CreditsDirector/Narration: Max-Pol Fouchet:
Catalog number # 85AB
52 minutes Monochrome
Age Range: 12 to Adult
Closed Captions and Interactive Transcript
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The arteries of African culture are the rivers, transporting its men, sheltering its villages, or carrying invaders. Here, in a curve of the river Niger, we can watch the last of primeval Africa before it is finally absorbed by the modern world. In its immense passivity, its capacity to incorporate foreign influences, Africa seems more a force of nature than a continent. The land struggles with the rivers, molding new forms in clay and mud, perpetually miming the creation of the world. The people of Africa have had no written literature to record the flux of their cultures. However there is an art that has registered the quality of African life with even greater accuracy and power. This sculpture is the literature of the African people; and to all intents and purposes "African art" means African sculpture. These figures are amongst the oldest voices of the African past; 2,000 years old. A man with folded wings. He stands now like a messenger from a past that we are forced to understand not through our knowledge of history but through our instinct. His greatest eloquence, and that of African art as a whole, is in the language of the blood. African art of the past and the present day comes from the region that runs across Central Africa from the Gulf of Guinea in the west to the great lakes of East Africa. This area contains almost all African sculpture. It consists mainly of the basins of the Congo and Niger rivers, but, as well as the forest, it includes areas of park savannah and semi-desert. To the south, is the Kalahari Desert. To the north, the Sahara, where the birth of African art was anticipated.
In the Sahara, perhaps two thousand years before the earliest surviving African art, lived the Bushmen. They have no sculpture, but their prehistoric culture has left these cave-paintings at Tassili N'Ajjer. Though painted before the African civilizations had flourished, these paintings share the preoccupations of African art. To depict, to control, to expand life beyond its ordinary limitations. These prehistoric paintings establish the furthest perspective of African art, but to trace it through to the present day, we must go to Nigeria and the Chad.
The oldest of all African statues come from the Nok cultures of Northern Nigeria, and, from a slightly later date, the Sao people of the Chad and the great civilizations of Ife and Benin. Somewhere between the 5th century B.C. and the 2nd A.D. the men of the Nok culture carved a series of terracotta statues of which only the heads remain. They were found largely by chance deep in the Nigerian tin mines. Very few wooden sculptures last for more than 150 years, but the Sao people of the Chad worked in terracotta and bronze. Their culture vanished in the 16th century. Their sculpture has survived in small quantities; and a good deal of it, like this ancestor figure, was found in ancient graveyards. The religious orientation of the art is emphasized by this masked dancer. These scarifications represent the distinctive markings of different families. In some cases, the same marks can be seen even nowadays on living individuals. Several of the figurines were made in order to overcome illness. They were placed near the sickbed to absorb the disease. This use of art to operate in everyday life when physical resources have failed is one of the central differences between African and most European art, African art is not to be admired at a distance with the eyes alone, but is fully used in the society. The most sophisticated work in bronze came from the great Nigerian civilizations of Ife and Benin. Since these statues are nearest to European art, they were the first African sculptures to make any impression in the West. The art of the holy city of Ife is a complete phenomenon in Africa. Nowhere else do you find the idealized naturalism of these faces, cast between the 10th and 14th centuries. The holes in the face could be threaded with pearls or decorated with hair. Above all, this is the art of the professional; the sculptor working in a courtly setting and a feudal society, and, like so much courtly art, it is both realistic and idealized. The costume is intricately detailed in this portrait of a religious chief.
The reputation of the Ife artists was so great that the chief of the neighboring kingdom of Benin asked the king of Ife to send him a master smelter. From then on the art of Benin came into its own. It became more martial in character. They used the complex bronze-casting technique of the "lost mold", it gave them unrivalled freedom and durability. These 16th and 17th century plaques used to decorate the palace of the "Oba", the king of Benin. This head, from a later period, was designed to stand on the altar of an ancestor. The large volume of the limbs in this figurine reinforces the astonishing authority of the woman's face. The artists of Benin were forbidden on pain of death to work for anyone except the Oba. The kings of Benin had excellent relations with Portuguese traders, and the friendship of the Europeans was often emphasized in the plaques as a mark of the Oba's importance.
The more subtle forms of Europeanization were more effective and lasting than outright colonization, and the chiefs speeded the decline of the African kingdoms by extending their trade of slavery into overseas markets.
"Above all take care, be an example to the others."
Those instructions were issued by a privateer from Nantes in 1738. It's difficult to forget his words when you see the island of Goree off the coast of Dakar. The old slave market still stands, facing the sea, unchanged since the 18th century. The island was a centre for the whole West African slave trade. Upstairs were the offices and the guardroom. From this island the slaves were packed into the ships riding at anchor in the bay. Many would not survive the Atlantic crossing, but in two and a half centuries, more than 20 million slaves left Africa for the West Indies and America. The governor at the end of the 17th century was the Marquis de Boufflers. Bawongo fetish bristles with nails that a witchdoctor has driven into it to secure an enemy's death or to guarantee his own safety. The practice may have been picked up from Europe, where it has gone on since the middle ages. The result is an object that instantly conveys terror that seems to radiate power. Various different ingredients, chosen for their specific properties, have gone into the horn on this fetish to give it magical powers.
Every corner of life that we think of as secular receives a religious attention. The Bomileke attach great importance to the thrones of their chiefs, and they are minutely worked in beads. The thrones may be in the form of an animal, or a man, they seem to proclaim royal authority. The libations of blood and oil spattered around this statuette emphasize its foreign-ness to European art even more clearly than its shape. For this is art in everyday use. Its place is not in the museum but on the street-corner. The third area of art's influence is the whole world of fertility. In Africa, the blessing of children and the prosperity of the harvest are linked in the same cycle of generation. Increase, abundance, food and water are all the province of the woman, and the image of mother and child gives form to some of the most powerful of all African sculpture. This statuette from the Ivory Coast represents the great goddess who was at the creation of the world. Her original act of creation is continuous and every birth, every harvest, is a part of it. These figures are used in the ritual ceremonies of initiation into womanhood. As we shall see later with the men's secret leagues, African culture has a strong awareness of the distinctions between the sexes. In the presence of these statues a girl becomes a woman. At the temple of Abomey, this little figurine is designed to ward off evil. The priestesses enter for initiation. Bowed low in humiliation, the future servants of the god recite hymns under the directions of the priest. The scarifications that decorate their bodies indicate the degree of each woman's initiation. This is a kind of female equivalent of the secret male societies. The Senufo call this figure "Mother of the Village", which means "Mother of the World", and it expresses both the child's immense thirst for life and a nourishment that can never be exhausted. A development of the same image, here the body of a woman in the shape of a pitcher actually contains the water that life demands. There is even the silhouette of a child with outstretched arms. In this vision of proliferation, the children seem to hand around the mother in bunches, like fruit. But perhaps most splendid of all is this life-sized statue from the Bambara people. The child strains up to his mother. She holds him with strength and tenderness, her face full of attentiveness, trust, gravity. The trust in fecundity comes out of an overflowing natural world. To the Senufo, only five creatures lived in the jungle at the creation of the world, and among them were a bird called "catco". He procreates with his beak and he has the belly of a pregnant woman. During fertility ceremonies, this symbol is worn upright on the heads of the dancers and it is a favorite subject among the sculptors of the tribe. It stands for the primeval energy which created the universe and which now continues to provide children and millet. All this area of life is the property of the woman, it is their mystery; to the men the sound of women crushing millet is the proof that the earth is fertile. On the granary door two carved breasts tell them unmistakably whose province this is. But the powers and functions of men are defined just as rigidly and manhood can be attained only through elaborate initiation ceremonies. These boys, crouched under sheets, have just been circumcised and the women of the village scatter grains of millet over them to ensure their fertility. After circumcision, these boys will be initiated for three weeks into the secrets of manhood, from then on they belong to the secret society of men from which women and children must always be excluded. In the depths of the jungle, is the sacred enclosure where the Senufo carry out the initiation of their young men. The area is guarded by tall statues and no uninitiated person, especially a woman, would risk their life by going further. The authority of men is preserved by mystery and often fear; and the agent of terror, the magic, special property, is the mask. These masks, threaded with bends and cowbie shells come from the Bamileke and these dancers belong to the Kanze secret society. Only in the dance does a mask find a full meaning and; like the dance itself, it generates its own energy. To the initiated, each mask has a very specific meaning, they can never be understood simply as objects. They may be used in burials, fertility rituals, dances, circumcision or festivals; in prophesying or in healing. Wherever the spiritual world brushes against the human world, masks make their appearance. Their construction is more unpredictable, extravagant, and passionate than any other branch of African art. Above a human face, two snakes devour an animal, it is used by the Gelede secret society in dances to safeguard the community. The mask can have a terrifying quality of breathing, animal presence. Everything else gives way before the search for intensity.
To the initiated, this Senufo mask has a precise meaning. There is a chameleon on either side of a small container, into which a magic substance will be poured to ensure a successful ceremony. This recalls the mud out of which the universe was made, and the other elements of the mask; a hyena's mouth, wild boar's tusks and antelope's horns all stand for the primeval chaos which was tidied up by a divine architect, it is the Senufo version of Genesis. For the ignorant, a mask is merely part of the dance, a spectacle. But a mask changes not only the spectator but also whoever wears it. The individual dancer is swept aside by the weight of spiritual tradition, he becomes the spirit he is celebrating; the inner and outer man are no longer distinguishable as he dances himself deeper and deeper into the spiritual world.
The Dogan people have some of the most extraordinary masks of all. They live on a vast, tormented plateau where they fled to escape Islam. This was fortunate, since Islam prohibits all plastic representation of human, or animal, forms and here, among their eaves and precipices, the Dogons have preserved their traditions intact. The drums sound for a funeral, the vital forces liberated by death will be assumed by masked dances; nothing must be lost. The Kanaga mask to the ignorant represents a bird in flight, but, to the initiated, it represents God the creator spread between the earth and sky. Each mask has its part in the dance. This is a female ancestor. Towering over the dancers is the mask symbolizing a chief's palace. The antelope-mask is part of the cult of increase. In order to protect themselves from the supernatural vengeance of enemies killed in battle, the Dogon wear masks that depict them. This represents a woman from the Peule people. And so the dance begins.
Colonialism passed and the intense inner life of Africa had survived beneath it. Across the bay from the slave-market of Goree, one white building contains the imaginative history of its people; Dakar museum of African art. From the earliest days of the Nok cultures, throughout the kingdoms of Ife and Benin, and despite a period of exploitation, the traditions of sculpture have continued.
In the villages, life has gone on unaffected by politics; the seasons, the search for food, the faith in fertility, the fear of death, these are the important things and always, in the black-smith's hut, a man would be shaping, carving, and hammering his version of the world. It's a process that has been uninterrupted until the present day, and it's only when you look at each branch of the art in turn that you gather its purpose, ancestor-statues; fetishes; fertility rituals; and finally the mask. Each reveals something of the complex relation in African culture between the world of flesh and the created world of art. The constant presence of death does not always lead to fatalism, and every civilization has enlisted the aid of religion and art to extend the boundaries of life. In Africa, the search for an answer to death is organized by a profound sense of community; the ancestors of the village are always present, to be celebrated, ingratiated and, in a sense, revived.
This principle of ancestor-worship can be seen in action at Abomey in Dahomey. The old kingdom of Dahomey was one of the most powerful and feared of African civilizations. These ruined walls once encircled the palace for 2.5 miles, and the city housed 10,000 people. Nowadays, the palace is a museum. Inside are the thrones of the past kings, sculpted in wood and sometimes covered in brass or silver. The throne of King Guezo rests on the skulls of four defeated enemy chiefs. At great festivals, 6,000 porters in procession showed the king's treasures to his subjects. Everywhere, the symbols of royal power. These scepters were carried by messengers as a guarantee of their authority. Each is the symbol of a particular sovereign, and they will figure in 3 days of festivities for the new harvest.
The skulls of defeated warriors bound with brass and plumed with horses manes, set the rhythm of the dance for this "museum" becomes part, every year, of the living traditions of Abomey, when the royal ancestors are celebrated. One of King Behanzin's descendants, surrounded by his wives and relatives, receives homage from the royal princesses. The dead kings are represented in the festivities by these portable shrines. A hand grasping a bundle of rods is the symbol of power. "No fish can resist the crocodile and no people can resist King Glele." Here, the royal troops are symbolically defended by the spirit of iron. Outside, animals are prepared for sacrifice. The shrines are brought, veiled, out of the museum, as the princes and princesses gather round to invoke the dead monarchs. Soon, the shrines are unveiled and regain their full liturgical power, their full function in society. Libations are poured at their feet, and over the king's emblems. Food is put down to nourish the ancestral spirits. Time to sacrifice the animals. The oxen are killed first, then the rams who will act as servants to the oxen in the other world. A large cut is made in the throat so that all the blood can be collected to pour in gratitude over the shrines. Everything is ready.
The dancers surge out of the darkness to perform their traditional ballet. Even the dead kings' umbrellas are brought out into the dance, decorated with heraldry. The dancers, with knives in their hands recall the Amazon warriors of Dahomey's past. The dance relives ancient victories. Some of the women dancers become the incarnation of a particular sovereign. She is King Behanzin, holding the scepter with his symbol, the shark. The great army of ancestors is enlisted to fight on behalf of the present. The pact is renewed and the dead will watch over the future harvest. The millet is safe for another year in Dahomey. Their umbrellas are held by servants as the kings; for now they really are kings, withdraw in slow procession into the world of the dead.
Like the dance, sculpture too can revive the soul of the dead. This portrait-statue is of King Misha, one of the Kuban sovereigns of the Congo, and it is a great rarity in African art. It was sculpted in the king's lifetime and was intended to represent him fairly faithfully in all his regalia. But more characteristic is this head from the Fang tribe of the Gabun. These carvings would be fixed on to the boxes containing the bones of the dead and are intended to supply the ancestor's spirit with the physical body he now lacks. So long as the dead spirit inhabits the statuette, the living may rest, and the sacrifices are performed to persuade him to stay there.
The Dogon tribe of the French Sudan might consult this figure on matters of importance. Contrary to its real purpose of housing the dead, it might find itself used as a family fetish. The Dogons even carve their ancestors on to the pillars of their houses. The fetish carried by this little girl is not a doll but the figure of her dead twin brother. She never parts with it, dresses it, feeds it, and treats it not as an image but as her living double.
At Batouffan in the grasslands of the Cameroons, this man guards the hut containing the images of the dead chiefs and their queens. The chief of Batouffan is Totam Fatoo. When an African carves an ancestor, he remembers two main things, his feelings for the dead and the tribal traditions of carving. The physical appearance of a particular ancestor or the mere whims of an individual sculptor hardly come into it. Tribal art is a communal act. This, then, is the first great function of African art to give a shape to the invisible soul, and to ensure the allegiance of the dead.
But African art is also used to operate in the world of the living. The village is full of active powers to be placated and influenced. Every tree, every spring, every rock exerts an influence on the life of the villagers, and their own rival force is the force of art. In this village in Senegal, Queen Sabbath consecrates her offerings three times a day. Between the arches of the natural temple formed by this tree, she offers oil and seeds for a rich harvest. The very wood that an African carves is endowed with the spirit of the tree it came from. The materials out of which a fetish is made are of great importance. Here, the crown is made of feathers and porcupine quills; the human-shaped body is made out of sacking covered in animal blood. The Senufo tribe move its arm in the direction of a person they want to influence, this is the world of magic.
The worship of the dead, the hope of fertility, the secret society, the mask, all these uses of art bring us back to the central problem. You can never say, this is secular; this is religious, this is aesthetic. In fact, the whole idea of looking at some work of art is foreign to African culture. It is there to be used, and its use is to operate on the invisible world, it is no less practical for all that. For the world of spirits is a real world in Africa, and these sculptures are both ambassadors and a vocabulary. They are an attempt to extend the boundaries of what is tangible beyond the limits of ordinary existence into a world where only the imagination is to be believed.
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