Behold the Brontosaurs

behold-the-brontosaurs

A tribal huntress watches some Brontosaurus excelsus lumber by on the savanna. I drew this on 11 x 14” Bristol paper, which is great for larger scenes like this.

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Africa in Sid Meier’s Civilization Series

Cross-posted from Medium.com

I have played Sid Meier’s Civilization series since the third game came out back in 2001. Most recently I got the sixth iteration on opening day last October, and so far it’s been every bit as engrossing as its predecessors (even if I’m a bit impatient for the modding tools to come out already). As much as they’ve deserved the showers of praise they’ve received over the years, there is one recurring trend in the games that I find rather bizarre and maybe even a bit troublesome. I am talking specifically about how they’ve tended to represent Africa and its indigenous cultures.

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The kingdom of Kongo and its leader Mvemba a Nzinga, as represented in Civilization VI

 

No, I’m not submitting a clickbait-style accusation that Sid Meier and his development team are all racist against Africans or other non-Europeans. For the most part they’ve always done an alright job of incorporating cultures from across the world into their series. Europe has tended to be disproportionately represented among the playable civilizations, but perhaps that’s to be expected given the creators’ Euro-American cultural roots. Otherwise almost every game in the series has included several nations from regions as different as the Middle East, Asia, the Americas, and Africa. In fact, discounting those civilizations which might be added in the expansion packs, each base Civilization game tends to feature precisely two African civilizations.

That wouldn’t be so problematic, except the first African civilization is almost always ancient Egypt, and the games (like most other media) typically misrepresent this as a “Mediterranean” or “Middle Eastern” civilization of stereotypically Arab-looking people. Often Cleopatra VII, a queen from the originally Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty, is chosen as the Egyptian leader, as seen in the most recent Civilization VI.

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Cleopatra VII as the leader of Egypt in Civilization VI. This is what the other 50% of African civilizations in each Civilization base game tend to look like.

This leaves us with only one civilization from Africa per base game that is portrayed as dark-skinned, or what some might call “Black African”. Exactly which civilization fills this slot varies across the series. In Civilization III, it was the Zulu from South Africa. In IV, it was Mali. V’s introduction was the Songhai, another West African empire that rose after Mali, and most recently in VI it’s the kingdom of Kongo in Central Africa. But the basic trend has remained the same throughout the series’s history: on opening day, you get one black civilization and one whitewashed (or should that be tan-washed?) ancient Egypt. Two slots for Africa, and only one of them is portrayed as genuinely African at all.

It’s uncannily equivalent to the old “Token Black Guy” trope.

To be fair, the expansion packs that have been a staple of the series sometimes add more black nations. Civilization IV’s expansions added Ethiopia and the Zulu to join Mali, and this same pairing reappeared in the expansions for V. Only time will tell what the inevitable expansion for VI will include (although I’m confident the Zulu will pop up again at some point). Clearly the developers are aware of multiple civilizations in Africa other than Egypt. But that’s the thing, if Sid Meier and his team have that knowledge, why do they insist on starting out with only one slot for Black Africa every time they begin a new iteration of the series? Why delay the addition of others to the expansion packs? It’s a truly strange policy for a series that is otherwise above-average in its representation of the non-European world.

Thankfully the newest addition, Civilization VI, corrects one other trend in representing Africa that the other games have gotten wrong. Between Civilization III and V, African nations tended to be portrayed as having the same“Middle Eastern” look to their cities and human units as the Babylonians, Persians, Arabs, etc., with only their unique units (e.g. the Zulu Impi or Malian Skirmisher) having dark instead of tan skin. Even their background music sounded more Arabic than African, especially in the case of the fifth game. But at least Kongo in the new game has distinctly African architecture and dark-skinned units distinct from the rest.

We can only hope that, when Civilization VII launches in a half-decade or so, they stop limiting their civilization roster to one token black civilization. The very least they could do is give their Egyptians a bit more melanin next time, as they should.

Until then, I guess I’ll have to wait until VI’s modding tools come around to rectify this.

Rambling on the meaning of art

When a young woman once asked me what my art meant to me, I have to say I was stunned wordless.

It’s one of those questions every artist must receive sooner or later, but I honestly had no idea how to answer it to her satisfaction. Of course, like all hobbyists, I have certain reasons for doing what I do. I like sharing my imagination with the world, I hope it inspires some feeling or reaction in people, and I love me some dinosaurs and sexy ladies. However, my intuition suggested this girl wanted an answer more profound and philosophical, the kind expected from pretentious hipsters. And I couldn’t pull off a hipster persona to save my life.

I don’t know exactly how I answered my inquirer, but I believe I was more honest than profound about it.

Part of the problem might have been that “meaning” itself has a vague meaning (yeah, the irony is strong in that wording). If I had to guess, it typically connotes either the artist’s own intention in creating the artwork or how the audience interprets it. Some artworks and literature have clear agendas, such as political cartoons or George Orwell novels. By contrast, a lot of the abstract “modern art” that fills up the museums seems designed for openness in interpretation, though personally I find most of it stinks of obnoxious pretentiousness. And then you have people reading messages into works that the author probably didn’t intend. Recently The Mary Sue published an editorial claiming that Kylo Ren in the recent Star Wars sequel represented “toxic masculinity”, as if the Dark Side of the Force had to be gendered male (no, I don’t get it either).

That goes to show you that no matter what you think your art means, you have at best limited control how others will analyze and interpret it. Human beings, by virtue of the same creativity that inspires our art in the first place, have an unmatched talent for inventing their own perceptions of things. That’s also why we have religion, political ideologies, and all other contrasting views of life and the world. We can and will create meaning out of anything, even nothing, and then proceed to evaluate reality through the lens of that meaning. Which is to say even if I don’t see much “deep” meaning in what I do personally, my audience might not see it the same way.

What did I write just mean? Nothing much, really. I was just bored this evening and wanted to type out a little ramble about my hobby.

Pluralized Monotheism in Ancient Egyptian Religion

While skimming through William K. Simpson’s The Literature of Ancient Egypt, I noticed that several of the ancient Egyptian texts recorded in the book mention a singular being translated as “God” with a capital G. For example, The Instruction of Amenemope mentions this God multiple times:

So plough the fields, and you will find whatever you need,
And receive the bread from your own threshing floor:
Better is the bushel which God gives you
Than five thousand deceitfully gotten;
They do not spend a day in the storehouse or warehouse,
They are no use for dough for beer;
Their stay in the granary is short-lived,
When morning comes they will be swept away.
Better, then, is poverty in the hand of God
Than riches in the storehouse;
Better is bread when the mind is at ease
Than riches with anxiety.

We almost always reconstruct the ancient Egyptian belief system as polytheistic in the extreme, with a cast of hundreds if not thousands of gods, and but this and several other texts imply a condensation of all these characters into one larger entity addressed by a singular proper noun. The passage quoted above might even look like an extract from the Judeo-Christian Bible, yet I submit that this has less to do with the familiar Semitic religions than a conception of divinity widespread in ancient Africa.

The Kenyan philosopher John Mbiti characterizes the majority of traditional African belief systems as fundamentally monotheistic, conceiving of a singular Creator being he identifies as God. However, this God is not necessarily the only spiritual entity postulated by these religions. From Mbiti’s General Manifestations of African Religiosity:

There are, however, concepts that point to a plurality of God, even if people acknowledge the unity (oneness) of God. Some societies speak of, or acknowledge other spiritual beings that are closely associated with God. These may represent God in various activities or be manifestations of God.

One example of this pluralized monotheism in Africa is the Nigerian Yoruba conception of the orishas:

An Orisha (also spelled Orisa or Orixa) is a spirit or deity that reflects one of the manifestations of Olódùmarè (God) in the Yoruba spiritual or religious system (Olódùmarè is also known by various other names including Olorun, Eledumare, Eleda and Olofin-Orun)…

The Yoruba belief in Orisa is meant to consolidate not contradict the terms of Olódùmarè. Adherents of the religion appeal to specific manifestations of Olódùmarè in the form of the various Orishas.

Did the ancient Egyptians have a similar idea of God as a singular entity with multiple manifestations? One Egyptian text states that:

All the gods are three: Amun, the sun, and Ptah, without their seconds. His identity is hidden as Amun, his face is the sun, and his body is Ptah.

In other words, the entirety of the so-called Egyptian pantheon can be merged into a single being with three named parts. You may have also observed from the same page that the creator figure Amun is characterized as hidden and unknowable. This is precisely how most African belief systems conceive of their God. Again from Mbiti:

African religiosity acknowledges the reality of God but does not define God. If anything, it confesses that God is unknowable. The Maasai (Kenya and Tanzania) name for God, Engai means (among others) “the Unseen One, the Unknown One”. Likewise, among the Tenda (Guinea), God is called Hounounga which means: “the Unknown”. People affirm that God is invisible, which is another way of asserting that they do not know God in any would-be physical form. Subsequently, nowhere in Africa do we find physical images or representations of God, the Creator of the universe. This is remarkable.

To be sure, the Egyptian artistic representations of Amun may appear an exception to that rule, yet we know from the Egyptian texts that nobody was supposed to know his true appearance. They did not literally believe Amun looked like a man with a double-plumed crown, or a ram, or however they may have symbolized him in their art. Like other Africans, the Egyptians thought of their God as a being without a form anyone could know for sure.

In conclusion, I interpret the ancient Egyptian religion not as full-blown polytheism as popularly imagined, but as a special form of pluralized monotheism. All the characters from Egyptian mythology we call gods today (e.g. Osiris, Horus, Set, or Sobek) would be better characterized as outgrowths of a larger divinity much like the Yoruba orishas. In this respect the Egyptian belief system shows a relationship not so much to modern Judeo-Christian or Islamic monotheism but to widespread religious trends throughout the African continent.

Egyptian Music’s African Roots

Although our African Music at UCSD course attempted to cover all the continent’s major regions in its first unit, including the Sahara Desert in the north, it nonetheless omitted one major area of Northeast Africa that I would have preferred to see explored: the Egyptian Nile Valley. Even our textbook says barely a word on Egyptian music from any time period and none at all on its pre-Islamic, pre-Arabic stages (what we commonly call the “Ancient Egyptian” period). I presume this was because UCSD’s musicology department classifies ancient Egypt not as a “true” African culture but as a Near Eastern one, the same policy as the History Department (notice the one Ancient Egyptian course is sorted under Near Eastern rather than African history).

I object to this classification. I submit that ancient Egyptian music shares many parallels with that played throughout so-called “traditional” Africa, both in instrumentation and in musical style. Furthermore, I shall propose the possibility that these parallels between Egypt and the rest of the African continent reflect not simply technological diffusion from the former to the latter, but instead can be traced to a common pan-African cultural root. In other words, not only did the Egyptians resemble Africans in certain cultural respects, they were themselves an African people.

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Were the Biblical Israelites Black?

If you are American or European, chances are that nine times out of ten, if you’ve seen an illustration or movie depicting Biblical characters, they would have been given white European skin. This trend goes back to Renaissance paintings like those of Raphael and continues today with movies like The Ten Commandments (with Charlton Heston as Moses) and The Passion of the Christ (with Jim Caviezel as Jesus). Most Westerners probably don’t give these portrayals a second thought, but I for one find them irritating. Every geographically literate person knows that ancient Israel lies on that sun-baked junction between the African and Arabian tectonic plates we call the Middle East, so logic would dictate that Jesus, Moses, and other ancient Hebrews would have been no whiter than today’s Palestinians. If anything, they would have probably been even darker, for the heyday of the Hebrew civilization predated the Greco-Macedonian, Roman, and Frankish incursions into the region. They probably looked much like the brown-skinned Hebrew characters in the animated Dreamworks movie The Prince of Egypt, practically the only major Bible movie which comes close to ethnographic accuracy.

Yet as much as I loathe the longstanding Eurocentric misrepresentation of ancient Israel, I will not be dealing with that for the bulk of this paper. Instead I will take issue with another assertion made about the Hebrews’ phenotype, namely that they were black like Africans. Most white people may not have heard about this one, but the trope is more commonly encountered in African Diaspora circles, especially so-called “Afrocentic” ones. If you’ve ever watched the cartoon show The Boondocks, you might recall a few episodes in which the black characters state that Jesus was black. There is also the Haitan-American actor Jean-Claude La Marre playing Jesus in the critically panned movie Color of the Cross, which implies that Jesus’s persecution was racially motivated. There is even an entire African-American cult calling itself the Black Hebrew Israelites which claims to be descended from the Biblical Hebrews.

That black Africans are mentioned in the Bible is indisputable. The ancient Egyptians play a prominent role in the Books of Genesis and Exodus, the latter of which also gives Moses a wife of “Cushite” (that is, Nubian) descent. The Book of Isaiah records the Nubian Pharaoh Taharqa’s fighting the Assyrians, and then there is King Solomon’s affair with the black Queen of Sheba. However, the African Diaspora notion that the Hebrew authors of the Bible themselves were black is little more accurate than the undeniably wrong tradition that they were white. Both historical and scientific data refute it.

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The African Origin of Ancient Egyptian Civilization

In his autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom (1994), the former South African President Nelson Mandela recounts that he had fantasized about visiting the ruins of ancient Egypt, which he calls “the cradle of African civilization”. To quote Mandela’s statement on why this was so significant to him:

This was not amateur archaeological interest; it is important for African nationalists to be armed with evidence to dispute the fictitious claims of whites that Africans are without a civilized past that compares with that of the West. In a single morning, I discovered that Egyptians were created great works of art and architecture when whites were still living in caves.

As much as ancient Egypt may have helped fuel the fire of Mandela’s passion to liberate Black South Africans from the oppression of apartheid, few non-Black people even recognize that it was an African civilization to begin with. At our own University of California in San Diego, ancient Egyptian history is taught under the Near Eastern rather than African division of the history department, as is the case in colleges across the country. In movies like The Mummy and The Ten Commandments, White rather than Black actors are cast into the Egyptian characters’ roles. The implicit notion being promoted by our popular culture, and even many academics that ought to know better, is that Egypt of the Pharaohs was of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean rather than African origin.

This view is wrong and Nelson Mandela is right. Ancient Egypt, far from being a foreign import from the Caucasian lands of Europe or Asia, was an indigenous African civilization in the same tradition as Mali, Ethiopia, or Great Zimbabwe. Its population was predominantly of African racial descent and its culture was both rooted in Africa and related to other African cultures.

Continue reading “The African Origin of Ancient Egyptian Civilization”