Eva Acqui illustrates Liberia’s little known, yet vibrant literary tradition.
Before delivering a lecture at a university in Hungary two years ago, I presented some slides to the professors of the board along with two wooden masks I had brought from Liberia, holding them in my arms as if they were my children. The professors of the board asked about my choice. I responded, “These are images of African wood carvings, masks, hailing from Liberia, the West Coast of Africa. I chose them because of the power of supremely well organised forms, the unification of form and expressive power.
These masks belong to an art with origins before recorded history; their images were chosen to illustrate permanence, universality, perfection. They correspond to humankind’s instinctive search for beauty, giving shape to fundamental beliefs and feelings, transmitting ideas, values, attitudes, from generation to generation. Thus, they are culture carriers across time and borders. They have a definite role in the evolution of culture, ensuring its continuity and bringing about innovation. They are Liberia's ‘cultural ambassadors’ to this part of the world.”
A nation survives through its culture. One of the main functions of art is to keep and build on tradition, create new values. Art is called upon to establish the future of culture. Liberia's historic experience of civil war has motivated its artists to engage their art in the struggle for the survival of their culture and nation. Art has to address spiritual and cultural needs, social needs, to develop an aesthetic, which has to act as a cultural stabiliser. Stabilising culture means to keep all traditional achievements together, innovate, and create new works of art to ensure continuity and survival.
Back in the 1990s, still at the beginning of the war, there were people who found enough inner power to take refuge in their artistry, to record events, feelings, reactions. K. Moses Nagbe's book ‘Thinking Through the Times’ was published in 1991 and was on sale in Monrovia; Aaron Fallah Brown continued to paint and write in that time of sorrow. These artists felt they had to tell the world somehow what was going on, to speak for people who did not attend universities or expensive schools, but did entrust their last words to those who they felt able and willing to carry out a very hard task: "Go and write about us. Tell the world. Let people know," convinced that the sound of their names would raise awareness and interest in their culture and fate.
Liberian literature has a valuable canon, a cultural asset to be preserved, organised, and recorded by literary history, both in Liberia and the world. It contains a chronological record of Liberia's pastoral, folk literature, with its folk songs, proverbs, folk tales, known since the 1800s. There are writers, genres, and species, from poetry to drama, important to be taught for the ongoing development of Liberia’s literary history. We find the first novel in English written by an African, Guanya Pau, by Joseph Walters, 1891. We find written poetry dating back to the 1800s; ‘Leaves from Love's Garden,’ written by Edwin Barclay, 1836-1961; ‘Echoes of the Valley,’ edited by Roland T. Dempster, 1947; ‘Poems of Liberia,’ collected by A. Doris Banks Henries, 1963. We find Liberia's novelists, Bai T. Moore, Henry B. Cole, Wilton S. Sankawulo; short story writers, such as Robert H. Brown, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley. Dramatists also occupy a notable position: Lester Parker, Kona Khasu, Peter Ballah, Kerkura Kamara, and Womi Neal have all contributed by their work to the development of a literary genre in Liberia.
Art can have a powerful transformational and restorative effect within society. Being exposed to cultural contexts provides an insight into society, too. Works of art reveal details about dominant social values of the period in which they are produced, conveying the feelings and ideas of that period, and the human experience, through a variety of details, on social, political, and environmental issues. The collaboration among art creating groups is another aspect of the social function of art: it ensures the joint effort of groups and individuals in the process of creation, in the attaining of social objectives by the aid of art. One such vital objective is peace. Artists are those who use the power of their means (word, sound, colour, image, dance, etc.) in the struggle for these supreme human values.
Liberian culture as a whole, literature especially, has several culturally vital tasks to attend to, within exercising its role of struggling for a better future, for speaking to the spiritual and cultural needs of a nation it has culturally attempted to keep up. It has to preserve its rich foundation of folk culture, consisting of customs, rites, and the related literary products, such as tales, legends, etc. The danger of myths and motifs vanishing into oblivion does exist, unless people themselves hand over this rich cultural heritage to the present and future generations, and teach them the pride of holding such an inheritance. There have been notable efforts in preserving folklore, in the writings of Wilton S. Sankawulo, A. Doris Banks Henries, Peter Dorliae, addressing the preservation of Liberia's rich folklore by bringing it into print.
Another vitally important task for Liberian writers is to keep writing, to ensure development and progress in both culture and society. Liberians have successfully responded to this “call,” whether from home or abroad, to cultivate the feeling of belonging to Liberia carrying their country's name and specificity into the future. Joining the literary forum provided by the Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings and offering their work to the reading public, aided by the Internet, many cultural personalities have contributed to the establishment and development of a body of literary work, internationally recognised. In his statement on the importance of the literary journal, Professor Wilton S. Sankawulo underlines the importance of the freedom of expression, production of literature, around the literary forum thus provided, with regard to what it represents for the generations of the future, stating that, “If we continue neglecting the development of the intellectual resources of our country in preference for that of physical infrastructure alone, we will break down tomorrow what we build today.”
However rich and valuable a culture may be, if it does not find its way to universality, it is doomed to oblivion by other cultures and peoples. Therefore, it has to integrate itself into the culture of the world, keeping its originality and yielding the best of the people it represents. It has taken centuries of evolution to reach today's multi-expression by arts' various forms: in the 1800s art was primarily concerned with ideas of truth and beauty; in the 1900s it was marked by radical breaks in modernism and postmodernism, while the 1990s and 2000s witnessed the idea of art as cultural-image making, based on survival as core of contemporary experience: artists have addressed this reality in the most powerful terms possible. For art to carry out such a function, it needs to address another critical aspect: the educational function.
The quality of aesthetic experience can be ensured only by educating art consumers towards a well-developed intellect with a thirst of knowledge and a continuous search for beauty. The engagement in cognitive activities entails the use of associations and the understanding of abstractions: the use of imagination to make a difference between what is implied and what actually exists. Glancing beyond the facades into details needs good skills of impression that help art consumers to identify, analyse, and evaluate what is experienced. All this literary work is extremely valuable to the nation's culture. The world has to know, and through its literature know the country, its people, their view of the world and its representation, for Liberian literature to be part of world literature.
* Eva Acqui, Ph.D., lives and works in Baia Sprie, Romania. She is a university lecturer, translator, award winning poet, fiction writer, and scholarly writer of feature articles and scientific papers
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