Quotidian 2 (December 2010)Flora Illes; Theo Meder: Anansi comes to Holland
Anansi in the Netherlands

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The first level of research focuses on the symbols in the oral and visual corpus.[12] Symbols are broadly conceived here as (variable) signs in a culture, containing a symbolic value for the identity of the group, such as objects, clothes, hairdos, words and gestures. In the Anansi stories on the Anansi Masters website, we encountered some recurring elements that possess a specific meaning to the cultural identity of the Creoles. These are: the tropical hammock for taking an afternoon nap, the pitcher Anansi took along from the African forests and which recalls the spider’s mythological roots, and above all the many dishes. As an object of desire, food is a central motif in the Anansi tales. In the animal tales, it always concerns food characteristic to the tropical climate, and which is designated by its original, Creole name. Food is part of the identity of the individual and of the collective group, and Anansi’s choice for a specific dish makes him part of a specific group with its own preferences and traditions.

Many linguistic elements refer to the Creole roots. Titles of stories, songs being sung together with the audience, as well as personal names occur plentifully in Sranan and Papiamento. Especially in strongly emotionally charged dialogues, arguments and shouting matches, there is the tendency to resort to the mother tongue. The (austere though not particularly clever) white king, for example, is called Shon Arei in the Antillean stories. This Papiamento name is likely to be a composite of the English name of John and the Spanish word “el rey”, meaning “the king”. The ritual of singing together in the indigenous language creates a powerful feeling of oneness during the performance, and takes the act of narration back to old storytelling traditions.[13] So these elements refer directly to people’s own cultural identity and traditions. Apart from this, the orally-transmitted animal tales display an increasing number of elements bearing witness to a modern existence, albeit frequently on the superficial level of objects, such as photos, glitter suits, psychiatrists, civil servants, policemen and gymnastic exercises. The admission and integration of these new elements in the animal tales demonstrates the tendency of the stories to undergo changes, and their constant need to adapt to the expectations of a changing intended audience.

On the level of the images, the portrayed objects provide information about the social context in which a story is set. The attributes of the daily environment, the depicted pieces of furniture and objects for everyday use strongly determine the atmosphere of children’s books and have a major symbolic value to the attentive observer. They provide an insight into the daily behaviour and the material culture of certain groups, showing the “actor” behind the objects (De Bodt & Kapelle 2003, 147). The images can also be interpreted as “genre paintings” of children’s books, in which scenes from daily life are featured. In the illustrations of Anansi stories, we often see traditional inherited houses (“erfhuizen”), which are also described in Surinamese literature. Activities portraying an ideal household match those images, like broom sweeping and dishwashing, thus adding a didactic value to the depicted world for the benefit of the audience. But we also frequently encounter images of interiors which, in all their plainness and bleakness, assume a world of poverty. Among the portrayed objects, clothes also carry a symbolic meaning. They imply the cultural and social background of the depicted world. In this area, the changeability and the adaptability of the spider is aptly expressed. The African garments, the traditional Surinamese hats, headscarves, wide skirts and shirts (image 2,4), as well as the prestigious Western suits with top hats, and the contemporary jeans, sneakers and baseball caps represent stages implying the cultural metamorphoses Anansi underwent, and they also visually illustrate the ever-changing cultural identity.

We can thus establish a twofold tendency in the development of the Anansi stories on the level of symbols. On the one hand, there is the attempt to maintain and emphatically portray the motifs of the traditional culture; and on the other hand, there is room for flexibility and adjustment, although this is the case in only a minor number of stories. Furthermore, all this underlines people’s awareness with regard to the dynamic and changing character of their own cultural identity: depending on time, place and the “period eye”, several different cultural traits can become apparent and seen as part of one’s own identity.