Gumboot & Capoeira: Dances of Power


Capoeira or the Dance of War – Johann Moritz Rugendas. Brazil, 1825.

It is impossible to speak of one identity of Africans oppressed by colonial rule. Both within Africa, and among African slaves shipped to distant lands, there were uncountable cultures, tribes, and traditions forcibly mixed, molded and pushed together by their masters. From within these cultural mélanges, people found common grounds and means of empowerment, finding and keeping their identities. These methods of expression took all forms, but here I would like to describe just two of the styles of dance that were born out of slavery and oppression, traditions that continue to thrive to this day: Gumboot and Capoeira.

Untitled (Gumboot Dance) – Capetown Gumboot dancers. Capetown, South Africa, 2007.Video courtesy of “simonleher”

Here is a demonstration of a very traditional Gumboot dance, done offstage and amongst people in a simplistic line of dancers dressed in mining attire. Solos and improvisation were important for communication in the mines.

Gumboot dancing was originally used in the gold mines of South Africa during colonialism and Apartheid. The Black South African workers were forced to work in appalling conditions – often chained to their stations and digging in flooded tunnels. Death was common. Unwilling to drain the flood water, yet needing to address the loss of labor to festering skin conditions, the mine bosses issued rubber wellington boots (“gumboots”) to the workers.

Gumboot Dance – Waterford Kamhlaba Gumboot Dancers. Mbabane, Swaziland, 2013.Video courtesy of Iwani Zoe Mawocha.

     This performance was in honor of the arrival of King Mswati III of Swaziland to Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa. Gumboot has become a proud tradition to many cultures of Southern Africa, including those in Swaziland.

Being separated for their families, kept in the dark, and forbidden to speak to one-another, the miners devised a system of communication through dance. Stomping, shaking chains, and slapping their legs and bodies, they created rhythms and retained essential ties to their cultures that were restricted in all other forms.

Mother Africa Gumboot Dancers – Winston Ruddle African Circus Productions. Zimbabwe, 2010.

Here is a more contemporary adaptation of Gumboot dancing, incorporating a more modern feel with dynamic stage lighting, costume coloration, and theatrics.

The dancing did not escape the notice of many mine bosses, and some employers even formed Gumboot dance troupes to promote their companies outside of the mines. At these performances, unlike within the mines, singing was often allowed, giving the dancers opportunities to openly denounce their working conditions in their native languages while in the presence of their bosses. (1)

Untitled (Capoeira) – Grupo Arte Brazil Capoeira. Location not specified, 2013.Video courtesy of Jordan Sharma

Though laden with tradition, Capoeira remains accessible to many who wish to dance a “jogo,” or “game.” These dances have become a strong part of modern Brazilian cultural identity. Note the improvisation and dynamism of the dances’ paces.

Capoeira is a form of ritualized martial dance that was used to hone fighting skills of African slaves in the Brazilian colonies of Portugal. The exact origins of Capoeira are disputed; whether it began in Africa and brought with slaves to Brazil, or if slaves themselves created the style is not known. Regardless, it is certain that slavery shaped Capoeira in its style and usage to the way it is today. (2)

Capoeira (from the film Slave to the Rhythm) – Grupo Engenho da Bahia. Salvador Bahia, Brazil, 2008.Video courtesy of Richard Hunt.

Capoeira is still performed in the streets of Brazil, as shown here, with traditional ritualized movements, call and response chanting, and instrumentation.

An important aspect to remember about the use of the term “African” is that one is describing people from a continent that comprises over 20% of the world’s land area, and is approximately 25% larger than North America (3). Map scaling that is popular in the US oftentimes makes Africa look smaller than it is. Africans are far from being a homogenous people.

Capoeira was formed by slaves from all over Africa, forced into coming to work together in Brazil from vastly different places and lifestyles. This art form is accordingly dynamic and served many purposes. It settled disputes between slaves, was a form of sport, and allowed cultural expression. Moreover, and perhaps as a primary purpose, Capoeira functioned as a method of learning self-defense, particularly from violent slave masters. Disguising violence and martial strategy in dance allowed slaves to practice fighting even under the watchful eyes of their masters. (4)








Documentation and Rearrangement: Environmental Art

Environmental Art is a broad term to describe artificial works that exist in harmony with nature and serve an educational purpose of its processes. These pieces are often ephemeral, meant to blend in and diffuse back into their settings, typically being made of unrefined, natural materials themselves (1).


Andy Goldsworthy – Slits Cut into Frozen Snow. Stormy Blencathra, Cumbria, 1988.


Andy Goldsworthy is a British artist who rearranges materials that he finds on location to create intricate, temporary works of art that seem to come out of the earth itself. Immediately upon completion, he photographs each piece once only before leaving it behind. The motivation behind his work is to better his understanding of the natural world by immersing himself in it as deeply as he can (2).


Andy Goldsworthy – Rowan Leaves Laid Around Hole. West Bretton, England, 1987.


Paul Nicklen is a professional photographer who has worked on assignment for National Geographic. Growing up on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, he has done many projects documenting polar environments.


“I call myself an interpreter and a translator. I translate what the scientists are telling me. If we lose ice, we stand to lose an entire eco-system. I hope we can realize through my photography how inter-connected these species are to ice. It just takes one image to get someone’s attention (3).”


Paul Nicklen – Polar Obsession. A leopard seal feeds Paul Nicklen a penguin. Antarctic Peninsula, 2009. (For more, see the video I posted in my blog, September 12, 2013)


Documentation of nature from an artistic perspective is found in all forms of media, allowing the beauty of life outside of humanity to express itself and be appreciated by a wide audience, even at a dance club.

An example of a pop music video that uses such devices is that of Talk Talk’s It’s My Life, which hit Number 46 on the UK charts and Number 31 in the US in January 1984. Talk Talk is an English synth-pop and rock group that was active from 1981-1991 (4). Their music videos are still played on French music television stations.



Gunther von Hagens – Body Worlds 2: The Soccer Player. Heidelberg, 2003. Photo by: Irene Kraft, The Morning Call, October 15, 2009


When thinking of human subjects in art, we often think of the subjects themselves as having input into the final outcome – a dancer’s grace, or a model’s pose, for instance.


Gunther von Hagens – Rearing Horse and Rider. Heidelberg, 2000. Photo: Body Worlds.


However, humans can also be material for an educational purpose that is something quite different from these normal expressions. Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds is an exhibition of human anatomy, made of real cadavers shown performing all sorts of activities. The primary aim of these displays is educational, but there is a definite aesthetic appeal to the way that the bodies are sculpted: recognizable in their motions, but quite alien and fascinating without their familiar skin. Body Worlds’ exhibits “help the visitors to once again become aware of the naturalness of their bodies and to recognize the individuality and anatomical beauty inside of them (5).”








The “Big One” and Art in its Aftermath

Poison_gas_attackBritish-organized gas attack, France. (Public)


The First World War.

More than 37 million casualties.

That is more people than there were living in Canada last year (2012) (1). That was the estimated population of California in 2010 (2). Killed, wounded, or missing. Europe was in tatters, with huge swaths of land down its middle turned into barren, bombed, gassed, and burned wastelands. An estimated 750,000 French and German soldiers died fighting over the 7.7 square mile area of Verdun (3). Those displaced or otherwise traumatized by the war are impossible to even estimate.


Source: Imperial War Museums


“Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!”

— Diary of a French lieutenant at Verdun (who was later killed by an artillery shell), May 23, 1916.

The War to End All Wars.


British troops blinded by a poison gas attack. Source: Imperial War Museums


Sadly, we know better than to call it that now. At the time, however, World War I must have looked like the universe tearing itself apart. Advances in technology made wholesale slaughter the easiest it had ever been. Mustard gas turned the very air into death. Machine guns mowed down row upon row of teenage kids, told that being a soldier meant doing archaic, formalized charges with swords and horses at people they could not even see.


British trench after phosgene gas attack. Postcard sent by Hermann Rex (Public)


And even now, no one can agree on exactly what the fighting was for.

The reasons that we can come up with are staggering in their lack of rationale. European nations had woven a web of alliances that obligated them to enter a war on behalf of their allies should those allies wage war themselves. Upon the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, an obscure prince from Austria, the entire continent erupted (4). Beyond that, it seems like simply an orgy of land-grabbing and nationalistic pride that turned into a nightmare unseen since the wars of the Protestant Reformation, and humanity’s best collective shot at creating Hell*.


British troops advance across No-Man’s Land. Source: Imperial War Museums


Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

—Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum est“, 1917

Such an extreme of exposure to atrocities left those affected by the world shellshocked and unable to keep pace in being able to describe modern warfare. Traditional realist art forms seemed laughably formalized and sterile to many (5). How was one supposed to depict the terror of bombs raining down from people flying in the skies above, especially since operational planes were invented only 11 years prior to that?

The growing movements of abstraction in art, particularly those of visual arts, such as Cubism, Surrealism, and Dada helped people to grapple with the changing world and express the sense of automation and breakdown of morality.


Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937, Madrid

Guernica is one of Picasso’s most recognizable Cubist works, depicting the nightmare that ensued when Spanish dictator Francisco Franco allowed Nazis to bomb the Basque town of Guernica in 1937. 1600 civilians were killed and the town destroyed. In this painting, one can see a mother shouting at the sky as she holds the body of her child, animals running maniacally, and a monochrome haze of dust and bleakness (6). There does not seem to be any hope at all in this painting, and those dying are depicted in unheroic and stupefied positions that give an overwhelming sense of futility and confusion.


Max Ernst, Ubu Imperator, 1923, Paris

Surrealism styled itself around what its practitioners viewed as the most expressive realm of human thought: our dreams. Influenced by popular research into oneirology by the likes of Sigmund Freud, Surrealism sought to give voice to the subconscious mind. Morally objective dreamscapes that displayed within them symbolic shapes and objects, giving a sense of both the uncontrollability and the honesty of dreams (7). Ubu Imperator (meaning “Emperor Ubu” in Latin) by Max Ernst shows an anthropomorphized tower balancing like a top on a point. Analysis of this painting seems to be pretty subjective, but it seems apparent that the character in this painting is an objectification of a leader or the ruling class. Ernst had fought in the German army and left Germany to France after WWI, so it is possible that he may be targeting either German politics, or Europe in general (8). The weakness of its foundation and precariousness of its balance may symbolize either the physical fragility of the aristocracy that is covered up, or perhaps its lack of moral ground to stand on, so to speak.


Hannah Höch, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919, Berlin

Dada is a peculiar form of visual art. Its most loyal practitioners would not even call it art, but rather “anti-art.” Meant to reject as much of the Establishment in art and politics as possible, very unique works were produced by this style. In Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, Hannah Höch playfully but bitingly attacks what she saw as the moral bankruptcy of the Weimar Republic in the aftermath of WWI. German leaders such as Keiser Wilhelm II are mocked in a swirl of words, body parts, and machinery. Through humor and ridicule, she is able to say things in pictures that would have otherwise been banned by censors (9).


*”War isn’t Hell. War is War and Hell is Hell, and of the two, War is a lot worse…. There are no innocent bystanders in Hell. War is chock full of them.” – Dr. Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce from the television series M*A*S*H





(3) Terraine, J. (1980). The Smoke and the Fire, Myths and Anti-myths of War 1861–1945 (Leo Cooper 1992 ed.). London: Sidgwick & Jackson. ISBN 0-85052-330-3.








Impressions of Impressionism


Boulevard Montmartre by Camille Pissarro, 1897.


The advent of Impressionism was a very important milestone of Western visual arts. Unlike those of styles that had emerged before them, Impressionistic paintings are not meant to have any symbolism or message. This style was a radical diversion from academic painting of its time, blending subjects and backgrounds of scenes and using highly unconventional coloring techniques (1).


Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sun Rising) by Claude Monet, 1872, from which the term “Impressionism” was coined (2).


There are many appealing aspects of Impressionism. While these paintings do not depict strong actions or stories (1), the complex usage of colors by many artists belonging to this style can be really interesting in its own right. In a manner similar to the Pointillism that eventually grew out of them (see below, Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte), Impressionistic works do not blend colors on the canvas, but rather use a mosaic of individual brushstrokes (3). Each of these is clearly discernible close up, but gives a complete image at normal viewing distances.


Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte) by Georges-Pierre Seurat, 1884, example of Pointillism.


While I do enjoy sharp lines and contrasting, there is an endearing quality to Impressionism’s constantly colorful nature. To it, shadows in light scenes are not black, and light in dark scenes is not bright. This muted effect of individual points blends together not by brushstroke, but by how we interpret the whole. This lack of sharp contrast can be very colorful too, as in how shadowing in lighter scenes is oftentimes just in darker shades than objects in the light of the scene.

The end result of this technique is a truly vibrant and dynamic coloration that must have been groundbreaking in its beginnings if one thinks about it. Consider another hugely popular style of this period: Realism (see below, Des Glaneuses), with its sterility in technique that certainly can be beautiful, but is highly refined and photographic in its results. Critics at the time and to this day regard Impressionism as looking unpolished and sketch-like, but the legions of its admirers and students have secured its place as one of the most influential forms in Western art history (4).


Des Glaneuses (Gleaners) by Jean-François Millet, 1857, example of Realism.







Les Arts partagés de la Révolution française (Shared Arts of the French Revolution)

Art and propaganda played a large role in the French Revolution, but an interesting aspect in that incredibly bloody period of France’s history was the way that both Royalists (Girondins) and Republicans (Jacobins) sometimes claimed the same pieces of art as their own. This is a good reminder of how civil wars tear at all aspects of a society. Below are a couple examples of artwork that were used by both pro- and counter-revolutionary causes.

Le Serment des Horaces (The Oath of the Horatii)

Jacques-Louis David

1784, Paris


King Louis XVI commissioned David to paint The Oath of the Horatii as a symbol of pro-State loyalty during the unrest preceding the Revolution. The artist had gained much popularity for Érasistrate découvrant la cause de la maladie d’Antiochius (Erasistratus Discovering the Cause of Antiochus’ Disease), which won the Prix de Rome and allowed David to study as an artist of the French government.

The Oath of the Horatii portrays a rather gruesome story of Roman mythology, in which three brothers from the Roman Horatius family are preparing for a battle to the death with three brothers from a rival family, the Curiatii. Weeping on the right side of the painting are women of the family, one of whom is married to a fighting Horatii brother and sister to the Curiatii brothers set to fight. Another is a Horatii sister and the fiancé of a Curiatius.

After the battle, the sole surviving brother returns to find the Curiatii wife grieving for her dead brothers and husband. Being reproached by her, the brother kills her for her disloyalty to her country. This painting, made several years before the Revolution began, was commissioned by Louis to be an allegory of the importance of placing loyalty to the State above that of the family, Church, or individual, even at great sacrifice (1).

Despite its loyalist beginnings, The Oath of the Horatii instead ironically became an iconic symbol of the virtues of the revolutionaries’ cause (2). David himself eventually voted to condemn Louis to death and advocated the abolition of the Academie francaise, which he had worked with for so long (3).

The painting itself shows David’s rather dramatic break from his previous Rococo mentors into Neoclassical style (1). The Oath of the Horatii is very linear, with the raised swords of the father both the focal point of the lines in the painting and the attention of the scene. An anachronistic Tuscan column is another reference to Republican Rome and an homage to its perceived virtues that were so popular in the Classical Era (4).

La Marseillaise, originally Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin (Warsong of the Army of the Rhine)

Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle

1792, Strasbourg

La Marseillaise is easily the most recognizable song of the French Revolution. Rouget de Lisle wrote the tune in 1792, and it was declared the French national anthem first in 1795 and again in 1879 after having been banned under the reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles X.

Here is an English translation of the lyrics:

Let’s go children of the fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny’s
Bloody flag is raised! (repeat)
In the countryside, do you hear
The roaring of these fierce soldiers?
They come right to our arms
To slit the throats of our sons, our friends!


Grab your weapons, citizens!
Form your battalions!
Let us march! Let us march!
May impure blood
Water our fields!

This horde of slaves, traitors, plotting kings,
What do they want?
For whom these vile shackles,
These long-prepared irons? (repeat)
Frenchmen, for us, oh! what an insult!
What emotions that must excite!
It is us that they dare to consider
Returning to ancient slavery!

What! These foreign troops
Would make laws in our home!
What! These mercenary phalanxes
Would bring down our proud warriors! (repeat)
Good Lord! By chained hands
Our brows would bend beneath the yoke!
Vile despots would become
The masters of our fate!

Tremble, tyrants! and you, traitors,
The disgrace of all groups,
Tremble! Your parricidal plans
Will finally pay the price! (repeat)
Everyone is a soldier to fight you,
If they fall, our young heros,
France will make more,
Ready to battle you!

Frenchmen, as magnanimous warriors,
Bear or hold back your blows!
Spare these sad victims,
Regretfully arming against us. (repeat)
But not these bloodthirsty despots,
But not these accomplices of Bouillé,
All of these animals who, without pity,
Tear their mother’s breast to pieces!

Sacred love of France,
Lead, support our avenging arms!
Liberty, beloved Liberty,
Fight with your defenders! (repeat)
Under our flags, let victory
Hasten to your manly tones!
May your dying enemies
See your triumph and our glory!


We will enter the pit
When our elders are no longer there;
There, we will find their dust
And the traces of their virtues. (repeat)
Much less eager to outlive them
Than to share their casket,
We will have the sublime pride
Of avenging them or following them!


Translated by Laura K. Lawless

La Marseillaise des Blancs

Found in a portfolio of Jacob Madé dit Sans Poil

1793, location of writing unavailable

As a response to the Republicans’ La Marseillaise, the Catholics and Royalists rewrote their own lyrics to the same tune. The blues referred to in the refrain are the Jacobins, or the pro-revolution army (6). Les Blancs, or “the Whites,” were the Royalists.


Arise, Catholic army
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us, the Republic’s
Bloody banner is raised (repeat)
Do you hear in our countryside the impure cries of the wretches?
Who come—unless our arms prevent them—to take our daughters, our wives!
To arms, Vendéeans!
Form your battalions!
March, march, the blood of the blues will redden our furrows!
What of the infamous heretics
Who would make the law in our homes?
What of the mercenary cowards
Who would crush us under their feet? (repeat)
And abominable Rodrigue
Infamous henchman of the demon
Who would settle in the house of our adorable Jesus?
Tremble you perverse and timid,
Before the bonfires of the adversaries
Tremble, your perfidious intrigues,
Shall finally receive their due (repeat)
All are raised to fight you
From Saint Jean d’Monts to Beaupréau,
From Angers to the town of Airvault,
Our lads want to only fight
Christians, true sons of the Church,
Reject your enemies and
The weakness and the servile fear
Which you see in a conquered country (repeat)
But these bloody “citizens,”
These allies of Camus, these treasonous and imposed priests
Are the cause of all our miseries
O Blessed Virgin Mary,
Lead and support our avenging arms!
Against an enemy gang,
fight alongside your zealous warriors! (repeat)
To your standards victory,
Is certainly assured
The regicides’ death,
Shall be your triumph and our glory!

Translated by Charles A. Coulombe



(3) French Painting 1774-1830: The Age of Revolution. (The Detroit Institute of the Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971), 358-9

(4) Lee, Simon. David. (London: Phaedon Press Limited, 1999), 88



Meanwhile, in the Protestant North (Baroque Period)



A Scene on the Ice, Kampen

By Hendrick Avercamp

ca. 1625


What I love about Hendrick Avercamp’s work is that it depicts such relatable and immersive scenes of life during the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic. His paintings of communal ice skating holidays are clear reflections of the rise of the Middle Class in the Protestant North of Europe. In the words of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, “unencumbered by status, all classes formed one community on the ice (2010).” The scene of this particular painting here shows the invigorating amusement of the skaters set against the harshness of the Dutch winters of the period.

By breaking from the patronage of the Catholic Church in the aftermath of the Reformation, artists in the newly Protestant regions were forced to cater to a new, more secular demographic. In modern-day Holland, this support of the arts came from the developing merchant classes, who were very enthusiastic to show their new status in the form of owning artwork .

These patrons represented a variety of tastes and wealth, and thus subject matter and media of the visual arts became extraordinarily diversified. While oils on canvas was still quite popular, usage of wood, pen, and ink made art accessible and affordable to many of the Middle Class. Smaller pieces that could be displayed easily in the private homes of everyday people became a thriving market (Camara, accessed 2013).

Avercamp himself was born to a prosperous merchant family in Amsterdam in 1585 before moving to Kampen a year later. As a mute, his disability affected many aspects of his life, however his paintings pioneered 17th Century Dutch landscape styles (The National Gallery, London, accessed 2013).



The National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Dr. Esperança Camara. Khan Academy.

The National Gallery, London.

Image courtesy of WebMuseum, Paris:

A Piece From the Italian Renaissance

Nanni di Banco’s Four Crowned Martyr Saints


Orsanmichele, Florence, Italy, c. 1410-1417


Influences of Classical Roman sculpting are clearly represented in the Four Crowned Martyr Saints. The figures look very similar to sculpted marble depictions of Marc Anthony and Marcus Aurelius in their styling and postures (National Gallery of Art, 2013). The Saints are also shown wearing togas in Roman fashion (Zucker & Harris, n.d.).

The Orsanmichele provided alcoves in its walls for ornamentation by different Florentine guilds. The Stonemasons’ Guild commissioned di Banco to create this piece for their place on the church’s outer wall, from which the piece has since been moved.

The Humanistic elements shown by the sculptures of these men are very well manifested. Unlike those sculptures provided by other guilds for their alcoves, di Banco decided to show not one man but four. Rather than one saint shown alone with implied conversations with God, the Four Saints (who were sculptors themselves) are conversing amongst each other, depicting the moment that they reach the decision to be put to death rather than be commissioned by Roman Emperor Diocletian to sculpt a tribute to a pagan god (Zucker & Harris, n.d.). One man is speaking as the others listen, clearly weighing his words carefully though not looking directly at him.

The striking thing about these men is how lifelike they are, and how the strength of the emotions about them is clear and believable. Without any use of exaggeration on di Banco’s part, one can readily empathize with the way that the men are interacting with each other and the gravity of their conversation.


Learn more at these links:

Zucker, S. and B. Harris. Nanni di Banco’s Four Crowned Saints. Khan Academy., n.d. Web.

“Nanni di Banco.” National Gallery of Art., 2013. Web.


Photo from: