It is a rare treat for me to go to a museum showcasing African art. But when I do, face masks, figurines and other sculptured pieces tend to be displayed as an afterthought – in my opinion.
Sometimes artefacts with limited cultural links, apart from being from the same Continent, are huddled together in a corner. And in many cases there seems to be little acknowledgement of the sheer workmanship involved; the significant societal and cultural value the pieces hold, or the role they played and still play in shaping modern art.
So you can imagine my surprise at learning that the Musée du quai Branly in Paris was staging the Les Maîtres de la sculpture de Côte d’Ivoire (the Master of Sculpture from the Ivory Coast). In one fell swoop I felt that this exhibition, which runs until 26 July, showcased how nuanced, complex, sophisticated and diverse sculpture from the Côte d’Ivoire truly is. And at the same time gave a long overdue hat-tip to those largely unsung champions of West African art – detail which I feel is all too often omitted when the story of African art is told.
Although largely unacknowledged and often viewed as primitive, childlike and simplistic, the likes of Spain’s Pablo Picasso, French painters Maurice de Vlaminck, and André Derain and Italian sculptor and painter Modigliani were all heavily influenced by art from these African communities. So much so that as a result of colonial conquests during the 19th and 20th centuries, some of Africa’s prized antiques became the property of avid Western collectors. Germany’s Hans Himmelheber, whose collection features in the Les Maîtres de la sculpture de Côte d’Ivoire exhibition, being one of many.
Now for those of you unfamiliar (as I was) with the Côte d’Ivoire’s cultural groups, they include the Dan and We in the north-west of the country next to Liberia. The Sénoufo are located to the north, and are also present in neighbouring Guinea and Burkina Faso; while the Lobi dominate in the far north-east. In the centre of the country are the Guoro, neighbours to the Baoulé and Yaouré who, like the Lagoon People of the far south-east, hail from Ghana’s Akan tribe.
Running through all these communities is a rich tradition of sculpture in which face masks and statues formed an intrinsic part to everyday life.
Read: Re-telling the single story on Traditional African Religions
In Ghana, as in some parts of the Côte d’Ivoire, God was not worshipped directly but through intermediaries or lesser gods that inhabit rivers and trees. Below them were minor deities whose powers were invoked through sculpted amulets and charms. And ancestral spirits were believed to surpass these deities in importance and proved vital in protecting the living.
Sculptures were considered to be imbued with supernatural powers or the spirits of deceased relatives. And these sacred pieces were used in initiation rites, employed in masquerades and were important in honouring ancestors. Sculptures were crafted using various techniques including wood carving, brass casting, gold-plating, weaving and using pottery.
Without the sculptors, of course, this dynamic between the living and dead would not be so plainly visible to us today. These men and, among the Lagoon People sometimes women, trained for years to hone these crafting skills.
The Lagoon People were encouraged to develop their own talents and as a result worked without formal training, while apprentices among the Sénoufo were schooled for up to eight years to master the craft. When sculpting sacred pieces (not for everyday use), Guoro sculptors were required to abstain from sexual activity, according to museum’s records.
And in some communities, masters would circumcise their male apprentices as part of this induction process, Joseph Nechvatal writes in the hyperallergic.com article ‘Reframing Ivory Coast’s Long-Anonymous Master Sculptors’.
Special institutions such as the Poro and Sando Associations were established across Côte d’Ivoire’s tribes and the chosen few would be trained, according to prolific blogger kwekudee-tripdownmemorylane.blogspot.co.uk
Renowned Côte d’Ivoire sculptors including such names as Uopié, Kuakudili, Nkpasopi, Tame, Sra, Tompieme, and Si have been immortalised in history.
Among the list, Uopié (1890-1950) from the Nkor-Diaple village in modern-day Liberia, created masks used by the Dan people in initiation rites. He is known for his distinctive application of slit eyes, triangular nose, pouting lips and metal teeth in his masks.
Sra (1880-1955), of the We-speaking people, lived in the Belewale village in Liberia. He was given the name Sra or God creator in the Dan language because of his sculpting skills. He made masks for Dan and Nano chiefs in Liberia but also for the important people of Côte d’Ivoire. He is famed for his portrayal of the female form – with a dome head and chubby cheeks.
Sabou bi Boti is one leading Guoro sculptor who is famed for carving acrobatic scenes. And Kuakudili (see image) of the Yaouré village Kubi is known for creating works for ceremonial usage. His creations caught the attention of collector Himmelheber around 1933.
But many more sculptors remain anonymous. So as you move through the exhibition, sculptures sharing aesthetic similarities common to regional communities of Côte d’Ivoire are grouped together.
Titles include Master of the Rounded Volumes (muscular arms, rounded buttocks, thick legs) referring to pieces by for the Lagoon People. These titles are used in an attempt to root them closer to an individual.
Elsewhere, the Dan were known for their gle masks which represent manifestations of spirits. Some have feminine forms with slanted eyes, while masculine forms have round, tube-like eyes function as authoritative figures.
Among the Baoulé their masks were oval-shaped decorated with semi-circled closed eyes and opened mouths in difference shapes (smiling, rounded, thin) to determine the facial expression.
The Guoro were known for their masks depicting women’s faces, bulging foreheads and complex hairstyles. The Lobi sculptures are austere, hunched shoulders with serious features, while the Sénoufo were skilled in creating more geometric-shaped objects.
Central to this exhibition was an attempt to “generate individualities from this collective anonymity”, curators Eberhard Fischer and Lorenz Homberger say.
I say attempt because it has been impossible to link 330 artefacts gathered from European and African museums as well as private collections back to their individual creators.
Far more telling, for me, is this need to categorise artefacts that firstly were not meant to be ornaments in the Western sense of the word. Clearly, the market for statues and masks among Côte d’Ivoire’s indigenous communities came out of a powerful and personalised belief system.
These artefacts were perceived to hold the spiritual essence of ancestors and could protect and even cure the physical and spiritual ailments of the living. Within that context, was there a need to attribute ownership of sculptures to individual artisans? Afterall, many were schooled under a master who in turn was commissioned to create these pieces by the wealthy and religiously influential.
Some might argue that a so-called signature lives on in the regional differences between the sculpting styles. And far from assuming that writing is the only way to preserve information, it was not uncommon for some African cultures – such as the Yorubas of Nigeria – to preserve an artist’s name through song.
Without a doubt it is thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Branly Museum, the Reitberg Museum in Zurich, Switzerland and Kunstund Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik in Bonn, Germany, that this collection has a much wider audience. But, for me, what is more telling is what isn’t said or seen.
Despite the passing of centuries, the discourse on Côte d’Ivoire sculpture is still dominated by Western voices – collectors, critics, reviewers and other artists.
The museum does well to link past masters with more contemporary Côte d’Ivoire figures such as Koffi Kouakou (1962-2008) who sculpted replica electronic pieces such as robots and telephones out of wood. Also present were Jems Robert Koko Bi, Nicholas Damas, and Emile Guebehi whose pieces close the show. But with the exception of Jems, all the others are no longer living.
And it is not clear if any living masters played a leading or consultative role alongside the curators in bringing the Les Maîtres de la sculpture de Côte d’Ivoire concept to fruition.
Also key to this discussion is how Western colonisation and the demise of these indigenous religions in favour of Christianity and Islam, served to weaken the relevance of these religious pieces. And more than likely encouraged the market for these artefacts abroad.
Currently around 12% of the Côte d’Ivoire’s population attest to following Animism or Traditional African Religions while more than two thirds are either Christian or Muslim. I guess this shift away from traditional practices – either enforced or willing – made it easier for pieces of religious significance to fall into the hands of collectors.
But there is no mention of that in this exhibition. Instead we are forced to make the leap from accepting that these highly sacred pieces became merely ornaments. What isn’t said is that these sacred pieces are part of a wider jigsaw puzzle that includes the observance of many cultural festivals (many linked to agriculture) that are still celebrated today.
Today, demand for African artefacts remains huge. In Charlotte Bugge‘s May 2014 article in the Telegraph she explores whether or not buying African art is an investment. And only last November, top auction house Sotheby’s sold a Kunin Guoro mask by the Bron-Guoro Master for $701,000. And it seems that this is just the tip of the iceberg. According to A. D McKenzie of ipsnews.net, as more collectors die, more of their private art is making its way on to the market.
By Kirsty Osei-Bempong.
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