Maroon Aesthetics in Suriname, South America:
Textiles and Story-Telling Techniques

[Note: 'Maroon' refers to escaped slaves and their descendents in the Caribbean and parts of South America.]

[In Suriname, for special occasions the men wear capes made up of narrow strips of different fabric sewn together. The aesthetic principles of these fabrics show strong links to the narrow-strip weaving techniques central to West African cultures.]

Sharp color contrasts are a primary goal. The center strips should "shine" or "burn," and each strip should "raise up" those next to it. The end of an embroidery thread is often carried away from the main design into the background area before it is knotted--a way, Saramakas explain, of "dressing up" the cloth through extra color contrasts and interconnections.

The tendency to crosscut linear patterns, to interrupt the main grain of a design, is a recurrent feature. When the bands of a calabash carving are crosscut with secondary incisions, Saramkas explian that the artist is "dressing up" the design. Likewise, the structure of everyday speech, prayer, tale-telling, song, drumming, and dance requires frequent cuts or interruptions in the form of response, digressions, and sudden shifts in style.

Conversation is punctuated by a listener, who offers supportive comments such as "That's right," "Yes, indeed," or "Not at all." When Maroon men living and working on the Suriname coast send tape-recorded messages back to their villages, pauses are left after each phrase, and the conversation assumes its proper two-party comment-and-response form once it is played.

In one evening of tale-telling, not only is one person's tale followed by someone else's, but each story is interrupted at several points by shorter tales narrated by still other people. A typical sequence in a tale-telling session would be: A (the first tale of the session) is interrupted by B which is followed by the continuation of A which is interrupted by the end of B which is followed by the continuation of A which is interrupted by C which is interrupted by the whole of D which is followed by the continuation of A which is interrupted by the end of C which is followed by the end of A.

Another widespread feature of Maroon story-telling performance is the creative use of indirection or ellipses, the art of allusion through proverbs and other condensed verbal or gestural forms, as well as other spontaneous or conventional means of avoiding direct reference.

Playfulness, creativity, and improvisation pervade everyday conversation, making even ordinary speech a lively art. Newly invented elliptical phrases frequently substitute for standard words so that, for example, a watch becomes a "back of the wrist motor," food "under-the-nose material," and a footstool "the rump's rejoicing."

-- adapted from Sally and Richard Price, Afro-American Arts of the Suriname Rain Forest (Berkeley: Univ. Press of California, 1980).


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Peter Schmidt
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