Friday, June 19, 2009

Art and Power in the Central African Savanna

In the past, when the Westerners looked at African art, they brought their own preconceived ideas of the primitive and the savage. Twentieth century artists like Picasso and Matisse found the graphic qualities of African art inspiring but knew nothing of the history, culture or religion of the peoples from whom it was taken. The current exhibit at the de Young remedies some of that ignorance with a small but intense and powerful show of art from four Central African Cultures: the Luba, Songye, Chokwe, and Luluwa. The area represented covers present-day Angola, Zaire and the Congo and much of it was collected, for various reasons, by the 19th century Belgium and Portuguese administrators in that region.

Songye female figure - embedded with bass pins to signify the desire for a male child

The power objects blended art and religion and were originally created as a vehicle to mediate between the worlds of the spirits, the earth and the ancestors. But, according to Constantine Petradis, the curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of art and curator of this exhibit, the power embodied in the nearly 60 sculptures and masks on view was not only religious but political as well.

That fusion of worldly and spiritual purposes explains why "power objects" — formerly called fetishes by scholars — came to be large, elaborately carved sculptures that showed "great refinement in anatomical and decorative details," he says.

The sacred royalty of these tribal cultures incorporated religious elements into the justification for their rule. Like the monarchies of Western Europe, the position of the kings was seen as divinely inspired. The complex coronation ritual involved religious confirmation from the spirits. The objects used in the coronation rituals were seen as containers for spiritual and earthly power. The staffs of kingship– several of which are displayed in the show – were to be read from top to bottom and contained emblems of sacred knowledge. Among the Luba, women of the royal family served as custodians of the sacred and secret objects; sometimes they were even the power behind the throne. But the power they were allowed to exert was indirect and bound up with rituals of kingship, renewal and the spirit world.

Songye male figure; the beads are a mark of status as is the skirt/kilt made of rare leopard skins.

Many of these earlier objects have never been exhibited. Dating mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries, the works on view were borrowed from private and public collections in the United States and Belgium, a former colonial power in Central Africa.

Though Westerners were often taken with the beautiful carving of the later works, what Africans believed empowered them were the mineral and plant substances, feathers, animal skins — even human hair and nail clippings — that were either inserted into their cavities or, in the case of oils and ointments, rubbed onto the objects.

Chokwe Male Mask, Angola

Those accouterments were meant to "transform (the sculpture) from an empty, useless piece of wood to a power mediator — to a powerful transistor, so to speak, between this world and the world of the spirits," Petridis says. The power embedded in these figures worked to assist the community in times of danger and to glorify political authority.

Other, smaller figures served more personal purposes. Some, like the female figure almost entirely embedded with bass tacks suggested a desire for a male child or perhaps even protection against smallpox, a much feared disease. Other figures and masks glorified the culture’s idea of female beauty or venerated dynastic heroes and founders of the ruling dynasties. The Nkishi were prayers to the spirit world for a healthy birth, a successful hunt, or a triumph over an enemy. In the past, when the figures had served their purpose, many (those not associated with the royal families or the rituals of sacred kingship) were thrown away. This venue gives a much more nuanced and complex view of African art, organized by a knowledgeable Western scholar and without the colonial patina of ignorance and prejudice toward “darkest Africa.”

The exhibit was originally on view at the Cleveland Museum of art, as well as the Menii Collection, Houston, Texas. The de Young is the final venue.

at the de Young from June 20-October 11, 2009

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