Discovering Rastafari!

Review

of an Exhibition

by Lola Pyne

Published on January 21, 2009

  • Description:

    Discovering Rastafari! provides a fascinating peek into the history, beliefs, and practices of Rastafarian peoples. Though small, the exhibition’s multi-layered displays offer an informative introduction and thoroughly immerse the visitor through sight, sound, and word. The exhibition provides a narrative that offers a greater understanding and appreciation of this cultural movement beyond mainstream depictions of dreadlocks and reggae music.

    The Discovering Rastafari! exhibition is on display indefinitely at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. It is located in a small room off the entry to the museum’s African Voices exhibition. The size of the space is at first jarring, but one soon discovers there is a lot to soak up for much is packed into the tight area.

    “Rastafari is a cultural, religious, and revolutionary movement that began in Jamaica in the 1930s. Inspired by Biblical prophecy and the teachings of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, followers of Rastafari identify themselves as Africans seeking to return to the continent. Early Rastafari drew upon ideas of African pride and unity, coupling them with local Jamaican traditions to forge a unique way of life. Today the movement has spread around the world, empowering people of African descent and embracing people of all races.”

    Thus begins the exhibition with this initial text panel, and the tone is set for the story that follows.

    A series of text panels line the railing around the room’s perimeter outlining a narrative that starts at entry with Emperor Haile Selassie I in Ethiopia and flows in a clockwise direction through Jamaica to the present day. Born Ras Tafari Makonnen in 1892 and crowned prince regent of Ethiopia in 1916, a good deal of content is devoted to outlining the life, achievements, and significance of Emperor Haile Selassie I as the originating symbol of the movement. Achievements such as his coronation, the successful resistance of Italian invasions in the 1930s, and his landmark visit to Jamaica in 1966 are highlighted.

    In addition to rail paneling, large text panels mounted to the walls introduce the main exhibition themes and punctuate object displays. Main themes include Father of African Nationhood, Ethiopia Stretches Forth Her Hands, Marcus Garvey Leads the Way, Roots Reggae: The King’s Music, and Rastafari: A Sacred Way of Life. The majority of the text panels begin with a biblical quote that serves to emphasize the prominent role of religion for Rastafarians. Key ideas and individuals explored include Ethiopianism — “a philosophy that equates the Biblical enslavement and liberation of the ancient Israelites to the experience of enslaved Africans”, Marcus Garvey — who taught that Haile Selassie was the messiah, and Bob Marley — whose music exposed Rastafari to the world.

    Diverse artifacts representing the content themes are encased in displays behind the railing. Historical to contemporary objects include a signed portrait of Emperor Selassie I with the official seal, an illuminated Bible, newspaper articles, album covers, ceremonial dress, and actual photographs of Rastafarians.

    All of this information is presented against the backdrop of artwork and images of Rastafarians that line the walls from floor to ceiling. The palette is green, yellow and red, the colors of the Ethiopian flag, which are also associated with Rastafari.

    Graphic panel presentations in the room’s center cover overarching themes of Rastafari influence. On one side, a map and photograph display depicts the influence of Rastafari in Africa. The other side of the display discusses the influence of Rastafari throughout the world. This layer of information illuminates the reach of this movement in geographical terms.

    Perhaps the exhibition’s most salient feature is the mounted screen video that offers various first-person accounts. On seating on a bench built for two, visitors are treated to a looping video in which individual voices underscore the words and pictures of the exhibition. A documentary-style presentation heavy with interviews contains bite-size video segments that mirror the exhibition themes and sub-themes from the text panels. Diverse subjects discuss what it means to be Rastafarian, how it shapes their world-views, and the impact and significance it has on their day-to-day lives.

    Discovering Rastafari! offers a rich and diverse presentation that can appeal to various audience learning styles with content that attempts to tell an honest and comprehensive story. The exhibition is at once text-heavy, laden with imagery, abundant in artifacts, and a story told from the outside and inside. Rastafarianism is introduced in a multi-faceted way, touching on history, religion, politics, beliefs, music, dress, art, and custom – many of the facets of a peoples’ culture. The abundance of information and the multi-layered exhibition design lend itself expertly to the experience of cultural discovery and the exhibition lives up to its name.

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