March 3, 2016 1 Comment
Good African tribal art should provoke wonder, both with regard to a level of expertise and with respect to an associated secondary role or function. The bar for the ‘great’ handle should further meet a standard of transcendental inspiration, forcing introspection of elemental themes of life, death, friendship, and love. It stands to reason therefore that collecting African tribal art would realistically result in a nightmarish quantity of inferior pieces as one better develops an appreciation of quality.
Consider the following shrine figure from the Yombe tribal tradition, displayed in the Metropolitan Museum’s 2015 exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty.
The pose is clearly deeply reflective. The carver has also cleverly and purposely excluded all signs our modern Kardashian drunk society would typically relate to physical sexual suggestion. What is left is an image of a person engaged in deep contemplation…. even acquiescence. The carver then uses the trails of black streaks to evoke the path of tears, and large focused downcast eyes are further in keeping with the conveyance of grief… but this is not a tale of unfathomable despair for the large rounded cheeks reflect youth (resilience), and the curls of the large beautifully formed lips are used to project maturity and the subtle power of femininity. The balance of opposites motif, combining youth, power, and restrained reflection is also a typical funerary motif used in Fang reliquaries, but with a masculine bias.
This figure was once included in the central assemblage of an ancestral shrine (Nzo a Bakulu) used to mark the death of a Yombe chief. The shrine was constructed at the consecrated burial site. “These commemorative displays were maintained as acts of filial piety to strengthen ties to an influential ancestor and secure his protection”.
“These figures were sheltered in open-sided roofed structures that served to preserve their white pigment and protect the wood. White is the color of the other world, the spirit world, and kaolin, or white clay, is a common ingredient in ritual medicines. In simplified terms, white clay in this context is the opposite of life, which is present in the skin of a person and the soil of fertile land”.
A figure representing the deceased would typically be flanked by one or more female figures in postures designed to invoke quiet reflection, while at the same time promoting core cultural norms, rituals, and tribal values.
 Lagamma, Alisa. Kongo – Power and Majesty. 2015 pp.168-170
E1.Photograph – copyright aplusafricanart.com; Ancestral shrine figure, NY exhib. (loan from Museum Rietberg, Zurich).
E2. Photograph – copyright aplusafricanart.com
E3. Photograph by Hector Deleval (Belgian, 1873-1953). Kongo – Power and Majesty. 2015 pp.168