The triumph of the tribal

The Tribal Arts of Africa
June 18, 1999

One of my most treasured books is The Sculpture of Africa , with a text by William Fagg and more than 400 black-and-white photographs by Eliot Elisofon. Long out of print, it was the perfect introduction to its subject, so that it is a pleasure to welcome, from the same publisher, exactly 40 years later, the natural successor to that earlier book. Time's whirligig has wrought the inevitable changes in publishing technology, apart from the obvious differences in texts. The wonderful velvety black photogravure of 1950s England, so appropriate to the medium, has given way to the glorious Technicolor of offset printing in Singapore, also entirely appropriate to an art that so often uses different materials to create polychrome sculpture that looks even better in colour than it used to in monochrome.

And, to be fair, present duotone black-and-white offset is virtually indistinguishable in quality from 1950s gravure, so that Jean-Baptiste Bacquart's chosen black-and-white examples are almost as good to look at as Elisofon's. Fagg was the archetypal British Museum curator/scholar. Bacquart is the archetypal auction house scholar, a former head of the tribal art department at Sotheby's and now a consultant to museums and collectors.

Bacquart has divided sub-Saharan Africa into some 49 cultural areas, grouped into five major regions: the coast of West Africa, inland West Africa, Nigeria and Cameroon, Gabon and Zaire, and East and South Africa, so that it is easy for the neophyte to look up Benin or Dogon or Yoruba and find a neatly organised four-page section indicating geographical location, potted tribal history, principal artistic media and a fine selection of works of art and artefacts dramatically reproduced. Each section also contains a useful bibliography, and there's the rub.

Every section is, perforce, only four pages long, thus practising impeccable tribal fairness, but also making it impossible to do justice to the cultural miracles that are Benin or Dogon sculpture and carving. One should not criticise Bacquart too harshly for this since, within the compass of a single volume, intending to survey the artistic riches of an entire continent, there is probably no other way open to him and the reading lists do help.

His introduction covers the salient points of definition: "a genuine African artefact must have been made by an African artist, and also must have been used during tribal ceremonies. This concept excludes most of the modern creations of African art, including objects manufactured for the tourist trade, and the elaborate contemporary African art from Zimbabwe and Kenya. African tribal art is not just about an aesthetic, it is also about meaning and function. African objects were almost never created as 'art for art's sake', rather these objects always related to magical or social rites - to the supernatural world - and were rarely produced by a single individual. Before the making of many artefacts, there was a long, controlled process including close collaboration between the 'commissioner', the village diviner and the sculptor."

It is interesting that the first western mention of a significant acquisition of an African object refers to Charles the Reckless, Duke of Burgundy in the 1480s, who bought an "Ydoilles", or idol. Sir Hans Sloane had several African items in his collection, but large-scale collecting only got under way in the second half of the 19th century. Consequently, at the beginning of our own century - particularly in France - there was plenty of tribal art to help start the brushfire of modernism that was Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Derain, Vlaminck and the many other artists who responded so vividly and influentially to the stimulus of tribal sculpture.

Being a Frenchman, Bacquart tends to play down the riches of the British collections, but he is right to draw attention to the sound work of French museums and dealers; the ingenious Paul Guillaume was, as early as 1912, shrewdly advertising for masks and objects in the journals read by colonial civil servants and traders.

While the contemplation of racism is depressing at any time, the intellectual contempt so frequently expressed for Black Africa is peculiarly saddening in the face of so much great art. This book contains more than 800 examples and page after page - whether from the well known, such as Asante, or the relatively obscure Lega - contains masks, stools, jewellery, statues and utensils of such beauty and sensual impact that you see immediately why some of the most sophisticated and original artistic minds in western art pounced on them and borrowed and exploited their striking imagery to such revolutionary and permanent effect. Given the constraints of brevity in dealing with such a huge subject, Bacquart has produced an admirable introduction which is beautifully designed and printed.

Tom Rosenthal is chairman, Institute of Contemporary Arts.

The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa's Artistic Geography

Author - Jean-Baptiste Bacquart
ISBN - 0 500 01870 7
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £29.95
Pages - 240

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