Exchange

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Maasai peoples, Kenya, warriors in costume. Faces obscured by request. Photo by Donna K. Pido.

In many African languages, innovation is implied in the word for tradition and is both celebrated and exalted. But innovation must conform to a culture's sense of appropriateness, beauty, and order. Among Maasai peoples of Kenya and Tanzania for example, for whom clothing and adornment are extremely important expressions of identity and self, ornaments often include recycled materials: zippers, buttons, and ballpoint pen caps. But even these additions to the artistic repertoire must conform to the complex and very rigid color coding that organizes the Maasai world, or what might be called “the principle of anomalous duality.” Plastic, with its proliferation of bright colors, gives Maasai people a wider range of possibilities for expressing their own aesthetic principles with recycled material. For Maasai, recycled objects are not adopted unless they conform to the symbolic code that informs the Maasai system of ornament.