MEANING IN AFRICAN SCULPTURE
The knowledge of African sculpture has had a paradoxical history. Over the centuries when exoticism was fashionable in Europe, this exotic art par excellence was totally ignored; it became famous, however, the moment exoticism in its refined (Eastern-inspired) forms started to decline. Its finest examples were collected when few realized their intrinsic value; they later attained exaggerated renown, thanks to persons who knew practically nothing about them, and were praised for just those merits which they did not possess. Yet at the same time that Negro sculpture contributed a vital—though improperly used—leaven to the mass of Western art, Europeans were bringing about its complete collapse. Finally—and even more to be regretted—Africans are now acquiring a vicarious consciousness of their art traditions just at the time when it seems that only a miracle can preserve them.
The cultural, social, political, and economic reasons for these apparent contradictions, though having only an indirect connexion with art, are well known. I shall therefore confine myself to the art-historical aspects of the problem.
The fortune of African sculpture in Europe began in or around 1904. Everybody is now familiar with the story of how Maurice de Vlaminck took a fancy to certain figurines (Dahomean, it is said), discovered on the shelves of an Argenteuil bistro, and bought them for a few francs; he then gave one to Derain, which was to arouse the lyrical enthusiasm of Guillaume Apollinaire and later of Pablo Picasso.
I have deliberately said ‘fortune’ rather than ‘discovery’ of African sculpture, because the real discovery of this art dates back to far remoter times. Since the end of the fifteenth century, Portuguese seamen had revealed to the West the striking works in bronze, wood, and ivory of the Guinea coast. This unsuspected skill of African artists caused Europeans to stimulate a ‘commissioned’ production which was much sought after in European courts: artists from Guinea were possibly active in Portugal in the sixteenth century. Be this as it may, we have here one of the first known phenomena of partial Euro-African acculturation, the most famous examples of which are the ivory ladles, hunting-horns, and bowls (labelled as Benin even if they originated in other centres of the Guinea coast), several of which are preserved to this day in our museums. Appreciated as curios, they did not arouse —as far as we know—any impulse among European artists of the day, who were engrossed in ideals and models of an altogether different sphere.
For over three centuries Africa supplied Western art with no more than occasional hints on local colour and costume, and moreover these were Moorish rather than African. In the second half of the nineteenth century, and the first two or three decades of the twentieth, large ethnographic collections were assembled, though at first in a haphazard way, from all parts of the continent, occasionally including those elements which were later to be acknowledged as ‘works of art’. At the same time, European penetration was beginning to upset the indigenous balance of African societies, ousting ancient techniques by introducing new ones, and undermining systems of beliefs in which native craftsmen had found their inspiration. Between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, two concurrent processes thus took place which were to remain fundamental for all future developments. On the one hand, a major (in some cases the best) part of African plastic production was transferred from its homeland to collections and museums in Europe and America. On the other hand, almost everywhere the creative centres of those arts declined or disappeared, or were degraded to centres of mediocre craftsmanship of ‘tourist’ commercial type.
Today—in 1961—the typological inventory of African sculpture is almost complete and final. Hopes of still finding some uncontaminated area of artistic production must be abandoned: Africa has no more unexplored peoples or ‘corners’; in this field there is nothing more to ‘discover’. Her art is being studied in handbooks, monographs, or in museum glass cases, like that of extinct or buried civilizations; and, but for a few exceptions, this study has the anatomical character of an autopsy rather than that of a physiological analysis on a living organism.
A preliminary remark which must be made here is of major importance, though—or, rather, because—we may find it natural or self-evident. Almost all evaluations of these art forms have hitherto been made by Europeans (or Americans) without paying any attention to the criteria and judgements of Africans themselves. Reasons for this may be three. Either the reactions of Africans concerned were not, and could no longer be, known—as in the case of objects of uncertain origin or collected at an early date; or it was thought that the Africans' opinions on the subject were irrelevant on principle; or it was supposed that their appreciation, if it were known, would necessarily coincide with that of Europeans, in keeping with a presumed universality of aesthetic values—a strange idea, since the profound differences between Negro and European arts should have led one to surmise exactly the contrary.
At any rate, reactions of white people to African arts must be divided into two fairly clear-cut categories: those of aesthetes, men of letters, and artists on one side, those of anthropologists on the other. The reactions of the average public constitute a third category, which may here be ignored, not because it reflects less significant opinions (indeed, these are probably more genuine and unprejudiced) but because it is more uncertain and difficult to control, being anonymous in nature and seldom recorded in writing.
The ideological programme of Fauvism, which sprang up in violent reaction to the conventionalism of ‘civilization’, included among other things a re-evaluation of ‘primitives’, in which the Fauves would see, rightly or wrongly, spontaneity of expression and vehemence and daring in the use of violent colour and bold form. Just as a character of André Gide confessed in those years that he was ‘seeking in books the justification of his actions’, so the Fauves considered that they had found in Negro sculpture an ante litteram justification of their new tendencies and aesthetic credo. Their indifference to the original significance of that sculpture equalled that already shown by Gauguin towards Polynesian art.
Their enthusiasm for Negro art coincided with their rejection of aesthetic principles established since the days of the Renaissance, and thus far unchallenged. German expressionists followed similar trends when they sought inspiration in what they took to be the aboriginal purity of the savages and praised them for their love of abstraction. Stress was laid on form, but artists could hardly resist the temptation of attributing to the ‘primitives’ intentions and emotions which were largely guesswork, thus shifting their interest imperceptibly from form to content. From different points of view, scholars like Lévy-Bruhl, writers like Gide, and even Africanists like Delafosse, all writing in the twenties, were in agreement when they depicted the African as guided exclusively by such forces as mysticism, irrationalism, and collectivism. Whatever their intentions when imitating (or being ‘influenced’ by) African models, such artists as Lipschitz and Klee, Moore and Modigliani, were following a source of inspiration of which they could not but misunderstand the true values.
It is not for the ethnologist as such to pass judgements on the success achieved by Western artists in their attempt to integrate African elements into their own paintings and sculptures. However, he is entitled to state the general principle that no positive and constructive process of acculturation can be achieved unless it is based on mutual cultural understanding as a prerequisite of any integration process. The ethnologist is further in a position to point out that the alleged primitivism of African sculpture, by which a number of Western artists were ostensibly influenced, was and is a misleading source of inspiration, in that African art cannot be termed primitive at all.
In spite of the naïvety detected by anthropologists in these reactions, the sudden outburst of enthusiasm by artists, most of them very young, for African sculpture in the early years of our century was no doubt spontaneous and has had a profound significance in our own culture. A similar sensitivity and response was hardly to be expected of museum keepers. The enormous variety of objects entrusted to their care and study makes for an impartial attitude of detachment rather than for an inclination to the dionysian enthusiasm which is at the root of aesthetic appreciation. Furthermore, any ethnographic object, whether coarse or refined, has its own claim to the keeper's attention. Degrees of technological skill are no doubt detected; but the more the ethnologist is a scholar in his own right, the more his judgement of ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’ is guided by the notion of cultural relativity, and therefore detached from the aesthetic criteria of the society to which he belongs.
Even granted that the museum ethnographer should be in a position to make a clear-cut distinction between what is, and what is not, an art object, his first duty towards the former class is manifold. Exact place of origin, date of manufacture, identification of materials used, function of the object in the society it comes from, nature of its decoration, &c. are among the main things to be assessed. Analytical data of this type collected on a large number of ‘art’ objects lead to more general considerations, such as the geographical distribution of art-producing centres and areas throughout the continent, identification of the main typological groups and of distinctive ethnic characters. Each of these classes of problems leads in turn to distinct orders of knowledge, particularly significant being the establishment of ‘styles’ based on traditional canons of form followed by given ethnic groups.
Attempts to pass from an analytic to a synthetic type of study have mainly followed two trends. One has been the tentative formulation of ‘laws’ valid in African sculpture in general (such as, for example, its tendency to frontality and symmetry, disregard of realistic proportions, static character, and many more). This has led to the creation of a jargon widely used in most publications on African art but of no great avail for its understanding. The other trend is comparative and ultimately historical in nature, and consists in frequent attempts to correlate sculptural styles as wholes often at great geographical distance, or decorative motifs and the like, suggesting past ethnic contacts or relations. Studies of this type can be useful when based on reliable evidence, but even so they constitute a contribution to historical reconstruction, using art elements as evidential materials, rather than a use of ethno-historical materials in the service of art history.
All these various types of study have one common feature, i.e. they are almost exclusively based on the exterior or formal aspects of African art. In order to say something relevant to the understanding of its essence and meaning, we should be clear as to its social and spiritual function. In this respect, with a few notable exceptions, we are still far from the goal. In a superficial way, some objects reckoned as ‘artistic’ (e.g. drums or stools) are self-indicative of their obvious function, but this does not of course provide the reason for the aesthetic quality in their lines, proportions, or decoration, for the meaning of these and for the reason and purpose of their being ‘beautiful’—for the benefit and pleasure of whom? In other cases, when function is not immediately obvious (as in free statuary), we are often at a loss: the vague interpretation of what used to be called ‘idols’, then ‘fetishes’, and now ‘ancestor figures’ in most of our museums is a well-known example. There is some justification in genetically attributing a magico-religious function to African sculpture, but when it comes to specific interpretation of single works of art the Western critic's explanation often suffers from ethnocentrism. Tendencies to place and explain art productions in the general framework of whole cultures are also fully justified, but have so far yielded minor results towards an understanding of the artistic phenomenon.
At this stage we should clearly state the aims of our study. The first aim is naturally the widest possible range of knowledge, and much has been and is being done in this direction. But what are the further aims of this knowledge? To be fully informed on a work of art is not the final end, we want to be able to appreciate it, i.e. at the same time to understand and enjoy it. Here the age-old problem of the concept of ‘beautiful’, in its subjective-objective alternative, can no longer be avoided. No one is better aware than the ethnologist of how far aesthetic appreciation is a culturally determined faculty. Now when we turn to such art forms of the past as Etruscan pottery, Maya architecture, or Florentine painting of the Quattrocento, we may be justified in relying on our modern sensitivity, i.e. on our own aesthetic emotions. But African sculpture belongs to a living humanity that has not yet resigned itself to ‘deliver’ it to the archives of a dead past. There are two of us looking at it—white man and black man—and what matters, as R. Colin has put it, is to be able to ‘see together’. Our aim, then, is a double prise de conscience, and the contribution of Africans is needed.
Indirectly, steps have been taken in this direction. In some of the best studies (such as those of Griaule, Vandenhoute, and Himmelheber) the Western critic has tried to be the interpreter or mouthpiece of the African informant, indeed of the artist himself. Gerbrands has gone so far as to state that the criteria of beauty which must guide us are those valid in the society of the artist. If this were taken literally, it would mean the final abdication of the Western critic. Nevertheless, there is an urgent need to know more about African judgements of their own art and about the values on which they rest. In the recent past, African artists succeeded in creating their own worlds of aesthetic forms and values in closed tribal circles. It was the task of Europeans to try to integrate these artistic productions into a world-wide sphere, to introduce them into the spiritual heritage of mankind. The separation of these two tasks is now nearing its end.
Africans are coming late to a new and broader appreciation of their own creations. The crisis in their arts is a result of Western acculturation, but so is the new consciousness and sense of historical perspective they have acquired which enables them for the first time to view their works of art not only at a tribal level, but on the plane of world artistic values. Some African intellectuals have expressed dissatisfaction, or even a feeling of resentment and ‘humiliation’, in face of the part played by Europeans in collecting and judging their sculpture. This attitude shows some logical inconsistencies and calls for legitimate answers on our part. But on the other hand we cannot content ourselves with a one-sided defence of the role we have played so far. Western scholars may well pride themselves in having for generations devoted their loving care, their learning and insight, to the preservation of a wealth of exotic art treasures that might well otherwise have been lost for ever to the whole world, including modern Africans themselves. But it is clear that in the appreciation of this wealth we are no longer justified in relying only on the aesthetic criteria of our own cultural environment. The collaboration of learned Africans is vital to our studies if these are to progress. For our part, it is high time we devoted ourselves to the spiritual, historical, social, and aesthetic values of African cultures with the same intellectual concern with which we approach the phases of our Western civilization.
The moment we do so, we realize that ‘to concentrate on the analysis of formal structure as such’, as von Sydow advocated, is not enough: in African sculpture, as in all arts improperly termed ‘primitive’, form is inseparably linked with meaning, ‘pure’ art as understood in some contemporary circles being unknown at these levels. We must further admit that interpretations given in this field by our artists and aestheticians are as a rule lacking in significance or even false. The contributions of ethnologists include much of lasting usefulness, but they seldom approach completeness. The art critic is unable to do any solid art-historical work in this field, because he lacks ethnological knowledge, whereas the ethnologist is not sufficiently equipped with a background in art criticism to express valid judgements. Each one sees one side of the picture which remains hidden from the other. But as only a full view of the phenomenon can be satisfactory, the obvious answer to this antinomy is that non-European tribal art will have a chance of being rightly understood and appreciated only by scholars mastering both fields of knowledge.
The type of studies that could and should be achieved in regard to Negro sculpture will be realized if we consider the methodological requirements stated, for example, by Erwin Panofsky for the analysis of Renaissance art. A first stage of the study, which he calls pre-iconographical description (and pseudo-formal analysis), is concerned with the primary subject-matter, i.e. in our case with the sculptures as such—the world of pure forms and volumes and of their apparent meanings. This leads in turn to the identification of styles or schools—the stage at which most monographs on African sculpture have stopped. A second stage, described as iconographical analysis proper, deals with the ‘secondary or conventional subject matter, constituting the world of images, stories and allegories’. At this stage, techniques of interpretation must needs vary in our special field, on account of the lack of literary sources. For these a far-reaching investigation into the cultural background and oral tradition of specific societies must be substituted. Only in a very few fortunate cases has this stage been attained, and here it is hardly necessary to stress the urgency of attempting this sort of inquiry in all cases where it is not too late. It is only in the third phase of Panofsky's scheme, however, which he calls iconological interpretation, that we reach the ‘intrinsic meaning or content, constituting the world of “symbolical” values‘. It is here that we come into contact with the deeper emotions and feelings of the artist as expressed in his works; and it is here that not only technical and historical knowledge is required of the critic, but also his ‘synthetic intuition’. Difficulties arising from attempts at the application of some such method to the study of African sculpture may well bewilder the average Africanist, but it is only through a many-sided analysis of high complexity that we may hope to attain, through a deeper knowledge of this particular class of works, an understanding of the universal values of art.
La conoscenza della scultura africana ha avuto una storia paradossale. Nei secoli in cui fioriva in Europa la moda dell'esotismo orientaleggiante, quest'arte esotica per eccellenza fu totalmente ignorata; ma essa divenne celebre nel momento in cui l'esotismo tramontava. I suoi capolavori più genuini furono raccolti a migliaia quando quasi nessuno sospettava il loro intrinseco valore; acquistarono iperbolica fama ad opera di persone che ignoravano tutto a loro riguardo, e furono esaltate proprio per quei pregi che in realtà non possedevano. Nello stesso momento in cui la plastica negra rappresentava un lievito di grande importanza, per quanto male impiegato, nella cultura occidentale, gli Europei ne causavano il completo tracollo. E infine, fenomeno ancora più malinconico, gli Africani acquistano consapevolezza riflessa della loro nobilissima tradizione artistica proprio oggi, in un mondo che, a meno di miracoli, sembra aver posto su quella tradizione una triste pietra tombale.
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