House Decoration in Nubia
Nuba Personal Art
Self-Decoration in Mount Hagen
Bangwa Funerary Sculpture
Since the days when Jean Jacques Rousseau shook the self-confidence of Western man, the mentality and the art of simpler societies have been a potential object of nostalgic admiration. We are just celebrating the second centenary of Goethe’s first publication, his passionate manifesto in favor of Strasbourg’s Gothic minster. The association of the term “Gothic” with the idea of barbarism made him exalt the art of a “noble savage” which he could never have seen:
And thus the savage may use weird lines, horrible shapes, strident colours for a coconut, feathers or his own body. However arbitrary these forms, they will harmonise without his knowing anything about the laws of proportion, for it was one single emotion that fused them into one significant whole. This significant art is the only true one.
Three generations later that eloquent reformer of Victorian design Owen Jones opened his sumptuous volume The Grammar of Ornament (1857) with an illustration of the tattooed head of a Maori woman.
In this very barbarous practice the principles of the very highest monumental art are manifest, every line upon the face is best adapted to develop the natural features…. the ornament of a savage tribe, being the result of a natural instinct, is necessarily. always true to its purpose….if we would return to healthy conditions, we must even be as little children or savages; we must get rid of the acquired and artificial….
These were the portents of an intellectual movement that was to convince Gauguin at the end of the century that sophistication suffocated creativity and made him leave for the Fortunate Isles for solace and inspiration. Soon even the stay-at-homes were falling under the spell of “primitive art,” prompting the aestheticians to pay increasing attention to these outlandish products. Most of them were steeped in the evolutionist theory which saw in tribal societies something like living fossils, preserving an earlier phase of human mentality. Like the art of the child, the art of the “primitives” thus offered the key to the understanding of “origins.”
We owe it to aesthetic primitivism and anthropological evolutionism that our collections are comparatively rich in products of tribal crafts and that picture books on the subject are plentiful. But both tendencies have also imposed a reading of these exotic styles that calls for revision in the light of more detailed knowledge. Briefly, they have tempted commentators to dwell on those features that distinguish all tribal images from those of the classical tradition—but however much this negative approach may be couched as a commendation of styles that are not naturalistic, not courting sensuous beauty or mathematical proportions, it still remains “ethnocentric.” We have heard too much of the contrast between our approach and that of “the” primitive artist and less than enough about individual tribal craftsmen and the conditions under which their works took shape. Took—for we all know that the sands are running out. The traditions of tribal crafts are rapidly disappearing, and even where they are kept alive by the tourist trade, they are cut loose from their original purpose and setting.
It is for this reason that all students of art must give a special welcome to a new series called “Art and Society” launched by Gerald Duckworth of London and distributed in the United States by the University of Toronto Press, of which four volumes have so far come out. Their editor, Dr. Peter Ucko, is an anthropologist and pre-historian whose astringent studies of primitive art forms have deflated many theoretical balloons. Given the high level of generality of most books on so-called “primitive” art, he wants the series to offer basic texts on specific art forms “which are in danger of debasement or extinction.”
In this respect the subject of Marian Wenzel’s book, House Decoration in Nubia, is almost symbolic of the whole situation. The products of the village crafts she lovingly describes are by now submerged or washed away by the artificial lake resulting from the Aswan Dam, and the people who lived in these houses have been resettled in dreary concrete huts miles away. Hers, in other words, was a deliberate rescue operation supported by, among others, the Sudan Antiquities Service and the University of Khartoum Sudan Research Unit. Being an artist in her own right and an experienced archaeologist, she could record this vanishing world with brush and pen as well as through photographs as a poignant memorial to a whole mode of life.
James C. Faris, the author of Nuba Personal Art, takes a more detached view of the fascinating customs he has studied.
It is probably not in the national interest of new socialist states that art traditions such as those described in this book survive.
One need not accept his Marxist bias to realize why this art must soon disappear. The young men of this isolated tribe close to the center of the Sudan spend a good deal of their time decorating their own and each other’s bodies with colored earth, renewing or changing the elaborate designs as soon as they get smudged. Here as elsewhere it is the women who do most of the work, and this situation is indeed unlikely to survive the impact of Western mores.
The rituals and customs in the center of New Guinea described in the book by Andrew and Marilyn Strathern, Self-Decoration in Mount Hagen, have already been impaired by the influence of Western civilization. The principal occasion for the magnificent displays of costumes and masks illustrated in its pages are the feasts or mokas in which these tribes outdo each other in giving presents and parading wealth. Not long ago these feasts were embedded in a mode of life that involved continuous warfare with neighboring tribes. They provide, in fact, a belated answer to the rhetorical question which Ruskin once asked when he wondered why one only hears of war paint and never of peace paint. The Mount Hageners knew both, but the Australian administration appears to have succeeded in 1945 in forbidding war and imposing peace. The authors even tell us that their informants described war as a “bad thing,” but since we are told that the same derogatory term is also applied to the sex organs this valuation is unlikely to express a pacifist bias.
Finally, the book by Robert Brain and Adam Pollock, which is somewhat misleadingly called Bangwa Funerary Sculpture, describes a mountainous area in West Africa in which Western influence and the tourist trade have already made considerable inroads. Some of the masks, fetishes, and other carvings, which once served a great variety of purposes but were most conspicuously displayed during the funerary rites of a chieftain, show traces of this change. Not long ago the women were naked, while they now wear a Mediterranean style of dress. The members of the “Royal Society” are described as wearing elaborate and very costly garments.
Dancers wear nineteenth-century waistcoats and jackets with fringed epaulettes and red flannel gaiters; their headgear consists of soldiers’ felt hats traded from the Germans who occupied their country in the early years of the century. Wealthy chiefs are proud possessors of brass helmets….
We read, moreover, that the function of the once powerful Night Society has been largely taken over by the West Cameroon Administration. This society was much concerned with the identification and execution of witches and commissioned the powerful and terrible masks which have found their way into several collections and anthologies of primitive art. But if the lover of art must regret the passing of these conditions he must also remember the danger of sentimentalizing them. We hear that the most prominent Bangwa chief Assunganyi (1885-1951), whose photograph looks enigmatically from the pages of this book, is still remembered with awe.
He ruled his country and his large compound (he had over a hundred wives) with a generous if iron hand. His prodigality was proverbial…. Tales are told of his feats of strength, his cunning, his hunting and his fighting and dancing prowess. He could flay a wife and stop in the middle to listen to a birdsong.
But whatever our attitude, it cannot diminish our gratitude to the editor and his authors who underwent much hardship in their efforts of recording and analyzing these doomed societies. All four books are profusely illustrated with most informative and beautiful color and black-and-white photographs as well as line drawings. If there is a minor flaw in the arrangements it is that these various types of illustration are differently numbered and since they are distributed throughout the book with little reference to the text, the conscientious reader is constantly distracted by having to hunt for visual evidence. May one hope that future volumes will add page references to facilitate this search? It would be a real pity if the difficulties of this hurdle race were to deter readers from doing justice to the important texts.
Various as is the material which is presented here, and various as are the approaches of the authors, there is one conclusion on which they all agree and which the student of art must accept. Although the links between ritual, magic, and art in tribal societies are close, there is also evidence everywhere of an independent enjoyment of shapes and colors which serve no ulterior purpose. True, this point was also made long ago in that classic work, Primitive Art by Franz Boas (1927), but we still need the reminder that Goethe’s intuition in this respect was sound. Not that magical practice is not frequently mentioned in these volumes. In Nubia plates and other shining objects are placed above the door to catch the evil eye; among the Bangwa certain fetishes have no purpose save that of warding off witches; the ritualistic decorations of Mount Hagen include “medication”; and certain pigments among the Nubas are endowed with potency to secure, say, the victory of a wrestler. But it is well to remember that our own word “charm” also signifies both the magic of an amulet and the attraction of a piece of jewelry, and if we find the illustrations of these four books “enchanting” we submit to their “spell.”
Given this general framework, however, the method and outlook of the various authors could hardly be more divergent. Like all academic disciplines anthropology is prone to intellectual fashions, and the degree to which these come into play differs significantly. The book by James Faris is the most ambitious in its method. His detailed and informative account of cicatrization and body painting used in a large variety of circumstances by both sexes of this vigorous tribe culminates in the attempt to write a “Generative algorithms for Southeastern Nuba representational design.”
In other words, he wants to construct what would amount to a computer program for the production, at least, of those designs which he calls “representative,” by which he means patterns named after animals—names which do not necessarily imply a closer connection with the creature than does the English term “zebra crossing” for striped pedestrian passages. These pages with their symbolism and their technical terms are likely to impress some readers and depress others, and since they will probably attract attention and emulation they invite critical scrutiny. Not feeling competent to discuss them unaided I have sought the help of a computer expert, Mr. Romilly Cocking, who was kind enough to read the book and to guide me through the maze of the algorithm. I am afraid I emerged with less awe and less faith in the usefulness of this new toy.