Showing how Black people led the way to civilisation
In the year 10,000BC Black people led the way, creating tools, domesticating animals and exploring the science, art and cultivation of plants.
It is where Melodye Micere Van Putten decided to begin the history lesson she created as part of her graduate studies at Temple University some 30 years ago.
With the support of Ashay University Bermuda, a community that grew out of the continuing education programme she started in 2013, she was able to transform her African Foundation Timeline into a mobile exhibit that is now on display at the Bermuda Society of Arts.
“We were taking a course on African history and the final assignment was to create a timeline, no parameters. I decided I would create a timeline in 1000-year increments that would give a bird’s-eye-view of the kinds of things that African people created that we, generally speaking, do not learn about.”
She used it as a tool in the classes she taught children on Black history and culture, and then a few years ago it was suggested it become a mural.
“We decided in the end that, rather than putting a timeline in a fixed place, we would create a mobile timeline that we could put up, that we could take down, that we could take to various sites, that we could have outside … whatever the case might be.
“It is a major educational art piece,” said Ms Van Putten, who is proud that it was funded by the Ashay community rather than individuals or corporations not involved with the group.
Members donated between $50 and $100; their contribution is acknowledged on the back of the 16ft by 4½ft display that artist Angela Ming-Bean helped pull together.
“My vision for what it means to be conscious is to understand that freedom is not free. And so if we are engaged in learning the history on a regular basis then we have to understand that lesson and be willing to use our resources to extend the message of liberation, consciousness, knowledge in a way that makes sense,” said Ms Van Putten, a writer, poet, community activist and public speaker.
“Everybody contributed their talents and their skills to make it happen. There were people on the planning committee, people who did research about what materials that we should use; there was the company who customised the fabric for the timeline … So there was a bunch of people that were intimately involved in every aspect of making this timeline happen but we all get the credit as an Ashay U community because we worked together, we put our resources together and created something that we could not do individually as ordinary people in terms of the amount of money that the timeline and all the accouterments cost.”
To make the timeline she created as an Africology student more relevant to Bermuda, she added important landmarks in the island’s history. Doing so also helped “ensure that Bermuda saw its history within the larger context of the global black history story”.
“So there is now a section that has Mary Prince; that has the poison plot. It has the emancipation dates of Bermuda, the UK, the US, again to give greater context and specifically the Bermuda piece within the larger global history.”
The timeline is the product of the “dozens of history books” she then had access to; Ms Van Putten received an ‘A’ for her efforts.
“All of this information that I was learning was wondrous to me. There was a certain level of angst really – why did I not know this? [By the time] I went to graduate school I was already an adult. So part of what I was trying to do also was translate the information that I could teach to children, beginning with my own child.”
The timeline took about 18 months to organise. It was presented to the public in 2018 and has “been displayed at a number of sites, including Cedar Avenue Community Centre and the library of Bermuda College”.
The Africologist then took the idea of hosting an exhibit at the BSoA to the gallery’s director Nzingha Ming.
“When we mounted it the first time she was really just blown away by the beauty of the timeline but also we decorated the exhibit space with African fabric,” Ms Van Putten said.
“I have travelled to Africa a number of times and bring back all kinds of beautiful wares and so the walls are totally decorated with fabric from Ghana and Senegal and Gambia – it is just beautiful. We created and transformed the space so the timeline’s not sitting in a stark white space. It’s sitting in a space that it feels like that’s where it belongs.”
Feedback was fantastic at the exhibit’s opening on February 9. As an unexpected bonus, it attracted the interest of “30-somethings” there to see Thoughts by Canvas, a display in the larger Onions Gallery featuring the works of Dejavon Paynter, Neal Jhay Morris, Kyle James and Carlos Santana.
“When we had the [joint] opening, those artists had all of their friends come and of course they came into the timeline,” Ms Van Putten said. “I gave about a dozen or so mini lectures on the timeline that night in the span of two hours with all of the young people who were coming for the larger exhibit in the major space but would come into the timeline space and marvel and write their comments.”
Some described the timeline as “inspiring”; others were just excited to absorb what was, for them, new information.
Said Ms Van Putten: “There have always been the comments: ‘I didn’t learn any of this in school.’ So lots of those kind of comments as well.”
The African Foundation Timeline will be on display in the Edinburgh Gallery of the Bermuda Society of Arts through March 10