A Serious Look at African Art

A Serious Look at African Art

By Jeff Maisey

Works of art from Sub-Sahara Africa are on display at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in an exhibition called “The African Art: Identity & Power.” 

The exhibition, on view through April 28 and paired with the complimentary “Cash Crop” exhibit, is described as observing “the importance of the objects to those who commissioned, created, and used them. Identity suggests the idea that each piece has been created for a specific purpose and within a specific setting. Some objects may be identified with spirits, and others may represent human ideals or cultural values. Power can be political, religious, or social – it can also refer to regalia, masks, or sculptures used by various types of social organizations, or to items used in ritual contexts by divination priests and priestesses, or devotees of particular gods.”

Much of the work displayed is on loan from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Richard Woodward, the founding Curator of African Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, will give an art talk from 1-2 pm on Thursday, January 24. 

I recently spoke with Woodward about the exhibition and his long career in the acquisition of African art for the Virginia Museum. Here’s part of our conversation. 

 

Many people in America were introduced to West African art as consumers shopping at retail stores such as Pier 1 Imports. That is certainly a commercial connection of African masks and wooden sculptures. Can you explain the difference in commercial art verses the authentic versions used in rituals, celebrations and the like that museum and serious collectors place great value on? 

One of the import basics of the historic arts of Africa that we have in our collection and that will be on view at Peninsula Fine Arts Center is that these were made for a text of use within the community that produced them. They were not made as decorative elements to beautify your house. 

If they sat anywhere it would have been on an alter. They would have been used in ceremonies, ritual or divination practices. 

In many cases the objects show the signs of that use and handling. They are made and valued within that kind of context.

With the development of interest in African art, primarily in Europe in the late 19th to early 20th century with the first colonial collections in what we call anthropology museums.

In the early 20th century those works caught the eye of contemporary artists like Picasso, Matisse, and so on.  

Artists in Africa recognized there was a commercial value so these things would be created for sale. Even in the early 20th century there were pieces being made to sell on a market by European traders in the different areas of Africa. 

There’s a sort of distinction there. Were they made and clearly just sold or were they made and falsely aged to make people think they were old? So there’s a distinction between a reproduction and something that’s like a forgery in an attempt to look old when, in fact, it isn’t.

Now today, in what you’re speaking about with TJ Maxx and Pier 1, these are things in commercial workshops throughout Africa. We shouldn’t look at them really any differently that we would look at a preproduction of things within our own culture. You can go to one of those stores and find miniature reproductions of Texaco signs. It’s a similar exercise where you’re creating something that’s basically a souvenir or reflection of the culture, and you’re doing it for commercial means. It is sometimes very interesting to find where these things are made.

I had an experience once where a mask of a type that is made in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) that was actually being produced in a workshop in Kenya on the other side of the continent. They had taken a mask from Cote d’Ivoire and people were copying it and putting little stickers on the back saying “Made in Kenya.” It just gave me quite a chuckle. 

I think the most important thing, though, is to recognize that the works on view at Peninsula Fine Arts Center are works that were made by people that had inherent meaning and value to the societies that created them. They have long trajectories of use in Africa, and then through gift or sale they have exited their original community and spread throughout the world. That’s the same story with all artifacts in museums, whether it’s from China, Japan or Europe. 

 

How did African art become a passion of yours? 

I was an art history student at Rutgers and then the University of Virginia for graduate school. I had the good fortune of meeting collectors of African art. They were people who collected contemporary art, but they also had a very major collection of African art. 

When I was in school in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, African art was generally not taught in universities. Maybe a few like Iowa, Indiana and Yale; not much beyond that.

When people ask me this question the most thoughtful response that I can give is that for people of my era there are the major conduits to entering the field of African art. 

One that is very profound is the Peace Corps. There are many people that had Peace Corps experiences that they found transforming that introduced them to the wider world, and they went on to study the art of Africa or southeast Asia. 

The other source, of course, was through anthropology. Anthropology is a discipline that’s basically coordinated with the colonial era in the 19th century in the university.

The third one is meeting collectors, and I happen to be part of the third one. I got to know collectors and developed an appreciation and interest through seeing them closeup and firsthand. 

My background is in western art history, particularly early Christian, Medieval and Byzantine — and modern and contemporary art. 

I was at the Virginia Museum when the collectors I knew wanted to help the museum spread the collection of African art. We got it going, and now a little over 40 years later here we are. 

 

How much has the Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s African collection grown over that time?

From the very first acquisition in 1977 we now have about 1,250 works in the collection, but I want to add a caveat to that and that is in the early 1950s the museum started collecting art from Egypt. Of course, Egypt is a part of the African continent. 

 

What are some of the regional differences in the styles of artwork, from the West African art of Ghana to that of South Africa, and then the eastern countries of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia? 

That’s a challenging question to answer in only a few words. 

Africa is an enormous continent and the United State, China, India, Western Europe and part of Eastern Europe can fit in the continent of Africa. 

There are literally thousands of different cultural groups and linguistic groups in Africa, so it’s a very diverse continent and the arts vary. You mentioned Ghana as one case. With the Akan people in Ghana, they create absolutely gorgeous textiles and ceremonial arts for a royal court. Ghana was the former Gold Coast so they have a lot of gilded ornament in their arts that are indicative of royal status.

In the exhibition (at PFAC) there is a Ghanian royal stool. 

In their world (Ghana) there are no masks. There is some figure sculpture but it is mostly regalian and textiles, and yet you can move a couple hundred miles to another culture and there’s a wonderful array of different types of masks for different seasons. 

Masks are pretty much a pan-African phenomenon, but the Akan people in Ghana are different and in East Africa there is less in the way of masking.

Some of it has to do with the basis of the culture itself. By that I mean, are they an agrarian society and therefore settled and farming, creating villages? Or are they cattle herding, such as in the Sudan and the Maasai in Kenya?  Their arts are more portable and they generally are the arts that are worn — beadwork and other garments — so they can move quickly. 

There is, of course, the influence of Islam, which moved across North Africa in the 7th and 8th century and has infiltrated south across the Sahara Desert.

There’s the influence of Christianity in some of the arts in Africa. In Ethiopia, which is an area we focus on, is one of the original churches; the Ethiopian Church dates to the 4th century. Icon painting and crosses are created in Ethiopia.

In South Africa, one of the major cultures is Zulu. The Zulu are part of a larger linguistic group, and that’s the Nguni language. It involves the Xhosa people — that’s (Nelson) Mandela’s group. 

One of their greatest art-forms is their beadwork. They are absolutely spectacular. The sets of design, self-presentation, and the messages the clothing communicate are very important. It will tell you whether a man or woman is married, if they have children. There are certain codes within the beadwork patterns. These can announce the wearer’s status in life. 

There are masks that are not meant to be worn in front of the face. There are masks that are held or maybe kept in a pouch. They may be worn on an arm. Not all masks are used as face coverings.

I had an interesting setup once in the gallery where I had a small mask — 6 inches — and it was directly opposite a life-size costume with a large buffalo mask. The buffalo mask with a feathered cape was from Cameroon, the other mask from eastern Congo. They’re very different in their form, scale and size, but within their community they basically communicate the same message which has to do with personal achievement and status within the community. And yet they are very different in their outward form.

 

Modern African nations had their boundaries drawn by European colonial powers. With a country such as Ivory Coast, with more than 60 ethnic groups, are there still uniform similarities or great variations in art?

Well, in a country like Cote d’Ivoire you’ll find more uniformity and that’d because of the widespread influence of the design of the Akan. Within a small country there is a little more uniformity.

If we take, for example, a country like Nigeria, southwestern Nigeria is primarily Yoruba. Southeastern Nigeria has a variety of cultures. Northern Nigeria there is a whole other zone in terms of climate. The differences in style are remarkable. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. 

 

One of the important art forms we see from ancient Greece or Rome is pottery. This doesn’t appear to be the case from Africa, or is it?

It is a little bit less represented in most museum collections. In the Virginia Museum collection I do have some pottery on view from the Niger River area in Mali. I also have some pottery from the Congo.

Pottery has not been as widely collected as have been sculpture and masks. Pottery is fragile. It’s difficult to transport, and it takes up a lot of space. 

It is an area that could grow. It is an important category, it’s just that many museums have not collected it to the extent of the wood carving aspect of Africa. 

 

What impact did the West African slave trade and colonialism have on African art? And, when the Portuguese and Spanish first began trading with African tribes for gold and ivory, where they also interested in the masks and wooden sculpture art?

The collections — especially Portuguese — certainly involved gold and ivory, in particular. Some of the famous ivory hunting horns from late Medieval, early 16th century were actually commissioned and followed patterns that were sent to West Africa for the carvers to follow. 

Perhaps the most famous case of collecting are the Benin bronzes, but they weren’t collected until the late 19th century. 

It is more rare that wooden artifacts were collected. It was more the gold, ivory and other metals — you are correct in that aspect.

In terms of the impact of slavery and colonialism on African art, there are a couple directions to take in response. One is it begins the spread of African art through the Diaspora. With the Diaspora in the Atlantic sense — there’s also Diaspora on the Indian Ocean side and Arabic slave trading that we shouldn’t overlook — we begin to get very strong representation and manifestations from the arts of the Congo and Yorba people in Cuba, the (Caribbean) islands, South America, and southern part of the United States. This informs many cultural forms today in terms of the arts of the African Diaspora of which African-American art is often reflective. 

In Cuba, for example, the Santeria, which is a religious reflection of the Yoruba deities in a Catholic context, was a way the practitioners could conceal their indigenous beliefs. 

In Africa itself there is the beginning of the commercial trade. There is a type art that are cynical depictions of Europeans by Africans. That’s a subject we have begun to look at more seriously in our museum.