Reflections on Kwele and Sefulo Masks, and West African Sculptures at the Gallery Downtown
There is a room at the Art Gallery of Ontario with a few dozen sculptures from Cameroon and Niger. The air is heavy with spirits. Many years ago, I had the privilege of exploring an anthropology museum at the University of British Columbia. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of masks and carvings from native North and South America, Africa, Haiti, the Caribbean, Oceania, and beyond. Whether spirits are real or a figment of human imagination, all museums are haunted, and this one was teeming with ghosts.
Today I sit for an hour or so with the ghosts of Chad, raconteurs of another world far away.
African primitive art was a key driver of modern art, when painters and sculptors in Europe began to explore art history outside of the western traditions. They pared away what they saw as excesses and sought the soul of creativity. Perhaps their insinuations that Africans were less civilized and thus closer to the gods was patronizing, but their admiration was genuine. Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani and their peers keenly adopted some stylistic cues from tribal artisans, from startling simplicity to linear elegance to fearless amalgamations of colour.
Today it is impolitic to discuss a culture as primitive or weigh in on their superstitions, but every time I enter this sacred space, I hear the deep thunder of ritual drums. I feel icy fingers of fear at the base of my spine, even as the blistering humidity of the jungle engulfs me. Art is stronger than the changing whims of fashionable correctness, and the emotions these extraordinary works were created with are powerful magic.
It is easy to see why early missionaries to Africa and Polynesia were frightened, why they felt surrounded by evil spirits. The ones who haughtily dismiss such fears as racist, from the comfort of their well-lit, modern lives, are the ones who got it wrong. They might not believe in spirits, but the artists certainly did. Their creations were ritual in nature, meant to conjure and to dispel. Some rites were to banish and protect from evil, and others were to summon it. In the darkest times, such ceremonies extended to cannibalism and human sacrifice, as with the Druids and the Aztecs. Fear is an honest, visceral response to the art, and it is abject pretension for these contemptuous critics to think they would have responded otherwise.
They are disconcerting indeed, these crude slashes and flapping vulvas, the toothy screams, the nightmare faces and strangely hunched physicality. The angry, angular breasts, the monstrous penises. There are millennia of spirits in these frozen wooden statues. As eerily still as they are, they are alive, portals to a vivid world beyond our knowledge.
I love ritual African art for precisely these reasons. European traditions in art are glorious, but there are other ways of looking at the world. The theatre of primeval ritual art remembers and preserves the profound wonder and fear at the deepest level of being human. There is an elemental quality, a timelessness, that transports us to brazen intimacy with the unknown world. At times rude, crude, and ugly, such art does not turn away from the profound fears we harbour. At other times, it is impossibly elegant, paying sophisticated tribute to gifts the rest of us take for granted, gifts like motherhood or rain.
Here in this room, we step away from the traffic and the noise and the sky high rises just metres away outside, and we find ourselves face to face with mystery. Us against the gods. We feel the beginning and the ending of time, and the eternity in between, come full circle.
Lorette C. Luzajic
The Ekphrastic Review
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