Of Power and Spirit: African Art From a Dallas Collection

Brookhaven College Center For the Arts

Forum Gallery

Of Power and Spirit:
African Art From a Dallas Collection

January 6 - 29, 1997

Curator's Essay

David Newman, Gallery Director

It is a privilege to have this selection of African art at Brookhaven College for the exhibition Of Power and Spirit, through the generosity of a Dallas collector. In a world increasingly regarded as global, it is essential that cultural traditions other than one's own be encountered and examined and understood.1 One of the principal sites of encounter between cultures is the domain of the arts: it is here that the structures and values of a culture are given perduring physical form in the visual arts. Indeed, in addition to its intrinsic significance, African art has had a continuing influence on Western artists throughout this century. James Johnson Sweeney, in the 1963 Postscript to the revised edition of his African Sculpture notes that:

In 1905 the newly found art of African tribes interested its discoverers primarily for the remedies it offered to European art. For that earlier generation it was a dramatic example of what might strengthen certain weaknesses, supply lacks, or correct abuses which they recognized in the Western painting and sculpture of their day. They saw in African art, on the one hand, a frank stress on basic three-dimensional form and its aesthetic order and, on the other, an encouragement of emotional expression, reinforced by the exaggeration and distortion of conventional representational forms.2

While the Western reception of African art early in the twentieth century was centered on aesthetic and formal concerns,3 a more exhaustive engagement of African art must also address the cultural context in which the works have their origin as aspects of a cultural whole in which the systems of symbolism incorporated in the form of the objects are subsumed. As Roy Sieber notes:

Much of art history has lost touch with the intensity of the cultural reality that works of art once possessed. Instead, the focus is often on the life of the forms or styles as if they existed independently of the cultures that gave rise to them, cultures that in fact supported the creators and used the objects, not as isolates, but as functioning parts of a cultural whole. The study of art is neither one, the study of contexts, nor the other, the study of forms and styles, but a continuum that reaches from the cultural context in its historical setting through the forms and styles so that the aesthetics of the maker can become comprehensible to a viewer of another culture.4

The recent and continuing fundamental methodological revisions within the discipline of art history, including an increased openness to the methodologies of the disciplines of anthropology and ethnography, have contributed to this broader encounter.5 While it is unsatisfactory to attend to the formal and aesthetic aspects of art apart from cultural context, it is equally unsatisfactory to attend to myth, meanings, history, and social structure apart from the physical embodiment in the objects. Jean Laude urges:

Inquiries into the myths, meanings, and functions of a culture have hitherto been undertaken independently of the objects that report mythical events, serve as vehicles of meanings, and assume functions; the objects are then explained as if they were material translations of ideas that might have been translated into another medium. But sculpture produces ideas at the same time as it assures the continuing topicality and permanent reality of mythical events. Although it serves as a material support whenever ideas and events must be commemorated, its role is not limited to that of an archive; it actually reveals what cannot be translated, except, approximately, into terms different than its own.6

The materiality of the medium exists in the finished object as a trace of its possibilities during formation, both the in-forming of matter by the nonmaterial aesthetic content, and the content inherent to the material itself; in its tactile and visual aspects.

African life and art are informed by a pervasive hierarchy of spirit forces. John S. Mbiti notes that: "For Africans, the whole of existence is a religious phenomenon; man is a religious being living in a religious universe."7 Attention to these forces is especially of concern at the transitions from one condition or status of life to another. In the series of liminal periods of the life of a person, one moves from the

fixed placental placement within his mother's womb, to his death and . . . final containment in his grave as a dead organism-punctuated by a number of critical moments of transition which all societies ritualize and publicly mark with suitable observances to impress the significance of the individual and the group on living members of the community.8

This is a world view in which the material world of appearances is not exhaustive of being, in which what is visible is connected with what is not visible in a complex system of relations of power, whether between person and community or person and community and the world of the spirit. The world is a situation in which things come into being and pass away; cultures are elaborated mediations of the generation and decay of the natural world. In the Baule tradition, in addition to the realm culture consisting of the village and the realm of nature in the bush beyond the village is a far-off place, blob (pronounced 'blaw-law'), existing beyond sensory experience, the always 'there' to any 'here'.9 I shall address aspects of the relations of power and spirit between individual and world and between individual and the social formation, as manifested in a few of the works in the exhibition. This is not intended as an exhaustive descriptive catalogue, and still less as an exhaustive treatment of the richness and diversity of the iconography and semiotics African art and culture; at most, this is but an adumbration.

In addressing the relations of power and spirit between individual, world and the social formation, one may begin with what might seem a trivial and quotidian entity, a stool. That such an ordinary object may be invested with profound symbolic significance to a culture may seem without sense: this is far from the case for the Ashante stools in the exhibition. To apprehend the condition in which such an investment of meaning has sense is to move beyond the commonplace domain of sense of the 'natural attitude'.10 As Victor Turner has noted in his study of Ndembu ritual, symbols are polysemic, multivocal. Consequently, at least three levels of 'meaning' can be distinguished: indigenous interpretation or exegetical meaning obtained from informants, operational meaning equating meaning with use, and positional meaning derived from its relation to other symbols within a symbolic system regarded as a whole.11 More than mere quotidian utilitarian objects the meaning of which is exhausted by use, these Ashante stools incorporate a complex system of symbolism of cosmological and cultural organization.12 While other African peoples carve and use stools, the centrality of the stool to the life of the Ashante culture is singular as a significant mode of the expression and repository of the symbolic tradition of the culture.13 For the Ashante, the stool is the central object of one's spiritual life, with a deeply rooted symbolism permeating history, myth, religion, custom, ritual and royal ceremonial. The stool is symbolic of the soul of the society, the crescent seat signifying the warmth of a mother's embrace.14 Following traditional practice and the form of a woman's stool following the model of a Queen Mother's stool, the smaller and lighter colored Ashante stool in this exhibition is carved from a single piece of wood, with a rectangular flat base, and curved rectangular section forming the seat. Base and seat are connected by a pillar at each corner with a fifth, central pillar. The configuration of four corner pillars and central pillar is suggestive of the axis mundi and four cardinal directions; the base can be identified with earth and the curved seat with the vault of sky. Seated on the crescent seat, in the warmth of the embrace of the mother-culture, one rests on earth and vault of sky, the spine is as a vertical staff, an extension of the world-tree of the axis mundi. Compare, as an analogous example, the spirals forming a vertical column along the back of the brass Dogon Primordial Couple. This cosmological reading is perhaps warranted by the centrality of the stool to the Ashante culture as well as by analogy with the iconography of Dogon stools.15 The larger, blackened Ashante stool references the tradition of blackening a stool during the Adae festival after the death of its owner; the blackening signifies the reception of the soul of the deceased by the stool.16 This blackened stool has a supporting structure of a central undulant pillar curving back to the base on one side and up to the seat on the other side. The effect is that of a reciprocal differentiation of a unity into an opposing pair of terms, e.g., female and male.

The belief in a primordial female and male pair, with a concomitant mythology analogous in function to that of the Western Adam and Eve, is common to a number of African cultures.17 Indeed, paired male and female figures have occurred "in a variety of media [and] in most of the great sculptural traditions of West and Central Africa since prehistoric times."18 The Dogon cast brass pair of figures represents the Primordial Couple, born before the four other nommo couples, four sets of twins which were the original eight ancestors of the Dogon.19 The beard of the male figure identifies him with the hogon.20 The pair is seated on stools supported by two pillars, with lizards crawling up the back of the pillars. The ends of the seats terminate in heads, perhaps referencing nommos. The figures are finely chaised, with a series of spirals extending up the backs of the figures and the front of the torsos worked with scale-like patterns. The Dogon Primordial Couple, as with other such pairs, may refer more generally to "the powers of generation and the life cycle."21 A parallel may thus be justified, if not too finely drawn, between the Dogon Primordial Couple, the Yoruba Edan Ogboni staffs, the Ashante Fertility Figure and the Luba Fertility Figure in the exhibition, and perhaps the pair of small Yoruba cast iron composition Sanctuary Figures.

The pairing of male and female figures in a subsuming unity is shared by the doubling in twin figures. The Yoruba pair of twin figures mirror each other, doubling the symmetry of each figure. The incidence of twin births among the Yoruba is unusually high; so also the incidence of infant mortality. Upon the death of one or both twins, ibeji, small wood surrogates are carved. As twins are regarded as powerful spirits, the ere ibeji carvings must be washed, fed, and clothed and otherwise treated as if they were living twins for the duration of a period determined by divination.22

Similarly, the Fante Fertility Figure has the bodies of the two figures abstracted to two conical forms, armless, with breasts and navels indicated. Twoness in the doubling of the figures is a doubling of generation, an evocation of fertility. The elongated necks of these consist of four stacked rings. The faces are square, with eyes, nose and mouth indicated. Surmounting the forehead, a tall headdress extends to a height equal to the figure (from top of base to top of forehead), terminating in a slightly concave curve. The headdress is flat, smooth on the front side, with lozenge latticework superimposed over an incised grid pattern on the reverse side.

The Ashante Fertility Figure or akuaba figure in carved wood is worn against the back of an expectant mother to foster the beauty of the child. The occasional absence of feet in the akuaba figure serves as a sign of the dependency of the child on the mother; this is particularly evident when the figure is worn on the back. The outstretched arms of the figure both stabilize the figure against the expectant mother's back and suggest the openness of the infant to embrace, and by extension the infant's vulnerability and dependency. The ruler of the town of Agogo in northern Ashanti said in a 19 May 1969 interview:

Some Ashanti chiefs own akuaba. The main reason they do is to show them to pregnant royals [royal women of the court] so that they will bring forth a child with the same head. These pregnant women keep on gazing, until they give birth to a child with a head like the disk of the akuaba.23

The Mossi Doll is similarly polysemic, with aspects associated with fertility. This example of Mossi doll, of wood and leather, exhibits the high degree of abstraction of torso and limbs typical of dolls (and of Luba katatora divination implements).24 Wood is the traditional material: hence the name for the dolls is raog'biga, "child in wood."25 Mossi dolls generally share a basic cylindical form; limbs are rarely represented. All the dolls are female and usually have pendulent breasts. The distinctive aspect of Mossi dolls, serving to distinguish geographical regions and individual carvers, is the shape of the head. Typically a semicircle with the flat diameter parallel to the ground plane, when viewed frontally the plane of the semicircle is perpendicular to the axis of the torso; indication of a face, when present, thus appear on the edge of the form.26 In this instance, the incised indication of facial features and hair extend to the rear of the head, although the concentration is on the face itself. Wooden Mossi dolls are purchased by mothers for their daughters, who cover the doll with leather and decorate them with beads or shells; here, a twisted pair of leather strips circles the neck and extends to an attached fringed leather tassel.27 Ladislas Segy notes:

In spite their role as toys, they [the dolls] are subject to religious considerations. The young 'girl-mother' considers the doll a child (biga) and has to pay close attention to it. Hence, any damage to the doll, although accidental, calls for consultation with the diviner, who knows invisible things hidden from ordinary people. For this reason, the dolls are handled with great care. They are passed down from sister to sister, from mother to daughter, sometimes from a remote great-grandmother. The Mossi dolls are also used the first time a mother gives birth to a child. She has to wash the doll she played with in childhood before washing her own child. The doll is considered the first child of each young girl.28

Although the dolls are toys aiding in the education of the young girl for motherhood, the doll remains important into adult life: when a woman leaves her father's compound for the house of her husband, the doll is taken with her, enabling her to become pregnant within a month of her initial sexual experience. According to Suzanne Lallemand's informants, the doll is the yisa biiga (literally " to call the child") to permit the soul of the new infant to enter the world of its parents, and the gidga ti da biiga lebera me (literally, "to prevent the child from returning"), assuring that the child will not die and thus return to the realm of the ancestral spirits.29

The Dogon Hogon has the form of cup-shaped vessel carried on the back of a donkey; the lid of the vessel is surmounted by a second donkey with a man riding bareback. The lower donkey has the torso parallel to the double base plane; the head is vertical, as are the ears, legs, and pendent tail. The effect of the gesture is of resignation to the burden carried on the basket-like 'saddle' with a cinch indicated by four incised grooves producing five raised parallel lines. The vessel is divided horizontally into seven bands by incised carving. The three lower bands have parallel incised lines in groups slightly askew to produce a crosshatching; these three crosshatched bands are surmounted by alternating bands of running triangular incisions and crosshatched bands. The incised motifs on the vessel represent the primal hogon field, purified by the sacrifice of a nommo.30 The vessel has five female figures extending from the base (the 'saddle' of the lower donkey) vertically to the rim. Each of these figures has arms at the side with hands joined at the lower abdomen; the abdomen is elongated, and distended slightly suggesting pregnancy. The breasts are emphasized, and are carved so as to extend from above the clavicle. The heads are large, with mouth open and with rather deep eye sockets. The lid of the vessel is incised with concentric rings: the outer with dense hatching, the next with the hatching alternating with unworked areas, and the center area left not carved. The donkey atop the lid is more animated than the donkey bearing the vessel, having the axis of the torso raised in front and with the contour of the form extending in smooth curves from head to the end of the tail, which is left attached to the edge of the lid. The rider is seated bareback with left hand on the base of the donkey's neck and with the right hand raised with the back of the palm against his right ear. The head is large in proportion to the figure, and the sharply carved face is thrust forward. The hair is indicated by incised grooves and extends to the neck. Incising on the upper arms suggest bracelets or perhaps scarification; incised lines form an inverted triangle on the upper back which, like the muscles of the upper torso, are left raised.

The Dogon harvest celebration entails the mixing of mutton and donkey meat; each person in the community, beginning with the hogon, eats a piece. The hogon is identified with the millet seed, growing and dying in order to be reborn. The hogon was perhaps once identified with the donkey; the Dogon regard the donkey as the animal most like man because of its stubborn independence. Jean Laude suggests31 that at one time the hogon was ritually sacrificed and his flesh mixed in the cup with that of the animals; this, as Denise Paulme suggests, connects him with the long list of African divine kings.32

The Yoruba Greeting Bowl is similar to the Dogon Hogon in having a cup-shaped lidded vessel supported by figurative elements. Here, a kneeling female figure, inclined slightly forward with an infant on her back, offers a bowl supported by five small figures. The center frontal figure supporting the bowl is kneeling, with two figures standing to either side, those to the kneeling female figure's left are female, while those to the right of the kneeling female figure are male. The group shares a common, circular base, its edge carved with continuous wedge motif; the top of the base has the chisel marks visible. At the center of the base, beneath the bowl but detached from it, a nearly spherical head emerges. The plane of bilateral symmetry of the piece, typical of Yoruba carvings of the figure,33 is oriented along the gaze of the kneeling female figure, with the principal disruption of the symmetry being the orientation of the face of the emergent head rotated to the right on an axis perpendicular to the gaze of the kneeling female figure. The vessel has the lower section divided by three bands. Above the bottom area, where chisel marks remain, a band of hexagonal and lozenge shapes produced by a triangular gouge extends between the kneeling female figure's hand around the front of the vessel; the rear section of this band is not carved. A panel occupying most of the height of the lower portion of the vessel is divided horizontally into five sections: a center area, with five horizontal ridges with vertical incising, a square area to either side with an incised four sided curved figure, and at the ends, a rectangular area with three vertically oriented pointed ovals. The hexagonal and lozenge shape motif is repeated in the band at the upper edge of the lower portion of the vessel.. The lower edge of the vessel lid reiterates the hexagonal and lozenge motif, but at a larger scale. Above this band, the larger portion of the lid surface is divided into a band of seven sections, each marked by incised lines in hatched or lozenge patterns. The apex of the hemispherical lid is a circle divided into two semicircles by two incised lines. Each half of the circle forms a base for one of two birds, facing each other in bilateral symmetry. The birds are identical but for a pouch or ruff of feathers at the neck, serving to distinguish the birds by gender. The opening between the birds serves to frame the face of the kneeling female figure. Regarded frontally, the face and long forehead of the kneeling female figure is smooth in contrast to the incised grooves of the hair, rising in three steps in a transverse comb. At the upper torso of the kneeling figure an incised low relief grid four bands high extends horizontally; this band, suggesting scarification, and the parallel grooves of the hair, suggests a connection between he figure and the vessel.

Four staffs are included in this exhibition: two Yoruba Edan Ogboni staffs, a Luba wood staff, and a Mossi wood staff. The Yoruba Edan Ogboni staffs are of iron with brass figurative finials. The larger Yoruba Edan Ogboni staff, 13 x 1" diameter, has an iron shaft with an abstracted head in brass terminating in a loop for a chain to connect it with the other shaft of the pair of which it was originally a member. The forehead of the figure has two crescent arcs, each composed of three concentric lines: a threeness within twoness.34 The smaller Yoruba Edan Ogboni staff, 10 x 1" diameter also has an iron shaft with a brass head; the shaft is set into an elongated ferrule forming the neck of the figure. The eyes of the figures on both shafts protrude. Robert F. Thompson suggests that:

The motif of the eyes might derive, in bringing the orb beyond the plane of the face, from an ancient convention suggesting the face of the senior devotee at the moment of possession by a god, when his eyes bulge from their sockets and his face becomes frozen. The phenomenon has been documented by photographs both in Yorubaland itself (Verger, 1957) and the Yoruba-influenced sectors of Recife in Brazil (Riberiro, 1952). The latter source is particularly impressive. The eyes of the edan may, in important instances, mirror the face of a man possessed by the spirit of his god. This interpretation seems logical because edan, like the priest in a state of possession, incarnate the very presence of the gods.35

The edan were presented to an initiate into the higher ranks of the Oshugbo or Ogboni Society, the cult of those who worship Onile, "owner of the earth." The Ogboni probably originated in the southern Yoruba region among the the Ijebu, where it is known as Ashugbo. In the Oyo region, it was called Ogboni, and as it spread became a powerful political and judicial force; its principle function being the adjudication of conflicts which had resulted in bloodshed and the violation of Onile. While in the past almost all persons in a community belonged to one of the ranks of membership in the society, the leadership positions and loci of power was reserved to the male and female elders, who acted as a balance to power of the Oba, or king, though not always for the good, particularly in the reign of a weak king. In spite of occasional excesses, the Ogboni exerted a stabilizing influence in Yoruba culture.36 The principal emblem of the cult, given to each of the senior members, was the edan, a pair of bronze male and female figures linked together by a chain.37 Peter Morton-Williams suggests the linkage of edan refers to expression "Ogboni meji, o di eta"38 of the fundamental Ogboni metaphysical concept:
Two Ogboni, it becomes three....' The third element seems to be the mystery, the shared secret itself. The union of male and female in the edan image symbolizes this putting two together to make a third.39

The linkage of male and female thus entails a vision of life transcending time. Time for the person begins after having knelt before the High God and Father, Olodumare, to receive his personal destiny, ori, and then entering the world of differentiation and opposition, in its various sexual, political, social and religious manifestations of good and bad, life and death. The linked edan thus symbolizes both the differentiation inherent in temporal existence, and an underlying, transcendent unity.40

The staff, in its fundamental form an extension of the hand, has the functions of supporting one's weight, a third leg supplementing the person's two legs in the tasks of standing41 and walking. The staff extends the reach for prodding and poking; it can be swung to thrash an adversary or waived in defiance. As well as being a literal, physical extension of the hand, the staff can serve as a metaphoric extension of the hand; that is, the staff functions as a sign of dominion. 42 Thus a staff functions as an insignia of office, and is consequently received by one invested in office, and is carried in procession as a sign of the power and dignity of the office. The staff, by metonymy, represents and in a sense becomes the power of the office of which it is emblematic. An aspect of that power is its protective, healing, and curative functions, both for the individual and the individual's family, and for the social formation as a whole. An important element of the functions of symbolizing power in the staff is its use as a physical correlate of memory through the encoding of narrative, of the ruler, of his life, and of the legitimacy of his reign by virtue of lineage.43

The Luba Staff, 37 x 2" diameter in wood is surmounted by female standing figure, arms bent with hands at breasts, the navel extremely protuberant. A figure atop a staff is analogous to a figure on a pedestal. The hand-to-breast gesture is frequent in Luba art, referencing the Luba belief that hidden within a woman's breasts are the bizila, the royal prohibitions, of which certain women are the ultimate guardians.44 It is the Luba tradition to depict male rulers as female symbolizing the generative power of the king. Indeed,

The word "kingship" cannot accurately portray the true nature of Luba royalty, which was based on the duality of the sexes. The pervasive representation of women on male officeholders' emblems, and the important role of women in Luba political and religious history as spirit mediums, reinforce the ambiguous gendering of power.45

The Mossi Staff, 45 x 2.5" diameter in wood is surmounted by an abstracted female figure. The head is highly abstracted, a geometric form. The neck is cylindrical, atop a torso consisting of a longer inverted truncated cone rising from a short truncated cone. The figure is on top of a cylindrical section divided into three unequal areas by double grooves; the lower section has notch cut to form an erect 'tail' at the rear of the shaft. A smaller hourglass-shaped section is above a long shaft tapering to rounded point, with double grooves just below smaller hourglass section.

The fine example of a Dogon Granary Door in the exhibition is 25 x 18.5 x 2 inches. Hinged at the right edge with two integral wood hinge pins, the sliding bolt is located to the left side. The carving is disposed into two principal registers, one above the other. In the upper register, a larger figure serves to frame the register. The larger figure at the upper left, placed above a carved square, is flanked by smaller figures. The larger figure at the upper right is placed above to carved conical forms. Regarding the larger figures as the Dogon Primordial Couple, the smaller figures represent the nommos.46 Between these figural elements, six small linked figures fill the center of the upper register. In the lower register, the center is occupied by two square-headed figures, flanked by three figures on each side. Ladder-forms on the left and right sides connect upper and lower registers. The carving of a granary door expresses the relationship of the owner to the alter, binu, of the people.47

Two equestrian figures (apart from the figure seated on the donkey on the lid of the Dogon hogon) are included in the exhibition. Both the Dogon and the Yoruba Equestrian Figures manifest the essential embodiment of power in the mounted figure:

To ride upon the back of a horse represents an arrogant form of sitting, for in it speed and elevation combine with ruling power. . . . The man on horseback, an image of martial order in the history of Western art, so much so that in Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius equestrian figures were the prerogative of the emperor, acquires in Africa special resonance because the horse is rare, very expensively imported, and, sometimes, mystically associated with the ruler.48

The carved wood Dogon Equestrian Figure is notable for the simplification of form to concentrate attention on the essential characteristics of the motif, while using a minimum of incised elements to indicate anatomical essentials. Thus the head of the rider is smooth, as if bald or shaven; this is in contrast to Yoruba practice of showing the hair of a rider in an equestrian figure, typically with a braided hairpiece extending from the top and down the back of the head; hunters associated with the royal court at Ayo were priviledged to ride on ceremonial occasions or while on missions for the king.49

The Yoruba Equestrian Figure, of wood and with shells affixed circling waist and neck, has incised decoration of rider, horse, and base. The figure of both rider and horse is more particularized than the more abstracted Dogon Equestrian Figure.

The Mende / Bunde Helmet Mask, wood, 18.5 x 10 inches diameter, emphasizes the broad, high forehead, smooth but for two rows of fourteen small ridges. Below the brow ridge, the face is a short, inverted isoceles triangle. The effect is one of concentration and seriousness, at once of this world and the other.50 The neck is wide, ringed. The hair, indicated by grooves and ridges, extends upward to terminate in to grooved spherical topknots.

The Bambara Headdress, sogoni-kun, has the form of a male antelope and is used by the Bambara for the agrarian ceremonies of the society of cultivators, the Tyiwara. Conceived as a silhouette cut from a single plane of wood, the headdress is structured to be viewed primarily in profile. Sogoni-kun referencing male antelope have a latticework mane, while those referencing a female antelope have a small fawn on their backs instead of a mane. 51 In this example, the elaborate latticework of the mane, consisting of four concentric curves connected by interstitial pieces forming triangular girder structures and culminating in six fin-like protrusions, indicates a male antelope. Mane and head (except the nasal area and rear top of the head) are covered with cuneiform incisions. The ears, thin and vertical and slightly swept to the rear, are divided into two sections. The lower section has a deep groove parallel to the vertical axis, with the edge to either side of the groove divided into three parts by double lateral grooves. Double grooves also mark the lower terminus of the ear, and likewise separate the lower from the upper section of the ear; the upper section as an incised lozenge grid pattern. The horns are straight until near the tips, where they curve to the rear, and are incised with spiral grooves except at the tip. The torso of the antelope is parallel to the ground plane, with an indication of male genitalia extending from between the rear legs forward to two thirds of the body length. Legs, extending to a base shorter than the torso, to the rear for the front legs, forward for the rear legs, produce an effect of contained power. Along with the curved neck, concentric with the curvature of the mane latticework and with the tapering, erect tail, and the curvature of the latticework mane, the profile view has the feeling of a coiled spring, tense with potential energy.

To assume a mask or a headdress is to assimilate the power of a spirit with oneself:

A person, when the spirit comes upon him, changes in personality, attitude, and stance. He moves in the image of the deity. If the god is strong and fiery, he becomes strong and fiery. This ultimate act of transcendence brings prestige.52

Transcendence is the fundamental human condition: in the production of culture - the transcendence of nature - is the humanness of humanity, in all the diverse manifestations this has taken and may yet take. Encountering another culture through its embodiment in those "thought-things"53 which are works of art extends one's horizon in a fusion with the horizon of the culture one encounters.54 This fusion of horizons is a twofold transcendence: of one's own culture, and of the tendency to regard culture as nature. Through the thematization of cultural production made visible through regarding a culture as etic, from without, rather than the invisibility of one's own culture as emic, from within,55 one may transcend the limitations of one's cultural myths, a myth being
. . . a device to mediate between culture and nature, either by culturalizing nature or by naturalizing culture.56

Links to Additional Online Resources for African Art

Checklist of the Exhibition

Objects are listed alphabetically by cultural group of origin; dimensions are in inches, H x W x D.

AshanteStoolwood8.5 x 13.5 x 6
AshanteStoolwood12 x 15.5 x 7.5
AshanteFertility Figurewood11.5 x 7.5
BambaraHeaddresswood30 x 12 x 1.5
BamanaHeddle Loom Pulleywood, shells, fabric7.5 x 2.5 x 1
BauleLoom Pulleywood8.5 x 3.5
BauleGongwood8.5 x 3.5
BauleFemale Figurewood10.5 x 2.5
BauleMaskwood12.5 x 6.5 x 4.5
BeninWarriorbronze27 x 9.5
BeninMaskbronze8.5 x 4.5 x2
ChokweWhistlewood4.5 x 2 x 2
DanSpoonbrass8.25 x 2
DanPassport Maskwood7.5 x 4 x 2
DogonHogonwood29 x 8 x 8
DogonHorse and Riderwood11 x 7.3
DogonGranary Doorwood25 x 18.5 x 2
DogonNommowood20 x 2.5 x .5
DogonPrimordial Couplebrass8.5 x 2 x 2
FanteFertility Figurewood10.5 x 5 x 2
LubaAncestral Figurewood15 x 5.5 x 3
LubaStaffwood37 x 2
LubaHorngoat horn13.5 x 2
MossiDollleather, wood11 x 3
MossiStaffwood45 x 2.5
Mende / BundeHelmet Maskwood18.5 x 10
YorubaStaff, Edan Ogboniiron, brass10 x 1
YorubaStaff, Edan Ogboniiron, brass
13 x 1
YorubaSanctuary Figure Paircast iron3 x 1 x1, each
YorubaHorse and Riderwood, shells16 x 5 x 8
YorubaGreeting Bowlwood23 x 12
YorubaTwin Figures, Ibejiwood10 x 4 x 3


1Of particular importance is the distinction of "modern internationalism" and "postmodern globalization." See "Research Project: 'The Forces of Globalization' (1995-1998)," The Critical Theory Institute, University of California at Irvine at http://sun3.lib.uci.edu/~scctr/cti.html. BACK
2 James Johnson Sweeny, Postscript (1963), African Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952, 1964), p.16. BACK
3 I am referring specifically to the reception typical of artists and art historians of the period. The influence of African art, especially sculpture, on the development of early twentieth century modernism was widespread and profound. The importance of African art to the inception of cubism in Picasso's Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon and the subsequent developments presupposing cubism is too well known to require rehearsal. Nevertheless, more broadly and at the fundamental level of cultural encounter, the reception of African art within the Western cultural tradition has engaged basic and perduring questions, e.g., the reception of William Rubin's formalist focus in the "Primitivism" in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1984. Inter alia, see Thomas McEviley, "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief," Art and Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity (New York: Documentext, 1992). BACK
4 Roy Sieber, in Roy Sieber and Roslyn Adele Walker, African Art in the Cycle of Life (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art / Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987), p.27. BACK
5 As current, though hardly exhaustive indications of the range of this turn in the discipline, see Kathleen Biddick, "Paper Jews: Inscription/Ethnicity/Ethnography," pp.594-599; John R. Clarke, "'Just Like Us': Cultural Constructions of Sexuality and Race in Roman Art," pp. 599-603; Stephen F. Eisenman, "Triangulating Racism," pp. 603-609; Ikem Stanley Okoye, "Tribe and Art History," pp. 610-615; Frances Pohl, "Putting a Face on Difference," pp. 616-621 all in Art Bulletin 78:4 (December 1996). BACK
6 Jean Laude, African Art of the Dogon: The Myths of the Cliff Dwellers (New York: The Brooklyn Museum / Viking Press, 1973), pp. 25-26. BACK
7 John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (New York: Praeger, 1969), p. 15. BACK
8 W. L. Warner, The Living and the Dead (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1975); in Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 168. BACK
9 Philip L. Ravenhill, The Self and the Other: Personhood and Images among the Baule, Côte d'Ivoire (Los Angeles: University of California, 1994), p. 25. See also Pierre Étienne, "Le fait villageois baoulé" Communuatés rurales et paysanneries tropicales. Travaux et Documents de l'ORSTOM, No. 53:27-91. BACK
10 To use Hussel's term of the modality of consciousness antecedent to the phenomenological époche. BACK
11 Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspect of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), pp. 50-51. BACK
12 Peter Sarpong, The Sacred Stools of the Akan (Tema, Ghana: Ghana Publishing Company, 1971). BACK
13 E. A. Dagan, Tabourets Asante / Asante Stools. (Montreal: Galerie Amrad African Arts, 1988). BACK
14 Peter Sarpong, The Sacred Stools of the Akan (Tema, Ghana: Ghana Publishing Company, 1971). BACK
15 Jean Laude, African Art of the Dogon: The Myths of the Cliff Dwellers (New York: The Brooklyn Museum / Viking Press, 1973), p. 84. BACK
16 E. A. Dagan, Tabourets Asante / Asante Stools. (Montreal: Galerie Amrad African Arts, 1988), p. 19. BACK
17 Roy Sieber and Roslyn Adele Walker, African Art in the Cycle of Life (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art / Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987), p.28. BACK
18 Herbert M. Cole, Male and Female: The Couple in African Sculpture. (Los Angeles: Los Angeles C ountty Museum of Art, 1983), p. 2. BACK
19 Pascal James Imperato, Dogon Cliff Dwellers: The Art of Mali's Mountain People (New York: L. Kahan Gallery, n.d.), p. 14. BACK
20 Jean Laude, African Art of the Dogon: The Myths of the Cliff Dwellers (New York: The Brooklyn Museum / Viking Press, 1973), n., fig. 39. BACK
21 Jean Laude, African Art of the Dogon: The Myths of the Cliff Dwellers (New York: Brooklyn Museum / Viking Press, 1973), p. 60. BACK
22 William Fagg, John Pemberton III, ed. Bryce Holcombe. Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa (New York: Knopf, 1982), p. 199 BACK
23 Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), pp. 52-53. 24 Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974). BACK
25 Ladislas Segy, (1972), cited in Christopher D. Roy, "Mossi Dolls," African Arts XIV:4 (August 1981), p. 48. BACK
26 Christopher D. Roy, "Mossi Dolls," African Arts XIV:4 (August 1981), pp. 47-51. BACK
27 Christopher D. Roy, "Mossi Dolls," African Arts XIV:4 (August 1981), p. 48. BACK
28 Ladislas Segy, (1972:38), cited in Christopher D. Roy, "Mossi Dolls," African Arts XIV:4 (August 1981), p. 48. BACK
29 Suzanne Lallemand (1973:240), cited in Christopher D. Roy, "Mossi Dolls," African Arts XIV:4 (August 1981), p. 49. BACK 30 Jean Laude, trans. Jean Decock. The Arts of Black Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 100. BACK
31 Jean Laude, trans. Jean Decock. The Arts of Black Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 100. BACK
32 Denise Paulme, Organization sociale des Dogon (Soudan française). Etudes de sociologie et d'ethnologie juridiques, Institut de droit comparé, no. 32. (Paris: Domat-Montchrestien, 1940. Cited in Laude, ibid. BACK
33 William Fagg, John Pemberton III, ed. Bryce Holcombe. Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa (New York: Knopf, 1982), p. 152. BACK
34 Robert Farris Thompson, Black Gods and Kings: Yoruba Art at UCLA (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), CH 6 / 4. BACK
35 Robert Farris Thompson, Black Gods and Kings: Yoruba Art at UCLA (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), CH 6 / 5. BACK
36 William Fagg, John Pemberton III, ed. Bryce Holcombe. Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa (New York: Knopf, 1982), p. 19. BACK
37 William Fagg, John Pemberton III, ed. Bryce Holcombe. Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa (New York: Knopf, 1982), p. 195. BACK
38 Robert Farris Thompson, Black Gods and Kings: Yoruba Art at UCLA (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), CH 6 / 1. BACK
39 Peter Morton-Williams, "The Yoruba Ogboni Cult in Oyo," Africa 30:4 (1960) pp. 42-47, 95. BACK
40 William Fagg, John Pemberton III, ed. Bryce Holcombe. Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa (New York: Knopf, 1982), p. 186. BACK
41 The stance taken in standing is a fundamental gesture: consider the Baule Female Figure and the Benin Warrior. BACK
42 Mary Nooter Roberts, Allen F. Roberts, Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (New York: The Museum for African Arts, 1996), p. 162. BACK
43 Mary Nooter Roberts, Allen F. Roberts, Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (New York: The Museum for African Arts, 1996), p. 172. BACK
44 Mary Nooter Roberts, Allen F. Roberts, Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (New York: The Museum for African Arts, 1996), p. 168; from the oral narrative of a subchief of Kinkondja to Mary Nooter. BACK
45 Mary Nooter Roberts, Allen F. Roberts, Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (New York: The Museum for African Arts, 1996), p. 169. BACK 46 Compare these representations with the Dogon Nommo is of wood, 20 x 2.5 x .5 inches. The nommos were originally eight water spirits. One, a blacksmith, descended to earth bringing tools, seeds, animals and ancestral humans with him in an ark. Landing with a crash, the limbs of the blacksmith broke at knees, shoulder, and elbows; thus mankind has the flexible structure necessary to work and to dance. BACK
47 Jean Laude, African Art of the Dogon: The Myths of the Cliff Dwellers (New York: The Brooklyn Museum / Viking Press, 1973), s.v. 'Granary Shutters'. BACK
48 Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion: Icon and Act (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 74. BACK
49 William Fagg, John Pemberton III, ed. Bryce Holcombe. Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa (New York: Knopf, 1982), p. 66. BACK
50 Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion: Icon and Act (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 126. BACK
51 Jean Laude, trans. Jean Decock. The Arts of Black Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), pp. 169-170; fig. 141. BACK
52 Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion: Icon and Act (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 126. BACK
53 Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1971), p. 62. BACK
54 The notion of the fusion of horizons is from Hans-George Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer, Donald G. Marshall (New York: Crossroad, 1989), pp. 306-307, 374-375, 397, 576. BACK
55 The distinction of emic and etic was introduced by Kenneth L. Pike, Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior (Glendale, 1954), p. 8. Etic and emic derive from an analogy with linguistics: phonemics as the study of sounds recognized within a specific language and phonetic, the crosslingual recognition of distinguishable sounds. See, for its anthropological application (and this explication of the analogy), Victor Turner, "Social Dramas and Stories About Them," ed. W. J. T. Mitchell, On Narrative (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, 1981), pp. 141-142. BACK
56 Thomas McEviley, "Heads its Form, Tails its Not Content," Art & Discontent: Theory at the Millenium (New York: Documentext, 1991), pp. 23-62. BACK

Links To Additional Online Resources for African Art

africart.htm 01.19.97