By Charlotte Atkins
In 2009, the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism decided the Moko Jumbie would be a welcoming image for its logo, but the Moko Jumbie has been a cultural symbol in the Virgin Islands for more than two centuries.
The colorful and agile stilt walkers and dancers are a tradition that was brought to the Caribbean from Africa. Moko Jumbies were said to have originally been used to ward off evil spirits, or “jumbies,” by making a mockery of them.
These days they are vibrant ambassadors for the Virgin Islands, welcoming visitors arriving at the St. Thomas airport and cruise ship docks and towering over carnival festivities and other revelous celebrations.
Commissioner Joseph B. Boschulte of the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, says, “Moko Jumbies are a cherished symbol of the U.S. Virgin Islands and have been part of our cultural history for more than 200 years. A juxtaposition of our ancestral African history and modern Caribbean art. We call them the guardians of our culture, and we continue to honor their legacy during our celebrations across the islands, and importantly, share them with the world through USVI Tourism’s department logos.”
Moko Jumbie dancers here are men, women, and youngsters of all ages. Perched on stilts, they entertain and astound with their balance and agility.
“Moko” means healer in Central African language. That’s apropos for artist Nick Heinemann, who has created several pieces celebrating Moko Jumbies. The giclée artwork featured on one of the two Spring edition covers of this magazine was his first Moko Jumbie piece.
“This piece took me out of my private comfort zone and pushed me to become more creative. In a sense, this piece was a healer for me. Since then, I have created many of various Moko Jumbies,” he says.
He shared that his original piece features the world famous Moko Jumbie, Yisrael Petersen, a lifelong protector of the Moko Jumbie culture. Petersen is a self-taught legendary Moko Jumbie. He skillfully performs on 13’ to 15’ high stilts. Born and raised on St. Thomas, he was recruited at age 9 to be part of the first Moko Jumbie troupe in the early 1970s. Through his passion and talent for stilt dancing, he has successfully showcased the Virgin Island’s culture across the United States and the Caribbean.
Says Heinemann, who continues to capture the stilt performers in his images,“Moko jumbies, for me, are subjects with so much more than the colors of their outfit. They embody the true greatness of humanity. Being protectors, healers and cultural guardians, their presence brings happiness and grace to the moment.
“From an artistic aspect, the Moko Jumbie gives depth to an image. It marries the sky and land with combinations of colors or poses. Having Moko Jumbies included in my work connects to the cultural aspects of my life interests. The world is so much bigger than just outside our front doors. When one ventures out to discover culture and history, they become wiser and more compassionate about life. “
Moko jumbies are most certainly part of rich and vibrant fabric of Virgin Islands culture and history. And now that Carnival and other celebrations are being resumed in the islands, Moko Jumbies will no doubt be front and center.
Nick Heinemann’s artwork can be viewed on his website www.heinemannimages.com