African Worlds, African Art:
The William W. Brill Collection

Throughout the history and continent of Africa, traditional arts and objects have been central to the lives of individuals. Objects have functioned as powerful organizing symbols, connecting spiritual and social values and roles, and representing various cultural histories. African arts and objects link the various conceptual worlds of African societies and, as such, continue to play dynamic roles in the lives of many societies. This exhibition explores the significance, aesthetics and purpose of African material objects as well as their social and historical contexts, from the donated collection of William W. Brill.

This exhibition focuses on objects themselves and the social contexts in which they are embedded. The artifacts are organized into broad conceptual categories according to their use. Personal objects and furnishings, masks, figures and sculptures, and market commodities form frameworks in which the specific utilitarian functions of the objects can best be illustrated. African Worlds: African Art is also united thematically by linking objects to ritual, ideological and symbolic worlds. The objects represent conceptual bridges between the everyday lives of diverse African peoples and the worlds of the divine. The divisions between the everyday and the spiritual worlds are not as sharp as they are in the West and these bridges are drawn and understood through the uses of various artistic objects.

Headrest, Shona. Zimbabwe or Mozambique

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.

Headdress, Bamana. Mali

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.

Mask, Bassa. Liberia

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.

Shrine sculpture, Ibibio. Nigeria

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.

Figure, Lwalu. Zaire

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.

Figure, Baule, Ivory Coast

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.