One of the appeals for collectors of African popular art is that, for its own society, it has a use value and therefore, a meaning. For at least the last 100 years this has been its attraction for European artists and collectors whose own art forms have lost any collective communication ability and are reduced to mere individual self-expression., entertainment and investment purposes.
This attractive exhibition includes art works predominantly from West Africa and the Congo, and in it are a variety of forms – statuary, vessels, a hunter’s garment, many masks and other ceremonial items, and examples of iron currency.
The viewer is excused for thinking these items are ancient. In fact, since most are made of wood and other natural materials that easily deteriorate in time and climate, there are probably none here older than about 1900 and most were made much later. This is particularly true, since among tribal society, traditions remain strong, so many of the masks and ritual festival objects are still in use today and therefore will be in constantly new supply.
A valuable addition to this exhibition is the continual showing on DVD of some anthropological film footage by Belgian filmmakers in Africa, one made in 1939, and others fairly recently, that allows the viewer to see these popular artifacts in their appropriate context. There is footage of stilt walkers and acrobats and dancers in festivals in Benin and the Ivory Coast. And in the Ci-Wara masquerade, still performed by the Bamana people of Mali, the dancers, dressed in raffia coverings have beautiful carved headdresses representing the graceful shape of antelope horns. On a pedestal next to the film screen is such a headdress.
Of course, the viewer cannot be expected to understand the significance of the artifacts, because of the very particular purposes for which they have been made. For example, in this exhibition there is a Nkisi figure from the Congo in which a human shape is tightly bound with rope-like restraints and punctured with small metal spikes. To the Westerner it suggests a sacrificial victim. But in truth, it is a container in anthropomorphic form which holds healing medicaments, and the terrifying looking spikes are there to prod and awaken the spirit and thus enable the medicines to be effective. To a believer, without its medicine, it would be discarded.
But Africa, like Europe, Asia and Mesoamerica, had a separate art for the royalty and aristocracy that did not have the health and welfare of the community as its basis, but rather the future reputation of its kings and queens and the glorification of their wealth. To this end, the materials used are terracotta, and cast metals. As an example of this royal art, at the entrance to the exhibition hall is a brass head, labeled “in the Ife style”, pointing out I suppose, that it is not a genuine early Ife bronze. The Ife kingdom in Nigeria was a civilization that seemed to have developed metal casting from about the 10th century which has left us a large number of bronze naturalistic heads. Including this work in the show points out the difference between “Fine Art” as opposed to “Popular Art.”
For me, there is something more acceptable about exhibiting the bronze pieces, since, after all, they were made to be seen and appreciated far into the future by whoever found them. Their nobility and evident beauty were designed to be admired, and those rulers they represented, envied. But the masks and ritual items become meaningless when removed from their ceremonial context and might only serve to remind the viewer how bereft his own culture has become.
There is one item of clothing in the exhibition, a hunter’s shirt from Mali. It is made of strips of leather and fiber with cowry shells, animal horn and mirror decoration and is probably meant to protect the hunter in some spiritual way.
The Yoruba of Nigeria have a mask making tradition which includes an Epa helmet mask to be worn on very specific occasions, and there is one in this collection. Many of such masks are over 5 feet tall, made of wood, and weigh somewhere between 40-60 pounds. They are meant to be worn by young male dancers who must balance this artwork as they engage in acrobatic rituals.
It is perhaps with secret relief that we finally turn to view the iron and cast metal currency from Nigeria, the Congo, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and elsewhere. Some items are massive and weighty and would be used for major purchases. A glass case holds smaller examples in various animal and shield and blade forms. Although the forms are unique, we are in the practical world of commerce and monetary transactions now, a place we Westerners can fully comprehend.
‘Savannah Collects: African Art in Local Collections’ is up through Oct. 2 at Pei Ling Chan Gallery, 324 MLK Jr. Blvd.