The anxiety of exoticism
How Western ideas of art impede our understanding of the material cultures of AfricaBy John Ryle • 20 October 1995 • TLS • Africa: The Art of a Continent at the Royal Academy of Arts, London • Expanded • Posted 2016 • 4,342 words
On a bookcase by a window in my house, catching the morning light, is an Akan wooden ritual stool from the Asante kingdom in Ghana, passed down on my mother’s side of the family for the past three generations. The stool has a rectangular base and a widening, up-curved seat supported by four slender columns, with a wider, hollowed-out, lattice-work pillar in the centre. It’s carved from a single piece of burnished hardwood, probably iroko, cracked by time and repaired with a hoop of steel. Concealed in a recess in its base is a yellowing piece of card, dated 1904, inscribed in copperplate script as follows:
This Stool, which constitutes a throne, was looted by the British Troops during the Ashanti War from the Royal Palace of Coomassie after the Deposition of King Bomban.
Several things in this inscription are incorrect. The name of the Asantehene—ruler of the Asante confederacy at the time of the British expedition that sacked Kumasi in 1874—was not “King Bomban”, as stated, but Kofi Kakari. And the stool is certainly not the Asantahene’s throne, which is considerably larger, covered in beaten gold and secure in the rebuilt palace in Kumasi. It is unlikely even to be the seat of office of an Asante chief, since objects of such status were adorned likewise with gold or silver. What it is, most probably, is the stool of office of a lesser member of the Asantehene’s court, an article of ritual furniture that, in traditional practice, would be blackened with soot at the death of its owner and placed on its side—next to those of other deceased court officials—on a high shelf in the stool room, a shrine where ancestral spirits commune with living representatives of the lineage.
The inscription on the stool is probably correct in one respect, however: looted it does seem to have been, from the palace at Kumasi, during the Asante war. Its presence in my house is a memento of this apogee of empire (the British empire rather than the Asante empire), of the violent colonial appropriation of African ritual objects and objets de vertu, and the enduring misunderstanding of indigenous cultural practice on the part of the imperial power.
Objects in a household shrine
I possess another wood carving in the Asante, or Akan, style. It sits in an alcove on the landing of my house, under the winking red light of a burglar alarm. This one is of more recent and less controversial provenance than the supposedly royal stool. It is a modern imitation of an akua’ba: a stylized female figure with a huge head and rolls of fat on the neck, the original model for which would have been a fertility offering at an Asante shrine. Though the inspiration for this carving is West African, it was purchased, newly manufactured, a few years ago, on the other side of the continent, at a tourist outlet in Kenya.
The akua’ba figure, with its raked disc of a head and short, straight, truncated limbs, is one of the most frequently copied types of African carving. You can buy a miniature gilt brooch in this style at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, or a crude version on a key-ring from a street vendor in Kampala. The artisanal replica on my landing is quite large—about twenty inches high—and blackened with shoe-polish to resemble ebony. It is decorated—as it might be in an Akan shrine―with a plenitude of bead necklaces, bracelets, rosaries, cowries, crucifixes and phylacteries, and a small clay model of a bull or ox.
Lastly, there is another object placed next to it, of Eastern African provenance this time. It is a simpler artefact, a wooden Shilluk head-rest that I was given in Sudan, fashioned from a branch of pale thorn acacia and polished smooth by handfuls of sand from the river bed and the subsequent passage of heads and limbs (including, most recently, my own).
Such is this small household shrine, a cabinet of curiosities from various parts of sub-Saharan Africa. For someone who is not an art historian or a collector, such heirlooms and souvenirs―looted goods, gifts or bits of kitsch, happenstantially assembled―may be the stimulus and initial organizing principle for an interest in the material culture of Africa. But the straightforward, acquisitive exoticism of the past—the convergence of the lust of the conqueror and the craving of the aesthete, as represented in the inscription on the Asante stool and my forebear’s cryptic pride in possessing what he fancied to be an African throne—all this is complicated now by a growing understanding of the local histories and meanings of these objects, by inklings of the real.
Objects such as those I have described are increasingly familiar outside Africa, yet they remain relatively opaque to general understanding. Because of this one of the things we seek from public exhibitions of African art—those of us who were born outside the continent, and many from Africa as well—is an understanding of what objects like these, or their originals, can have meant to those who made them and those for whom they were made.
It is clear, at least, that ritual and practical utility are important elements in the aesthetic system they spring from. In life, a stool may rest your limbs; in death, it represents your spirit. An akua’ba carving adorns the shrine; its intent is practical, to induce pregnancy. It is a lucky onlooker, though, who has sufficient experience of the societies that such pieces come from to understand more than this, to be able to contextualise such objects in the systems of religious thought and social practice that they spring from.
A harvest of books
On top of the bookcase in my house, next to the Asante stool, is a new stack of publications on African art. These are mostly catalogues from exhibitions which form part of Africa 95, the African season that is currently unfolding in galleries and museums and theatres across Britain. It is to these books—which have their own combination of beauty and utility—that one may turn for elucidation of the objects to be seen in the constituent displays of Africa 95 and, in my case, for further understanding of my own tiny collection of Africana.
Here is the massive Africa: The Art of a Continent, catalogue of the flagship exhibition at the Royal Academy, edited by the artist Tom Phillips. Next to it is The Art of African Textiles, a collection of essays edited by John Picton that accompanies the sparkling exhibition currently at the Barbican Gallery. Then there is African Metalwork, the informative catalogue of an exhibition at the Crafts Council, and African Arms and Armour by Christopher Spring, elaborating one of the seven separate one-room exhibitions on African themes at the Museum of Mankind—exhibitions which, in their range, rival the show at the Royal Academy.
In addition, there is the catalogue of an exhibition at the Museum for African Art in New York, Animals in African Art, by Allen F. Roberts, which takes up the zoomorphic theme that is visible in several of the London exhibitions. And two other books that add significantly to an appreciation of the various African tastes in textiles and domestic decoration that are so exhilaratingly displayed in the Barbican show: Ndebele: A people and their art by Ivor Powell and Mark Lewis, and Going into Darkness, by Thierry Secretan, a collection of photographs of the startling polychrome sculpted coffins made by Ga craftsman in Ghana.
There is also a number of other new books broadly germane to an understanding of works presently on show in London: The Hunter’s Vision: The prehistoric art of Zimbabwe by Peter Garlake, an exhaustive treatise by a specialist on the rock art of his native country, and a symposium on The Yoruba Artist (Washington DC: Smithsonian), edited by Rowland Abiodun, Henry J. Drewal and John Pemberton III. Finally, there is Robert Farris Thompson’s world-encircling Face of the Gods: Art and altars of Africa and the African Americas.
The anxiety of exoticism
These magnificent, scholarly publications and the exhibitions they mirror come at a significant moment in the history of African art outside Africa. The artistry of the carvers, weavers, potters and metalworkers of the continent has never been more visible. And the past few decades have seen a confluence of expertise from archaeology, anthropology and museology devoted, effectively, to explaining and displaying the great diaspora of this work in the West, a diaspora which is the product not just of forcible acquisition in the colonial era, but of the mutual influence between invaders and indigenes, before and since, each seeking meaning and use in each other’s material culture.
Despite a few remarkable collaborations, though, it is still, on the whole, a question of one world culture standing as interpreter of a number of others. Thus all but a couple of the authors of the books mentioned above are from countries outside the African continent. Notwithstanding the deep knowledge of societies and stylistic traditions that these scholars bring to their commentaries, there is an uneasy combination of enthusiasm and scholarly distance in evidence in much of their writing, a wariness regarding affect and a defensive use of technical terms. It is a phenomenon that may be characterised as the anxiety of exoticism.
At the level of the actual production of art, the tendency is the other way: contemporary African artists are increasingly deploying materials and techniques derived from the European fine art tradition to their own, sometimes raucous ends. This may be seen, in one sense, as a symbolic reversal of the appropriation of African sculptural aesthetics by Cubists and others in Europe in the early nineteenth century. Or perhaps it is a wider, globalising tendency which sees, say, Japanese scholars occupied organizing exhibitions of European sculpture and domestic furniture while European artists busy themselves appropriating and reinterpreting Japanese scroll painting.
Historians of African art have special problems: lack of documentation, objects that decay, peoples that migrate, styles that mutate, objects without provenance, and makers whose names remain unrecorded. Doubts about the fundamental meaning of the objects under discussion are often voiced. In the Royal Academy catalogue, an engagingly sardonic entry on Dogon statuary describes it as the most discussed and least understood in Africa. It turns out that the very term used to denote the creators of a supposedly ancient Dogon substyle, Tellem, means simply “We found them”. And the ethnic category “Dogon” is revealed as the artificial creation of French colonial administration. (Aficionados of the writing of Nigel Barley, author of The Innocent Anthropologist, will not be surprised to find that this entry bears his initials.)
The field of African art is vast, yet the tendency of its scholars has been towards a high degree of specialization. Since the death of William Fagg in 1992, there have been no outstanding generalists in African art history. There is no E. H. Gombrich, no “Story of African Art”, no established canon, no single authoritative voice that speaks for the whole continent. Yet someone has to decide what to exhibit. The curator of Africa: The Art of a Continent is, in fact, neither an art historian, nor an archaeologist, nor yet an anthropologist, but a working British artist of high repute, Tom Phillips. One might expect, then—especially in an exhibition that explicitly takes in the whole continent—to find a strong, even idiosyncratic principle at work in the selection of objects: an aesthetic slant, an elective affinity, a particular taste. Or, failing that, an exclusionary principle, a concentration on specific traditions, or materials, or techniques. (For example, metal objects created by the lost-wax process, or wooden masks, or zoomorphic carvings, or rock-paintings. Or bead-work, or strip-weaving, or the wooden furniture of nomadic peoples, or tools, or funerary arts, or musical instruments.)
But it turns out not to be so. Although all these diverse categories are represented in the exhibition in one way or another, the basic arrangement is disappointingly conventional: topographical, clockwise, room-by-room around the continent, without distinguishing any particular epoch or centre of production.
In the choice of sub-Saharan artefacts there is a discernable bias towards the sculptural, and an evident and admirable fondness for objects of utility—stools, for instance, that have the formal appearance of sculpted objects. Attention to fabrics and pottery is cursory (though this is amply compensated for by the displays at the Museum of Mankind and the Barbican), and there is precious little jewellery. Most twentieth-century African art is left out—this, too, is catered for in other exhibitions—but there are a number of probable exceptions even to this chronological rule–probably because much African art, metalwork in particular, cannot be dated.
The main innovation at the British Academy, as the organizers point out, is to include works from the entire continent, not excepting Ancient Egypt and Islamic North Africa, geographical domains that are usually considered separately from the cultures south of the Sahara. There may well be a good case for including them. There are certainly enough stylistic continuities between the civilizations of the south and the north, not to speak of the thousand-year and more traffic of materials across the Sahara. But the case for this inclusiveness is not really established in the exhibition. The selection of objects is weakest in the case of Egypt and North Africa; and their geographical sequestration within the exhibition precludes argument by juxtaposition. Their inclusion appears to represent a position in cultural politics rather than a considered historical judgment. In some cases, the principle of inclusion has resulted in tokenism: there are half a dozen artefacts from highland Ethiopia; but since none of them is by any means a masterpiece, it might have been better to omit them altogether (as Afrikanerdom, another African Christian culture, has been omitted).