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"An altar is a place where you realize your belief."
traditional ruler of the Ngjuka maroons, eastern Suriname, 1981
an amazing visual and spiritual interest in the Yoruban religion
about the time I finished my first film. In part, I believe many
things are available for us to notice within the universe if we
choose to see them. Or if we are open. When I began my Design research,
I was overwhelmed with visual inspiration on how to show the story
of Firecracker. This is just a brief introduction to the Art and
meaning behind every single image of the film. I discovered that
the most unique composition came from the Yoruban religion: the
dikenga. Nearly every religion or cultural group in the world uses
this form. In Catholicism, for instance, the dikenga is seen as
a cross. Other native cultures, for instance, referred to it in
nature as the Circle, or Tree of Life.
DIKENGA: Star Map for the Soul
The dikenga marks the crossroads, the tomb, the parting of the ways.
It flags the vanishing point where village meets forest, where river
meets sea, where the limitations of ordinary vision become acute.
The dikenga, when drawn, becomes a template for the Kongo altar:
a cross within a circle. The vertical axis, the "power line,"
connects God above with the dead below. The horizontal axis, the
"water line," marks the water boundary between the living
and the dead.
First, we should understand the form of the dikenga. Seen here,
its cross denoting the crossroads or boundary between this world
and the world of the spirit, its circle portraying the soul's cosmic
orbit: birth, life, death, and rebirth. A diamond, sometimes with
an internal cross or with diamonds or triangles at its points, is
a varient of the dikenga sign. The spiral is another symbol of the
soul's endless journey - hence the use of seashells in Kongo burials.
The dikenga circle charts the soul's timeless voyage. Soul cycles
as a star in heaven. To the Kongo, it is a shining circle, a miniature
world of the sun. Hence they mark the sun's four moments - dawn,
noon, sunset and midnight (When its shining in the other world)
- by small circles at the end of each arm of the cross, mirroring
the immortal progress of the soul: birth, full strength, fading,
renaissance. The four corners of a diamond tell the same sequence.
The geometry of spirit, circle, diamond, spiral, and crisscross
portraying the soul in flight, rounding the four corners of the
world as power superior to time, can be found in nearly every moment
within the realm of Firecracker. Here, for instance, is a photograph
I captured in the Wamego city park. Notice how the tree continues
into the earth. Notice how the framing around the tree appears to
be a circle. This is a sign of the dikenga.
Also, with the symbolic nature of the dikenga, another aspect is
the term dichotomy. Home and safety (Wamego) are represented by
geometrical simplicity - all right angles and triangles. Danger
and evil (the carnival) are invariably twisty, irregular and misshapen.
The world of Kansas, in Firecracker, is a great void, shaped with
uncomplicated shapes. The carnival is a separate sphere, free and
nomadic - wherein the simplistic vertical lines of a forest become
In Kongo, altars occur where worlds start and end. The primary altar
is the tomb - the place where one can offer things to the ancestors.
Trees are altars, too. Film is an altar when played on a screen
to an audience. Theater and a stage is an altar. The shelf under
the bathroom mirror is an altar.
a hunter's altar is built around a mubo tree, which represents a
chief. Cut branches of a shrub tree used for firewood are leashed
around the bottom of the mubo trunk with a rope of cactus fiber.
At the end of the ritual, the tree is struck eight times with machetes.
It bleeds at once. The sap bleeds red. It runs like blood. This
is the blood of the animals they have killed.
When someone dies in our culture what do we do? We bury it. To me,
it is as if we must hurry and cover it up so we won't have to recognize
the truth. When the body is buried, we aren't reminded that the
person is dead. We do the same thing, as a culture, when we have
a secret - truth, unpleasant occurrence or lie. Our culture would
rather cover it up and pretend like it never happened than merely
look at it, examine it, confront it and overcome it. This is where
Pearl comes into the picture. She is the realm where there is no
boundary. She is the threshold of truth.
"Yard shows" in black America carry a double edge: power
to give and to take back, to greet and to defend. They actually
involve more space than that embraced between street and habitation,
their name being vernacular shorthand for a totalizing tradition
involving spiritual meditation of the whole yard-porch-house-backyard-vehicle
continuum. And complex as it is, that continuum represents only
half of the equation, half of the dikenga wheel. The other half
is the cemetery.
When iron pipes are placed in the ground near graves, it is said
that the spirit is able to travel freely between both worlds. This
is convenient that the weapon used to strike the initial blow was
an iron pipe.
Trees are considered sentinels of spirit. Improvised tree-altars
served in the night. And there are grove altars as well. Mystic
embottlement reappears in the "bottle tree" tradition.
A dead branch bearing shining glass bottles, and set up by the house,
constitutes a presence from the graveyard.
As an altar, a tree becomes the witness of the consecration of a
human being and his accession to the level of religious values.
This is emphatically not to be confused with a contingent divinization
of man, nor even less with any divinization of the tree. A tree
altar is an evocative presence of a durable and important human
quality. Trees are signs of standing grace and power, even as stained-glass
windows instruct Christians in the name and nature of Jesus, and
signify the incarnation of spirit in the passage of light through
glass. (Read "Eleanor")
The wisdom about bottle trees is that the gleam of the glass is
intended to attract negative spirits who are then trapped in the
bottles. "The cemetery and the yard are one. The dead watch
over us. If you come to do us harm, here are dead trees and dead
branches from their woods and glass from their scintillation. Join
them! But if you come in good faith may your soul be strengthened
in the strength of their flash."
The original Mississippi bottle tree - lean, bottles starkly hoist
on sharpened branches - was structurally little changed from the
traditions of the Kongo graveyard. This style distinguishes it from
the fatter, more symmetrical bottle trees of later folk, which show,
in evident protective coloration, the influence of the Christmas
I like this, anonymously written as a Command to the Spirit.
"Be contained: within the tomb, within a vessel on the porch,
within a gleaming glass vessel impaled on a tree or filled with
colored water and set in a window, within a whitewashed rock boundary,
within a line of quartz pebbles. Be healed of loss by association
with an immortal tree. Be attached to the spiritual flash of mirrors,
tinfoil, silver balls and chrome; be warned or exalted by their
spirit-repelling and spirit-attracting flash. Complete your circle,
travel your life protected by a perforated disk, proof to the witches;
say the same thing with a dime on a string, or with a tractor tire
planter in a yard (but tell strangers the rubber is just to keep
weeds and water out); stud lawn and yard with automobile tires,
whitewashed and serrated, like a sun streaming rays; wheel variously,
in your car, on your lawn, in your tomb, with radio dials, telephone
dials, and clock faces without hands!"
Here we see the use of bottles positioned around a house to protect
it against negative spirits.
Spirit does not date. Neither does it fear the garish world of commerce
and technology. In this case, though the actual events associated
with Firecracker happened in the Fifties, no date or time is set
to the picture. This world of Firecracker transcends time. It is
an entity itself and should not be placed in a definitive, superficial
place in existence.
"Conveniently," while I was in London for the Raindance
Film Festival, there happened to be an exhibit on Reflection at
The National Gallery. All this being a major visual part of Firecracker,
I was ecstatic.
The brochure: "This exhibition explores the representation
of reflection, investigating how reflections work, how we recognize
them, and how we apply our perceptual understanding of mirrors in
looking at pictures. It shows how mirrors are exploited by artists
in various ways, as aids to the representation of the self, as devices
to expand pictoral space, and as symbols for both virtues and vices
in allegorical paintings. Mirrors, like windows, offer us views,
but while the space we see through a window is real, what we see
in a mirror is a virtual view of something which lies behind us.
If the surface of an object is sufficiently smooth, it may reflect
an image of the light source itself. Not surprisingly, the most
commonly represented light source is the window, reflected images
of which are to be seen on glass vases, gems, bubbles, eyes and
other shiny surfaces."
Aside from mirrors, the idea of reflection runs throughout the vision
"Without the help of a mirror we would never be acquainted
with our own face. The ability to recognize one's own mirror image
is confined to humans and only one other species - the chimpanzee."
The glassy surface of the water in the picture above is an illusion.
See what happens when you mask off the real girls and turn your
head upside down. It's as if someone is looking into the realm of
another world. I especially like this one because it symbolizes
the dikenga. Continuing to flip your head, maybe you'll forget which
realm is the one that is supposed to be right side up?
Apart from the reflection of the iron fence, above, there is nothing
to justify if we are looking at this picture upside down or right
side up. Below is a photo by Jan Saudek that symbolizes the use
of reflection (in gender, opposing colors), making a dikenga out
of the human form.
The Firecracker characters usage of mirrors is about self-discovery
as it is equally symbolic to the lack of self-understanding. The
mirror acts as a "crossroads" between their physical body
- and an entirely separate self on the other side of the mirror.
"The duplicating effect of mirrors can serve as a device to
represent a subject from more than one point of view. This hints
at the notion of an alter ego - the hidden and unconscious self."
A few of the Firecracker characters use the mirror differently -
sometimes being the only way the audience can view what is happening.
This association is nearly the reverse - or mirror image - of rest.
Sandra, for instance, detests mirrors because, in her reflection,
she is mentally forced to consider her physical-self. If she is
not prepared to confront her physical-self at any given moment,
she turns away from them. Occasionally, she will use them to remind
herself (and the audience) who she really is - separating from the
act on the stage or the "fake smile" used to garner an