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Re: [African_Arts] A Congo mystery and some illuminating resources

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  • Bob Ibold
    Lee, Many thanks for that wonderful piece on Tinuomi Afilaka. I too would like to know if her paintings transform the perceptions of our fellow group members.
    Message 1 of 7 , Jan 4, 2008
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      Lee,

      Many thanks for that wonderful piece on Tinuomi Afilaka. I too would like to know if her paintings transform the perceptions of our fellow group members. Sadly, in my case there is little knowledge to transform, but I certainly was moved by the power of her work.

      Bob

      PS:  If anyone missed Lee's link, here it is again.  http://www.universityofafricanart.org/Image/Text/afilaka.pdf




      PS: Note: The link I provided was merely a highlighting of an entry contained within the link that Moyo previously posted. It is Tinuomi Afilaka herself and Moyo -- as well as the guiding orisas -- who deserve the appreciation for living, creating, publishing -- and inspiring -- that remarkable presentation and the reality it portrays. Lee


      At 11:45 PM 1/3/2008, you wrote:

      Dear Moyo et al:

      I am in complete agreement with you, Moyo, regarding the appropriate necessity to make accessible the rich body of African thought on African art.  While reading I.A. Akinjogbin's "Towards a Political Geography of Yoruba Civilization"(see http://www.universityofafricanart.org/Image/Text/yorubaculturalstudies.pdf ), I was moved to recall the unsatisfying tendency in Western scholarship to exclude sources of knowledge (oral narratives or ritual practice, for example, as well as "indigenous scientific traditions" suggested in Ojo's "Foreword" to Principles of Traditional African Art) from which the truths can only be revealed to the "outsider" through a deep immersion in the society from which the information arises or gain access to the interpretative sources that can explicate that which remains veiled.   Recognizing the complex difficulties posed by linguistic, symbolic and social exteriority, I see and feel that the obvious and respectful next step in seeking to understand the conditions of history and the social realities that shape artistic production is to integrate internal sources that can more aptly amplify and clarify the field of production and experience.  The Yoruba instance is a particularly rich locus in which to begin, ripe with the bodies of thought, expression (varied) and writing that exist but have been heretofore been offered to a limited global audience.  Sharing the documents -- and thus the ideas -- contained therein constitutes a rich contribution to enabling an enhanced and truthful understanding of this field of thought. 

      A good case in point which provides insight into the broader applicability of such discussions -- and the specific topic to which your message has been posted as a response -- is a passage in J.R.O. Ojo's "The Diffusion of Some Yoruba Artefacts and Social Institutions":

      "While it is certain that two ethnic groups may exchange items of culture in border areas, this
      is not axiomatic. Identical items of culture can be found on both sides of the border. The problem
      becomes more complex when an item from a neighboring group is found in the metropolis of the
      adopting culture, forms part and parcel of their cosmology and permeates the religious system. This is
      as true of isolated practices, items of believe [sic] and whole systems like divination or ancestor worship.
      It could also be postulated that where whole complexes are similar in two differing ethnic
      stocks, the two groups have a common origin in the remote past.Whether single traits or entire
      complexes are adopted, it may be that the adoption answers
      WILL be in tune with the existing cosmos in the
      accepting culture. If this is so, there may be no need to modify the content and purpose, let alone the
      form."

      Ojo's general observation illustrates well the field I hope I was able to indicate regarding the inherent ambiguity in assessing the identity of the "plankmask" which Bill offered for discussion --  the complex geographical, social, historical and artistic interplay that underlies most instances of object analysis.  Even where use and possession of an artifact are or can be documented, reasonable knowledge of the factors contributing to its existence and significances remain traceable -- even if only partially -- only though the direct exploration of culturally internal sources who and which might convey insight through immersion in the language, history and social milieu in which the object played a meaningful, contextual role. 

      I should acknowledge, however, the extreme mutability of the soil beneath my conceptual feet as I peruse John Picton's discussion of "Tradition, Authenticity, Context" in the essay "On the Invention of Traditional Art" (see http://www.universityofafricanart.org/Image/Text/principles2.pdf ).  Statements Picton makes ring true and sufficiently loud that their reverberations can shatter previously held assumptions and thus direct us toward a different path to walk in assessing African art forms using such equivocal terms as authentic and traditional:
       
      "...the continuities that characterize a tradition do not necessarily subsist in the visual/material parts of that tradition..."  (p. 7)

      "... if one writes off certain developments because they seem to be not 'traditional', then one writes off African responses to change, whether aesthetic or practical... and one writes off the desires of people in Africa to be part of the same century as anyone else."  (p. 8)

      We must certainly be more self-critical and self-aware as well as sensitive to other individuals as we define and delimit that to which we refer when we speak of African art.  This shift can only occur through a broadened forum which intermingles diverse and variously informed perspectives -- inclusive of African perspectives -- and which considers the individuals for whom the "art" in question has held meaning as well as the dynamic interplay of the the artifact within a malleable matrix of society(ies) and history(ies).

      For an introductory and generous glimpse of how African art transcends the limitations by which the idea of "African art" is often framed, see the work and context -- and read the words -- of Tinuomi Afilaka:
      http://www.universityofafricanart.org/Image/Text/afilaka.pdf

      How does the life and work of an artist/practitioner such as Afilaka transform your perception? It does, no?

      On a more mundane plane, the Ojo article cited above also provides some valuable referents for (as well as raising questions regarding) the origins and distribution of practices -- egungun, gelede, epa, ifa, etc. -- among Yoruba sub-groups which are pertinent to prior discussions while also extending the questions of origins and/or diffusion of these and related practices beyond Yorubaland and among such groups as the Nupe, Igala, Igbo...  As Moyo suggested, this is indeed "a far more complicated process than it seems."  Indeed.

      Lee

      On Jan 3, 2008, at 6:48 PM, Mo Okdg wrote:

      Dear Lee:

      In my humble opinion, the discussion of African art
      along and within ethnic boundaries is a far more
      complicated project than it seems. Much of what is
      being discussed here have already been conceptualized
      by African scholars writing in the seventies.
      Unfortunately, much of their work were never made
      available beyond African universities, and few people
      outside the continent know about these important
      conceptual discussions.

      It is time to give more international prominence to
      some of these discussions that happened in Africa. I
      am making some of them available online on the website
      of the University of African Art.

      Please visit www.universityofafricanart.org and log in
      to the "press." Please read the "Introduction" and
      "Chapter One" of "Yoruba Cultural Studies," one of the
      ebooks published by the university press. These two
      essays should provide a much more rigorous and subtle
      background for discussing ethnicity in African art
      scholarship.

      Let me know what you think, pls.

      Moyo
      --- sanibelart@... wrote:

      > Dear Lee:
      >
      > Thank you for this lengthy, thoughtful and obviously
      > comprehensive answer to my plaintive request. I
      > agree with MEF that you deserve high respect for
      > your patience and considerate responses to such
      > requests. I would add that your scholarship also
      > warrants great respect.
      >
      > Thank you for parting the clouds. Now that you have
      > provided the reference sources and the
      > possibilities, I am reminded of the Luba kifwebe
      > features in the mask. Had these been present on a
      > mask that was not on a plank, I might have suspected
      > right away as to its possible origin. Your other
      > reflections and references on the iconography also
      > remind me of other masks I have seen and researched.
      >
      >
      > In short, I think what we have is a cross-cultural
      > attempt to create a kifwebe-esque (kifweboid?) mask.
      > It has elements of Luba kifwebe design and elements
      > of Songye kifwebe tradition to my eyes. Was it
      > carved for use or for sale? No way to tell. But my
      > usual experience is that outright commercial
      > creations tend to be rougher and more singular,
      > recognizing that "looking" authentic helps to
      > convince buyers that it may be authentic. That does
      > not mean this mask ever was used or intended to be
      > used ceremonially. It most likely was not used,
      > although one never knows what the carvers intention
      > was.
      >
      > At the bottom, it is a very attractive and skillful
      > carving in a tradition that we admire. We are proud
      > to have it hanging on our wall. Especially now, with
      > our refreshed understanding of its probable origin.
      >
      > Thank you again.
      >
      > William
      > -------------- Original message
      > ----------------------
      > From: Lee Rubinstein <LeeRubinstein@... >
      > > Bill:
      > >
      > > I can't really determine any remotely clear
      > attribution or identity
      > > for the plaque that you presented. The overlap
      > and apparent inter-
      > > relationship of masks in the Kasai region and
      > surrounding areas make
      > > attribution exceedingly complicated and difficult
      > to conclude
      > > decisively. You might, however, find some
      > confusing yet productive
      > > directions in a couple of excerpts from Marc Leo
      > Felix's Beauty and
      > > the Beasts:
      > >
      > > The first is confusing both in sentence structures
      > and the range of
      > > references but as such it does represent well the
      > complexity: "A
      > > strange Kifwebeoid mask from an old Dutch
      > collection probably...
      > > comes from the area situated between the Kalundwe,
      > Kanyok, Luba Kasai
      > > and other south-western Songye, [sic] it has horns
      > curving both up
      > > and downwards, these are decorated with large
      > black and white bands,
      > > this mask was carved by a Chokwe! The artist was
      > probably
      > > commissioned to carve Kifwebe-style mask by a
      > local association, he
      > > even introduced the straight, bulging brow of the
      > Lunda world Katoyo
      > > (outsider) character, this mask was never used, it
      > was probably
      > > rejected because the leaders of the association
      > did not recognize the
      > > mask's style as being theirs and the icons did not
      > match what their
      > > tradition requested." (p.57) Horned masks in
      > various styles -- and
      > > theorized to represent a variety of animals
      > --seemingly abound in
      > > this general area; the absorption and
      > transformation of aesthetic
      > > forms via the complex social interactions in the
      > area make it a
      > > conundrum indeed to sort the determining factors
      > on which to base an
      > > attribution or range of plausible influences...
      > >
      > > Another somewhat but perhaps less broad and
      > open-ended suggestion
      > > refers to the existence of "plankmasks" in the
      > region: "In the...
      > > Western Luba area [eastern part of Kasai] we...
      > find Kifwebe-shaped
      > > masks affixed to a large plaque. This plaque is
      > usually decorated
      > > with stripes, or geometric motifs. These
      > plankmasks... might not in
      > > fact be Bifwebe but rather belong to a different
      > type of masks called
      > > Kalengula used by a different association. They
      > are typologically
      > > related to the somewhat striped plankmasks
      > ascribed to the northern
      > > Kete and other Kasai masks affixed to plaques."
      > (p. 59).
      > >
      > > Perhaps some of the geographic, cultural and
      > formal elements
      > > mentioned will spark a promising direction for
      > clearer understanding.
      > >
      > > Lee
      > >
      > >
      > > On Jan 2, 2008, at 1:24 PM, William Waites wrote:
      > >
      > > > Any help will be appreciated.
      > > >
      > > > I have posted photos in the photos section in an
      > album entitled "A
      > > > Congo Mystery"
      > [ http://ph.groups.yahoo.com/group/African_Arts/
      > > > photos/browse/6e46] of a plank mask we acquired
      > in 1994 from an
      > > > African
      > > > dealer who attributed it to the Congo. It is
      > slightly convex, 12" high
      > > > x 6" wide x 2 1/2 deep". Red seeds are embedded
      > in the eye holes.
      > > >
      > > > Has anyone in this august group seen something
      > similar? Do the design
      > > > effects suggest a tribal group? I've racked my
      > brain but remain
      > > > uncertain - Yaka? Songye?.
      > > >
      > > > Bill Waites
      > > >
      > > >
      > > >
      > >
      >
      >
      > > From: Lee Rubinstein <LeeRubinstein@... >
      > To: African_Arts@yahoogroups.com
      > Subject: Re: [African_Arts] A Congo mystery
      > Date: Wed, 2 Jan 2008 19:22:55 +0000
      >

      ---------------------------------

      Bill:

      I can't really determine any remotely  clear
      attribution or identity for the plaque that you
      presented.  The overlap and apparent
      inter-relationship of masks in the Kasai region and
      surrounding areas make attribution exceedingly
      complicated and difficult to conclude decisively.  You
      might, however, find some confusing yet productive
      directions in a couple of excerpts from Marc Leo
      Felix's Beauty and the Beasts:

      The first is confusing both in sentence structures and
      the range of references but as such it does represent
      well the complexity:  "A strange Kifwebeoid mask from
      an old Dutch collection probably... comes from the
      area situated between the Kalundwe, Kanyok, Luba Kasai
      and other south-western Songye, [sic] it has horns
      curving both up and downwards, these are decorated
      with large black and white bands, this mask was carved
      by a Chokwe!  The artist was probably commissioned to
      carve Kifwebe-style mask by a local association, he
      even introduced the straight, bulging brow of the
      Lunda world Katoyo (outsider) character, this mask was
      never used, it was probably rejected because the
      leaders of the association did not recognize the
      mask's style as being theirs and the icons did not
      match what their tradition requested." (p.57)  Horned
      masks in various styles -- and theorized to represent
      a variety of animals --seemingly abound in this
      general area;  the absorption and transformation of
      aesthetic forms via the complex social interactions in
      the area make it a conundrum indeed to sort the
      determining factors on which to base an attribution or
      range of plausible influences...

      Another somewhat but perhaps less broad and open-ended
      suggestion refers to the existence of "plankmasks" in
      the region:  "In the... Western Luba area [eastern
      part of Kasai] we... find Kifwebe-shaped masks affixed
      to a large plaque.  This plaque is usually decorated
      with stripes, or geometric motifs.  These
      plankmasks... might not in fact be Bifwebe but rather
      belong to a different type of masks called Kalengula
      used by a different association.  They are
      typologically related to the somewhat striped
      plankmasks ascribed to the northern Kete and other
      Kasai masks affixed to plaques." (p. 59).

      Perhaps some of the geographic, cultural and formal
      elements mentioned will spark a promising direction
      for clearer understanding.

      Lee

      On Jan 2, 2008, at 1:24 PM, William Waites wrote:

      Any help will be appreciated.

      I have posted photos in the photos section in an album
      entitled "A
      Congo Mystery"
      [ http://ph.groups.yahoo.com/group/African_Arts/photos/browse/6e46]
      of a plank mask we acquired in 1994 from an African
      dealer who attributed it to the Congo. It is slightly
      convex, 12" high
      x 6" wide x 2 1/2 deep". Red seeds are embedded in the
      eye holes.

      Has anyone in this august group seen something
      similar? Do the design
      effects suggest a tribal group? I've racked my brain
      but remain
      uncertain - Yaka? Songye?.

      Bill Waites


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