[Dispatch #3 : Europe's African Art Treasures, 10/27/01, Page 2
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Some countries, particularly East Africa  Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania  don't produce much sculpture. Cultures that live in dry environments and keep cattle and are semi-nomadic go in for lighter and more portable forms of artistic self expression like basketry, beadwork, poetry and dance. An exception are the Dogon of Mali, who live in the high rock desert of the Sahel,  and have been producing amazing sculpture for centuries, from forests that at this point are almost totally gone.

      The Big A art belt extends, or extended, from  Congo up the west coast of Africa  through Gabon, Camouroun, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast and up to Guinee Bissau, the small former colony of the Portuguese tucked under Senegal.   My best piece is probably  a two-tiered funerary statue made by the Bijagos people who live on the islands off Guinee Bissau, which I picked up in l987 in the huge, humming market of Bissau, the capital. The Bijagos was one of the last cultures in Africa that was still producing Big A art, but civil war engulfed the country three years ago, and the tradition has apparently been pretty much snuffed out. 

        On the top tier of the statue two men are carrying a shrouded corpse, a woman is tearing her hair in grief, and a pig has been sacrificed. Beneath it,   the tree trunk has been hollowed out into cylindrical frieze of  writhing snakes and shapely,   bare-breasted women--  the underworld, obviously. I call the statue Thanatos. 

It goes with two others I picked up in Congo, which I call Eros and Genesis : the former is of a joined couple who are making love seated and facing each other but you can't tell who is penetrating whom, who is the man and who is the woman. 

The latter is of   a woman in the throes of childbirth, her baby being pulled from between her legs by another women. 

These three sculptures to me rise to the universal. They are primal, images from the collective unconscious which together lay out the three constants, the defining events of the human experience : love, birth,  death. 
 
        Sometimes I ask myself what am I doing with these things ? (not that they’re big-ticket items. I’ve rarely spent more than fifty dollars for one.)  I'm no better than Lord Elgin ripping off the marbles of the Parthenon, or the dealers in the sacred katchinas of the Hopi that make their way into Beverly Hills livingrooms. But then I think, at least I know they're safe. They're not going to be destroyed or lost. If I don't get them, maybe someone who won't appreciate them or take care of them will. And so I have become a small-time participant   in the northward flow of  the sculpted art from subSaharan Africa.

         This being the case, I figure the least I can do is to learn something about the belief systems that produced these  objects which have ended up in my possession. There are undoubtedly many spirits in my study that I am not aware of. Most of the best stuff by now is in Europe.   And so for some time I have been envisioning a fascinating and different grand tour of Europe : of its great collections of African art. To do it right would take at least a month, maybe the whole summer. I would start with the Musee Royale de l'Afrique Centrale in Brussels, the greatest repository of art from the Congo basin.  Then to Paris to see the new wing of Louvre, the Musée de l'Homme, the Musée des Arts de l'Afrique et l'Oceanie, and the Dapper Museum. 

        I'd pop over the channel to the British Museum, which is dusting off its extensive collection and preparing an exhibition , as are the Brooklyn Museum and many other institutions. African art is hot at the moment. I'd hit the small provincial museums of Lille, Strasbourg, Anguleme, Aix, and Marseilles, to which retired colonial administrators or their heirs left the treasures, too good to be in private hands,  they collected astrophies or mementos of their careers in Africa. I'd do the Dahlen Museum in Berlin, the municipal museums of Munich, Hamburg, Cologne and Mainz. In Switzerland I'd see what was in  Basel, Berne, and the private Barbier-Mueller Collection in Geneva. Then toVienna,  the Nepstrek Museum in Prague, the Piccurini Museum in Rome. The Vatican is particularly strong in African "Christian art" (like the praying madonna I also picked up in Kisangani). Milan should not be missed, I hear, or the National Museum of Ethnology in Lisbon. 
 

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