Seated on my couch on Mashujaa day evening, (perhaps because of the lovely display of African/Kenyan music and culture during the Nyayo stadium celebrations led by President Kenyatta earlier in the day), (and of course listening to Ochestra Super Mazembe’s Shauri yako), I pick Scala’s wonderful book on the Art of Africa from my bookshelf. My favorite piece is on the eighth page: Baga Nimba, A wood and brass Nimba mask from Guinea Bissau. Staring at the image, I ask myself what makes this piece ‘African’.
I love African Music (it sounds really African), and African art. I know Africa is vast (not a country)…..but I’m not naive to the fact that something cuts across all cultures across the continent. Some cultures, like those of west Africa for example come out very strongly and can almost be referred to as ‘west African’, … and so does the coastal cultures of East Africa, as well as those of Southern Africa. Music in the continent is perhaps more differentiated. There is for example Congolese Lingala music, Swahili taarab and the fine tunes of the Zulu. Sculpture and painting in the continent has perhaps a lot more in common.
Back to the Nimba, I am looking at a wood curving representation of human upper body. It was meant to promote fertility of women and the land. The ‘breasts’ don’t look anything like breasts but they capture the essence, I believe, of real fertile breasts with a baby or maybe ready for one.
With an exception of recent African art pieces, the art of this continent was never meant for display in art galleries. It was all about strong expressions whose purpose was to evoke certain emotions and feelings.
In his brilliant book, Things fall apart, Chinua Achebe describes how the ewe people accessed their god: ‘the way into the shrine was a round hole at the side of a hill, just a little bigger than the round opening into a hen-house. Worshippers and those who came to seek knowledge from God crawled on their belly through the hole and found themselves in a dark, endless space in the presence of Agbala. No one had beheld Agbala except his priestess. But no one who had crawled into his awful shrine had come out without fear of his power. His priestess stood by the sacred fire which she built in the heart of the cave and proclaimed the will of the god. The fire did not burn with aflame. The glowing logs served to light up vaguely the dark figure of the priestess’. Now, this would have been the home of many of the pieces that we admire in our galleries today.
A mask, carefully sculpted out of wood with metal beads, ostrich feathers, all polished and darkened. Walking into a traditional healers hut, or a god’s cave, one would go through very theatrically orchestrated moments of light and no light, crawling, kneeling,…unfamiliar smells and sounds into a space where the healer or god, was just a silhouette in the dark. Glimpses of the mask, smoke, a flameless fire illuminating the space and perhaps the voice behind the mast gave healing, a clan went to war in confidence, a couple got a baby!
The strong expressive forms of what we call art today, coupled with the theatrical spatial access worked to scare (or persuade) people to believe certain things. The ability of ancient African sculptors to capture the essence of human or animal forms and amplify this essence to a point where it takes its own form is the genius of African art.
Recent pieces seem to capture this essence of African art brilliantly as well, emphasizing a certain aspect of, say the human body, making it art. The breasts are no longer breasts on the nimba, they are a bit too flat (the essence of nursing?), the nipples are full, perhaps bigger than anything natural.
African sculpture pieces were created to last (from the best wood, treated with fire or herbs) and by the best craftsmen. Despite the careful workmanship though, none was created for immediate artistic necessity: their creators’ aim wasn’t to create a beautiful object.
The author, Loki Eric, is a registered architect