Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Tree-lined Road Abloom

I’ve been reading more fantasy lately than is typical for me. One of the novels paid more attention to everyday colors than Anglo-American fantasy writing tends to do, which turned my brain onto thinking about colors in our environments.

This photo of a tree-lined road with masses of flowers in Parkview, Johannesburg, South Africa, certainly grabbed my attention:

Tumblr Isle of Skye Tree-lined Road in Parkview Johannesburg S Africa

It’s not that I haven’t seen purple or fuchsia flowers on trees or bushes, or tree-lined roads, or tall trees. I just haven’t seen tall trees with purple flowers lining roads before. Fantastic!

Image by traveltrotters_za, found via Isle of Skye on Tumblr

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?


Ryan Coogler Is Developing a Wakanda Series for TV

Fantastic news for Wakanda fans! reports that “[a]ccording to Deadline, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler has made a 5-year television deal with Disney. His first scheduled project will be a drama set in Wakanda that will be featured on Disney+.”

Flickering Myth Coogler Black Panther Set w Boseman

Apparently developing this series is a part of a broader deal between Coogler’s production company Proximity Media and Disney.

Although we don’t have any other details yet, not even a tentative name, I’m pretty excited. I absolutely loved Black Panther, and as long as he keeps—or is allowed to keep—to that ethos, I have high hopes for the series!

Image via Flickering Myth.

Black Mermaids Aren’t Far-Fetched

A little while ago there was an Internet brou-ha-ha over Disney’s decision to cast singer Halle Bailey as Ariel in their upcoming live action version of The Little Mermaid. The harrumph is due to Bailey’s skin color.

I say the uproar is silly—it’s a fairytale, and if there’s one carved-in-stone-truth about fairytales it’s that they must and do change with the times. (Besides, I haven’t heard Bailey sing, but apparently she’s got an amazing voice. Scratch that: here’s a video clip of her singing “Unforgettable”, and her voice is indeed awesome. Talent is talent despite the shell it comes in.)

But in case someone’s arguing how black mermaids aren’t historical or some other claptrap (not even starting on mermaids being fictional to begin with), allow me to present a statue of one:

Smithsonian Dona Fish Statue Angola

This statue depicts Dona Fish, part of the many Mami Wata traditions of Africa. As a water spirit that straddles earth and water, she often appears with the head and torso of a woman and the tail of a fish—i.e., just like a (western) mermaid.

Smithsonian had an exhibit on Mami Wata, and some materials are still available online. I encourage you to visit.

Found via Mahealani Uchiyama on Facebook.

Image: Dona Fish, photo by Don Cole via Smithsonian National Museum of African Art  (Ovimbundu peoples, Angola; c. 1950s-1960s; wood, pigment, metal, mixed media)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Striking Iron: A New Exhibition at the National Museum of African Art

One of the current exhibits at the National Museum of African Art is “Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths”. It focuses on blacksmithing in sub-Saharan Africa and features works dating from the 17th century to recent times: not just weapons, but other tools and implements such as musical instruments.

The range and design of shapes is truly impressive. Below are just some of the examples.

Smithsonian African Art Iron Exhibit Ceremonial Knives

I wasn’t familiar with the concept of rain wands (image below) before. They were planted in the earth with the intention of drawing the life force of the Earth up toward the heavens in order to bring down rain.

Smithsonian African Art Iron Exhibit Rain Wands

Various kinds of sound instruments are also displayed, including lamellophones.

Smithsonian African Art Iron Exhibit Lamellophone

And, since it’s ironworking, there are weapons.

Smithsonian African Art Iron Exhibit Double-bladed Dagger

I’m especially struck by the multiple elaborate curls of the ceremonial knives and the rain wand in the shape of a three-headed snake. Simply stunning.

The exhibition runs until October 20, 2019.

Found via NPR—make sure to visit the article for more photos!

Images: Ceremonial knives by Olivia Sun for NPR (Democratic Republic of the Congo; 19th century; iron). Rain wands by Olivia Sun for NPR (Nigeria; iron). Lamellophone (chisanji) via Smithsonian (Chokwe artist, Angola; late 19th century; wood and iron). Double-bladed dagger by Olivia Sun for NPR (late 19th-century Sudan; iron, bone, and crocodile skin).

Great Zimbabwe

Aerial view of part of the Great Zimbabwe complex. Photograph by Janice Bell
Aerial view of part of the Great Zimbabwe complex, photograph by Janice Bell via Wikimedia

Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city in Zimbabwe (and in fact has given the modern country its name). Built over centuries beginning in the 9th century, the site was a center of power for the medieval Shona (or Kalanga) kingdom and part of the trade networks that spanned the Indian Ocean. It was abandoned in the 15th century and stands in ruins today, but even in its ruined state it is impressive.

Wall of the great enclosure. Photograph by Jens Klinzing.
Wall of the great enclosure, photograph by Jens Klinzing via Wikimedia

The remains of numerous stone enclosures spread over hundreds of hectares. At its height, Great Zimbabwe may have housed between 15,000 and 20,000 people. The surviving walls reach heights of five meters and are built of stone blocks assembled without mortar. Several different complexes occupy different positions ranging from hills to near the river. The significance of these different complexes remains unclear, but it may indicate that the center of settlement gradually moved over time, away from the more defensible hill sites to the more accessible valley sites, perhaps to better engage with the oceanic trade networks. Ivory and gold were Great Zimbabwe’s major international exports and trade goods from the Arabian peninsula and China have been found at the site.

Interior walkway showing the quality of the stonework. Uploaded by Vinz.
Interior walkway showing the quality of the stonework via Wikimedia

One noteworthy feature of the enclosures is their shape: neither rectangular nor circular but irregular curved shapes adapted to the forms of the landscape on which they sit.

In the colonial period, popular theories held that the site must have been built by ancient European or Asian colonizers. The biblical Queen of Sheba was often mentioned in connection with the site. Although archaeologists realized as early as the early twentieth century that Great Zimbabwe had been built by Africans, the colonial administration in what was then Rhodesia suppressed any such claim. The assertion that Africans were incapable of building such a complex site and needed European guidance to achieve any level of civilization was key to the justification of imperial domination. Colonial authorities could not tolerate any evidence that Africans were capable of creating sophisticated works of art and architecture on their own.

Part of the hill complex seen from the valley below. Photograph by Macvivo.
Part of the hill complex seen from the valley below, photograph by Macvivo via Wikimedia

Thoughts for writers

I have two reasons for sharing a little bit of Great Zimbabwe.

First, it is another example of architecture that does not depend on European examples. When doing our worldbuilding as writers, it is easy to fall back on the things that are familiar: European castles, Egyptian pyramids, Greek temples, and the other things we’ve seen before. Let yourself be inspired by the other amazing things people have built. I’d love to see a city inspired by Great Zimbabwe at its height turn up in a fantasy story, even one not set in an explicitly African-inspired world.

Second, this is another example of how politics can screw up good historical scholarship and so why you need to read broadly and get outside familiar frames of reference. Even today, while the Queen of Sheba is generally left out of it, claims that Great Zimbabwe was built by Arabs or Phoenicians still occasionally creep into popular histories.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.