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"An altar is a place where you realize your belief."

Gaanman Gazon Matoja

traditional ruler of the Ngjuka maroons, 

eastern Suriname, 1981




I discovered 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, Left, is a photograph of 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 terrifying.


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.


Left, 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 tree.


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!"


Left, 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 of Firecracker.


"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?


Left, 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 audience.


In this behind the scenes still, left, we are about to film a scene where we see the real Sandra for the first time in the film. She has just finished her Cabaret show and seated herself in front of a huge mirror. And, though her true-self is prolonged in its exposure to us, we are only allowed to see the real Sandra in her reflection. We do not get to see her face any other way. Subsequently, the audience - who witnesses the actions of an ordinary soul tired of putting on an act - cannot wait to see more of her. She, at this point, becomes multi-dimensional and interesting.


In Alfred Stevens' La Parisienne japonaise, left, the gentle inclination of the young woman's head seems to express an appreciation of her own reflection. Possibly, she anticipates the arrival of a lover. Perhaps she just broke off her love affair and is reminding herself that she is strong and independent. When I saw this picture, I was reminded of the moment with Sandra "after the show."


The first thing I did was make up the "Color Rules" for the film. But because this identifies each of the roles with specific meaning, and the space in which they inhabit - both in the B&W scenes and the color scenes - I shall wait to post this until after the film is released. But what I did was this: The Art Department was given specific rules of color. For instance, depending on the color and the character, every single element of that color was removed from the entire picture and only replaced when it had direct association or a metaphorical or symbolic association to that character assigned it. This applies to costumes, set dressing, props, make-up and lighting.


The other elements of the Design vary in meaning. The old-style furnishings in the house could tell us that Eleanor has prevented, or protected, Jimmy from change. Though there is no time period setting in Firecracker - we are all aware that new, more modern appliances exist. Also, one might reason, that one who owns an old, dilapidated television would be one who cannot afford to pay the cable bill. Thus, not having access to the news of the world around them. These props are deliberate and, when compared to the carnival or Sandra's trailer - you can see the dichotomy. One group of images represent the world and travel (nomadic gypsy-like), various cultures and richness (Sandra's Oriental silk robe and exquisite trailer), materialism at its finest - while the other images represent conformity, fear of change - "safety."




I think that when one looks at something long enough one can find meanings in everything. My work comes to me in my subconscious, and rarely do I find it fun to explore until years after it is finished. In this case, I wanted to share a little bit of the background with all of you - so that if you are interested in finding out more - you can find the meanings and metaphors on your own. And they will be uniquely yours. A multitude of meanings are there in hiding - under the words and pictures of this film. They are waiting for you to find and confront them.


Firecracker is no ordinary film. You've never seen anything like it. On one hand, you can watch it and experience it at the most superficial level: a journey for entertainment and nothing more. On the other hand, however, if you desire to, you can examine every image in minute detail. Make no mistake - there are no accidents or mishaps. Every single image was planned. Every scene has been written and designed exactly as it was sketched and researched. Every second is shown for a reason. There are no errors. If you think you've found one after watching it, challenge yourself. Ask yourselves why it's there. Find out the reason on your own. Now, I do understand that exploration may not be for everyone. Many people aren't interested in hunting for things. Most of us enjoy and have become used to being told how to believe, feel or think. But, if you've read this much, chances are you're ready for the challenge within yourselves. And, I promise you a rich, multilayered tale you'll never forget.






NOTE: I've taken most of these pictures, but some are borrowed from the internet in order to educate. If you see a photo belonging to you, and dislike its placement, please alert me immediately and I will have it removed from this page.



It was extremely complicated to locate any information on the Yoruban religion and the Dikenga. One of the only great sources is an extraordinary book by Robert Farris Thompson called "FACE OF THE GODS."


Robert Farris Thompson also offers his book "The four moments of the sun: Kongo art in two worlds." I haven't read this one yet, but it sounds promising.


"On Reflection" By Jonathan Miller, is the book I purchased at the National Gallery in London - based on the exhibition of the same name. It's a must for anyone.

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