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.

The nearest analogy I can suggest as a first approximation is that of a knitting pattern which offers instruction for a sequence of stitches. It is worth remembering in this respect that the important tool of programming, the punched card or tape, was in fact developed (by Bouchon in 1725) for pattern-weaving looms. The technique used by Mr. Faris goes beyond this method in that it gives general rules for the production of all possible instructions by listing the alternatives from which the maker must select the next move. He is anxious to be strictly economical in this listing, but it must be said that his restriction to animal patterns excludes many of the most striking designs shown in his illustrations. He has no symbolism even for the generation of radial configurations or of spirals.

Moreover, he can only give us flat, carpetlike designs. Now what is characteristic of the decorations he analyzes is precisely that they enclose features of the three-dimensional human head or body an eye may be framed by a dynamic curve, an arm may be ringed. The Nuba artist, therefore, cannot be solely concerned with the “knitting” of flat patterns. He must avoid the pigment getting into the eye or the mouth, and more importantly he must consider the powerful physiognomic effects that accompany any manipulation with human features—witness those subtle and almost unpredictable changes that go with any kind of “make-up.”

But this need to adjust the design to a pre-existent three-dimensional form is only one aspect that the algorithm obscures. The production of patterns rarely proceeds from the element to the whole. More often it is the result of subdivision of larger forms into smaller units. The “knitting pattern,” in other words, is designed ex post facto and does not reflect a psychological process. The way the algorithm analyzes the “generation” of dots is a case in point. We are asked to take the element of a semicircle shaped like the letter c, join it to its own reversal to obtain a shape like the letter o, and then to fill it in with color. Surely such an operation would never result in the smudgy roundish splashes of pigment that we see in some of the photographs.

Alas, there are even more serious theoretical objections to this attempt at emulating Chomsky’s generative grammar in the field of design. Whatever difficulties the linguists may have encountered with this method, its purpose at least was clear. It was to test the capacity of rules to generate novelty in the way in which a speaker of a language has to do it in uttering sentences he has never heard spoken and to try them out for intelligibility. There can be no analogy here with Mr. Faris’s algorithms. After all, he starts from a small finite number of animal patterns, and since he cannot go beyond it to test new designs for their acceptability the exercise cannot produce the insight at which Chomsky was aiming.

Andrew and Marilyn Strathern in their book Self-Decoration in Mount Hagen also talk of “pictemes” and “allopicts” in analogy to the linguist’s phonemes and allophones, but they also point out that “there is no further explicit concatenation of patterns into sets, as phonemes are connected to form morphemes in the structure of language.” Instead they are looking for another type of binary code in the varied and fluctuating decorative usages which they record with meticulous care.

The method, of course, ultimately stems from the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss, which is in its turn connected with the pioneer work of Roman Jakobson in phonemics, but here again the application of this fashionable tool disappoints in its results. In some cases one even wonders whether the authors are making the best use of it. We are told that bright decorations are believed to attract favors and gifts and that the donors at the give-away feasts tend to wear fewer bright colors. Could one not conclude that those whose very function excludes the attraction of presents should set themselves off from the recipients? But this inference is not made by the authors—who rather seek for an explanation in the latent aggressiveness of these customs.

The example shows what I believe to be the principal weakness of this method. It is all too easy to apply, and all too difficult to test. In the Stratherns’ chapter on the connotations of color they seek to decode the system of decoration and arrive through a succession of tables and oppositions at the underlying contrast between white semen and red blood, two substances which naturally arouse ambivalent emotions and can thus be linked with almost any desired connotation. Their concluding remarks here are as disarming as they are disturbing:

In analysing the results we have been led to develop the concepts of contextual intrusion, suppression, and reversal, which find no exact replica in what Hageners themselves say. All anthropologists are faced with similar difficulties in analysing their material…. We have…translated these meanings into a more abstract form, and it is here that our operations have become in part conjectural…. Ultimately our interest is in explaining the behaviour of Hageners; and in understanding what it means to a row of men to dance in a proud amalgam of dark and bright decorations before their allies, rivals, enemies and spectators.

Imagine a future anthropologist of the Hagener tribe applying these methods to our culture, conscientiously studying graduation ceremonies and Christmas celebrations, and emulating our authors by investigating how many of the professors borrow their gowns for the occasion and where we all buy our Christmas decorations, but hoping not only to explain our behavior but also to understand what it means to us. The first thing to tell them would be that both “explanation” and “meaning” are slippery terms: explaining a ceremony demands a knowledge of origins, of the historical dimension which eludes the anthropologist. Nor can the meaning of a ritual be identified with possible unconscious determinants. The fact that trees can be classed with phallic symbols will not tell our visitors what Christmas celebrations mean to us—provided, indeed, one can speak of such a collective meaning at all. In any case we would have a right to object if these investigators were to come up with a system of meanings “that has no exact replica” in what we ourselves have told them.

It so happens that we learn from an aside what the Hageners say about their ritual dance festivals, and what they say provides food for thought.

They have a more ethological version of how they came to set up ceremonial grounds and display at them: they say they follow the bower bird, which clears a space to dance in and attracts sexual partners to itself.

The explanation is suggestive, not because it is likely to be literally true but because it illuminates the significance of colors. For the male of the incredible bower bird clears an area of dead leaves and decorates it every day with fresh leaves of certain trees which he saws with his serrated beak. He places them with their light underside visible and if they are reversed he turns them back. Some broken snail shells are usually added. While this behavior is unique, evolutionary pressure has favored the development of attractive or threatening coloration among many species and this is surely quite unconnected with the color of semen or blood.

If the authors had been ready to follow this clue they might have arrived at a different method of exploring the connotation of colors. I am referring to the theory of the Semantic Differential used by C. E. Osgood and his associates in their book The Measurement of Meaning (1957). What this theory postulates is, briefly, that we are all disposed to assign any experience a place in what it calls the “Semantic Space,” whose three dimensions are marked by the polarities of good and bad, strong and weak, active and passive. I do not wish to be dogmatic about this theory, but it seems to me to offer at least the possibility of finding out more exactly what the members of a given tribe say about the feeling tone of colors.

It must be admitted, though, that interviews alone are never likely to settle all the anthropologist’s questions. Robert Brain and Adam Pollock in their book Bangwa Funerary Sculpture offer an instructive instance of the difficulties they encountered in trying to elucidate the symbolism of the masks of the Night Society:

The blown-out cheeks are a good example. Most Bangwa say they are carved in this way to frighten women and children. Others, perhaps, say that they are so made to make a poor man laugh, so that he will be forced to pay a fine to the society. Others point out that fat cheeks are a sign of wealth and power; great chiefs are always fat of face.

A typology of these masks is attempted to show the spectrum of expression, ranging from the serene to the terrifying. We are warned not to interpret this series as a historical sequence, but it does help to identify the underlying configurations which these masks have in common.

On the whole these authors travel with less intellectual baggage than do those of the two previous books under review. They do not shun the technique of the travelogue in giving an admittedly composite account of a “big cry” after the death of a chieftain. But by way of compensation we are introduced to a variety of real people whom the authors knew and liked. Thus we read of the carver Atem:

His prowess with the adze and his devotion for pleasure are equally renowned…. Once a mask or drum has been completed and the money handed over, the money is mostly invested in drink which he shares with his crowds of friends…. He works in a small decrepit wattle-and-daub hut miles away from the Bangwa centres. In spite of his many opportunities for wealth he has only one wife. This is startling to a Bangwa…since a man’s success is usually determined by the number of wives housed in his compound…. Atem is also an expert musician.

Reading these and similar passages one suddenly realizes with a shock that individuals never figured in the two previous books. It used to be said in old-fashioned schools that geography was about maps and history about chaps. If we are to trust etymology, anthropology, the science of man, should also be about people, but an increasing number of anthropologists today see it as their task to make maps of a people’s mental structure. Like the earlier doctrine of the Volksgeist, this approach implies a degree of collectivism that ultimately negates the humanist faith. Not that even a convinced humanist will ever deny the interest of exploring systems of thought or of values that govern the reactions of certain groups, but he will never want to neglect the way these collective traditions interact with individual human beings who may develop them or opt out of them as the case may be.

Marian Wenzel’s House Decoration in Nubia shows triumphantly that an anthropologist can also be a humanist. When she began recording these modest products in the doomed villages by the Nile she expected, as she says, that she would encounter an old tradition. It turned out that the style was invented by a Nubian, Ahmad Batoul, around 1925. He had been a builder’s assistant who had to spread a layer of fine mud on newly built houses and “thought up the decoration as a special finishing touch to enhance the plates that the women were putting over the doors.” Derided at first, he soon was in demand and was able to employ as assistant the builder for whom he had worked. His end, however, was tragic. After he had started the fashion, house decoration “became a grand art in the hand of masters…and whoever fell out of favour lost. Ahmad Batoul lost.” He finally had to prepare the mud ground for his chief rival, the talented Hasan Arabi, who was well connected and who copied his designs from European tin boxes.

It is curious that Ahmad Batoul retained his prestige even though he fell out of fashion, a fact that was never properly explained to us. The very people who put Batoul out of work were those who most strongly praised his contribution.

It would be misleading, though, to give the impression that Marian Wenzel’s approach is primarily anecdotal. Although there are no algorithms and no binary codes, she has much to tell us about the connection of these paintings with marriage customs and the consequent differentiation between the styles proper to men and to women.

Both men and women painted wild animals of an apothropaic and mythical character, such as crocodiles, scorpions and lions with swords…. Women alone painted fish, although a few fish were made by male professional artists. “Fish mean nothing,” we were told, “unless they have been painted by a woman.” The reason for this was not given.

Future historians will surely be grateful to the author for preserving this snippet of a verbatim record and refraining from facile explanations. Theories date rapidly, but documents, like diamonds, are forever. Not that she adopts a positivist position. Having described the various aspects of the decorations that reveal their twentieth-century character, she adds a chapter with interesting speculations about certain motifs which may reach back beyond the Islamic era as far as the repertory of Coptic Christian art.

Modest as is the tradition Marian Wenzel recorded, she engages our interest precisely because she neither inflates its value nor ever treats it with condescension. The rural “backwater” with its artist-decorators copying motifs from biscuit tins of Huntley and Palmers in Reading thus becomes a microcosm that mirrors the major world like the proverbial drop of water. What the student of art will learn in examining this mirror is precisely what the other studies under review tend to withhold from us, the contingent nature of human activities, the influence of chance, and the unpredictable whims of taste and of fashion.

Not that this insight should discourage us from looking for general principles or for theoretical explanations. Those who study hydraulics know that the laws of fluid dynamics can be mapped but that the sequence and shapes of waves and vortices in a turbulent brook will defy their calculations. But while the engineer is entitled to disregard these elusive eddies, the humanist who wants to know, in Ranke’s words, “what actually happened” cannot afford to rise to this level of abstraction. After all, the incalculable eddies in his field of observation are human beings, unique and unrepeatable, whether their name is Michelangelo or Ahmad Batoul.

This Issue

May 4, 1972