Friday, February 19, 2016

African Scarification Meets Arlington Art

I'm jogging along last night when I ran by a statue I've been by plenty of times, but this time, something caught my eye:

Specifically, these patterns:

Notice the two stacks of three dots each? That's the standard arrangement for braille. If that's the case, then I was looking at a secret message, hidden in plain sight. How cool is that?

Next to the statue is a plaque explaining the piece of art in front of me. It's also documented here:

Artist Winnie Owens-Hart is a native of Halls Hill/High View Park (HHHVP), the neighborhood this park commemorates. Owens-Hart was commissioned to develop artwork reflective of the history and values of this predominantly African-American community. Interested in symbolizing HHHVP’s strong sense of community, the artist designed The Family, a monumental steel sculpture of a man, woman, and child with clasped hands. Arranged in a triangular configuration, this grouping symbolizes unity among families and residents of the neighborhood. The woman’s skirt is beautified with patterned relief, representative of traditional African scarification. Within this design is Braille text that acknowledges the vital role families play in the neighborhood. Five letters, HHHVP, stand on the west side of the park and provide prominent neighborhood identification.

Turns out, there is a braille message written in the statue. I snapped a few close up photos and this morning I did a little decoding:

I won't reveal the entire text, but one section of the statue reads:

Halls Hill
High View
African American
Families Are Our

So what's up with the use of braille? My first guess was that some prominent person in the neighborhood had been blind, or worked with blind. But this isn't the case. Instead, I think the big clue is the mention above of African scarification. A quick Google Search is all it took to educate me on Scarification. The concept is in the same vein as tattooing (making a permanent mark on your body), but no big surprise, uses scaring to accomplish this. Sounds pretty awful to me, but I suppose it's no different than getting a tattoo; it's either your thing, or it isn't.

From reading up on scarification, it does appear that it had a practical use: it could be used as a reliable way to identify yourself or convey some critical piece of information (such as which tribe/clan you belonged to). And so it is with our braille message: to the untrained eye, it appears as an interesting geometric design, but to those in the know it passes along vital information.

The use of an African tradition makes sense, as this particular neighborhood is featured prominently in Arlington's African American history.

I've got to say that I'm impressed with the artist's choices here. They manage to convey an important message and do so in a way that only serves to strengthen that message.

A few related links. First, the FDR Memorial features braille too, but folks were pretty upset about its use. Read about the controversy here. I've got opinions on this, but I'll save them for another blog post. Second, this video on art appreciation still resonates with me, and was in the back of my head while I was examining the above piece. Definitely worth watching.

Update: So here's an observation I had over the weekend: it's easy for me to dismiss scarification as, well, barbaric. Yet, as a Jew, I fully embrace and appreciate the important right of circumcision. And what's the difference between scarification and circumcision? Effectively, none Far less than I'd imagined. They both serve to provide an indelible mark that shows devotion and membership to a particular.