This is the second of 3 instalments which explores the expressive art works of the tribal world. Today, we shine the spotlight on Africa, the world’s second largest continent, home to a rich tradition of art from virtually every tribe. The expressive works featured here testify to the genius of peoples who have been dismissed for too long as being artistically naïve and unsophisticated.
The clay anthropomorphic heads of the medieval Bura culture in Niger in west Africa are known for their distinctive abstraction and simplicity. This example is one of the most beautiful Bura sculpture in existence. Its rounded forehead and minimalistic features bear a striking resemblance to the cycladic heads from Anatolia which are more a thousand years older.
The Chokwe of Angola use a beautiful mask called Mwana pwo in their initiation ceremonies. Although they are exclusively worn by men, these masks represent female ancestors and emphasize the features that are most admired in young women. They are worn worn over the hips in a dance that mimics the graceful gestures of women and transmits fertility to the male spectators. Here are two examples.
The Kota reliquary figures of Gabon have become icons of world art and are now instantly familiar to Western viewers with their striking affinity to modern abstract sculptures. As seen in this example, the basic elements of this tradition are distinctive and found nowhere else in either Africa or the rest of the world. Carved in wood, the human head is rendered with graphic geometrical shapes in a flattened, mostly two-dimensional shape, rising vertically on an integrally carved cylindrical neck above an open lozenge. The front of the sculpture and sometimes also the back is covered with an arrangement of flattened metal attachments, often in varying colours and with chased geometric motifs.
This particular kota has a distinguished provenance. Helena Rubinstein owned it up to the early 1930s, when it acquired by David and Carmen Kreeger, eminent American collectors of Modernist and Impressionist art. The next owner was the famed art scholar and curator William Rubin who exhibited it in the seminal 1984 exhibition at MoMA, ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern to demonstrate how African art influenced the evolution of modern art, particularly in the work of avant-garde artists such as Alberto Giacometti whose standing figures recall the Kota’s striking profile. This kota was sold to a private collector by Christie’s France in 2015 for US$6.13 million dollars!
Here is another example.
The next example is a sublime mask, also from Gabon.
If you have an artistic taste for bold, clean lines, you’ll find the highly sought-after ceremonial Songye masks of the Democratic Republic of Congo appealing. Here are three examples.
Hemba art like this So’o mask was little known to Westerners until the second half of the 20th century. What seems to us as a wide grin is actually a grimacing open mouth that in no way suggest friendliness or good humor. Such masks were used in funerary celebrations where it is interpreted as an allegorical figure of death.