African Art: Its Beauty, Form, And Function

African Masterworks in the Detroit Institute of Arts

Essays by Michael Kan and Roy Sieber

Text by David W. Penney, Mary Nooter Roberts, and Helen M. Shannon

Smithsonian Institute Press

180 pp., $34.95

The Western world's appreciation of traditional African art has grown and deepened throughout the 20th century.

On its face, it seems ironic that this development coincides with the disruption by foreign influence (often but not always from the Western world) of the very African cultural beliefs and practices that brought these "works of art" into existence in the first place.

These outside influences - often religious and of the missionary stripe - have been opposed to exactly the same "primitivism" (as it is perceived by non-Africans) that appeals so strongly to the modern Western art world.

Indeed, it was often the fact that African art was so completely alien to Western art and its religious roots that made it seem radical, daring, and enigmatic to 20th century pioneers of modern art such as Matisse, Picasso, or Modigliani.

The result of one continent's long tradition appeared utterly modern to another; it provided a basis for upsetting a tired conventionalism.

Yet interestingly, the fetishistic systems of African witch doctors, for example, were as much anathema to orthodox Christian missionaries in Africa as they are to more recent waves of religious persuaders from the world of Islam.

As the outsiders' ideas have taken root, many of the carved works that Africans once believed to be invested with magical potency - either benign or malignant - have become irrelevant to their very creators. (Although even when still considered powerful, they were prone to be discarded - and replaced with a frank disregard for their importance as "permanent" material objects.)

Roy Sieber, an American authority on African art, points out that wood has long been the "medium of choice for most sculptural art of Africa." He adds that unlike "stone or metal, wood is easy prey to the climate and insects.

"With few exceptions, the life span of a wooden object, even when carefully protected, was limited to a generation or two. Once it had succumbed to the elements, it had to be replaced....

"The preciousness we attribute to the works is our evaluation, for the African owners and users, despite their respect and often awe of them, were more practical minded."

Sieber writes this in a thought-provoking essay for a fine book, "African Masterworks in the Detroit Institute of Arts."

As this book's elegantly photographed and lucidly presented plates indicate, Detroit is the proud owner of one of America's finest collections of African art.

African art has become a subject of academic study and aesthetic admiration in the Western world.

And the history of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection demonstrates how attitudes have changed in the last century: What were at first seen as "ethnographic materials" or "exotica" - the 19th century equivalent of the "curiosities" accumulated by antiquaries and travelers in earlier centuries - have now taken their revered place in Western art galleries such as the DIA.

The fact that African art played such a stimulating role in the initial stages of European modernism is only one of the factors contributing to this elevation of the primitive and remote into the mainstream.

Another factor is a gradually more generous and sophisticated view of different indigenous cultures and a genuine effort to understand them on their own terms.

Also, for African-Americans, these remarkable artifacts represent roots long lost sight of.

For all this admiration, however, it remains hard to know to what extent the Western liking for African art is not just a distortion. It is still a question whether the objects are "art" in a Western sense of that word. In choosing the pieces now in the DIA, a number of keen collectors and various museum directors have employed their own aesthetic judgment.

Yet, as Sieber writes, even our determination to preserve each of these works in perpetuity constitutes an interruption of its "life cycle." In a real sense, these lively works of art are relics.

In an art museum they are robbed of their original role as "useful" objects. Although certain kinds of aesthetic criteria were applied by their African makers and users, according to expert opinion, very little is known about any African idea of them as art.

All we really know is their uses. Sieber lists such things as their function in rituals; the belief that they could guard against evil spirits; that they were thought effective in almost every aspect of tribal life - from initiation to child birth, from marking different stages of human lives to balancing the numbers of men and women in a group.

They could also be symbols of authority or kingship, used to swear oaths or make pacts.

Containers usually had a much greater meaning than their obvious practicality. Furniture - such as anthropomorphic stools or headrests - could confer a status on their owners by suggesting the subservience or inferiority of others.

Masks were used in rites and ceremonies and not merely for "theater" in a Western sense.

Even the cow-like slit drum shown at the left is greatly different from being simply a musical instrument.

Its varied sounds were communicated over long distances to announce important events. Probably it would have been thought of as no more a work of art in late 19th or early 20th century Zaire than most telephones or computers are in today's global electronic village.

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