AFRICAN ART

African tribal societies do not have in their languages equivalents for the words “art” or “artists.” The objects (predominantly sculptures of wood and metal) are produced by local craftsmen and are described not in terms of elements of design or composition, but in terms of their purposiveness.  African objects serve a purpose; they have a function. Rather than just sitting on a pedestal in the museum to be looked at, they are alive, they act; they provide tangible and spiritual benefits to the home or community in which they reside. Many of the objects contain secret interior compartments in which the spirits are invited to dwell. When a spirit comes to live in the statue, the statue is “alive.” When the spirit departs, the sculpture is “dead.” A “dead” sculpture is useless; it is no longer providing help or relief for the community. “Dead” sculptures are discarded or sold to white people who admire them for their design elements.

The first question is: how does a carved object attract the proper spirit? A craftsman would be selected as the best from his community for his skillful carving ability. He would produce statues with certain standard themes, each related to a blessing they hoped to attain: man on horse/vehicle (wealth and prosperity), male and female couple (marital harmony), animal masks (communion with nature), mother and child (health and fertility), and portraits of rulers (guidance from ancestors). A local priest would house a substantial collection of these objects. If a member of the community has a personal issue, is going through a transition in life, or needs help from someone deceased, s/he can go the priest and “check out” a statue akin to “checking out” a book at a public library. Once home, the host would hope that the sculpture would attract a beneficial spirit, and once inhabited/alive the spirit will bring the intended blessing to the host. After the birth of the child, realization of wealth, successful hunt, or other life hurdle had been survived or accomplished, the statue would be returned to the priest for someone else’s use.