisans. Their stories were made visible in my first book, CompaŲeras: Women, Art, and Social Change in Latin America (1985). I also painted my impressions of traditional survival themes, as well as political repression that I witnessed.
The three faces of Peru, Earth Mother (fig. 40) represent time past, present, and future. As the corn rises from the moist earth below through her pyramidal body, she nourishes us both physically and spiritually.
fig. 40: Peru: Earth Mother
1983, acrylic, 68"x54", © Betty LaDuke
In Peru: Chili Vendors (fig. 41), women vendors, shaded by their broad-brimmed hats, sit patiently at the market selling their produce, a timeless form of interchange.
fig. 41: Peru: Chile Vendors
1983, 72"x68", © Betty LaDuke
Peru: Machu Picchu Revisited (fig. 42) is about a sacred ancestral site, the majestic mountain Machu Picchu. During an annual ceremonial by the local indigenous people time past and time present are united.
fig. 42: Peru: Manchu Picchu Revisited
1981, acrylic, 68"x54", © Betty LaDuke
The wings of death too frequently snatch little children. In Bolivia: Pachamama and El T‚o (fig. 43), a mother mourns her dead child and prays for new life to stir within her through the assistance of the magic coca leaves offered by the Curandera, or traditional healer. Also present is a symbolic portrait ofEl Tío (the uncle), who is like Santa Claus. However, instead of toys, his sack is filled with miniature replicas of all the basic necessities for a good life, such as a house, animals, corn, and frijoles.
fig. 43: Bolivia: Pahamama and El Tío
1983, 72"x68", © Betty LaDuke
In 1982, Chile was under the dictatorship of General Pinochet. At that time I visited many women whose husbands, sons, or other family members were imprisoned, tortured, or just disappeared. They expressed their experiences in arpilleras, or embroideries of life and death. Their suffering is apparent in my painting Chile: Children of the Disappeared (fig. 44).
fig. 44: Chile: Children of the Disappeared
1982, 68"x54", © Betty LaDuke
Inspired by photographs of Edna Manley's sculpture, in 1985 I went to Jamaica to meet her. She was the wife of Norman Manley, Jamaica's first Prime Minister after freedom from British Colonial rule. Her work symbolized the spirit of Black Jamaicans, former slaves who struggled for freedom and economic justice. The economic struggle is still ongoing, as symbolized by Manley in her sculpture Ghetto Mother, which inspired my painting Jamaica Tomorrow (Homage to Edna Manley) (fig. 45).
fig. 45: Jamaica: Tomorrow (Homage to Edna Manley)
1986, acrylic, 68"x54", © Betty LaDuke
All text and images © Betty LaDuke.