Celebrating life’s minutiae

‘Cocktails’ (1926) by Archibald Motley © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Earlier this week, I was invited to a friend’s house to help celebrate Halloween. The plan was simple: to sit out on the steps and give sweets to the cute, costume-clad kids who came trick-or-treating through the neighbourhood, that very American ritual of going door to door every October 31, asking strangers for candy.

It was a gorgeous cool evening and as I sat with my friend and his husband on the front stoop, the sidewalk was filled with this radiant energy of people of all ages out with an air of celebration. I saw an entire family dressed as characters from Beauty and the Beast — the grandmother was the candlestick. There was a little boy dressed as a captain with an intricately crafted cardboard Titanic hanging around his waist, his father trailing behind him in an outfit that matched the one worn by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the film.

It was a joyful evening simply because it felt so good to be celebrating something communally. It left me thinking about how, besides recognised holidays or formal rituals such as baby or wedding showers, our collective celebrations are few and far between. Why don’t we celebrate on a more regular basis the smaller occurrences in our lives? After all, to celebrate something is simply to acknowledge some element of joy and express gratitude for it — and couldn’t we all use more of that attentive awareness in our daily lives?

The 1859 oil painting “The Evil Eye” by Scottish painter John Phillip was one of many works the artist created after a visit to Spain in 1851. It is a beautiful, golden-hued picture that illustrates the superstitious belief of protecting oneself from the evil eye of envy, ill intent and bad luck. In the foreground, a woman in a tent glares out in the direction of an artist. He’s walking by, glancing at her and sketching; she stares at him and with one hand casts the sign of horns on her fingers towards him, a traditional defence against the evil eye. In the painting, standing between the woman and the artist is a young boy holding a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, a sign of abundance, perhaps symbolising what needs to be protected.

Across cultures and throughout history from ancient Greece and Rome to the Middle East, parts of Asia and Africa, the idea of the evil eye is that anyone who looks upon your life with envy can bring harm or bad fortune to your life, even unintentionally. Because of this, it’s customary in certain cultures for people to refrain from sharing their successes, or talking openly about the things they are proud of.

Painting of an artist drawing a picture of a woman who sits under a canopy and is giving him a hostile hand gesture
‘The Evil Eye’ (1859) by John Philip © Stirling Smith Museum and Art Gallery

I’ve known women from certain countries who chose to hide their pregnancy for as long as physically possible, or who make sure to wear a nazar amulet, the little blue eye bead, out of this belief. I think on some level, even many of us wonder if it’s best not to publicly celebrate or draw attention to oneself when good things are happening. It’s even apparent in our casual idiom of “not wanting to jinx things”. So instead of openly delighting in the small wins or joys of our lives with others, we shrink back from the fear of sounding boastful or incurring negative energy by exposing ourselves. And yet, in Phillip’s painting, even if the image can be viewed in a negative way as a caricature of a “superstitious gypsy”, I also see a positive take in the fact it’s the woman who fears that what she has might be coveted by the European man in his suit and hat. It is a recognition that what she possesses and who she is has its own value.

I love the 1926 painting “Cocktails” by Archibald Motley, a modernist painter prominent during the Harlem Renaissance era. A contemporary of Edward Hopper, Motley showcased his own depictions of urban life in America, highlighting black identity. There are a few subtle but lovely ways this work speaks about a celebratory life. First, I like that it depicts a group of five black women talking and laughing around a table, drinking. It’s not a random public gathering but women who have chosen their circle.

At various points in our lives, we might have people we know well but with whom we do not necessarily feel we can earnestly share our joy and celebrations. For a host of reasons, some of which might be personal struggles and disappointments in their own lives, they may not be able to hold the necessary space for these celebratory moments, and trying to share with them might actually end up dampening our own energy or making them feel bad. There’s something to be said for knowing to whom to take your joy, as well as your pain.

In this painting, presumably the women feel close enough and safe enough with one another to share their joy, even in illicit circumstances. Painted in the prohibition era, the presence of alcohol shows a refusal to submit to a restrictive approach to life. But even more than the liquor is the painting of three European monks hanging on the wall behind the group of ladies, their solemn meeting directly in opposition to the joyful camaraderie of the women.

All this seems to suggest there is something rebellious about freeing ourselves to recognise and celebrate daily aspects of our regular lives with one another when we have been conditioned against it. This might be because of an overzealous work ethic, conservative religious tradition, or a society that suggests that only certain people’s lives are worth celebrating.

It might be tempting to wave off the idea of celebrating the “little things” as overly sentimental or even childish. But to practise a more quotidian discipline of tracking joy would make us more attentive to our lives in a deeper and more expansive way, perhaps catching all manner of unexpected awarenesses. I love Romare Bearden’s 1978 collage work “Mecklenburg County, Maudell Sleet’s Magic Garden”. It was created as part of a series in which he reflected on his childhood in North Carolina, celebrating the innocent joys he encountered on a daily basis in his community. This piece is an ode to an older neighbour who tended her garden regularly and would often greet a young Bearden with flowers or blueberries. Viewers can make out the collage figure of the woman with her hands immersed in the flowers in her garden, making it difficult to tell where she ends, and the garden begins.

I love this artwork as a reflection of seeking to celebrate the mundane minutiae of our lives on a daily basis. There are so many ways that a garden can stand as a metaphor for our lives, what we plant in it, pluck from it, weed out of it. It’s not lost on me that out of the verdant garden of this woman’s life she was able to provide experiences worth celebrating for others such as Bearden who crossed her path. Experiences he recalled and memorialised decades later in these works. I also love that Bearden created this work as a collage, finding and selecting and bringing together bits and pieces to form a new thing worth celebrating, which I think is sometimes what our lives call us to: to find the things worth celebrating among the patchwork of our experiences and relationships.

Follow Enuma on Twitter @EnumaOkoro or email her at [email protected]

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