African Art
African Art; drawing by David Levine

Since the beginning of this century the arts of Black Africa and of other “primitive” cultures have attracted the attention of two different but equally specialized audiences: anthropologists studying the evolution of material culture or its rituals, magic, and belief; and artists and collectors, whose taste and interest had been formed by modern art, and who, unlike the anthropologists, were primarily attracted by artistic qualities. What the artists and collectors saw in African sculpture was a power of formal design, and of emotion concentrated in that design. The specific conditions of a work’s creation, whether a figure was ancestral or a mask the portrayal of a certain spirit, mattered little to them. They were concerned primarily with the discovery of non-imitative forms expressive in their own right. Engaged in denying Western naturalism, they found in the rhythmically stylized forms of African art, which by generalizing the human figure through geometric simplification seemed never to copy nature but to create imaginative parallels to it, those qualities of symbolic form they were themselves seeking. Thus the art communicated to them directly and there was no question of checking its correctness; while for the anthropologists African art was simply the illustration of fundamental social and religious ideas.

More recently, however, African art has gained a wider audience. In the United States at least, it is no longer confined to museums of anthropology, where it serves primarily documentary purposes, or to specialized private collections. Along with the other “primitive” arts it is now increasingly coming to inhabit museums of art, where it acquires prima facie status as art, calling for an aesthetic response. Just what this means for arts whose purposes and intentions are so different from our own, however appealing their forms, is far from clear. Anthropologists, rather than art historians, still do most of the writing on African art, and although they have now come to accept these developments in western taste (which until recently many of them deplored as ethnocentric distortions) they are still not quite comfortable with them. Often, as in Mr. Wassing’s text, their unease is expressed by an insistence on the functional character of the art, its use in ceremony, ritual, magic, and the decoration of utilitarian objects, as if this aspect of art were otherwise totally unfamiliar. They point out that masks and figures are the embodiment of spirits, gods, or ancestors, and serve very practical ends of appeasing, invoking, or controlling these spirits. Because his work must have direct meaning to his tribal society the carver must create within an accepted tradition of form and detail.

This is of course true and important; it is not, however, unique to Africa, being equally (if differently) the case for the arts of many other periods and places (e.g., those of the middle ages), where no warnings about the mistaken transference of subjective modern attitudes—commonly, if mistakenly, called “art for art’s sake”—are deemed necessary. Similarly, a general survey of medieval art would not start with its historiography in order to lead up to the intrinsic merits of the Romanesque and Gothic and our judgment of their high quality. Yet Leiris, who writes perceptively, still feels compelled to introduce his subject with a chapter on its “discovery” at the beginning of this century and its effect on modern taste. He has no need to convince himself of the beauties of African art, as another anthropologist might do: quite the contrary.

A distinguished writer as well as anthropologist, member of the surrealist group, friend of those painters and sculptors in Paris who, from Picasso on, were strongly attracted to African and Oceanic art, Leiris has led a double life. He is thus in a unique position to give a detailed and sympathetic account of the growing appreciation of African art. But he is also aware that this appreciation has not been general, precisely because it has been connected with the taste for modern art and that, especially in France, it has not been shared by those interested in more traditional styles. (The late Georges Salles, while Director-General of the French Museums after World War II, wanted a small section of the Louvre given over to African sculpture, but was unable to overcome the opposition of conventional taste.) Out of this experience he writes that “there are many Western people for whom African aesthetics remain marginal,” and he has evidently concluded that he can best serve African art by showing what, over the last seventy-five years, painters, sculptors, and writers have found to admire in it. That an anthropologist recognizes how this has helped to shape our present attitudes is unusual, and throughout his text Leiris constantly, and brilliantly, fuses anthropological information with aesthetic judgment.

Leiris and Delange do not insist, as Wassing does, on the function of African art. They are of course aware of it, and inevitably must describe the many religious and secular uses to which it is put. But their deeper knowledge of the subject, and their easier relation to contemporary aesthetic attitudes, enable them to take the social role of art for granted, as Wassing does not. They are thus better able to detail the particularities of that role in the various African societies, while seeing a reinforcing rather than a conflicting relation between the functional and the more purely formal elements of style.


The recognition of the functional nature of primitive masks, figures, and useful objects has raised the question whether, in their own societies, such works are judged by any of the “aesthetic” qualities which we think essential to art. Can works which fulfill the same necessary ritual or social role be differentiated according to “aesthetic” standards? A good deal of field work has recently been done on the double problem of whether there is recognition of artistic quality in African societies and whether the criteria by which it is judged are the same as ours.

There can be little doubt about the first. The second is more difficult to resolve, not only because of African differences or lack of terminology, but also because comparative studies are generally somewhat naïve in assuming that a single scale of values runs through the history of western art and in taking so little account of the wide latitude of contemporary taste. Leiris also raises this question, citing as evidence for an African sense of beauty various languages which have words approximating our meaning of “beautiful”—although as in our own older tradition the beautiful is not always separated from the good, the fitting, or the expressive, the social status accorded the carver and blacksmith groups in many African societies, both tribal and royal, and the special recognition given to the exceptionally gifted individual artist.

But he handles the evidence matter-of-factly, as a bow to methodology, without the skepticism or defensiveness with which it is often discussed, and one understands that, rightly, the works themselves with all their inherent and striking “artistic” qualities carry sufficient conviction. He points out that if those objects which we isolate as works of art always fit into a functional situation, it is equally true that many utilitarian objects “fashioned with loving care…are proof that beauty, achieved by harmony of form and perfection of finish, has not been sacrificed…. African art, far from being concentrated to a comparatively marginal field (as it is with us) was necessarily widely diffused throughout society and the life of the individual.”

We are accustomed to discussing art in its historical setting. Origins, sequence, and comparisons are used to approach (or to avoid) the direct questions of kind and character. But for most African art this is, or has been, impossible, since there are no written records and wood sculpture is perishable. Scholars have largely concentrated on recognition and localization of styles, on the assumption that tribe and style can be matched, and that the most typical features of a given style are most expressively characteristic of the culture.

Thus the elegance and finish of the Baule, the spare elongation of the Dogon, the rhythmic roundness of the Luba, the realism of the Kongo are considered paradigmatic qualities that must somehow arise from the other qualities of their cultures. Such categorizing was of course necessary groundwork carried out by many scholars (most recently, William Fagg). It has sharpened our eyes, made us aware of the range and diversity of African styles, and largely deflated the vague and looming image of an “African art” unattached to any specific works. But categorizing art in this way has also tended to put emphasis on tribal discreteness, to play down historical change and neighborly influence, and to depreciate instances of stylistic fusion.

Above all, in their assumption of a matching style and culture the classifiers never tackled the problem of how two peoples (e.g., the Dogon and the Bambara, or the Fang and the Bakota), whose styles of life and mythical beliefs are essentially similar, produce sculpture whose formal and (at least to us) expressive qualities are so dissimilar. The catalogue of styles is now probably nearly complete, but it is not always applicable. As Daniel Biebuyck has forcefully pointed out in his work on the Lega of the Eastern Congo, certain modes of treatment, being closely related to their function and iconography in the rituals of intertribal societies, can and do cross tribal lines.

Both these books recognize that classifying styles by area really tells us little about the art. Wassing addresses himself to the collector, whose personal aesthetic bias he wishes to correct and supplement by insisting on background and function. Leiris is at once more thorough, more subtle, and more modest, realizing how short a way conscious knowledge and analysis can go to approximating the spontaneous judgments of another cultural tradition. He and his collaborator, Jacqueline Delange, have combined the two methods. Leiris first outlines the geographical and social setting, and then in a section called “Sources and Styles” analyzes what is known of the history of African art, where he must perforce concentrate on the Ife-Benin sequence (twelfth century on) and its forerunners (Nok, 500 B.C. to 200 A.D.). Then follows a discussion of the visual arts divided according to a broad scheme adapted from one of Leiris’s masters, Marcel Mauss: arts of the body, including masks; environmental arts, ranging from architecture to pottery vases and gourds; and autonomous figurative arts—sculpture and painting. This is a division by function, with the virtue, among others, of emphasizing the different roles played by masks and figure sculpture, too often seen together and in the same way because they adapt themselves readily to museum installation.


Throughout this discussion Leiris is aware of the inseparability of form and iconography. The term “plastic arts” is a misnomer, especially for masks, because it suggests something too pure and too static. On the other hand, “morphological appearance (i.e., stylized form) means much more to an illiterate people than to us, since its mythical and symbolic characteristics may well be a substitute for literature.” Especially among a people without a written tradition the sculptor is more than the illustrator of pre-existing concepts. The compact ancestral figures of the Fang bieri, the taut and slender mythical heroes portrayed by the Dogon are more than reminders of their subjects; rather they are these ancestors and these heroes, not because they are idols or fetishes, but because, with an oral tradition as the only parallel, their sculptural form determines their continuing imaginative presence and establishes the reality of mythology and belief. The sculpture thus plays a central part in embodying and preserving the tradition. This makes innovation difficult and helps to explain the slow rate of formal change that seems to characterize African tribal styles.

The third part of Leiris’s book outlines a repertory of styles in a geographical and tribal sequence. It is a review of tribal styles that was originally intended to be much more thorough in its analysis of both “morphology” and function. For reasons of marketing and conformity to the series of which this book is a part, it had to be severely curtailed. The excised material has been published separately as Art et peuples de l’Afrique noire in the Bibliothèque des Sciences Humaines (Gallimard), which once again Leiris, in his Introduction, describes not as a history “but rather [as] materials for a history” of African art.

The sensitivity of the text has carried over into the choice of illustrations. The authors have solved the problem of preserving an element of visual freshness while including the necessary but familiar masterpieces. The objects from museum collections are not always the most famous ones, and there are fresh and surprising works from private collections (mostly French). Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Mr. Wassing’s choices. His format allowed him many fewer illustrations, but too many of these come from one Swiss and one Dutch collection, and there are several works which seem to me to be not only recent but decadent (highly acculturated!), and therefore misleading, examples of their tribal styles.

Leiris and Delange acknowledge that we may never be able to establish an accurate history of African art. The perishable nature of wood under tropical conditions, the ritual importance attached to renewing the act of making, so that preservation is often relatively unimportant (especially for some kinds of masks), the equally ritualistic destructions by monotheistic fanatics have combined to wipe out much of the evidence needed to work out the artistic evolution of the last five hundred years. Moreover the archaeological findings for earlier pottery and bronze styles, which have until now been discovered largely by accident (as at Ife and Nok), are likely to remain spotty, given the shallowness of the soft top layers of African soil in many areas and the consequent shifting nature of settlements. Thus the problem may be, as Roy Sieber has put it, “whether we can reconstruct the history of African art in the absence of objects.”

During the Twenties, when the relatively few collectors of African art had a taste for the sculptures with delicate form and fine detail that the Baule give to their figures, the dark patina and smooth contours found on Dan masks, or the stylized elliptical bodily parts characteristic of the Fang, there was a tendency to exaggerate age. These were works without color or formal excrescences, whose workmanship and size suggested more familiar European objets d’art. Because some of them had a certain hieratical appearance, and seemed both old (or at least weathered) and religious, and age was a virtue, they were provided with dates corresponding to the European Middle Ages, although there was no other evidence for this. Then came a reaction which insisted that no wooden objects were more than 150 years old. It is now recognized that this is too short a view. Further refinements in and the wider application of scientific methods of dating may be able to establish some order in the art of the last three or four centuries, in addition to what we now know of Nigeria. But there probably will still be a gap between more recent history and the archaeological cultures; something of the same hiatus exists between even the oldest of the Ife ceramics and those at Nok.

Outside Nigeria it is the Tellem-Dogon sequence (in Mali near the bend of the Niger River) that seems to offer the most promising possibilities for working out historical development. Whether the encrusted figures found in the niches of the Bandiagara escarpment were carved by an older, separate population, the Tellem, as the Dogon themselves believe, or are an earlier stage of a style that will prove to be continuous with the Dogon, these arts have existed for several hundred years. It should eventually be possible to determine which stylistic variations are due to age, and which to the existence of simultaneous local traditions. But this will help little in working out the evolution of other tribal styles.

The corpus of African art known to Europe and the United States is still increasing. The process of western penetration and the breakdown of traditional tribal societies is almost but not quite complete. Despite local prohibitions and the creation of a few national museums, works continue to come from areas that until recently have been only sparsely represented in foreign collections: Gabon, Cameroun, south and north Eastern Nigeria, Upper Volta, Mali, and even certain areas of the Congo. The Yoruba still have a living sculptural tradition, but this is exceptional.

The knowledge of still unfamiliar older works is not likely to alter our general understanding of African art or its aesthetic impact. But there is one development that may. This is the increasing volume of commercially produced carvings, ranging from those that sincerely attempt to carry on traditional African styles under religious and social conditions so altered as to make it impossible (here the true artistically determining role of functional context strikes home) to those that are outright imitations. If this process continues unchecked, it may warp our picture of African art. For our determination of style, and more particularly of its development, is not clear yet, and if the numerical proportion between truly traditional work, whether older or more recent, and work which is less traditional, whether because of acculturation or imitation, shifts radically, our standards may unwittingly shift with it.

It is all very well to insist that the authentic is always revealed to the connoisseur’s eye, on the analogy, say, of the Italian primitives. But this is a situation which historians of other artistic provinces have never had to face, partly because African artists remain anonymous, partly because there are no sharp lines dividing the traditional (old and recent), the acculturated, and the forged. One suspects from two or three of Wassing’s illustrations that these unfortunate effects are perhaps already being felt.

The taste for African and Oceanic art is by no means recent or sudden. It has an honorable history that dates back to the turn of the century, but only among a restricted group of anthropologists, artists, and collectors. It has now found a wider audience. Clearly there are many factors at work here, including the excitement of discovery and, in a dwindling market of historical art, relative availability and modest cost. Most recently, of course, the often sincere but sometimes cynical social and political impulses have given status to black culture and creativity wherever they may be found. But there are other more important reasons.

As Leiris points out, the appeal of African art to the Cubists resided in their feeling that, like their own art, it “aimed less at imitating than establishing reality.” In this they were basically correct. Despite, or perhaps because of, their ignorance of specific iconographic meaning they perceived that a mask does not copy but is the ritual spirit (in anthropological terms the spirit inhabits the mask), and actually has the power they saw expressed in its formal structure. Similarly they were able to sense that ancestral figures can simultaneously contain and refer to both a single individual and the force of a tribal lineage. It is this ability to fuse the specific and the general and thus to symbolize by means of stylized form that, ever since Brancusi and the Cubists, has drawn artists to primitive art. (This apart from the specific influence of African art on these artists, which has been much exaggerated.)

As Jacqueline Delange says of the Fang bieri—ancestral representations resting on boxes which contain ancestral skulls: “Does not the mysterious power of these statues, troubling even to Westerners, lie in the perfect coincidence of their formal interpretation and their supernatural function?” Here we return to the essential problem, because the expressive nature of these formal qualities (which are apparently aesthetic when considered as abstract, rhythmic composition only) grows precisely from that functional character which the anthropologists insist upon. It is this relationship with which the African and Oceanic arts still confront us as they establish themselves in the culture of our museums.

We profess to believe in this relationship for the art of all cultures, though we rarely put it to the test. It is a belief, as Robert Redfield phrased it, in “art styles as expression in concrete form of the thought and feeling that pervades and characterizes a whole culture.” Redfield was probably right in doubting that the forms of art alone can provide “much valid understanding of a primitive world view,” as far as discursive reasoning and mythology are concerned, or that they can do so for any other culture. For the more familiar arts, we rarely face the question, either responding in the subjective aesthetic manner to which anthropologists object, or having recourse to the written record of ideas and iconography, whose visual translation we then inevitably discover.

But the primitive arts are recent intruders in the neutral museum environment. Ignorant of their meaning, we sense its original importance; and surprised by the form, we search directly for its intention. Even in its isolated and uprooted condition, primitive sculpture, unlike older, museum-conditioned arts, still retains something of its “magic,” i.e., the conviction of its reality and power that went into its making. How long it can retain this immediacy is a question. Right now it still seems to demonstrate that something more than “aesthetic” communication is possible through form alone, even beyond the boundaries of a culture, and that thought and feeling can be given a direct formal expression.

This Issue

December 18, 1969