I used to think that Picasso and the other early modernists who raved over the African masks and carved figures they found in Parisian museums saw only formal designs and discarded the cultural baggage that came with them. They weren’t superstitious natives but aesthetes, who appropriated the geometrical discoveries they needed and ignored the rest. Now I think that this describes my attitude to African objects in the primitive days of the 1960s, not Picasso’s, who thought he recognised in African carvers fellow artists practising a kind of magic, standing between the spirit-world and their audiences like shamans and interpreting that dangerous reality to them. He credited the African objects with waking him to the true seriousness of art.
The divide between the artist’s vision and the anthropologist’s isn’t quite what I thought it was then, but it is still there. I even begin to think this painful split is not resolvable and bound to haunt anyone who becomes deeply interested in African sculpture. For it is sculpture that carries the serious weight of African art and above all sculpture in wood. Sculpture includes all sorts of useful objects–backrests, stools, musical instruments, containers for food—a full list would go on much longer and show that the concept enclosed in our word sculpture doesn’t really fit in Africa.
Take masks, one of the most numinous of African cultural forms, to which we bring associations from ancient Greek drama, tied to venerable texts, not appropriate to African cultures which were not literate in the time of the earliest surviving masks and so have left no contemporary interpretations. For the aesthete (perhaps for any museum-goer) it is convenient to think of African art existing outside history, like ghosts in a dream, or a continuous unchanging present. This is a cultural appropriation uncomfortably like looting in its own high-handed way. Sometimes it’s obvious that a mask has been shorn of its history—it had one, but the evidence was too bulky for the collector to bring that back as well as the mask proper, or the material was perishable (grass, feathers) and has decayed and disappeared. More often than not, the masks have functioned as part of a kind of theatrical performance, a masquerade that took place in the street or the field and played its part in agricultural or social cycles.
I have two books that represent the two poles clearly, one is Africa, the art of a continent, the catalogue of an enormous exhibition of 1995-6, the other is A History of Art in Africa, which in spite of its title is full of photos showing the art in use, smothered by and barely visible under the social hubbub, art sharing the space with anthropology. This reflects current discomfort with treating African masks and figures simply as museum pieces, which have left their lives in the villages behind.
Bits of Greek or Egyptian temples in the British Museum, Italian altarpieces in the National Gallery—these are also instances of dismembering culture to turn it into art. Photos in the great Africa catalogue isolate the works and make every detail visible, elevating them into a place of special clarity, transfiguring them. The current style of museum display, however, (in the British Museum in London or the National Museum of African Art in Washington) sinks them in a surrounding darkness from which they emerge eerily, uncertainly. Photos taken under those conditions convey the murk of clouded consciousness.
Its subjects exist outside history in a world ruled by metaphor, like a huge butterfly mask in Washington with four birds and three chameleons perched on it, stretching sideways for almost six feet in a shape unlike any face that ever was. Labels for such objects too often simply show the limits of knowledge—dates are the date it was collected, or a guess–‘late 19th/ early 20th century (?)’—how often have we met that? Then comes an interesting debate about which of two nearby groups is more likely as the source of the work. In the meantime more intriguing questions have slipped away—why a butterfly? why such an abstract, bird-like form of butterfly? why such strident tattooing over the whole wing-surface of the flimsy creature? and the inversions of size, small birds & large butterfly—is that just a picture of thought roaming free, or a more specific puzzle to be solved? No answers, only questions.
Ordinary objects are turning into animals, like a stool ingeniously composed of a long nosed beast which can fold its limbs into a stool with none left over or sticking out, an improbable completeness in disparate realities aligned. Less immediately perplexing are appliances embellished with a single or a couple of animal features, a big container with a head and a tail, or a backrest with a ram’s head at the top and two supports turning into his front legs, the rest of him nowhere to be seen or thought of as continuing underground.
It is wrong to view the animal features as embellishments or decoration of a useful object. They are all we need to turn a thing into a being. Even a modern Westerner, susceptible enough to the literal mindedness that runs deep in all art, will seize on the slightest signs that the inanimate is becoming animate to take the hint, carry it further and complete the conversion, even in the case where what I took for a large storage container made from a log is actually a slit-drum for sending long-distance messages by banging on its sides with wooden hammers. I reckoned it a giant ant-eater, so stretched-out was its body, nine feet long, but everyone agrees that the head is another ram’s head, and the tail a ram’s tail, so these proportions call for difficult digesting by the viewer. Or perhaps its mass is so powerful that it overcomes all objections by that fact alone.
There is a whole category of African mask which looks nothing much like any existing man or beast, such as an example in the British Museum which I mistook for a wolf (a non-African species), then decided must be a crocodile. These masks are even called Cubist in catalogues, on the theory that like Braque and his contemporaries the African artist has analysed the form of the animal’s head into purer geometrical solids, as a kind of intellectual feat or, more likely, in hope of striking terror in the viewer. A being of such heartlessly perfect forms, encountered in a masquerade, would be the last opponent to pay any attention to a plea.
The same goes for the ridged human face with its features alarmingly protruded and separated from each other. Here again analysis immediately reveals itself as ruthlessness, all thinking finished, all results final. To the early twentieth century artist this work seemed to go further and more fearlessly than the West had ever dared.
It isn’t really in the same class-–creating fear or disturbance—but the famous mask with twelve eyes might be in its way just as intimidating. The rules of ordinary reality give way all at once without a chance to discuss them. Of all the objects in this series, this is the one which most needs to be seen in isolation for full effect, surrounded by a void, a true minimalist reduction.
The forms are superficially similar but the intention is as far away as possible in the chaos of cylindrical forms that dominates the mask now in Washington which uses discarded found objects to make the approximation of a straggly beard. Spent cartridges may still carry the original threat of unassailable power, or the whole thing may be a joke on the bluster of the white man. Interpreting the humour of other cultures is a notorious trap for the unwary—is this dangerous aggression or hollow thunder? I lean to the first.
It is rare to find reliable reports connected with a specific piece. The History of Art in Africa illustrates a mask that resembles an actual decapitated head with gaping nostrils and sagging mouth, whose teeth are apparently taken from executed criminals condemned by the mask, which functioned as judge and lawgiver until the late 1930s, when forced into retirement by a bureaucrat. Apparently this mask was regarded as so dangerous that it was brought to meetings wrapped in a black cloth. Its bangles each represent particular victims for whose deaths it was responsible.
There’s a familiar sort of fetish which carries even more ominous evidence of a long and violent history. These are the figures of dogs or men stuck full of blades until they bristle so thickly, like a gruesome distortion of the animal’s fur, that we wonder if there is room for any more exercises of the fetish’s power. Apparently the painful profusion is the sign of a figure that works, whose power has brought about all those desired outcomes. As in Kafka, excruciating pain is the precondition of enlightenment. In The Penal Colony the cult of pain ends badly, but ambiguously. The fetish stuck full of all-too-vivid jabs is one of the severest tests of Western understanding of African intentions. Who is the victim? Is there one or hundreds of them? I make the most twisted sense of these alarming objects, which give me a kind of kick, but which I doubt if I understand in their original sense at all.
Wonderful masks of tiered figures, much too heavy for one person to wear, again test our ability to enter the moods or states for which they were made. In this one a rider carrying among other gear the decapitated head of an enemy, sits on an overscaled head which is part of the same tree but now seems made of an entirely different material, lighter in colour and rough and granular like bread. Apparently this texture comes from many applications of sacrificial blood and palm wine, not the friendly feeding of the image that one finds in Indian temples, not intimate and domestic, but administered in fear and awe of the image’s power, proven over years of testing its ability to fulfil requests. In truth I can go only so far in enjoying this feature—I like the texture and the idea that one part of a work of art receives such destructive attention while the rest does not. To an African villager this outsider’s approach, stopping short of the most important element, the change that the image can bring about, must seem nonsensical.
Another impressive composite figure in the British Museum looks like a mask on legs, turned into a piece of furniture or stabilised into a permanent shrine which doesn’t move about. Looking more closely, we detect a strange deconstruction of the central figure. The large cavity where the dancer’s head would go, if it were actually a mask, is found in place of the main figure’s stomach, which is also a monstrous maw ringed with teeth. Just as incongruously, this man has four legs not two.
One of the group’s most intriguing features is the mixed character of the beings brought together and organised symmetrically. There’s a small elephant mounted on the large figure’s head, and two children or deputies whom he holds at arm’s length. It is a mysterious and powerful group which only runs into trouble when we attempt detailed interpretation. Is it a portrait of a particular family which would have been kept in their house, or a cosmological diagram commissioned by the tribe and taking part in its ceremonies, even briefly worn on someone’s shoulders as if it really were a mask? It’s the old problem of wanting to give an African object a history, and feeling that the more one insists, the more one is making it up.
Very few African objects look truly old, and often it seems to go with having been neglected. Some of the most venerable are grave figures raised to commemorate individuals. These are unusually tall and thin, because they are made from trees, because they are markers which need to stand out in a field of others like them, and because they haven’t eaten anything and are already part of the spirit-world. The main reason they look so venerable and carry their history so visibly is that no one is taking care of them, and they are left to decay like the other bodies buried at their feet.