Sensoria

The sensory dimensions of art and culture

Jasmine: The Smell of Revolution

Unconscious, Invisible, Inaudible Anthems Of Group Mind

Group identity is forged in many different ways, including sensory stimuli. In the visual realm, common symbols of allegiance, such as the national flag, solidify our connection to a larger group. Aurally, music works in the same way: The Star-Spangled Banner, for example, triggers strong emotional and patriotic responses in different settings, and different genres of music build sub-communities. Olfaction is no less a stimulus for collective responses. There are intrinsic links between geographic locations, environmental smells, and human behavior around the world. The scent of a simple flower can connect people in unexpected ways, working as unconscious, invisible, and inaudible anthems of group mind. The chemistry of a floral scent becomes imprinted subconsciously in the minds of people long exposed to its molecular structures, leading ultimately to a collective memory and identity forged through the scent itself.

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Years ago, I set out to find the most important natural scents to humans in order to make what I call a "world scent". What was the most popular? Jasmine. Jasmine shrubs, with their soulful complex scent, are a dominant plant of the Middle East and North Africa. The scent is part of the population's common sensory chemistry, a familiarity imprinted in long-term memory.

Throughout the Middle East and beyond, the odor molecules of Jasmine, which blooms almost continuously in that part of the world, are significant and meaningful in varying ways. A notable attribute of the intense, sweet essence emitted from the shrub's clusters of white star-shaped flowers is its chemical properties that produce a well-known euphoric response. Numerous people I have spoken with throughout years of ethnobotanical research assured me that Jasmine sends inspirational olfactory messages that communicate hope, confidence, and optimism. This is something this region's population shares in common and is a part of its united power.

As far as the olfactory brain is concerned, one's mind and its surrounding environment are one ecosystem. Natural smells that have become iconic within a culture are ones associated with experiences and ways of life; therefore, these scents secure positive associations of place. The sensations they bring about function as cultural memory triggers and frequently become most obvious when a displaced or relocated individual perceives that smell in a different context or environment and automatically think of their place of origin - their home.

The emergence and use of the name, The Jasmine Revolution, to describe the movement under way in North Africa and the Middle East and now China (the word Jasmine was blocked on China's largest Twitter-like micro blog) is both symbolic and spontaneous, which is an indication of its authenticity and promise. It defines a strong group sense, adding meaning to the type of human collective that wants to peacefully transcend to freedom and control of its own destiny. The massing of tens of thousands represents an underlying chemosensory mechanism of shared, yet unconscious knowledge, whereby the people have converged emotionally. The use of the term indicates-and pays homage to-the cohesion of the revolutionaries and their numbers as a medium for change. In each other, and in their felt group chemistry, they see hope for a new and better region.

In 1998, while I was working on the creation of the world scent, World Sensorium, I installed the exhibition One Billion, Four Hundred Ninety-Five Million, Eight Hundred Fifty-Two Thousand, Twenty-Four (1,495,852,024) at a gallery in New York City. The number represents the total population in the year 2000 of China, Pakistan, Algeria, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Paraguay, Macau, and Djibouti-the countries that identified jasmine as their most culturally significant scent. Just as 1,495,852,024 represents 24.5862 % of the world's population in the year 2000, jasmine makes up 24.5862 % of the formula of the world social-olfactory sculpture. In the installation, the composition of different species of jasmine, formulated on the population percentages of the countries, was disseminated into the gallery space.

On the walls were multiple triptychs, each comprised of a crowd portrait taken by a photojournalist, juxtaposed alongside a close-up photograph of jasmine flowers. In the center was a bottle of a jasmine essential oil blend engraved with the number of people in that country. The primary aesthetic concern of each triptych was the overall composition of the massing i.e., the patterning created by the individual bodies or flowers. The jasmine images were taken in an attempt to recreate from memory the compositional patterns of the massing photojournalistic images. The multimedia nature of the triptychs and the diffused scent of jasmine established the links between human massing and natural scents.

World Sensorium's individual components are defined by distinctive odors of world cultural memory - smells that capture a fundamental historical knowledge held by a county's culture that has developed through the olfactory sense and defines part its chemistry. In the World Sensorium research findings, representatives from Tunisia officially stated, "Tunisia was the ancient site of Carthage and a fundamental province of Arab and Turkish empires...Jasmine is the smell the people prefer. They grow it themselves, so there is a lot of it throughout the country. Jasmine is not only our national flower; its fragrance is one of preference and traditional regional familiarity."

Algeria too acknowledged that, "Everyone grows Jasmine." Jasmine water is kept in homes and sprinkled on guests to welcome them. Although Egypt is represented by Lotus in World Sensorium, the species Jasminum sambac has been indigenous to the country since ancient times and used in civilization's first perfumes. Today some of the best Jasmine essential oil available in the world comes from Egypt. Jordan offered a broader insight into scent in the Arab world, "The history of fragrance is strong in Islam. The Koran mandated that you must stand clean and of good scent before God. Physical cleanliness is one of the tenets. Be at your best of clothing and scent. That is why houses of essence are found next door to the mosques. The old scents were Jasmine and Amber."

The Jasmine Revolution is a leaderless revolution of the people: Individuals allied in a single, determined, democratic movement formed of massing citizens of Arab societies, who are connected by the imprinted scent of Jasmine. This evolving relationship continues to provide information both symbolically and metabolically. Olfactory patterns and their connections are another way of looking at the world as an information map. These patterns are influenced by geography, planetary location, migrations, and cultural diffusion. They are intrinsic to an environmentally determined consciousness, from which cultural practices and rites of passage arise. This is not the first peoples' revolution to be identified with flora and the iconic scent: Lebanon's 2005 Cedar Revolution and Portugal's 1974 Carnation Revolution represent others.

The evolution of our use of plants, such as Jasmine, can be traced through medicine, mythology, religion, and anthropology. Natural odors possess power and our long cultural association with naturally aromatic materials continues to shape our world. Of all our senses, our sense of smell lasts the longest. It develops before birth and is our last sense to go when we die. Because a very large part of our brain is devoted to olfactory function we can remember a smell for a lifetime.

Lucretius, the Roman philosophical poet said, "by smell we perceive the soul of things." Our nose plays a very large role in who we are and in our relationships--including the world politics of our future. Social orders have long been built with symbolic communication.

 

 

 


Copyright © 2011, by Gayil Nalls

 

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York.

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