Art of Living

By Jheri St. James

“The true worth of a man is not to be found in man himself, but in the colours and textures that come alive in others” – Albert Schweitzer

“Nyanga” by Michael Detay

African art came to European notice c.1905, when artists began to recognize the aesthetic value of African sculpture. Such artists as Vlaminck, Derain, Picasso, and Modigliani were influenced by African art forms. Interest in the arts of Africa has flourished, and many modern Western artists have rediscovered the enduring qualities of African art. In the latter part of the 20th century, African art has come to be appreciated for its intrinsic aesthetic value as well as continuing to be a source of inspiration for the work of Western artists.

Three major groups live in the equatorial rainforests of Gabon: the Fang and related peoples; the Ogowe (Ogooué) group, including the Ashira and Mpongwe; and the Kota. Among the Mangbetu people of Gabon, the decorative motifs on stringed musical instruments, drums, and spoons emphasize the human figure, often elongated with smooth surface planes. Some figures are said to act as guardian spirits over ancestors whose bones are kept in boxes. Fang masks and figures are characterized by schematic simplicity. Typical of Fang work are bieri, boxes containing the skulls and bones of deceased ancestors and carved with figures.

“Man must cease attributing his problems to his environment, and learn again to exercise his will - his personal responsibility in the realm of faith and morals.” - Ibid

The Gabonese Republic, or Gabon, is a country in west central Africa. It borders on Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Republic of the Congo and the Gulf of Guinea. Since its independence from France on August 17, 1960, the Republic has been ruled by only two autocratic Presidents; the incumbent El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba has been in power since 1967 and is currently Africa’s longest-serving head of state. Gabon introduced a multiparty system and a new democratic constitution in the early 1990’s that allowed for a more transparent electoral process and for reforms of governmental institutions. A small population, abundant natural resources, and foreign private investment have helped make Gabon one of the most prosperous countries in the region. Its coat of arms shows two jungle cats, representing the country’s pride in its animals.

Gabon enjoys a per capita income four times that of most sub-Saharan African nations. This has supported a sharp decline in extreme poverty; yet, because of high income inequality, a large proportion of the population remains poor.

Do something for somebody everyday for which you do not get paid. - Ibid

Mr. Michael Garcia of the U.S. Embassy in Libreville, Gabon, was the soil collector for both Gabon and Sao Tome & Principe. His Gabon sample came from the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambarene, shown below.

Schweitzer, Albert (1875-1965) was an Alsatian theologian, musician, and medical missionary. Determined to become a medical missionary, he obtained a doctorate in medicine at the University of Strasbourg and in 1913 established a hospital at Lambarene, Gabon (then in French Equatorial Africa). Except for frequent trips to Europe to raise money and a visit to the United States in 1949 to address the Goethe Festival in Colorado, he remained in Gabon, establishing extensive medical facilities that received financial support throughout the world.

“I wanted to be a doctor that I might be able to work without having to talk
because for years I had been giving myself out in words.” - Ibid

Schweitzer was honored in many countries for his work as a scientist and humanitarian, his artistry as an organist, and his contributions as a theologian; he was awarded the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize. His biography of Bach (1905), considered one of the best studies of the master, along with his edition (with C. M. Widor, 1912–14) of Bach's organ music, made him an outstanding authority on Bach. On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (1920, tr. 1922) is an account of his early years at Lambaréné, supplemented later by More from the Primeval Forest (1925, tr.1931) and From My African Notebook (1936, tr. 1938). Schweitzer's philosophy is developed in Philosophy of Civilization (The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization, 1923, tr. 1923; Civilization and Ethics, 1923, tr. 1923; and Reverence for Life, tr. 1969).

“I can do no other than be reverent before everything that is called life. I can do no other than to have compassion for all that is called life. That is the beginning and the foundation of all ethics.” - Ibid

“Reverence for life” is the term Schweitzer used for a universal concept of ethics. He believed that such an ethic would reconcile the drives of altruism and egoism by requiring a respect for the lives of all other beings and by demanding the highest development of the individual's resources. A profound Christian, Schweitzer was unorthodox in that he rejected the historical infallibility of Jesus while following him spiritually. His theological works include The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906, tr. 1910) and The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930, tr. 1930). See his autobiography, Out of My Life and Thoughts (1932).

The Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Gabon, and the collection site photo taken by Michael Garcia

Albert Schweitzer, photograph by Yousuf Karsh.
© Karsh from Rapho/Photo Researchers

“A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives. Anyone who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll stones out of his way, but must accept his lot calmly, even if they roll a few stones upon it. “ - Ibid

Common Ground 191 has had more than a few stones thrown in its pathway towards the 50’x50’ fresco completion. “Collectors” that get lost after Gary Simpson has paid hundreds of dollars to ship the material to them; countries which refuse to allow the empty carton into their lands; shipping issues and searches; the time period which has elapsed (5 years) since inception—much longer than original projected. At this writing, about 45 countries remain uncollected, so great progress has been made in Gary’s vision of unity for all the earth’s soils in one location—a microcosm of the DNA of oneness in the world. Conceived on September 12, 2001, Gary says, “My feeling is that if there were ever a time when my vision of cohesion and beauty on a worldwide scale was needed, it is now.”

There are many forms of art noted in this journal entry for Common Ground 191, this conceptual art project using, for the first time in history, soil as a creative medium. The arts of Gabon--sculpture, painting, photography, dance, music and other expressions—revere life in the past, present and future. The art of surveyors establishes the boundaries of countries themselves. The art of politics either makes or breaks the people of a nation. The art of participation has been practiced by Michael Garcia as a soil collector for our project. The art forms of music, healing, and deep spirituality have been amply demonstrated by Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Gabon. We thank all for their inspiration. The word for peace in Gabon is unknown at this time. When we have it, we will include it in this writing.

“In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit. . . Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace.” - Ibid

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