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The Arts of Africa

Yet elsewhere in the region, in other forest cultures—Yoruba and Igbo, for example, in Nigeria—masks are worn in public, in masquerades, where the wearer comes to represent a god or an ancestor, through possession and the donning of the mask (a practice familiar to many Western readers from the account of it in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart). So the mask we see, still in the museum, once lived on the face or rode on the shoulders of a man who was standing in for a spirit. But masquerades with masks can be pure entertainment, too, as they are in the Guro dances of Ivory Coast: and there are three Guro masks in the catalog—one of an elderly man, and one of a young woman, the third unidentified—that were made to be worn in inter-village dance competitions.

The point here is simple enough: Africa’s creative traditions are both various and particular. You will no more capture the essence of Africa’s arts in a single tradition than you can grasp the meaning of European art by examining Tuscan painting of the fifteen century. And what goes for art goes, even more, for life. Africa’s forms of life are too diverse to capture in a single ideal type. An understanding of our goldweights requires that you know something not of African but of Akan life: the generalities about African life are, by and large, human generalities.

So we might as well face up to the obvious problem: neither Africa nor art—the two animating principles of the show the Royal Academy originated and the Guggenheim exhibited—played a role as ideas in the creation of the objects in that spectacular show.

Take, first, “Africa”: through the long ages of human cultural life there, and, more particularly, in the half-dozen or so millennia since the construction of the first great architectural monuments of the Nile Valley, most people in the continent have lived in societies that defined both self and other by ties of blood or power. It would never have occurred to most of the Africans in this long history to think that they belonged to a larger human group, were defined by a shared relationship to the African continent: a hundred years ago, it would not have occurred to anyone in my hometown. Only recently has the idea of Africa come to figure importantly in the thinking of many Africans; and those that took up this idea got it, by and large, from European culture.

The Europeans who colonized the continent thought of sub-Saharan Africa as a single place, in large part because they thought of it as the home of a single—Negro—race. (That is why, when we speak of Africans, black people come to mind: despite the fact that lighter-skinned North Africans—Arabs, Berbers, Moors—are unequivocally inhabitants of continental Africa.) In the European imagination, the cultures and societies of sub-Saharan Africa formed a single continuum, reflecting an underlying racial unity, which expressed itself in the “savage rhythms” of African music, the “sensuality” of African dance, the “primitive vigor” of sculpture and masks from what they called the “Dark Continent.”

As intellectuals in Africa came to think of themselves, for the first time, as members of a Negro race—and as Africans—they drew not only on this general Western conception, but also on the ideas of African-American intellectuals (Alexander Crummell, E.W. Blyden, W.E.B. Du Bois) who had been taught to understand themselves as Negroes in the context of the New World system of racial domination, the consequence of slavery. In the New World, where so many dark-skinned people had been brought together from Africa and deprived of the specific cultural knowledge and traditions of their ancestors, the common experience of the Middle Passage and of enslavement bonded together people whose ancestors had lived very diverse styles of life, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles apart. In the New World—in Brazil, or Cuba, or the United States—people of diverse African ancestries, bound together in each place by a shared language, might end up experiencing themselves as a unity.

But in Africa itself the great diversity of societies and cultural forms was not homogenized by the slave trade. Over the last millennium, as Islam spread across North Africa and into West Africa, and down the East African littoral; over the last few centuries, as Christianity came (with its multiple inflections) in the footsteps of European trade and colonization; over the last century, as colonial empires bound African societies increasingly tightly into the new global economic system and into the modern order of nation-states; over the last decades, as the global spread of radio and television and the record and film industries has reached its tentacles into villages and towns all over Africa—throughout this time, there have, of course, been enormous forces bringing the experiences of African societies closer together. But despite all these forces, the central cultural fact of African life, in my judgment, remains not the sameness of Africa’s cultures, but their enormous diversity.

This should not be surprising. We are speaking of a continent, of hundreds of millions of people. We are talking of hundreds of languages. A thousand years ago, Christianity in Ethiopia was older than it is now anywhere south of the equator; Islam was settled in Egypt and beginning to move into a period of dominance in the Sahel; and a majority of Africans worshiped the thousands of gods whose posterity remains in shrines all over the continent. Long before Charlemagne was crowned, the ancestors of the San people in Southern Africa were living—as many continued to live until a hundred years ago—free of rulers, in small nomadic family groups; but African kingship in Egypt was millennia old. When the American republic began, there were matrilineal kingdoms in Asante and patrilineal kingdoms in Yorubaland; there were female regiments in Dahomey, and high-born Hausa women living in enclosed Moslem households in Kano in what is now upper Nigeria; cats were food for the Mossi in West Africa and taboo for the Asante; and the range of clothing across the continent included most of the forms of dress (and undress) that the human species has known. Religious diversity, political diversity, diversity in clothing and cuisine: Africa has enough cultural diversity to satisfy the wildest multiculturalist.

But the fact is that the legacy of the old European way of thinking, which sees Africa as united, as the home of the Negro, makes it natural for us, here in the West, to expect there to be a shared African essence; and that tradition makes us equally likely to expect that this essence will show itself in the unity of African art. In this older way of thinking, after all, all the arts everywhere expressed the common genius of a people. (This is one reason why so many of the objects collected by Europeans in Africa during the last two centuries are labeled not with the name of a maker, but with the name of a “tribe”: an ethnic group whose shared conceptions these masks or bronzes or shrine-figures were thought to express.) But as one could see as one made one’s way through the show at the Guggenheim, it would take an eye completely blind to the particular to reduce this magnificent miscellany to the expression of the spirit of a singular, coherent, African nature.

I have remarked, already, on the diversity of masks (and I did so mentioning only West African examples). But wandering among the installations in London and New York, one saw the magnificent brass plaques of Benin, with their representations of warriors and monarchs; Nubian incense burners in copper; lapis lazuli figurines from Egypt; Luba healing-figures from Zaire. In the installation at the Royal Academy, there was a marvelous wall of wooden headrests, beautifully patinated, their burnished surfaces echoing the paneling of the room, and with an elegance of design that would have been at home at the Museum of Modern Art. These were used as pillows and came from several cultures of Southern Africa (a region of intense cultural cross-fertilization); but the Zulu headrests and Tsonga headrests fell into distinctive patterns, and the Ethiopian headrests in the neighboring room were different from the Somali headrests, and neither of these East African styles could be mistaken for those of Southern Africa.

What unites the show’s pieces as African, to put it simply, is not a shared nature, not the shared character of the cultures from which they came, but our ideas of Africa; ideas which, as I have said, have now come to be important for many Africans, and thus are now African ideas, too.


Let us now explore, for a moment, the second side of the difficulty I have been describing: the fact that what unites these objects from Africa as art is our concept of art as well. There is no old word in most of the thousand or so languages still spoken in Africa that adequately translates the word “art.” This, too, is not surprising once you think about it: there is, after all, no word in seventeenth-century English (or, no doubt, in seventeenth-century Cantonese or Sanskrit) that carries exactly that burden of meaning, either. The ways we think of “art” now in the West (and the many places in the world where people have taken up this Western idea) began to take something like their modern shape in the European Enlightenment. And it is no longer helpful to try to explain what art has come to be for us by offering a definition; in an age in which, as John Wisdom liked to say, “every day in every way, we are getting meta and meta,” the art world has denizens whose work is to challenge every definition of art, to push us beyond every boundary, to stand outside and move beyond every attempt to fix art’s meaning. Any definition of art now is a provocation, and it is likely to meet the response: Here, I have made (or found) this thing that does not meet your definition and I dare you to say it is not art.

Still, we have received ideas about art and about artists: and my point is that most of these ideas were not part of the cultural baggage of the people who made the objects that we see in shows like the Guggenheim’s, in Western museum exhibitions of African “tribal” art. For example: Since the nineteenth century especially, we have made an important distinction between the fine and the decorative arts, and we have come increasingly to think of fine art as “art for art’s sake.” We have come, that is, increasingly to see art as something we must assess by criteria that are intrinsic to the arts, by what we call aesthetic standards. We know art can serve a political or a moral or even a commercial purpose: but to see something as art is to evaluate it in ways that go beyond asking whether it serves these “extrinsic” purposes. Many of the objects shown at the Guggenheim, on the other hand, had primary functions that were, by our standards, non-aesthetic, and would have been assessed, first and foremost, by their ability to achieve those functions.

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