Monday, June 21, 2010

African Art, Photos, and a Whacking Great Generalization

"The African sculptures mistaken for remains of Atlantis
CNN (June 21, 2010)

"A hundred years ago when German explorer Leo Frobenius visited West Africa and came across some sculpted bronze heads and terracotta figures, he was sure he had discovered remains of the mythical lost city of Atlantis.

"He refused to believe that the sophisticated and ornately carved bronze sculptures were made in Africa.

"In his book, Voice of Africa, Frobenius wrote: 'Before us stood a head of marvellous beauty, wonderfully cast in antique bronze, true to the life, incrusted with a patina of glorious dark green. This was, in very deed, the Olokun, Atlantic Africa's Poseidon.'

" 'I was moved to silent melancholy at the thought that this assembly of degenerate and feeble-minded posterity should be the legitimate guardians of so much loveliness,' he added...."

I don't think there's much doubt, these days, that 19th century Euro-Western cultures weren't as inclusive and insightful as they could have been.

That said, let's remember that Frobenius's book is, as the reporter wrote, a century old:
  • "The voice of Africa: being an account of the travels of the German Inner African Exploration Expedition in the years 1910-1912 (1913)"
    Author: Frobenius, Leo, 1873-1938; Deutsche Inner-Afrikanische Forschungs Expedition
    (Internet Archive)

19th-Century Biases, Huck Finn, and Getting a Grip

Parts of Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" do a pretty good job of showing the sort of attitude 'proper' people had toward Africans and things African then:
"...'It warn't the grounding—that didn't keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head.'

" 'Good gracious! anybody hurt?'

" 'No'm. Killed a [redacted].'

" 'Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt....'..."
Chapter CHAPTER XXXII, "Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens (1885)
That term, [redacted], is probably why "Huckleberry Finn" was banned a couple decades back, when political correctness was in bloom. That, and a certain cluelessness about what the book was saying about [redacted] Jim and 19th-century mores.

In this context, [redacted] means a person whose ancestors came entirely or primarily from Africa. You know: one of those "degenerate and feeble-minded" folks the German author described.

What sets Twain apart from Frobenius is that in "Huckleberry Finn," [redacted] Jim comes across as among the smartest and wisest folks in the story: and certainly as worthy of respect as any of the 'proper' people.
An Exhibition With a Message
This Ife sculpture exhibition has a Message - capital "M:"

"...According to Neil Macgregor, Director of the British Museum, there was a conscious effort to display the Ife sculptures at the same time as an exhibition of Italian Renaissance drawings at the museum because he wanted to highlight the 'relationship between Nigerian culture and the rest of the world.'

" 'We wanted to make the point that nobody, when they learn European art history, studying Italy and Renaissance in the fourteenth, fifteenth centuries, is taught that at exactly the same time in West Africa, artistic production of the same level and the same quality is going on,' he said during a talk on Nigeria at the museum...."
"Nobody, When They Learn European Art History..." - Who's "Nobody?"
Hi, I'm "nobody:" the fellow who learned about African art in courses about European art.

I'm one of the many "nobodies" who sat around me. As I recall, with a few exceptions, we were simply 'not British.'

Maybe British Museum Director Neil Macgregor was thinking exclusively of British students, when he said that nobody learned about African art in European art courses. Maybe the United Kingdom skipped the 'all Africa, all the time' academic fad, back around the seventies and eighties.

Bottom line? I think it's a good idea to study connections and parallels among cultures. But I've also gotten over feeling ashamed and/or bitter over what somebody else did, a century and more ago.
What? European Art History Courses Focusing on European Art?!!
I've been a teacher: it can be challenging to fit the content you're supposed to cover into the class periods of a semester, quarter, or summer session.

Maybe European art history courses in the United Kingdom actually do focus exclusively on European art.

It'd be nice, of course, to push some of the European stuff aside, to make room for art from:
  • Africa
  • India
  • Australia
  • China
  • Polynesia
  • America
    • North
    • South
    • Central
If I left out someone's favorite cultural/ethnic group, by the way: I'm sorry about that. There are so many.

Moving along.

'I don't Know Much About Art, But I Know What I Like'

Back to the reporter, Frobenius, and a remarkable art exhibition.

The CNN article's slide show features mostly representational sculptures from Ife: the sort of art that Frobenius and most contemporary Westerners are apt to recognize as 'good' art.

I like well-done representational art, myself. There's been a great deal of art created in many cultures, which is worth studying and takes pains to follow exactly those forms which we see in nature. In some circles, the person who says 'I don't know much about art, but I know what I like,' is considered a boor or a buffoon. My take on the phase is that it's an expression of art appreciation that's latent in most people. That's another topic.

I don't know all that much about Ife culture, but I assume that the British museum has a particular theme or idea in mind, and that the 'life-like' sculptures fit that idea.

Africa and Abstract Art

On the other hand, the biggest contribution of African culture and art to European culture may be what European artists started studying, as gaping holes in the 'degenerate African' model became impossible to ignore.

Take this Songye mask, for example.

It doesn't "look like" a human face. Certainly not in the same way that the Ife sculptures pictured in the CNN article do.

But even by itself, with not hint of scale or position relative to the rest of the world, it, it - looks like a human face. Once recognized as a mask, it's almost impossible to not pick out the eyes and mouth.

Westerners have seen abstract art (good, bad, and atrocious) for generations now: so we're probably not all that surprised or shocked any more. But we wouldn't have gotten the pioneering abstract artists, if they hadn't gotten interested in African art.

I'm getting off-topic here, but not by much.

On Tour - in "Various States"

I'd like to see this Kingdom of Ife collection, myself: and might have an opportunity, if I can figure out where it's going to be, later this year. The CNN article has this tantalizing paragraph:

"...The sculptures are currently on display at the British Museum in London until 4th July and will move to various states in the United States from September...."

Which states? When? Good question. If you've got an answer, I'd appreciate your sharing it in a comment - with a link to wherever the exhibition is, if possible. Thanks in advance.

Related posts ('sculpture' is the connecting idea):More:


Brigid said...

This sentence is a little awkward: "Certainly not the way Ife sculptures pictured do."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...


Right you are. I'm not convinced that my change is a great improvement - but it may be less of a mental stumbling-block.


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