PARIS — One can easily mistake ghosts of the past for the modern. Most of us have only a vague and superficial idea that West African sculpture’s symbolic force has an crucial place in the history of Modern Art.
Paul Guillaume, the French art dealer of Amedeo Modigliani, was one of the first to organize African art exhibitions in Paris that came to the attention of Guillaume Apollinaire, who in turn introduced them to many artists. Guillaume organized important exhibitions such as the Première Exposition d’Art Nègre et d’Art Océanien in 1919 with a catalogue essay by Apollinaire (who had collaborated with Guillaume on the pioneering study Sculptures Nègres in 1917). Drawn from Guillaume’s private collection, the show placed African sculpture at the heart of modernism to the extent that when Picasso had discovered African sculpture, he came to the realization that painting itself was a kind of magic — and a source of mediation between the artist and a hostile world of fear and desire.
Indeed many African art objects are mystical in function as they provide a place of contact with the spirit world, a quality many could argue that they share with much of the world’s art. African spiritual beliefs are often related to local deities and so they can change from one ethnic group to another, but they have many common traits, such as the belief in a creator.
Les Maîtres de la sculpture de Côte d’Ivoire (Masters of Sculpture from Ivory Coast) at the Musée du quai Branly invites discovery and allows you to explore the aesthetic power and the sculptural masters of the various ethnic groups inhabiting the Côte d’Ivoire (Baoulé, Senufo, Lobi, Guro, Dan, We, Yaouré). Côte d’Ivoire — along with neighboring Liberia, Guinea, and Burkina Faso — was one of the most important sources for African art in early 20th century Paris. Apparently animated by a concern for pedagogy, the Musée du Quai Branly — working with the Rietberg Museum in Zurich and the Kunstund Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Bonn — have managed to bring to light a much more precise and constructive clarity to this complex and variegated magical art.
Some sculptors here, such as The Essankro Master and The Master of the Arched Back, are designated only by their region or style, but many others (Uopié, Kuakudili, Nkpasopi, Tame, Sra, Tompieme, and Si, who for decades circumcised boys and initiated them into the art of carving) now have names and stories (one, Kuakudili, has a face) and so they are slowly becoming known as individuals. Regardless of the predominantly geographical structure of the exhibition, this individuality is sometimes established by careful interpretation of the stylistic standards of the ethnic group to which the artist belong.
While each artist’s production (designed for spiritual ceremonies) is of course influenced by tribal affiliation and the techniques associated with it, their vision and personal sensitivity expressed through deliberate aesthetic choices allows them to differ significantly from their peers. Thus Ivorian statuary no longer appears as only a straightforward assortment of resident artisans. The exhibition asserts the position that Ivorian statuary is created by individual artists by affirming the artistic identity of the master sculptors whenever possible. Not having this problem are the contemporary artists that close the exhibition: Koffi Kouadou, Nicholas Damas, Emile Guebehi, and Jems Robert Koko Bi (born 1966 in Sinfra and now well-known from the 2013 Venice Biennale). But mostly Masters of Sculpture from Ivory Coast is about looking for clues of lost precedent by carving out a new passage through unidentified statuary.
We are only beginning to understand the complexity of the symbolism in African art, wherein each element carries multiple allusions. Often a whole ritual complex or dance cycle performed over a period of time must be seen in order to grasp the profound cosmological references it contains. Unfortunately, our understanding of African art must remain incomplete because most African art is made of wood and other perishable materials, and the objects that remain are mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries. The earlier stages of African art’s long fruition will probably remain forever unknown to us. The study of African art is thus usually not a chronological study of a sequence of artists and styles in time, but a geographical study of styles spread over space.
Pushing back on this trend, curators Eberhard Fischer, director emeritus ethnologist from the Rietberg Museum, and Lorenz Homberger, the Rietberg’s curator of African and Oceanian Art, have brought together over 300 works of the greatest sculptors and schools of sculpture in Côte d’Ivoire. The works are explored from the perspective of their aesthetic power along with the individuality of the artist (or studio) who created it, rather than from the perspective of their typology or functionality.
Though the show has only one specific face to show us, that of Kuakudili from Yaouré (who, to my eye, curiously resembled a Baoulé sculpture of a male figure in another room), this show is a big step forward in introducing specific men’s names and their workshops while still keeping them within the tribal context. This approach renders a bit more specificity to the geographical markers in which West African sculpture has usually been lumped. Often this work is considered as artisanal/magical/ritual activity (and it is), but this show stresses that African art (like Western art) is produced by individual artists whose works display personal skill, even while most African art was made not for mere admiration, but in the service of spirits and kings. It is functional, not decorative, made to express and support fundamental spiritual values that are perceived as essential to the survival of the community. For this reason, African sculpture is seldom concerned with anecdote, but rather seeks to portray a timeless essence.
Still sometimes a location’s aesthetic codes and the work’s formal beauty are all there is to go on, as with the particularly lovely Gouroian “Masque avec animal (bélier)” (circa 19th century). It is a handsome object stuck in the general context of anonymous tribal art. In cases like this, an ethnographical documentary film informed me about the social sacred context in which the work was made and used.
At first, I was confronted by the work of Dan artists (generally commissioned by individuals who keep them for their prestige value and display them to friends) with a focus on seven master sculptors from the villages of Belewale and Nyor Diaple. From the Dan tribe in the region of Touba I experienced the work of Zlan (aka Sra, the creator) who was born circa 1880 and died in 1955. Sra was the most famous sculptor of Western Côte d’Ivoire, according to the curators, creating prestige objects and masks for many Dan and Mano chieftains in Liberia and for important members of the general Dan and We community. Sra’s biographer Hans Himmelheber states that Zlan’s dreams revealed not only his vocation to him, but also what forms to create, such as his outstanding piece “Maternité” (Maternity) (c.1915). It is a carving of a strong female whose eyes are disguised with kaolin and whose mouth reveals metal teeth. The metal-mouth mother stands powerfully, carrying her child on her back, her face and chest marked with striking ornate scarifications. Her head is topped off by a headdress of two shells extended by strands of woven plant fibers.
Next, I came across the art of the Senufo, Lobi, Guro, We, and Yaure tribes — and the generally stunning figures and masks of Baoulé artists. Such as the Maître de Himmelheber’s distinctively upwardly tilted headed “Seated Male Figure Holding Cup” (circa 19th century) and Maître de Kamer’s elegantly sober “Mask” (circa 1920).
Baoulé figures like “Seated Male Figure Holding Cup” were made to serve one of two kinds of traditional spirits and never to commemorate ancestors. While the ancestors are a potent force in the Baoulé world, they are never represented in sculpture but receive sacrifices on stools and chairs. This Baoulé carved figure is a blolo bian (spirit husband), as he represents an ideal spouse from the other world. The carving is the locus for this spirit spouse and becomes the center of a shrine where a jealous or vengeful spirit spouse can be appeased.
Other Baoulé figures are carved for asie usu (nature spirits) that possess or follow a person and disrupt his or her life until a shrine has been made and a private cult established. Nature spirits often require their human companion to become a komien (a professional spirit medium) and to do divinations for clients while in trance. The nature spirits or the spirit spouse for whom a figure is made will indicate to the sculptor, the client, or the diviner how the figure should be carved, and sometimes which tree in the forest should be used as the source material.
When individual names are lost to the curators, the exhibition places the sculptures in the local supernatural and stylistic context of workshops, particularly amongst the Senufo, Lobi, Dan, and Baoulé, by considering them from the perspective of their aesthetic power. Some sculptors are designated only by their region but many others do have names that are now becoming known, albeit if only by description such as from Baoulé the Maître de Himmelheber (Himmelheber Master) and Maître de Kamer (Master de Kamer), works renowned for their refinement within formal diversity. Maître de Kamer’s Baoulé’s “Mask” (circa 1920) was worn for dances where masks represented natural forces, animals or general human types, such as slave, prostitute, or dandy.
From Senoufo, I encountered the Maître des Duonou (Master of Duonu) and the Maître du dos camber (Master of the Arched Back), named in that manner because the sculptors did not sign their works and their names have fallen into oblivion. We do not know for certain whether the sculptures attributed to the Master of the Rounded Volumes were all done by the same person or not, even though all “his” female figures stand perfectly upright and have muscular symmetrical legs and arms and rather rounded buttocks.
The exhibition closes with its insistence on an historical consciousness of the individual artist. This insistence drives a stake in the heart of a once widespread eschatological rhetoric: that personal orientation within the time-space of modernity has evaporated into a myriad of cultural amnesia that hovers behind post-historical reality. This post-historical reality is usually described as an implosion of avant-garde into post-avant-garde positioning within the framework of a post-modernity that has been dominated by the end of history. The end of the traditional artist, notably via the famous death of painting, has been a familiar slogan of the artistic avant-gardes since the 1920s, when artists like Kazimir Malevich proclaimed that painting had lived out its life, and the painter is nothing but a prejudice of the past. This anti-art(ist) position was reiterated by some proponents of Conceptual Art, Arte Povera, Land Art — and amplified by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault when they proclaimed the “death of the author” as creator and guarantor of meaning. To be replaced with the author function. Call in the stealth infrastructure of anonymous algorithms.
This show strives to clarify the singular creators behind forever-mysterious masterpieces, thus helping us take note of the exhaustion of that speculative eschatological discourse, one that tried to displace legitimacy from the private aesthetic realm to the social-political. (Duh, it takes both.) Even as the question of regional style is still a thorny one, this show manages to cut against the always threatening anonymous (one might say corporate) urge so as to attach and highlight particular names and community workshops of the artists/magicians who made these charmed objects. Objects whose task was to reveal universal Spirit in particular sensuous form.
Masters of Sculpture from Ivory Coast is at the Musée du quai Branly (37 Quai Branly, 75007 Paris) continues until 26 July 2015