Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      January 1999 Volume XXI Number 3

Five Windows into a Continent

by Michael Wilkerson

One day in 1978, while Patrick McNaughton was doing research in Mali with sculptors and blacksmiths of the Mande (one of West Africa's major cultural groups), he was invited to a unique kind of performance called a "bird masquerade." The artists in such performances are often blacksmiths, for a variety of complex social and cultural reasons. When they are expert performers they leap, spin, motor with great speed around a dance arena, and perform spectacular tricks, often for hours. The power of the performance McNaughton attended remained with him, and twenty years later, as a professor of fine arts at Indiana University Bloomington in the Program of the History of Art, he began making a CD-ROM to present and explore this astounding bird masquerade.

Patrick McNaughton, professor of fine arts, Program of the History of Art, at the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts, Indiana University Bloomington, is made part of the event by the very talented bird masquerader Sidi Ballo during the performance that is documented in the IU Africa CD-ROM. The combined power of aesthetic sophistication and social relevance is the focus, along with Sidi's exceptional abilities. This bird masquerade took place in Dogoduman, Mali, in June of 1978. --credit

"I've been thinking about this for twenty years," McNaughton says. Though he did not have a video camera to document the performance, he did come home with a wealth of material: many photographs, interviews with audience members and performers, and a series of ideas about the cultural significance of the masquerade. "I never felt I had a subtle enough understanding until now to give the masquerade a fair treatment," he says, and that was facilitated by the nature of CD-ROM as an educational medium.

As project leader on the forthcoming Indiana University CD-ROM about African history, politics, art, and culture (tentatively titled AFRICA-ROM), McNaughton has found a home for the bird masquerade. Last summer, he returned to Mali to gather more materials. When he completes his work, it will be integrated with the multimedia projects of four other IU African Studies scholars on a CD that will be available from Indiana University Press.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, AFRICA ROM will represent a unique contribution to the field of African studies, of which IU is a world leader and in which the IU Press specializes. "This is designed to be a wide spectrum look at Africa from a variety of issues and perspectives," McNaughton says. "It's vital to understand African society. Africa has been misunderstood in the West for a long time, and we hope this CD will help take a major step toward Americans learning about some of the world's great cultures. Africans have as much to offer in terms of economic, environmental, artistic, social, and cultural solutions as Americans do."

A drum ensemble that accompanies the ivory horn ensemble at a political event in Monrovia, Liberia. Rural musicians are called to the city for important political occasions. --credit

McNaughton is joined on the CD by N. Brian Winchester, director of the IUB Center for the Study of Global Change; Ruth Stone, professor and chair of folklore; John Hanson, associate professor of history; and Dele Jegede, who received his Ph.D. in the Program of the History of Art and is now a faculty member at Indiana State University. Each has identified a "core event" around which his or her section of the CD is structured.

"The 'core event' is a window into both the particular culture and the discipline of study," McNaughton says. "In the case of the bird masquerade, it provides an effective opportunity to show how significant and influential art and aesthetics can be in African experience. It also explains why blacksmiths--who are considered mysterious, powerful, and often dangerous--make interesting performance artists. Smiths are often talked of disparagingly, and they are not allowed to hold political office. But they nevertheless possess tremendous political and spiritual power and play influential social roles, particularly as educators, doctors and herbalists, and soothsayers and sorcerers. They even head one of their society's most important secret spiritual associations and are often credited with powerful roles in many others. Another thing our core event approach does is allow me to demonstrate vividly how dramatic the combination of discipline and spontaneity is with performers of tremendous talent. I can show the importance of both physical skill and intellectual acumen that the bird masquerader Sidi Ballo used to make his performance galvanizing and effective."

"Some people give you the impression that their vision takes in everything and they seem very perceptive and responsive to everything, including social things, around them." McNaughton says. "That is how Sidi Ballo is. He retired a few years ago, but as an outstanding bird masquerade performer, he was truly engaged with the audience on every level, and he used a very rapid-fire kind of intelligence to make split second decisions on what in his repertoire of moves and tricks he would do next. I consider aesthetics to be the strategic organization of resources, be they material, mental, technical, emotional or spiritual. I thought Sidi was a very talented resource organizer. His physical discipline and talent was remarkable. His ability to anticipate people's expectations and level of involvement was refined. For example, falling over in a bird masquerade can be very hazardous, and he knew when and how to move so that the audience kept thinking he was about to fall over. Finally, when we had all lost the 'edge' of believing he would fall, he fell-intentionally--only to dance his costume upside down and then open it up to the audience so we could try to find him inside (we could not). The sense of drama was magnificent. It's been more than twenty years, and I remember every moment as if I had just seen it."

The complexity of cultural power that blacksmiths assume in Mande culture is also linked on the CD with other concepts of power in the different situations and cultures the other faculty members are presenting, so that the user of the CD can explore a single topic across several cultures and disciplines. It's a kind of usage that would be impossible in a conventional text or a normal lecture. Publication on CD-ROM, McNaughton hopes, will empower teachers and students at colleges and high schools that don't have specializations in Africa to learn more about the continent.

McNaughton's opportunity to put the bird masquerade on CD stemmed, indirectly, from the textbook Africa, edited by Phyllis Martin, professor of history, and Patrick O'Meara, professor of political science and public and environmental affairs and dean of international programs at IUB. McNaughton had contributed a section to that highly successful IU Press volume, which was increasingly becoming the standard text for introduction to Africa courses.

Early in 1995, IU Press senior sponsoring editor Janet Rabinowitch responded to press director John Gallman's call for electronic publishing projects with an idea for a CD ROM that would showcase IU's strengths in African studies and might be organized around, or in connection with, the Africa book. "Our expectations for the AFRICA-ROM now are pretty much those I envisioned in 1995," Rabinowitch says. The press expects the CD to find audiences among students at several levels, college and university faculty, and even general interest audiences. That's already happened with Jeanne Sept, associate professor of anthropology at IUB, whose CD Investigating Olduvai has been marketed to a wide and enthusiastic audience.

The ongoing research of John Hanson, associate professor of history at IUB, in Wa, Ghana, created the trust that allowed him to videorecord in the mosques. Pictured on the left is Mumin, who is a muezzin at one of Wa's mosques. On the right is Mumin's brother, Mahama, an entrepreneur who records and sells audio cassettes of Muslim sermons. --credit

For the new CD, the scholars' research is being converted to the CD format with the considerable help of the Teaching and Learning Technologies Laboratory at IUB. All of the faculty involved praised the work of TLTL as innovative, creative, and crucial to the development of the project. "These are not just gifted computer people," McNaughton says. "These are people who understand art and who have training in the humanities." David Goodrum, director of TLTL, notes that preparation of the CD-ROM is the kind of activity for which TLTL was created. "We have always wanted to provide additional ways for faculty to be published," he notes. "The Africa CD is a perfect way because all the elements are in place: the faculty have the material, we have the technical capability, and the press has the contact with the audience for distribution and marketing."

"Our challenge is to help faculty move away from their traditional type of authoring to help them showcase their message in this different format, and to make it all coalesce as best we can." TLTL staff, especially Dan Fitzsimmons, have spent thousands of hours digitizing material, cataloguing it in databases, designing navigation tools, indices, and architecture, as well as the "look and feel" of the interface. Each faculty member's section will use different colors and different borders to delineate it from the others.

"We're trying to help faculty mesh the different media and text," Goodrum says. Though accustomed to writing in scholarly styles and lengths, faculty members have had to learn to use brief bits of text keyed to audio, video, or still photographs. "Those are the 'message units' around which we're building the CD," Goodrum says.

The scholars and TLTL staff are determining links between the sections. After lengthy multiple sessions involving all the authors and TLTL staff, as well as IU Press staff, the group decided that the core events did not have to be linked in advance; instead, the connections between subjects will be identified and added to the CD as the last phase of authorship.

Alhassan Mumin, an informant whom Hanson interviewed aboutWa's past. Hanson incorporated footage from an interview with Alhassan into the CD-ROM. --credit

A key to the process is a new type of navigational device designed by TLTL. A common way of navigating links, as on the Web, requires the user to return to the original screen in order to follow additional links. For many of the pages on the AFRICA-ROM, there are four links to additional related topics. When one accesses any of these, the whole group of links is placed into a "related topics navigational tool" that remains available as one explores the links. Users do not have to return to the original screen to embark on additional related topics and when finished exploring can return to the starting point with one click. The hope, Goodrum says, is that by "being able to follow the connections between various concepts without tedious and repeated returns to the reference point, the user will be encouraged to do more exploring in less time and with less concern about getting lost in the information." Thus, users will be encouraged to do more exploring of content according to their spontaneous interests and will require less time and encounter fewer technical barriers in the pursuit of knowledge. "We haven't seen anyone use this navigation device before--not surprisingly, because it's a lot of work--but we think it will make our CD a lot more useful and less frustrating to students."

The difference in methods and media used by the five authors has increased the challenge of coordinating the material. Ruth Stone reduced dozens of hours of videotapes to a twenty-minute segment, documenting the funeral of a Liberian cabinet minister. The event was a landmark of political protest in Liberia, in which music- Stone's major interest as an ethnomusicologist--played a crucial role. Therefore, her video is matched with much music and narration, and links explain the finer points of the event and its larger meaning. Though Stone has always conducted similar research, "the CD for the first time enables me to feature the very motion and action that is the core of my research for the audience to experience."

Stone's section includes excerpts from her field notes, a unique addition to a finished product. "The notes give a fuller idea of the life of a researcher," Stone said. "Days are spent getting insurance for a car, getting through road blocks, and tracking down interview subjects. We can show all that we must do to reach our usually tidy conclusions."

Stone's colleague in history, John Hanson, also edited more than twenty hours of videotape into a shorter sequence. His core event, Friday prayer services at three different mosques in the town of Wa, Ghana, represented an addition to his planned research.

"Normally I work with more historical materials, such as nineteenth-century manuscripts and archives," Hanson said. "The CD project leads me to do more anthropological things. It's opened my interest into new areas. The CD is somewhat like a documentary with footnotes, though the footnotes can be visual images or audio clips and text. I'm told that what I did (drawing sketches instead of writing text to organize thoughts) is storyboarding, and as an academic researcher, I hadn't expected to do that."


To acquire his material, Hanson negotiated access to the prayer services of three different sects of Muslims, discovering that the process of gaining admission revealed significant differences in the practices and beliefs of the people. "Muslims of the Ahmadiyya movement, who are the focus of my primary research project, are very open to new technology and gave me unlimited access to Friday prayers in their mosque." At some of the other Muslim communities, Hanson was asked to leave the mosque during the actual prayers but was allowed to record video from the outside looking in. The blend of the international religion of Islam with Ghanaian folk traditions and practices fascinates Hanson. At one point, a scholar gave him a piece of cloth woven with passages of the Koran on its surface to protect him against harm. "Ahmadi Muslims do not condone this use of the Koran, but many in West Africa emphasize the Koran's mystical power."

Hanson has tested his video section on students in his course, African History in Novels, Films, and Memoirs. "They like the roughness of the hand-held video," he said. "They find it an immediate window into both the daily life and the historical life of the people of Wa. They more quickly understand the subtle differences in the way the three groups practice Islam." Hanson's video of Ghanaian Muslim practices shows that Islam, which has enjoyed a significant foothold in West Africa for hundreds of years, is a complex and vibrant world faith.

Not all of the CD is video-intensive, though. Like McNaughton, political scientist Brian Winchester is working with a combination of still pictures, text, and audio images. He tells the story of the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference, which ended the bloody civil war in Zimbabwe in 1979. "The conference is one of the few examples of a vicious guerrilla struggle that ended peacefully at the conference table," Winchester says. "It's very significant in the history of conflict resolution, but not as well known as it should be."

Though the outgoing white minority government of Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia) destroyed most of the video and archives it had, Winchester interviewed many of the principals in the conference and believes his section will be engaging, albeit through different techniques than Hanson's. "The power of this material is amazing if it's done well. It combines the best of teaching and research at once."

Indiana University, all agree, is one of the few places where this ambitious project could be produced. "None of my colleagues in the country have a team of humanities-trained computer programmers who could make this kind of project a reality," Ruth Stone says. "We truly are breaking new ground."

AFRICA-ROM will be available in late 1999 or early 2000 from the IU Press.

Return to the Table of Contents