Art that effs the ineffable

January 2, 1998

Baule: African Art Western Eyes is the catalogue accompanying a travelling exhibition that I have not seen. But since it is an exhibition of things whose chief quality is that they were not made to be looked at, perhaps this does not matter.

As a book, it is basically a good, sturdy, fustian piece of factual fieldwork. Its photographs are a mixture of aestheticising studio shots that glow with careful lighting and earthy field pictures of objects caught in the flow of life. It is an excellent introduction to the social and cultural world of the Baule of Ivory Coast, rich in individual biography and experience and heavy with time depth.

The basic argument follows the well-trodden path of Susan Vogel's earlier art and artifact exhibition that homed in on the different ways of seeing that might be found in a museum. This time she deals with different ways of "looking/seeing" objects distinguished by the Baule themselves in their own lives and experience, a sort of ethnography of sight. This can range from deliberate watching to incidentally glimpsing in a fashion that will be later denied. What this section amounts to, a certain amount of logic-chopping aside, is a fairly classic outline of the different categories of masks, statues and ornate objects, discussing their forms, functions and characters and linking up with basic themes of Baule existence such as the distinction between the village and the bush, male and female, this world and that of the spirits. There is a wealth of information on music and dress, dance and names, lifestyles and notions of the person. In the course of all this, we also learn a fair amount about Baule borrowings and the reinterpretation of loaned art forms that adds up almost to a reworking of the whole notion of Baule identity and regional style. It is one of the strengths of this fieldwork-based method that individual masquerades are seen as having careers and meshing with local politics and personalities. Masquerade in general, in what seems to be increasingly a theme of contemporary writing on West Africa, comes to be seen as operating along the whole range from female nudity to male concealment. Art is used to "eff the ineffable", that is, to express the mere provisionality of such categorical distinctions and Vogel's discussions of secrecy and revelation recall other ongoing concerns of African art that explore the relations of aesthetics and power.

It must be confessed that this topic is one of the weirdly self-defeating aspects of what is in so many ways an excellent book. All the fieldwork and the introduction inform eloquently against the use of the word "art" that is nevertheless doggedly stuck to in the chapter headings as if a primordial and universal category. The chapter headings seem to assume that, of course, the Baule have visual art. It is just that no one looks at it and it is entirely irrelevant to everything they do. The gap between western notions of beauty and Baule views of instrumentality is thus left simply yawning at us. This would be fine if Vogel were content to adopt a wholly Baule perspective but to go on from this and make this Baule "art" the subject of a western-style museum exhibition recalls the little old lady who carefully stored up a huge box of string labelled "pieces of string far too short to be kept". An attempt, in the conclusion, to paper over the cracks with a little linguistic crackerbarrel philosophising of the "art-as-an adjective-not-a-noun" sort just will not do. The existence of an exhibition to accompany a book that so clearly rejects the whole notion of western aesthetic "seeing" seems at least to imply the possibility of a dialogue and such a notion is flirted with inconsistently in the text in terms of (outsider) grammar as opposed to (insider) competence or a vaguely touted attempt to "experience them (objects) both ways at once". What this might conceivably amount to itself remains uneffed.

Nigel Barley is assistant keeper, Museum of Mankind.

Baule: African Art Western Eyes

Author - Susan Vogel
ISBN - 0 300 07317 8
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 312

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