Exhibition: Africa, the imagined figure
, 8 June 2004
A guere mask identifies and chases those guilty of crime, and can even become their executioner; the ngang or Bembe fetishists inserted relics of the deceased (fingernails or hairs) into the anus of the statuettes to instill the spirit of the dead in them; fearsome in appearance, the songe statues are invoked on the nights with a full moon by female officiants to ensure successful harvests; as if they were relics, the skulls of Fang ancestors are conserved in tree bark boxes crowned by statue-guardians who participate in initiation rites; in Baulé territory, the dead, or naurelko people’ share the homes of the living in the form of wooden statuettes. Creatures of enigmatic shapes and even proportions that seem abnormal to western eyes, for the various ethnic groups of the continent the African sculptures embody ancestors, spirits, mythical characters and other sacred beings. Alien to our aesthetic principles and guided by their instinct, the African ‘artists’ select, simplify and alter anatomical proportions in an organic, coherent composition of uncommon beauty. The exhibition Africa, the imagined figure aims to imbue western viewers with the passion for African art felt in their time by Derain, Picasso, Modigliani and many others, through 169 sacred enigmatic objects from different ethnic groups of central and western Africa showing variations on a single theme: the human figure. The works, related with rituals of secret societies and ancestor worship, are mostly sculpted in wood and covered in varnishes, oils, vegetable fibers, feathers or iron nails. The exhibition has been organized and produced by ”la Caixa” Foundation, and has benefited from the collaboration of the Africa Museum of Tervuren (Belgium), The Natural History Museum of the Faculty of Sciences, University of Oporto, the National Anthropology Museum of Madrid, the National Ethnology Museum of Lisbon, the Ethnographic Museum of the Lisbon Geographic Society and the British Museum of London, in addition to private collectors.
The exhibition Africa, the imagined figure , curated by Albert Costa, can be visited at the Balearic Islands ”la Caixa” Foundation (plaça de Weyler, 3; Palma), from 9 June to 29 August 2004.
The first works of African art reached Europe in the 15th century aboard Portuguese-commanded ships. The outlandish shapes of the masks and the fetishes turned them into prized collectors’ items in the showcases of exotic curios. It wasn’t until the 20th century when artists such as Picasso, heedless of exotic tastes or scientific curiosity, sought to restore the taste for plastic shapes of uncommon beauty.
The treatment given the human figure was precisely one of the attributes that attracted them the most. Outside the canons of Renaissance Europe, African ‘artists’ portrayed the body with a great degree of freedom: stylized figures in which human anatomy appeared reduced to schematic strokes, masks that abstractly represented ancestors and spirits, images of wild proportions with asymmetries and deformations that extolled certain abilities or provoked terrifying effects…
Showing the portrayal of the human body by the various African ethnic groups is the aim of Africa, the imagined figure, an exhibition that does not seek to explain the psychological, social or historical reasons for the extraordinary multiplicity of styles. It is only meant to describe by showing western audiences the richness and beauty of African art. To this end, 169 sacred objects have been selected from over 15 ethnic groups, all from central and western Africa. Among the works are not only sculptures and statuettes, but also chests, carriers and masks, scepters, canes, weaving pulleys, palace plaques, combs, stools, tobacco pouches, headrests and fortune telling devices. All of them bear some portrayal of the human figure.
With materials as simple as wood, the various ethnic groups have managed to achieve a wide array of shapes. From the delicate stylizing of the Senufo figurines to the byeri worship figurines, covered in a thick, lumpy patina. From the enigmatic and geometric beauty of the Kota reliquaries to the sinister force of the Kongo fetishes. From the complex symbolism of a Dogon chest to the aristocratic realism found in the art of Benin.
Like their music, African sculpture is rhythmic, dominated by percussion. Africa, the imagined figure also aims to pay tribute to its anonymous sculptors.
ETHNIC GROUPS PRESENT IN THE EXHIBITION
Several works from each of the ethnic groups selected in the present exhibition are shown so that, once together, comparisons can be made between those of the same community, establishing their similarities and differences, in addition to making distinctions with neighboring groups. The ethnic groups represented are:
– The Dogon. The Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali is home to the Dogon. The ancient inhabitants, the Tellem, left vestiges of their presence in the caves of the rocky walls. With their hieratic appearance and sharp-edged shapes, the Tellem and Dogon sculptures seem to emulate the abrupt geometry of the escarpment. Many of the sculptures reflect gestures of meditation, as the statues intercede before the divinities, or represent them.
– The Bamana. The Bamana of Mali make their sculptures for the initiation rites of both sexes. The antelope and hyena masks can only be used in ceremonies for males. In the same festivals, female figures dance in the hands of young men of the blacksmith caste: they are the so-called nyeleni, “pretty little girls”, that have a clearly erotic character.
– The Senufo. The Senufo live between Mali, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast. Many of their art works are related with the Poro, a secret male initiation society. The sculptures make up the pantheon of the ancestors, and sometimes crown the canes used in agricultural rituals and the loom spools. Women also have their own societies, whose fortune telling rituals involve small figurines.
– The tribes of western Ivory Coast. Among the Dan, We, Bete and Guro, the masks participate in the most important rituals: the initiation of young men, declarations of war or celebrations of peace and the enthronement of chiefs. They also help put out fires and pursue wrongdoers. Others are brought out on holidays to entertain women and children. In any case, the wearer of the mask must possess talents for mimicry and dancing, as a spirit, god or ancestor must be brought to life with their movements.
– The Baulé. The Baulé inhabit the northern region of the Ivory Coast. For the Baulé, the deceased are in another world, but their souls remain among the living in the form of statuettes, “people of wood”, which are painstakingly cared for and regularly given offerings. They represent the human body in a direct, delicate way, possessing meticulous detail. Their dreamy, gentle air awakens tenderness in those who view them.
– The Benin. For over 500 years in the city of Benin, Nigeria, craftsmen created works for the reigning dynasty. Called oba, upon taking the throne, the king became God, having all of his subjects at his service. Each oba had his own altar, where he worshiped brass sculptures of his ancestors’ heads. Showing only this part of the body indicated that the ancestors had a “good head”, that is, will, character and the ability to think. The brass plaques covered the royal palace columns and narrated real or mythical events, singing the praises of the oba in power.
– The Fang. The Fang occupied territories of Equatorial Guinea, the south of Cameroon and Gabon. The Fang practice a type of family worship called byeri, in which their ancestors’ skulls are kept in tree bark boxes. A sculpture is placed atop these boxes to guard them. In the initiation rites, after months of demanding trials, the children are finally placed before the skulls painted with kaolin and clay and sprinkled with the blood of a sacrificed chicken, while the sculpture, decorated with feathers and anointed with palm oil, stares back at them.
– The Kota. Neighbors of the Fang, the Kota of Gabon also keep relics of their ancestors in baskets crowned with sculptures whose features are surprisingly abstract: geometric figures on which sculptors engraved a human face with admirable effectiveness. These were the features that fascinated the artists of 1920’s Paris, inciting them to view, collect and copy these figures.
– The Kongo. The Kongo kings dominated a vast territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo until the 17th century. Kongo art manifests a naturalism reduced to its most elemental features, especially in the maternity sculptures and those irradiating nails. Many of these figures are used as fetishes: they resolve conflicts between people or clans, break curses, protect against robbery and aggression, etc. In any case, the shaman handles the statue and gives it its power.
– The Bembe. The Bembe also participate in the greater Kongo culture. Considered the best miniaturists of Africa, their figures are imbued with a dynamic, monumental spirit. The image of an ancestor, the statuette must be consecrated by the nganga or fetishist, who inserts relics (fingernails or hairs) of the deceased into the statuette’s anus, instilling in it that person’s spirit. These statuettes are affectionately conserved and consulted.
– The Chokwe. In the 19th century, caravan traffic to European factories on the coast triggered the establishment of mountain chieftainships in Angola. The ivory and slave trade, plus the possession of firearms, earned the Chokwe chiefs prestige and respect, and many sculptures portray them as mythical characters. With the later dispersion toward the north, their art took on a more popular tone: statuettes of women, masks and stools.
– The Mbala. The Mbala live in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their sculptures depict scenes from daily life: maternities and musicians, nearly always beating a drum. The figurines are painted with kaolin and red dust for the ceremonies. They belong to the chiefs and symbolize their authority, in addition to representing the moral values of society.
– The Luba. The Luba, “people of sacred blood”, kept up their chieftainships in the southeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo until the end of the 19th century. Their sculptures are symbols of power for the upper classes: they are figures of ancestors, chairs supported by caryatids, sculpted scepters used in aristocratic ceremonies. A matrilineal ethnic group, the Luba’s female figures are distinguished by their elegance, sensuality and gentleness.
– The Songe. The Songe made fetishes of ferocious appearance. During secret ceremonies, magical substances were placed in cavities covered with horns, leather or fabric: kaolin to summon the dead, snake venom, cemetery soil and the fingertips of pygmies to acquire their skill in hunting. The large sculptures are invoked on nights when the moon is full by female officiants who pray for the well being of the villagers. These fetishes cannot be touched with bare hands, as they would bring death to anyone doing so.
– The Lulua. The Lulua of the Democratic Republic of Congo worship sculptures of the founding chieftains, who bear tattoos, the royal arms and leopard skin skirts. Sterile women are initiated in a society devoted to the worship of maternity and female figures. They have a prominent navel symbolizing the relationship with the world of the unborn and ancestors. This is also a symbol of fertility.
– The Tabwa. The Tabwa of the Democratic Republic of Congo formed chieftainships at the end of the 19th century. The sculpture of an ancestor with an adze on their shoulder symbolizes a “lord of the land” and belongs to the chief of the lineage and the shamans. The figurines are used in fortune telling. The tattoos signify “the birth of the moon”, as the Tabwa celebrate their ceremonies during each full moon.
Africa, the imagined figure
9 June to 29 August 2004
Opening: Tuesday 8 June, at 8 pm
Place: Balearic Islands ”la Caixa” Foundation
Pl. de Weyler, 3
Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am to 9 pm
Sundays and holidays, 10 am to 2 pm
”la Caixa” Foundation Information Service. Phone: 902 22 30 40