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African Art at the MMFA

Blog.BauleAfrican “art,” like most European, Asian, and American “art” made before the middle of the nineteenth century, was not made for museums. In fact, public museums did not exist prior to the nationalization of the French royal collections in the wake of the French Revolution after 1799. At that time, European paintings (portraits, landscapes, genre pictures, and religious images) and sculptures (more portraits and religious figures, plus Greek and Roman antiquities and their copies) that had previously been collected by the aristocracy were displayed for the public. Portraits, votive images, and the decorative arts thus came to be categorized as art and physically isolated from the family homes, churches, and other contexts for which they were made.

 Blog.MasaiiAfrican art has suffered similarly. When first collected by Europeans and Americans in the nineteenth century, it was viewed as ethnographic artifact—the product of  then so-called “primitive” cultures—but the sculptures and masks were valued primarily for their formal characteristics—shapes, colors, patterns, etc.—rather than the insights that the objects provided regarding the individuals and cultures that made and used them. In fact, by the time most works of African art migrated to European and American collections, most knowledge of the location, date, and purpose of its fabrication was lost. That is the root reason why most African art is labeled as made by unknown artists. Nineteenth-century collectors made little effort to know who made the objects, or why they made them. But subsequent ethnographic study of Africans and their material culture has begun to illuminate the context, explaining the function of individual objects and identifying some individual artists. (Left: Milk or Blood Container, Collection of Dileep and Martha Mehta)

Blog.PwoYet the fact remains that African art was not made for museums. When we encounter it in off-white, climate-controlled galleries on pedestals covered with Plexiglas vitrines, it is very distant from the place of its birth and isolated from its original function. Most African masks and statuary were made for religious purposes. The masks on display in the MMFA today were usually part of elaborate costumes that cloaked dancers from head to foot. The masks were animated by the spirits of ancestors and deities. They responded to drumming and songs to perform community rituals to praise and/or placate those spirits. (Right top: Female Spirit Figure (Blolo Bla), 2013.17.9; bottom: Mask (Pwo), Collection of Dileep and Martha Mehta)

Likewise, most African sculpture had a religious purpose. Yoruba “twin” figures were created as a repository for the spirits of deceased infants. Baule “spirit spouses” were carved and painted to enable the living to communicate more easily with beings in the spirit world who might become jealous and harm them should the living show them inadequate veneration and affection. Other African sculptures on display in the MMFA served other functions. Dolls were used to train young girls about their roles as adults, and other statuary served much like votive statuary in Catholic chapels except that African idols were typically enshrined in an environment of wood smoke rather than incense.

Consequently, when we encounter African masks, sculpture, and domestic objects in museum galleries, they are in many ways mere remnants of what they were intended to be. Divorced from their original contexts, isolated from the loving hands that made and used them in the jungles, forests, grasslands, and estuaries of Africa, we see relatively lifeless artifacts in a sanitary museum space that is a quintessential product of Western thinking. Our view is limited by our perspective.Blog.Dogon

Those who desire a deeper and broader view of African art are encouraged to explore the excellent videos produced, edited, and narrated by Dr. Christopher D. Roy through the Art and Life in Africa website at the University of Iowa ( Through this masterful series of short videos about carving, casting, weaving, basketry, and other practices, a viewer can come to know the carvers, casters, weavers, basket-makers, and other artists and the cultures they represent. Dr. Roy shows how and why a carver sacrifices a chicken before he fells a tree to make a mask. He shows how contemporary artists smoke masks in the rafters of their kitchens to achieve the patina that tourists and collectors prefer. Indeed, Dr. Roy captures the character of African artists so effectively that the viewer can almost feel the heat of the desert, the humidity of the rain forest, and the reverence the artists have for their materials and their tasks. That is not an insignificant achievement for a Western humanist communicating through the Internet to viewers who sit with computers in homes, libraries, and coffee shops around the world. It adds a dimension, a depth of understanding to the isolated objects of African art one encounters at the MMFA. (Right: Horse Rider, 2013.17.14)

Michael W. Panhorst, Ph.D.
Curator of Art