It may not always show in my work but probably the most inspirational thing to me is history. I’ve always said history was my favorite subject in school,even more than art. My serious art education really didn’t begin until I went to college, but I’ve been a history buff since I first learned how to read.
I know I’m a freak. Most people think history is damned boring. History courses concentrate on dates and facts. It’s too often about who did what and where. But to me, I guess because of my vivid imagination, history was always a living, breathing thing.
I can remember reading about people like Thomas Edison, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln both in school and at home. Their stories quickly came to life for me. I also don’t believe history is about the past like most people because the things that motivate human behavior never change and what’s true of humanity today will continue to be true tomorrow.
The principle of Sankofa is one that has interested me for a while. Both the word and principle originate in West Africa and has two meanings. Sankofa is a word from the Akan language meaning literally “reach back and get it” (san – to return; ko – to go; fa – to look, to seek and take).
Sankofa also refers to a symbol from the Asante-Adinkra culture of a bird with its head turned backwards taking an egg off its back. Sometimes the symbol is twisted and turned in such a way as to resemble a stylized heart shape. It’s often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”
I first heard the word Sankofa in reference to a 1993 movie of the same name. It’s the story is about the adventures of a beautiful African American high fashion model. She is hired to participate in a film shoot in Ghana which happens to be held at a castle which was used for the Atlantic Slave Trade.
She meets a local mystic. After this event the model finds herself living as a field slave on a Southern plantation before the Civil War. Her experiences there include torture, rape and sexual abuse. She even has a baby for her master. The model’s only way out is to become part of a slave revolt. This act of rebellion turns her back into her true self in modern times. Her trials as a slave lead to a much deeper awareness of her African roots. Her entire life is changed.
My interpretation of Sankofa is very simple. I see a crowded place where Africans and African Americans struggle to reconnect with one another. The Sankofa is held high in the air. There are hundreds, thousands or even millions reaching hard to touch it. People want to transform their lives like the woman in the film.
Please understand that this image is about peace and brotherhood, not exclusion. I know this is strictly an African symbol but I’m using my own people to represent of all mankind and how we must understand our past in order to design our future. I believe the principle of Sankofa to be a beautiful African sentiment that is specific and universal at the same time.
Symbol of Africa
In America the Sankofa has been adopted as an important symbol of the Africa. The bird represents the need for African Americans to reflect upon the past to build a successful future. The symbol has long been a part of traditional Akan art. And it’s one of the most widely used Adinkra symbols. The Sankofa appears in modern jewelry, tattoos, and clothing.
In 1991 a building was excavated in Lower Manhattan. A cemetery for free and enslaved Africans was discovered there. Out of more than 400 sets of remains, one coffin stood out. There on its wooden lid was a group of 51 iron tacks forming a heart shaped symbol like the Sankofa from West Africa.
The site is now a national monument. (The African Burial Ground National Monument). A copy of the design found on the coffin lid is carved onto a large black granite memorial at the center of the site. The site and symbol represent a deep spiritual link between American blacks and mother Africa.