The Art of Death

By Elizabeth Ifeyinwa Jibunoh

“Death is like a painting rather than like a sculpture, because it is seen from only one side.” – PETER SCHJELDAHL

The passing in late December of 2022 of Pele the Brazilian soccer genius widely acclaimed as the world’s greatest footballer of all time, provoked an outpouring of tributes from across the football universe and indeed the global village as footballers and other sportspeople, media personalities, cultural icons, artists, street people, and political leaders reflected on the life and extraordinary times and career of the man.
It was Pele that consecrated JOGA BONITO …. a Brazilian phrase which translates roughly in English as ‘play beautifully’ but described by Socrates a Brazilian football player as a state in sports where ‘Beauty comes first and Victory is Secondary’.

Pele, whose real name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, was seen by many as more myth than actual man, a designated god in Brazil. During the course of his long career, he not only won three FIFA World Cups for his country (the most by any footballer), but he also transcended the sport itself and even the boundaries of other sports in general…..extending his fame and influence into the realms of popular culture, media, marketing and even politics. It is said that during his visit to Nigeria in the late 1960s, when the country was in the throes of the civil war, the two warring parties agreed to a 48-hour cease-fire just to enable as many people as possible to watch him play.

The tributes to Pele convey a sense of mourning, reverence and celebration, as well as a moral lesson on the transient nature of life – even for a life as remarkable as his was. The obvious questions and worries remain about the inevitability of death.

Described as ‘a complete change in the status of a living entity, namely, the loss of its essential characteristics, death has been the subject of much bewilderment, fascination and even horror across the span of human history. Ideas about what death is or means differ from culture to culture. But whatever the culture, death has traditionally been seen as the departure of the soul from the body. Because the soul itself has no physical manifestation, its departure cannot be seen or assessed in any rational manner hence, the cessation of breathing is taken as the most obvious sign of death.

In modern times, it is widely accepted that death has occurred when the vital functions (breathing and blood circulation, as represented by the beating of the heart) have ceased.

In all human societies, the dead body is prepared in some fashion before it is finally laid to rest. Washing the body, dressing it in special garments, and adorning it with ornaments, religious objects or amulets are common procedures. Probably, the known ultimate treatment of the body is embalming, which originated in ancient Egypt for the Egyptians belief at the time was that in order for the soul to pass into the next life, the body must remain intact. So, to preserve it, they developed the procedure known as mummification which distilled possibly to embalmment.

Across the globe, the various methods used for the disposal of the body are linked to relevant religious beliefs, pervading climate and the geographical nature of the deceased abode as well as his/her social status. In the traditional and even contemporary African society for example, funeral rites which usually culminate in the interment of the body are associated with beliefs about the afterlife and the condition of the dead. Elsewhere, cremation – rather than embalming or interment may occur or sometimes sending the corpse out to sea in a boat as done in most parts of India (where the belief is the dead journeys to the ancestral regions or to the world of the dead ). This is viewed as an act of liberating the spirit of the deceased. Not only are all these funeral practices deeply associated with religious beliefs about the nature of death and the existence of an afterlife, they are also seen as having important psychological, sociological, and symbolic functions for the survivors. The more embraced perceptions include that they are obvious implications for the well-being of the survivors because the preservation of the memory of a loved one is vital and so also is the appeasement of the spirit of the deceased. So do right by me when I die or they may be consequences or so the African believes!!!!

Although funeral rites differ from culture to culture, four major symbolic elements seem common to every society. The first one, as mentioned, is the technique or method for processing the dead body (whether by embalmment/mummification, burial, cremation or sending out to sea). The second is the symbolism of colour; in these parts, of course, we are familiar with the use of black clothing to represent death. The third is the treatment of the hair of mourners, especially the immediate family of the deceased, as a sign of sorrow. In these parts, the usual practice is to shave it off for the duration of the mourning period. Finally, there is the inclusion of noisy festivities and drumming at funerals – which, like births or marriages, are seen as a rite of passage.

The symbolic significance of death is most powerfully depicted during the funerals of rulers, especially in cultures where the ruler is regarded as the personification of the nation – as we saw in the case of the late British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II in 2022. In such cases, funerals often reach the level of political drama; the ruler’s burial is not simply a religious or cultural event, but one with great political and even supernatural consequences for the nation. The same goes (perhaps to a lesser extent) to a spiritual leader, in his or her role as the custodian of the deity he served and represented to its adherents – as we saw in the more recent rites for the deceased Pope Emeritus of the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict XVI.

But apart from these obvious status – oriented deaths, why is it that some deaths reverberate more than others? I have lost quite a handful of my friends and some of them have impacted me more than others. For me I feel that when death is so sudden, when it is so unexpected , when we see the real transience of our immortality by a sudden death ,it’s shocking , it’s actually earth shattering and calls our attention to the fact that we are not in control of how we die. It sobers us for a period and makes us more introspective…..but alas we return to ‘the obvious human normality’ until another occurs. And so the cycle continues until it abates with our own death.

Looking at death from the artist’s perspective, lartistic imagery has always played a key role in the symbolic expression of death and what it represents and portends. The use of the human skull, for example, or a rotten fruit, to represent death is a powerful artistic statement with universal resonance. In Mexico, a festival known as The Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is a multifaceted homage to the souls of the departed that is as celebratory and as colorful as any carnival you can think of. Incorporating every genre in the visual, plastic and performing arts, it is a mosaic of Mexico’s creative life from pre-Columbian days to the present. If art is life, as I have always maintained, and life is art, then the subject of death, whether seen as a necessary next phase in the rhythm and flow, or as an intrusion into it, is a legitimate creative preoccupation for the artist.

In our modern times, of course, much of this expression represents the individual feelings, opinions and attitudes of the artist (as art these days is almost always about self-expression, personal observation and imagination – unlike in the past when it represented the values, custom and traditions that prevailed in the particular society in which the artist operated).

Artists like quite a lot of people, are fascinated and most times introspective about the phenomenon of death, the nature of mortality and the hereafter, subjects which many have depicted in various ways, depending on their attitudes towards the subject – attitudes ranging from absolute horror, to calm acceptance of its inevitability, even to joyful anticipation of its release from the bonds of mortal existence with its problems, disappointments and heartaches. For some artists, especially here in Africa, the contemplation and depiction of death is usually in the form of a fierce and insistent affirmation of a life in all its beauty and unpredictability – as if in so doing it robs death of its finality or even denies its reality altogether. In fact, that was the case among our creative fathers.

Sadly, though, this highly personalized approach to art has also led some artists to depict the subject of death (especially that of a loved one) with a sense of guilt, perhaps over an unresolved misunderstanding with the deceased, or the artist’s all-too-human regret at having left undone or unsaid something that might have eased the pain of passing in some way – a kind word, perhaps, a thoughtful deed or gesture, and so forth. For yet others, it may even be guilt at perhaps having inadvertently caused the death and a tendency to over-
compensate as a result. In some extreme cases, it could be a masochistic wish to have died instead of the deceased loved one, and a tendency towards self-punishment as a form of atonement for the ‘crime’ of having outlived the departed and maybe even an anguished questioning of the whole point of one’s own existence – a recipe for depression, if you ask me; I’m thinking Vincent van Gogh here!

Of course, there is no denying the reality of death – certainly not in these trying times when it is so much around us (especially in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic and it’s aftermath when some of us lost and are still loosing so many family, friends and loved ones). It’s even harder to escape the ubiquity of death the older one grows: too many goodbyes, as they say, and too few hellos.

But for me as a human being and as an artist, whatever terror the thought of death (and especially my own mortality) holds for me is tempered by my appreciation of the sheer pleasure and sublimity of life. I am grateful, not just for having been given the gift of life, but also the added, priceless gift (the icing on the cake, if you like) of an artistic skill and the gift of a creative inner eye that sees where others merely look (an ability which has given me this stubborn belief that nothing is beyond me when I put my mind to it). I have also been blessed with the ability to make connections between concepts, phenomena and situations where none seem to exist at first sight. I’m also thankful for the ability to let go of things that limit me, and to embrace things that allow me to be fluid in whatever moment I am in. This ability has not come easy, trust me. That’s why my apprehensions about death are submerged in the waves of my gratitude.

As I have said elsewhere in this volume, I am a female artist living and working in Nigeria at this time, and I have also traveled, lived and worked in other countries.From the understanding of life (and death) that I have been privileged to gain from my experiences and encounters in all these places and situations, I have come to understand that creating an aesthetic code based on my beliefs about life (and death) demands that I empathize with the human condition in all its manifestations. It demands that I elevate life rather than debase it. I must celebrate life, but also mourn when it is destroyed or tarnished in some way. My work, therefore, is a battle against chaos, death and oblivion. I’m like the songbird that responds to the destruction of its nest after a storm by singing a beautiful melody (a melody with a mournful undertone, to be sure, but also a joyful celebration of the fact that though much has been taken away, to paraphrase the words of Lord Tennyson, much still abides).

Therefore I create art, I sell art, I buy art and I talk about art as an affirmation of life, indeed an extension of it. Art, for me, is like a ticket to immortality.

In Africa, as I noted earlier, customs and practices around death are associated with our beliefs about the afterlife. Is there life after death? I believe there is – although I cannot, with my limited knowledge, or even in my wildest imaginations, begin to fathom what its dimensions must be like.

But one thing I know for sure: there is life BEFORE death – the likes of which I believe I’m living now. And that’s what my art is about. It’s an affirmation of life in the face of death – and in defiance of it.

Death will come, as surely as night follows day. But BEFORE then, I and my art will do life – to the utmost – and let that necessary end come when it will come.

Chief Elizabeth Jibunoh writes from Lagos, Nigeria.

Chief Elizabeth Ifeyinwa Jibunoh holds a Master’s degree in Museum and Gallery Management from City University in London, United Kingdom, a BA ( Hons) from the University of Lagos , a diploma in Floral Artistry from Boerma institute Alsmer Netherlands . She is an art consultant and also the founding Director of Didi Museum, Nigeria’s foremost private museum. She worked with the Smithsonian Institution to facilitate the repatriation of the Alonge Photographic Artworks back to their ancestral home in Benin City, Nigeria.
An entrepreneur who deals in exquisite leather goods as well as a health and wellness resources person, Jibunoh is the CEO of both the Ridgewood Wellness Sanctuary and the Beth and Bue company. A passionate social entrepreneur, she is the Founder of the Strength of Women Initiative. She is an avid art enthusiast and enjoys mentoring rising artists – a passion she relishes as much as she does her role as a wife, mother and grandmother.

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