iAfrica: Connecting with Sub-Saharan Art is on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts from October 3, 2009 through April 5, 2010 in the Cargill Gallery.
Please enjoy this ArtsConnectEd Collector Set as a sampling of what is in the exhibition. All slides offer a "more information" button. Certain slides will direct you to a flickr image of the art object. Below this image is a link to the ArtsConnectEd profile for that object.
The purpose of "iAfrica" is to engage visitors with African art in ways that are designed to make it more accessible. You are invited to look at objects from five different perspectives, each identified by a question:
What makes it beautiful? (Aesthetic)
How was it used? (Ethnographic)
How does it feel, sound, smell? (Sensorial)
How old is it? (History)
How did it get here? (Provenance)
At the bottom of each slide there is an abbreviation for the different idea or question the object label addresses (i.e. Aesthetic: AES).
Democratic Republic of Congo
Mask, second quarter of 20th century
The Christina N. and Swan J. Tumblad Memorial Fund 76.4
This unusually large Pende mask was worn horizontally on top of the head during ceremonial dances. It is meant to symbolize a body laid out for viewing on a funeral bier. The lowered eyelids, open mouth, and relaxed facial features suggest a dead person, while the extreme angle of the jaw line represents the traditional sheet that covers the deceased up to the chin. Museums typically present African masks vertically on a wall, but this one is displayed as those attending the funerary rites would have seen it.
Why is it beautiful?
It is difficult to capture in words the beauty of an object, especially one made and seen in a different culture. Trying to see it through the eyes of the artist is one way to experience its originally intended beauty. In general, African artists have designed both their ritual and everyday objects to be pleasing to the eye. Like artists anywhere, they succeed by choosing valuable materials, displaying technical knowledge and skill, and inventing powerful forms to translate their ideas and engage the viewer.
Africa's extensive cultural diversity has produced many standards of beauty. In this section we contrast African ideals of visual artistry with European and American preferences.
Hairpin, middle of the 20th century
The Benjamin and Rebecca Field Endowment Fund 2008.67
This sculpturally complex hairpin from the Kwere people of Tanzania is an accomplished carving on a miniature scale. After observing the large figure on the front of the hairpin, look closely to discover two other finely chiseled human figures. The reverse of the sculpted part shows intricate geometric patterns. These designs are typical of the neighboring Swahili culture, as can be seen on the grater-stool displayed elsewhere in the exhibition.
Figure, middle of the 20th century
The Christina N. and Swan J. Turnblad Memorial Fund 98.48.2
Lobi artists create figures of wood or metal to please the spiritual powers that protect them. This metal piece is crafted from a single rod of iron. The head is reduced to a minimal shape, while the limbs gesture in graceful and expressive movements.
Head, 5th century B.C.--A.D. 2nd century
Gift of funds from Darwin and Geri Reedy 2002.27.16
This delicate terra-cotta head is from the Nok culture, one of the oldest civilizations south of the Sahara. It is a fragment of a figure and would most likely have been proportionately oversized in comparison to its body. Once the figure was finely sculpted, it was placed in a pit and fired at a very high temperature. The molding of the face, with its bulging, elongated eyes, flared nostrils, and open mouth, is representative of the Nok style. Another prominent feature is the hairstyle, a sign of high status, carefully modeled into four protruding shapes.
Basketry tray, third quarter of 20th century
Plant fiber, dye
The Walter R. Bollinger Fund 2003.90.6
Scholars and collectors of African art consider Tutsi weavers, mainly women, to be among the most skilled in Africa. They make small, decorative, and highly refined baskets, vessels, and trays. This saucer-shaped tray is tightly woven using the spiraling technique, with extremely fine coiling. Its colored pattern, symbolizing rain and the cycle of life, further embellishes the object. The precision of its zigzagging is a sign of great expertise.
How was it used?
In most fine-art museums, African objects have traditionally been displayed as examples of visual styles, without considering the objects' use and context. This separation of form from function reinforces a common belief that art objects have no significance beyond their artistic value.
While the pieces in this show provide rich viewing experiences, each was made with a purpose, to be functional in the lives of the people who originally owned it. Most African masks and figures, or even musical instruments and household items, however, are unfamiliar to non-Africans. For the beholder to grasp their meanings, it is therefore necessary for the museum to shed some light on the cultural background behind each object. Information about where it comes from and how it was used contributes to the overall appreciation of an object.
Male figure, late 19th century
The William Hood Dunwoody Fund 2008.62
Unlike much Western art, African figurative sculpture rarely communicates an individual emotional state, but rather represents a social concept or idealized person. This Baule figure depicts a beautiful, and therefore honorable, man. His upright bearing, inwardly turned gaze, carefully braided hair and beard, and refined patterns of body scars all express Baule ideals of beauty and morality. In the past, the Baule carved representations of attractive humans to lure spirits, which they could then control, coax, and appeal to for help. The thick, encrusted surface of this sculpture is the result of numerous applications of animal blood, which was ritually poured as a sacrifice to win over the spirit who inhabited the sculpture.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Male figure, second quarter of 20th century
The William Hood Dunwoody Fund 96.6.2
The high degree of naturalism of this figure--look at the detailed toes!--and its smooth patina, or surface finish, satisfy one kind of taste for African art in the West. The figure represents an ancestor whose identity is indicated by his hairstyle, the intricate pattern of scars on his torso, and the objects he holds, a knife and an imported bottle. The large feet symbolize the stability and upright character of the ancestor and small pieces of white glazed pottery or shell for the eyes enhance the figure's power.
Democratic Republic of Congo or Republic of Congo
Power Figure, 19th century
Wood, metal, glass, plant fiber, cloth, gourd, clay, and undetermined materials
The Christina N. and Swan J. Turnblad Memorial Fund 71.3
The nails in this figure often wrongly suggest a link to a popular misconception of voodoo practices. The Kongo people call this type of figure nkisi, which translates as "medicine." After being sculpted, the figure was given its power by a ritual healer in the form of magical substances. These were hidden in the crown of the head, in a box on the abdomen, and in the collar around the neck. The many accessories--shells, bones, strings, gourd, reed, clay, and the like--symbolize the secret knowledge of the ritual expert. The mirror, a European import, refers to the gateway to the spiritual otherworld. Among its many functions, the figure was used for divination, healing, and protection; it reinforced the settlement of disputes and discouraged wrongdoers. The nails were added over time and intended to energize the nkisi, reminding it of specific vows, requests, or curses.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Memory board (lukasa), middle of 20th century
Wood, metal, beads, string
Gift of Darwin and Geri Reedy 2002.27.14
A lukasa was used as a memory aid to recall important information about specific kings, cultural heroes, and clan migrations in the Luba kingdom. The beads and shells, coded by size and color, formed a record that could be read as a text by members of an association responsible for the preservation of historical knowledge. A lukasa could be read in various ways, presenting different versions of the same account depending on the interpreter. Female characteristic on this lukasa embody the ancestor who founded Luba society.
Grater-stool, third quarter of 20th century
Gift of funds from Richard Venegar 2009.1
Without any explanation, it is difficult to guess the use of this "mystery object." It is a coconut grater and comes from the coast of East Africa, a region where coconuts are cultivated. The user sits on the stool while scraping the inside of an opened coconut on the metal blade. The grated by-product is caught in a receptacle on the ground below, and later pushed through a sieve to produce coconut milk, a staple ingredient for many East African dishes.
How does it feel, sound, smell?
Art museums focus primarily on the visual aspects of an object. Ignoring the other senses, however, limits insight into an object. In the 1700s, museum visitors were usually allowed to hold ancient historical artifacts, as it was thought that touch provided an essential means of acquiring knowledge. Recognizing this important way of learning, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts provides Art Carts, available on Thursday nights and weekends, which invite patrons to handle specially selected art objects from around the world in order to get a feel for them.
This section of the exhibition offers you a small taste of non-visual sensory experiences. The extensive use of curdled milk gives the two East African household objects a characteristic aroma, which can be smelled through holes in the display case. The acoustic domes bring the musical instruments from two Central African nations to life so visitors can hear their music.
Medicinal horn, middle of 20th century
Antelope horn, wood, metal, animal skin, plant fiber, indeterminate materials
Gift of funds from Dolly J. Fiterman 98.163.1a,b
This horn belonged to a traditional healer of the Pare people in Tanzania. It is a container for medicine made of plant, animal, and mineral materials, and it speaks to many senses at once. The horn has a little bell attached to it so it can be used as a musical instrument; the stopper, carved in the shape of a human head, provides a visual focus for the participants in the ritual. Sometimes the healer would invite the patient to hold the horn vertically, the pointed end touching the ground, making the procedure a tactile experience as well.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Lamellophone (thumb piano), middle of the 20th century
Wood, metal, organic materials
Gift of David and Sara Lieberman 2001.198.22
The musician holds the wooden soundboard of this instrument with both hands in front of his body and strums the keys with his thumbs, usually while walking. The shorter keys produce a higher tone. There is a hole in the soundboard because the lamellophone, also known as thumb piano, would sometimes be placed on top of a hollow gourd in order to amplify the sound. Today, urban African musicians reinvent the lamellophone by creating very large instruments whose sound they amplify electronically.
Borana or Guji
Ethiopia or Kenya
Milk container, third quarter of 20th century
Plant fiber, silver
The Paul C. Johnson, Jr. Fund 99.162.2
The closely related Borana and Guji people, who live in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, have a semi-nomadic lifestyle. They move among villages and temporary camps, depending on the availability of grazing lands for their cattle. Both groups are known for making many types of containers from wood, hide, horn, gourd, or plant fiber. We know this woven vessel is a milk container by its distinct smell. Decorated with silver wire, it provides an excellent environment for preserving cow's milk, as the fibers allow evaporation, which lowers the temperature of the liquid.
Turkana or Pokot
Headrest, third quarter of 20th century
Gift of Jim and Judy Fetterly 2004.232
Nomadic pastoralists in northern Kenya and adjacent regions move regularly with their herds of cattle. This lifestyle makes it necessary to use lightweight and portable household items, like this headrest. Headrests serve to protect the elaborate hairstyles many men still wear today. Milk--mostly curdled--and butter are not only the basic ingredients of people's diets, but also are used as personal hygiene products, such as body lotion and hair conditioner. The strong, cheesy aroma of this headrest indicates its close, long-lasting contact with the previous owner.
How old is it?
African art is seldom older than 100 years. The main reason is that wood, its base material, does not survive long in tropical conditions.* Generally, the oldest Sub-Saharan objects come from archaeological sites and were made from clay. Two such examples included in this show illustrate the long history of art-making in Africa.
Over the course of its history, African art has undergone major changes. Most objects were made for local ritual or political use. For centuries, however, African artists have also produced art objects for Western consumers, including souvenirs or so-called tourist art. In addition, high market prices in recent decades have prompted a rise in sophisticated counterfeits made to deceive buyers. Finally, beginning in the 20th century, African artists adopted new forms of expression, such as paintings. Because of these developments, African art has entered the global contemporary art world.
*An exceptional, 500-year-old wooden equestrian figure from Mali is currently on view in the exhibition "In Pursuit of a Masterpiece" in the U.S. Bank Gallery.
Congolese, born c. 1914
Funérailles (Funeral), c. 1950
Oil on paper
Gift of Carl W. Jones 52.26
This painting represents a relatively new historical development in African art. Pilipili Molongoy received his training in the late 1940s from the French artist Pierre Romain-Desfossés, who had established an informal art workshop in southeastern Congo, which was a Belgian colony at the time. The painters of this school made art for sale to foreigners, and were encouraged to produce stylized works that emphasized naturalistic and folkloric themes. This representation of a funeral procession amid greens and giant butterflies embodies the aesthetics promoted by the school. Its recognizably "African" style fits a Western stereotype of what African painting should be: decorative and brightly colored, with flat forms and simple composition.
Stool, last quarter of 20th century
Gift of Mary and Bob Mersky 2002.259.1
Saddle-shaped stools used to play an important role in ancient Ghana as symbols of divine kingship and political authority. Throughout the 20th century, elements of modern technology, such as trucks or guns, were added to the stools as signs of wealth and power, thus underscoring the continuity of the past to the present. The traditional use of stools declined over the past thirty years, but production of stools with figurative imagery for the international market has greatly increased. Even though it looks as if it were used, this particular example is probably not very old.
Female figure, early 20th century
Wood, fabric, iron
The Christina N. and Swan J. Turnblad Memorial Fund and gift of funds from Mr. and Mrs. Benton Case, Jr. 82.26
Dealers and collectors of African art look for specific clues to assess the age of an object, with the idea that the older it is the better it is. One sign they look for is the damage an object has sustained. This figure is missing parts of the arms and feet, and has a locally made repair in the shoulder. Another sign of age is the presence of patina, a shiny overall film, which occurs from being repeatedly washed and rubbed with oil during ceremonies. These characteristics suggest the figure may be about 100 years old.
How did it get here?
Museum exhibitions seldom call attention to the importance of collecting practices. Until recently, studying the records of well-known Western collections was the accepted way to determine the history and authenticity of an object. Yet increasingly, there are concerns regarding how objects were originally obtained. In recent decades, as prices for African art have gone up, theft and illicit trade have dramatically intensified. All kinds of objects are at risk of being stolen, including grave posts, archaeological findings, sections of buildings, and even fragments of rock art. A few of the pieces displayed here illustrate issues with origin and ownership (provenance).
Since 1970, international conventions and codes of conduct for museums and dealers have been drawn up in an attempt to curb illegal practices and protect Africa's cultural heritage. Demands for repatriation are becoming more common and it is the responsibility of the museums to handle these cases according to current laws.
Memorial posts (vigango), early 20th century
The William Hood Dunwoody Fund 97.75.1
Wooden posts like these are known as vigango to the Mijikenda people who live along the coast of Kenya. They are carved with decorations to resemble abstracted human forms and are placed in the ground as memorial posts for the deceased. Vigango are sacred to the Mijikenda people, yet hundreds of these markers have been taken from rural graves and sold to private and public collections. In recent years, controversy has flared up about the misappropriation of this cultural heritage and very few posts have been returned to their rightful owners.
Bust, 5th century B.C.--A.D. 2nd century
Gift of David and Sara Lieberman 2001.198.28
The Nok people, one of the oldest civilizations from Sub-Saharan Africa, inhabited the central region of Nigeria, probably from around the 5th century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. Nok culture is known primarily through its highly sophisticated sculpted terra-cotta figures. Given their antiquity and aesthetic appeal, they are highly sought by European and American collectors. Most of the genuine pieces currently offered for sale originated from illegal archaeological digs. At the same time, the market is being flooded by forgeries. Museums need to carefully review the records of ownership of Nok objects to avoid these pitfalls.