The Fern

Though Dr. Yang has moved on to discussing ecology in General Biology II, my favorite unit would have to be the one we began with, wherein I learned about plant species diversity. I (re-)learned that all plants can be classified into four groups: Non-vascular plants, seedless vascular plants, gymnosperms, and angiosperms. One such member of the seedless vascular plants is the fern, an extremely durable, yet dainty plant that is heavily featured within Steve Prince’s “Song for Aya,” as Prince himself pointed out during his “Kitchen Talk” lecture held at SUNY Geneseo.

The fern is most present in the second piece of “Communal Resurrection: Song for Aya” in the earring of the woman who takes the foreground of that section of the piece. Prince, in his talk, explained that the fern motif is one that is carried throughout the entire piece, and demonstrated such by walking over to his projected image and tracing out the leaf patterns with his hands. Once Prince had pointed out the fern’s ubiquitous presence, I could not unsee it. It was clearly present in the singing woman’s earring, but I began to notice it in other places, as well.

For example, the lines adorning the clothing of the individuals dancing in the first panel appear to carry fern motifs, as do the sinews of the dancers. Additionally, in the second panel, a broad, fern-like leaf seems to be emanating from the presumable DJ’s elbow, and the clothing of the two individuals that make up the foreground is extremely plant-like and filled with movement and life. The fern motif is even present in the Prince’s shading of the woman carrying the fern earring’s face.

When Prince first pointed out the abundance of ferns within his work, I did not know how to interpret the significance of their repetitive presence, though I remembered learning about their durability and a myriad of other traits this past semester in General Biology. It was not until Dr. McCoy encouraged the class to look back to “Communal Ressurection: Song for Aya” with respect to the Adinkra symbols housed within the piece, that I began to put the pieces together.

Adinkra are defined as symbols that were created by the Ashanti of Ghana and the Gyaman of the Côte D’Ivoire. Adinkra were used in fabrics, pottery, and on walls, in both decorative and ritual settings. They served to convey “traditional wisdom, aspects of life or the environment,” as well as proverbs. Interestingly, Adinkra were usually made through woodcut sign writing and fabric screen printing, thereby correlating to the medium, linocut, wherein Prince typically incorporates the symbols into his work.

So, I decided to investigate and followed the link Dr. McCoy provided to symbols.com. There, I found a host of symbols, some of which I recognized from Prince’s other works, such as the Adinkrahene. After scouring through their list of Adinkra symbols, I finally stumbled across the one I was looking for, that of the fern. However, to my gleeful surprise, I found that the fern symbol is referred to as “Aya,” a word I immediately recognized from the title of the piece I was attempting to interpret. According to symbols.com, the Aya is symbolic of “endurance and resourcefulness” due to the fern plant’s hardiness and ability “to grow in difficult places.” Symbols.com further stipulates that the presence of the Aya symbol indicates that one has overcome much adversity in one’s lifetime.

From a botanical standpoint, this information holds true. Ferns are extremely resilient plants, evidenced by the length of their existence on Earth. Indeed, ferns first entered the geological record 360 million years ago, in the late Devonian period; however, the fern species still existing today only appeared 145 million years ago, in the early Cretaceous period.

But, what causes this resiliency in ferns? Accessing what I learned and then taught as a supplemental instructor, ferns represent durable plants due to their reproductive structures. Ferns, along with all seedless vascular plants, undergo two phases in their life cycles, that of sporophyte and gametophyte. In the case of ferns, the sporophyte is much larger and longer lived than the gametophyte, which is unusual as far as plants go. The sporophyte is responsible for the fern’s resilience, as the sporophyte contains structures known as sporangium, which open in dry, or otherwise adverse conditions, and allow spores to be carried on breezes towards better prospects. These spores, upon landing on a promising patch of earth, develop into gametophytes, and once said gametophytes become fertilized, grow into the sporophyte structure that is depicted throughout Prince’s work.

Thus, ferns are durable due to the sporophyte’s sporangium and their ability to open and release spores in times of duress. Therefore, new ferns are born from the adversities experienced by the sporophytes from which whose sporangium they emerged. This idea, of birth from destruction, reminded me of the Baby Dolls and the unlikely restorative effect Hurricane Katrina wrought upon them. The protecting power of destruction was and is made apparent in Dr. Vaz-Deville’s lecture and in the essays of Tee Eva Perry. The former cites Hurricane Katrina as an event that instigated the reinstallation of the Baby Doll masking tradition, as the devastation and loss New Orleans collectively experienced served as an impetus for many to safeguard and restore what they had (nearly) lost. Similarly, Tee Eva Perry, in her essay on the life of Miss Antoinette K-Doe, claims that Miss Antoinette began her own troupe of Baby Dolls and named them after her late husband, Ernie, in order to keep his name and memory alive.

While destruction, loss, and adversity played a role in the reestablishment and restoration of the Baby Doll masking tradition, the cataclysms that caused such suffering, should not be romanticized or regarded as necessary. Rather, one should acknowledge that they occurred and recognize the strength of those individuals who were able to take such devastation and transform it, giving new life to that which was almost destroyed. The same caution should be afforded to Prince’s piece, “Communal Ressurection: Song for Aya,” as it too depicts resilience in the face of adversity and injustice, all the while utilizing the fern to emphasize this theme.

Indeed, Prince’s first panel alludes to the Cotton Club, an all-white nightclub that featured many of the prominent black artists and entertainers of the day. Langston Hughes, upon attending performances at the club, called it a “Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites” and commented upon how the entirely white audiences viewed the black performers as exotic and subhuman. It is interesting that Prince makes an allusion to such a racist and damaging part of American culture, and surrounds said allusion with dancing figures who seem not to dance for an audience, but for their own benefit and self-expression, instead.

Furthermore, I interpret the juxtaposition of the Cotton Club with the passionate movements of the dancing figures to echo the Aya symbol and represent resiliency and rebirth from adversity. Just as the fern is able to grow through harsh conditions, black Americans were able to sustain and create forms of entertainment that were meant for their own enjoyment, and not the enjoyment of the monied whites whom Hughes describes. The fern’s presence here is felt not only metaphorically, but also visually, as the dancer’s clothing features patterns which resemble the fronds of a fern.

This idea is echoed throughout Prince’s work as the panel progresses to unveil other agents of racism and exploitation, such as American slavery, referenced through the presence of cotton plants in the first section, and America’s prison system, referenced through the architecture featured in the final panel. At the same time, Prince’s work also represents the life and culture, particularly, in the forms of music and dance, that managed to be sustained despite the presence of the oppressive aforementioned agents and their attempts to exploit said life and culture.

Again, one must refrain from romanticizing and regarding the impetuses to resilience and rebirth as necessary in any way. However, one can still appreciate the significance of the fern, or Aya, within Prince’s piece as an emblem of resilience and thereby a reminder of the way in which black Americans have persevered in a society that unjustly provided, and unfortunately, still provides, them with much adversity.

 

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