Tenabea nyinaa nseåø.
(All dwelling places are not alike.)
I learned about art growing up in my hometown, Kumasi, the capital of Asante, an old Akan kingdom at the heart of the new republic of Ghana. There were paintings and drawings on our walls; there were sculptures and pots, in wood and ivory and earthenware and brass; and there were art books in the bookcases. But above all, my mother collected Asante goldweights: small figures or geometrical shapes, cast in brass, usually from wax originals, that had been used for weighing gold dust when it was our currency (as it was well into this century). The figurative goldweights are wonderfully expressive: they depict people and animals, plants and tools, weapons and domestic utensils, often in arrangements that will remind an Asante who looks at them of a familiar proverb. And the abstract geometrical weights, their surfaces decorated with patterns, sometimes use the adinkra symbols, which are found as well on Akan stools and funeral cloths. Each of them has a name—Gye Nyame, for example—and a meaning—in this case, the power of God. There is no established correlation between what one of these miniature brass sculptures looks like and what it weighs: each person knew his or her own collection. In short, the goldweights of West Africa are richly embedded in significances; and a representative sample of them was on display at the Guggenheim Museum last summer in the exhibition “Africa: The Art of a Continent.”
The show had begun at the Royal Academy in London in 1995, as part of a celebration of African cultures, and the catalog, produced for both installations, contains most of the pieces that were shown in both places along with a few that did not travel to New York; the Guggenheim then supplemented the full catalog with one subtitled One Hundred Works of Power and Beauty, which reflected the addition at the Guggenheim of major pieces from American collections.1
The Akan goldweights in the main catalog were shown in both places. I knew they would be there from the moment I first heard the show was being planned, because I knew that Tom Phillips, the member of the Royal Academy who curated the show, was an avid collector, and another avid collector—my mother—had corresponded with him. The pieces he chose covered, as I say, the whole range of the genre. There were some of the earliest geometric weights, used from the fifteenth century in the northward trade of gold across the Sahel, their surfaces inscribed with such familiar simple shapes as the inverted swastika and with less familiar designs that put me in mind of Klee; and there were also the better-known human figures, which seem to have been created first in the seventeenth century, as the trade turned to the new European partners on the Guinea coast. Among the figures were: a couple in flagrante (probably from the eighteenth century); a slightly earlier palm wine tapper, seated by a felled palm tree, gathering in a bowl the sap whose fermentation will soon make good drinking; and a nineteenth-century horseman, spear held boldly aloft, his mount caparisoned in curlicues of bronze. I also recognized a figure, familiar from many exemplars in my mother’s collection, of a woman carrying both a child on her back and a heavy load on her head, representing the proverb “Obaa sima na ne ba hyeåø n’akyiri a, oåøsoa nnooåøma” (If the hard-working woman has a child on her back, she also carries a load).
Then there were fish and elephants and birds, household objects, farming implements and weapons of war, and, finally, the direct castings of seeds, leaves, insects, and other natural objects, that—along with the weighing scales (which were also represented) and the odd seed or scrap of metal or cloth—would have filled out a collection of goldweights a hundred years ago. These goldweights—none of them more than a couple of inches tall—leave an impressive record of five centuries of West African material life.
My favorite piece, I think, is a beautifully patinated weight in my mother’s collection, one that belongs to a common genre representing two crocodiles with a shared stomach. This figure evokes the proverb “Funtumfunafu ne Deåønkyeåømfunafu baanu yafunu yeåø yafunkoroåø; nanso woåøredidi a na woåøreko no, na firi atwimenemudeåø ntira.” It means, roughly: Stomachs mixed up, crocodiles’ stomachs mixed up, they both have one stomach but when they eat they fight because of the sweetness of the swallowing. The meaning of the proverb, which expresses one of the dilemmas of family life, is that while the acquisitions of each family member benefit the whole family (there is only one stomach), the pleasure of enjoyment is an individual thing (the food has to get into the stomach through one of the mouths).
Anyone who has handled a decent number of the weights—and, like so much else in the show, they cried out from the museum’s vitrines to be touched—will have noticed quite often among these elegant objects, so obviously crafted with great skill and care, one that has a lump of unworked metal stuffed into a crevice, in a way that seems completely to destroy its aesthetic unity; or, sometimes, a wellmade figure has a limb crudely hacked off. These amputations and excrescences are there because, after all, a weight is a weight: and if it doesn’t weigh the right amount, it can’t serve its function. If a goldweight, however finely crafted, has the wrong mass, then something needs to be added (or chopped off) to bring it to its proper size.
Because of this, you can learn a great deal of history by weighing a collection. The weights correspond to an extraordinary mixture of weighing systems, from the earliest Islamic system—one based, so the Guggenheim’s catalog informs us, on “a mitqhal of gold dust (about 4.5 grams or a sixth of an Islamic ounce)”—through those based on the Portuguese ounce of the fifteenth century to the Dutch troy ounce from 1600 on. By the nineteenth century a complex system of about sixty units, reflecting this long history of different trading partners, was in use. And every one of these pieces, however exquisite, was there to correspond to one of those units.
There is, thus, an extremely elaborate cultural code expressed in these miniature sculptures; and with the patina that comes from age and human handling, and the exquisite detail produced in the lost-wax process by which they were made, many of them have an obvious aesthetic appeal. It doesn’t take long to recognize that the goldweights of Asante differ from those of other Akan societies: Fante (in southern Ghana) or Baule (in Ivory Coast), say. (There is a kind of Baule figure, for example, whose head is almost spherical; the heads of Asante figures tend to be flatter and more elongated.) Nor is it hard to recognize stylistic change over the centuries. There are histories of taste written in these objects, if only we could read them. (May we assume, for example, that the growth of figurative weights reflected, to some degree, the turn from trade with Moslem cultures, less friendly to human representation, toward trade with the Portuguese, with their taste for the human figure?) Goldweights, in sum, have many of the features that we expect of works of art. In Ashanti itself, they were appreciated for their appeal to the eye, or for the proverbial traditions they engaged. But in the end, as I say, they were weights: and their job was to tell you the value of the gold dust in the weighing pan.
The best of the Asante goldweights are among the splendors of African creativity. But they were not the product of a culture that valued these objects as art. Their decorative elegance was something prized and aimed for, of course; but it was an ornament, an embellishment, on an object that served a utilitarian function. It is clear that some people—chiefs among them, but also the richest commoners—had particularly fine collections of weights, and that, in using them in trade, they advertised their wealth at the same time, by displaying the superior craftsmanship of their possessions. Perhaps once, when the weights were still being used, people knew the names of those who made them best; but no one now knows the names of the great casters of goldweights from the past. Still, to insist upon my point, in appreciating and collecting these weights as art we are doing something new with them, something that their makers and the men and women who paid them did not do.
The goldweight tradition is also very particular. The use of figurative and abstract weights, made in brass by the lost-wax process, is not widespread in West Africa, let alone Africa more generally. Outside the Akan region of Ghana and Ivory Coast, there are, so far as I am aware, no traditions that have produced objects that could be mistaken for Akan goldweights. They are African, because the Akan cultures are in Africa: but these traditions are local, and while they reflect the complex cultural and economic exchanges between, say, Asante and the Islamic traders of the Sahel, or between Baule culture and the European trade of the coast (and thus reflect currents of life wider than those of the societies in which they were made), it would be a mistake to see them as capturing the essence of the vast gamut of African creativity.
Particularity and locality are to be found, too, in African masks, the form with which African “tribal” art is most widely identified—in large measure, of course, because of the emblematic (and, for all I know, apocryphal) encounter between Picasso and the mask he saw at the Trocadéro museum in Paris in 1907. Anyone who has looked at collections of masks from Western and Central Africa will tell you that you can soon learn to recognize roughly where most of them come from: the traditions of each society in masking, even those that have influenced and been influenced by neighboring traditions, are still quite recognizably distinct; as are the roles masks play in the different forms of performance where they have their fullest life.
Indeed, what makes something a mask, I am tempted to say, is that we see it as a mask. Consider the Dan, Mano, and Weinon masks, wooden masks from Liberia, five to ten inches tall, two dozen of which are to be found in the catalog. They look, of course, like something you could wear to a (slightly eerie) Venetian ball, though they’re mostly too small to cover an adult’s face. But in these cultures, they weren’t used that way at all. They were, as one learns from the catalog, to be kept hidden, “destined for personal protection or enhancement.” At the initiation rites of certain Dan secret societies, the path to the gathering place was strewn with these small masks, and initiates had to pay to have them removed; at circumcisions, the knife blade might be wiped on a small mask; a tray of masks could represent the benevolent spirits of a region; they might be installed on personal altars. They are in fact small representations of a human face: what is done with them, what they are for, can be enormously various.
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.
Take, for example, perhaps the best-known form of Kongo art: an nkisi nkondi. Minkisi (the plural of nkisi) are rituals for dealing with problems or achieving one’s ambitions. In the course of these rituals Kongo people make use of various materials, among them carved figures with medicines sealed in their bellies, figures that are known, derivatively, as an nkisi too. An nkisi nkondi (the latter word means hunter) was aimed at chasing down wrongdoers, from oath-breakers to thieves to witches. On the surface of an nkisi nkondo there are often symbolic reminders of its function (one marvelous one in the show, from the Tervuren museum in Belgium, had a hunter’s net wrapped around its legs). Part of what is most striking about these wooden figures is that they are covered with scores of iron nails or blades, pieces of metal that were embedded in them in the course of the ritual. To these pieces of metal, bits of cloth or hair might also be attached—the hair, say, of a stolen animal—in order to point the nkisi in the right direction.
The extraordinary visual impact of these figures, covered, porcupine-like, with these jagged metal extrusions, is thus the result of the process of using them. For those who did so, even for those who made the carefully carved miniatures that are often attached to their surfaces, the hunting of evil is what they were for. However evocative we find them, the fundamental test of an nkisi was that it should work. By contrast, something about our attitude to art is captured by the incomprehension we would feel for someone who looked at a painting and said, “It’s profoundly evocative, of course, but what is it for?”
Nothing I have said is inconsistent with the recognition that masks and minkisi and goldweights were made by people who had notions of form that the object needed to meet if it was to be judged a well-made artifact; nor do I deny that notions of pleasing the eye existed in pre-colonial Africa and were applied to some of the objects—the gold jewelry, decorated doors, and silk cloths, for example—in the Guggenheim show. The work of African art historians has unearthed a whole ethnography of such notions. The late Sylvia Boone, for example, tells us, in her Radiance from the Waters, how the members of the Mende Sande Society, a women’s organization in Sierra Leone, assess a mask for use in their rituals: “For a mask to be accepted by the Sande Society, it must first and foremost be beautiful, enchantingly beautiful in Sande eyes.” This means that it should meet a whole range of formal criteria. It must have a smooth surface and be sharply and delicately cut. It should be properly made, with a “full, striated neck, small face with closed mouth, lowered eyes, large forehead, plaited hairdo—all symmetrical and balanced, carved in wood, and dyed deep black.”2 (The Sande mask in the show was, by these standards, imperfect: it lacked the full neck.) Finally, it must be comfortable; for it exists to be worn by dancing women, and if it is uncomfortable it is “nyande gbaméi—useless, empty, beauty.”3
Sylvia Boone translated the word nyande here as “beauty,” which is, in the context, a fine translation. But this might mislead someone who does not know that, as Boone says earlier, its “exact meaning…can vary but will be found in the cluster of ‘beautiful, good, kind, nice.”‘4 (The same is true of fé, the word in Asante-Twi, my father’s language, that you would translate as “beautiful”: it is a word used to describe attractive people, ethical behavior, and good manners.) There are words like this in many languages, in Africa and elsewhere; in classical Greek, for example, there is kaloka.gaqiå«a (kalokagathia). It is certainly not a word that suggests, as “beauty” does, a focus on how things appear to the eye and the ear. That focus reflects the tying together of art and sensation that is implicit in the very word “aesthetic.” (We still keep the trace of the Greek meaning of the root, “to perceive,” in our word “anaesthetic”: something that deprives you of sensation.) The thought that there is a certain class of artifacts—of works of art—that are primarily to be assessed by their appeal to our senses is one of the elements of that Enlightenment invention, the notion of the aesthetic, which begins the modern Western idea of art. Many of the objects in the Guggenheim show, by contrast, were evaluated, like the nkisi, for what they did rather than how they struck the (educated) human eye.
If African art was not made by people who thought of themselves as Africans; if it was not made as art; if it reflects, collectively, no unitary African aesthetic vision; can we not still profit from the assemblage of remarkable objects we find in Western collections of African art?
What, after all, does it matter that this pair of concepts—Africa, art—was not used by those who made these objects? They are still African; they are still works of art. Maybe what unites them as African is our decision to see them together, as the products of a single continent; maybe it is we, and not their makers, who have chosen to treat these diverse objects as art. But the Guggenheim exhibition was also our show—it was constructed for us now, in Europe and America. It might be anything from mildly amusing to rigorously instructive to speculate what the creators of the objects celebrated in London and New York would make of our assemblage. (Consider: some of these works had religious meanings for their makers, were conceived of as bearers of invisible powers; some, on the other hand, were in use in everyday life.) But our first task, as responsible exhibition-goers, was to decide what we would do with these things, how we were to think of them.
In presenting these objects as art objects, the curators of the exhibition invited us to look at them in a certain way, to evaluate them in the manner we call “aesthetic.” This means that we were invited to look at their form, their craftsmanship, the ideas they evoke, to attend to them in the way we have learned to attend in art museums. (It is hard to say more exactly what is involved here—at least in a brief compass—but most adults who go regularly to exhibitions of painting and sculpture will have practiced a certain kind of attention and found it worthwhile; and if they haven’t, it is hard to see why they should keep going.) So what’s important isn’t whether or not they are art or were art for their makers: what matters is that we are invited to treat them as art, and that the curators assure us that engaging our aesthetic attention will be rewarding. (That these assurances were warranted could be seen on the faces of the crowds in London and New York.)
We can also accept that, because the objects were selected as coming from an entire continent, there is no guarantee of what they will share, no certainty about how these objects will respond to each other. Provided you did not expect to discover in these creations a reflection of an underlying African artistic unity, an engagement with the whole exhibition could be more than the sum of the unrelated experiences of each separate object, or each separate group of objects from a common culture. How these individual experiences added up depended, of course, as much as anything else, on the viewer, which is as it should be. But there are questions that might have guided a reading of this show and, in closing, I would like to suggest a few of mine.
First, the exhibition decisively established that anyone with half an eye can honor the artistry of Africa, a continent whose creativity has been denigrated by some and sentimentalized by others, but rarely taken seriously. I have been arguing that to take these African artworks seriously does not require us to take them as their makers took them. (If that were so, we should, no doubt, be limited to religious evaluations of Western European art of the High Middle Ages.) And one other way to take them seriously would be to reflect through them on how the enormous temporal and spatial range of human creativity exemplified in the exhibition has been adapted in our culture over the last few centuries to an interpretation of Africa as the home of people incapable of civilization.
What does it teach us about the past of Western culture that it has had such great difficulty learning to respect many of the artworks in the Guggenheim show because they were African? Many of these objects come from European collections, and were assembled as curiosities or as puzzles or as scientific data: they were undoubtedly appreciated—loved even—by many of the persons who gathered them. But they have rarely lived at the heart of our aesthetic consciousness; and when they have, it has often been with astonishing condescension. Ladislas Szesci told readers of Nancy Cunard’s Negro (a work published in 1934 in celebration of black creativity):
The Negroes have been able to create works of art because of their innate purity and primitiveness. They can be as a prism, without any intentional preoccupation, and succeed in rendering their vision with certitude and without any imposition of exterior motive.5
It is part of the history of our culture—something that bears reflection as we travel among these African artifacts—that half a century ago, this was an obvious way of speaking up for African art.
What (more hopefully, perhaps) does it tell us about our cultural present that the shows at the Royal Academy and the Guggenheim brought together, for the first time, so many, so marvelous African artifacts not as ethnographic data, not as mere curiosities, but for the particular form of respectful attention we accord to art? How, in fact, may we interpret the exhibition itself as part of the history of our Western culture: a moment in the complex encounter of Europe and her descendant cultures with Africa and hers? This is a question that everyone who visited this exhibitio n was equipped to reflect on: all of us can dredge up a common sense that we have picked up about Africa, and we can test that common sense against these uncommon objects.
I saw Africa: The Art of a Continent for the first time at the Royal Academy. I flew to London for the weekend and spent a day among the treasures. By a mixture of luck and planning I was able to meet up with an assortment of my kin; and so I began in the morning, going around with my sister (who lives with her Norwegian husband in Namibia), her eldest son, my eldest Nigerian nephew, and an English aunt and cousin. My sister and I have grown up with goldweights; my Nigerian nephew has seen the treasures of Benin often in the national museum in Lagos; my Norwegian-Namibian nephew knows well the artifacts of Southern Africa, including the cave drawings and the ivory omakipa from Namibia; but for my English aunt much of the show was entirely unfamiliar. The youngest of us was not yet a teen-ager, the oldest was entitled to the discount for “old age pensioners” (a term more precise than “seniors,” our American euphemism). It is a measure of the show’s power that all of us in this disparate group of people, drawn together by my family’s all-too-apparent xenophilia, found the exhibition both exhilarating and exasperating.
My sister (with her sense of what was lost to the gallery visitors who did not know, as she did, the place of goldweights and of omakipa in the lives of those who made them) felt the labels were too perfunctory. (What is one to do with “Nkisi nkondo, Kongo, Zaire, before 1878, wood, cord, iron, cloth”?) My aunt, on the other hand, was entranced by the look of so many unfamiliar things: they engaged her senses, they surprised her…and there were too many of them.
I agreed with them both. There was too much to see; the labels were too cryptic; some of them, I fear, were, as we happened to know, plain wrong. But the consensus over lunch was that the show was wonderful; and what made it wonderful was that the eye could linger with pleasure on the forms, the shapes, and the surfaces, the patination and the pigment, and engage each object with whatever we happened to know of its materials, its history, its origin. In short, we found ourselves responding naturally to these African artifacts as art; which, when all is said and done, was all that Tom Phillips, the curator, and the Academy had invited us to do.6
April 24, 1997
Africa: The Art of A Continent, the catalog of the Royal Academy exhibition edited by Tom Phillips (Prestel, 1995); Africa:The Art of a Continent: One Hundred Works of Power and Beauty (Guggenheim Museum/Abrams, 1996). ↩
Sylvia Boone, Radiance from the Waters (Yale University Press, 1986), p. 157. ↩
Boone, Radiance from the Waters, p. 159. ↩
Boone, Radiance from the Waters, p. 28. ↩
Nancy Cunard, editor, Negro, abridged with an introduction by Hugh Ford (Frederick Ungar, 1970), p. 431. A new edition has just been published by Continuum. ↩
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I wrote for the catalog of the Royal Academy show (on the basis of a sample of images) and that I was involved in some of the programming associated with the show at the Guggenheim. ↩