Personal objects and furnishings exemplify how art can bridge the social
and conceptual worlds of African people. The Shona headrest, for example,
has a utilitarian function as a bolster or pillow for the neck. The heads
of individuals with high social status are often not supposed to touch the
earth while sleeping. For some Africans, a chair, stool or headrest is an
intensely personal item--one would not sit upon or utilize the furnishing
of another as is done in the West. These objects "house" the soul
of an individual and as such are highly significant and powerful symbols.
Masks and their use in masquerade are also important links between the
social and ideological worlds of some African people. Masks serve as artistic
and dynamic representations of the importance of the life cycle, initiation
rituals and celebrations of fertility. For example, among the agricultural
Bamana of Mali, members of a prestigious society called Chi Wara wear antelope
headdresses to ensure and celebrate the continued fertility and bounty of
the earth. The headdresses are symbolic representations of human and antelope-like
beings that the Bamana say taught them the art of agriculture.
The Bassa masks as well, embody social celebrations and connections to
spiritual worlds. Bassa masks, used in the male Poro society masquerades
in Liberia, celebrate female fertility and beauty. Masks, more than any
other form of artistic expression in Africa, serve as dynamic objects that
incorporate both the functional and the spiritual and link public celebrations
with the powerful realm of the divine.
Figures and carved sculptures can also connect the social and spiritual
worlds and worldviews of African societies. Ibibio shrine sculptures, crafted
by diviners and kept exclusively within the shrine, represent and house
ancestral spirits. These spirits and sculptures act as intermediaries between
people and the gods. Just as the Ibibio figure among the Yoruba represents
connections between the social and spiritual worlds, the Lwalu carving from
Zaire is an important symbol and artistic object in the mediation between
the social and symbolic worlds. Figure sculpture among the Lwalu people
is rare and the few known examples may have functioned as symbols connected
to fertility rites within certain women's societies. Male chiefs usually
craft these Lwalu figures. The figures convey the social importance of reproduction
and the rituals and symbolism surrounding fertility.
When displayed and purchased in the West, African objects become art
precisely when they are removed from their original functional and symbolic
contexts. It is ironic that objects that represent dynamic links between
individuals, social status and spiritual worlds become static and silent
even as they gain value in a Western art world. Staffs are no longer made
for traditional use and masks, once secluded, now adorn museum walls. Figures
and carvings meant for divination or ritual activities are placed not in
shrines but on gallery pedestals.
Some African arts are made for a contemporary commercial market. Such
objects reveal the shifting contexts and linkages between individuals and
their social worlds, though the specific meanings may have changed. An equestrian
figure illustrates how the Ivory Coast Baule interpret and reinterpret the
colonial presence in art. Originally, such figures were intended as icons,
symbols of social status, evident through the use of brightly colored paints.
Today, these colonial representations symbolize far more than the material
exchange between the West and Africa; they represent the linkages between
and perceptions of the colonizer and the colonized.
The appearance of African arts in commercial markets and Western museums raises the issue of authenticity. Often, in the West, objects are assumed to increase in value with age. African arts in particular are assumed to be more "valuable" if they appear worn, aged, weathered or adorned with exotic materials. Objects that fit such a Western model of aesthetics are often considered more "authentic" although such a description may not have been appropriate in the African context. Some objects in this exhibition represent this process of commodification. Objects once valued for their linkage between the social and spiritual worlds, are now considered valuable in the commercial market. Such objects illustrate the demand of the Western art market for goods considered authentically and aesthetically "African". Objects not only link social and spiritual worlds in Africa but connect individuals economically across cultures.
The African artifacts in this exhibition represent only a small portion of the many societies and histories of African peoples. Both traditional ritual objects and contemporary commodities demonstrate the significance and interrelatedness of African people with the cosmological worlds around them. In this exhibition we have tried to illustrate how central those linkages have been and continues to be. Our aim has been to provide the visitor with a context for understanding the diversity of African arts and their roles as mediators in both the social and spiritual worlds of many African people.
African Worlds, African Art: The William W. Brill Collection was organized by Thierry Gentis and Rebecca Upton, co-curators, assisted by Graham Hawkins and John Polansky and designed by Rip Gerry. Photography by Cathy Carver and Rip Gerry. Brochure design and text by Rebecca Upton. We would like to extend our gratitude to the staff of the Haffenreffer Museum, to the Director, Shepard Krech III, and Brown University. We also wish to gratefully acknowledge William W. Brill, whose generous donation of art and objects has made this exhibition possible.
African Worlds, African Art, begins at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Mount Hope Grant in Bristol, R.l. on 21 April 1996. It will remain on exhibit for approximately one year. The museum is open Sept. through May, Sat. & Sun. 11-5. In June, July and August the museum is open Tues. - Sun. 11-5. For additional information or directions call (401) 253-8388.