African Sculpture: Criteria and Methods of Selection

There are over eleven thousand objects in the sub-Saharan African collections of The University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. Many are examples of material culture and ethnography- weapons, tools, textiles, utensils, implements, and undecorated items of daily use that have been acquired by purchase and gift since the end of the nineteenth century. However, also included among the collections are numerous art objects made for ceremonial, magical, and decorative purposes, and a selection of the best of them forms the subject of this exhibition.

Some of these objects are well known, having been included in major exhibitions of African sculpture as early as 1935, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted the great display "African Negro Art," which brought the works to the attention of visitors to American art museums for the first time (see Sweeney, 1935). Quite a few were published by The University Museum in its Journal and Bulletin between 1917 and 1945 in a series of articles written by Henry Usher Hall and Heinrich A. Wieschhoff, two Curators of the African collections. Many others remained in the storerooms from the day of their acquisition, never to be photographed or studied, let alone exhibited.

The present selection emphasizes both familiar and unfamiliar African art treasures that are a part of this great museum's holdings. It was decided not to include examples of the court art from the Nigerian kingdom of Benin, which are also among the highlights of the museum's collections, both because the Philadelphia Museum of Art had shown the "Treasures of Ancient Nigeria" together with an exhibition of Nigerian art from The University Museum in 1982 and because the ivories and bronzes of this society form an expression of a very different nature than the wood carvings from the more indigenous cultures. Furthermore, The University Museum's Benin collections are comparatively well known, whereas much of what is presented here is in need of new exposure and updated research.

The objects in this exhibition have been chosen primarily for their aesthetic merits. This was not, however, the criterion that brought them to The University Museum, for they were initially collected for anthropological and ethnographical research and display. Despite this difference in purpose, a number of the works that were chosen for study and illustration in the museum publications by anthropologists Hall, Wieschhoff, and Emil Torday appear here. It seems that when both anthropologists and art historians set out to select the finest objects for display or publication, the choices are made through the qualitative comparison of similar works and the application of such universal aesthetic standards as form, balance, design, and skillful workmanship.

The African artists who made these objects did not consciously seek to infuse them with these aesthetic qualities. Instead they had been carefully schooled from the time they were adolescents in the traditions and beliefs of their culture and then trained in their craft, often through long apprenticeships to master carvers. They therefore knew exactly and almost instinctively how to make their creations understandable and acceptable to those who would see and use them.

Over the past twenty years, a number of provocative studies of the aesthetics of African art have been completed. The most significant are summarized by Susan Mullin Vogel in her essay "African Aesthetics" (in Vogel, 1986, pp. Xl-XVII), in which she defines the elements that Africans themselves seek within a work of art. Good craftsmanship, balance, attention to finish, fine detail, and the treatment of the human form as an idealized image, in the prime of life and radiating strength and health, are among the common denominators she discovers in much African sculpture. In the works that portray rulers and members of their families, the ability to convey a sense of composure and dignity is also sought. Most importantly, Vogel identifies the principle of moderation that is the basis of all African art. Individual objects may deviate from an established style in small details or in the conception of the entire sculpture. It is therefore sometimes possible to recognize the hand of a specific master carver among a body of works made for the same purpose. Nonetheless, even these objects are variations on very specific themes, for each creation must always be a recognizable and true representative of the traditions that produced it.

Personal taste obviously played a role in the formation of this exhibition, and given the same challenge another individual would not have chosen exactly the same objects. In addition to trying to follow Vogel's aesthetic criteria and to bear in mind the aforementioned acknowledged universal artistic values, selection was made with an eye toward indications of the actual use of each object. In discussing African wood sculpture, age is a relative factor, due largely to the extensive damage caused by termites, and it is thus unlikely that any works in the exhibition are more than one hundred years old. However, evidence that an object had been used time and time again suggests that it had been effective and successful in fulfilling its function. Such evidence, which may include a patina from the repeated application of palm oil, signs that a mask had been frequently worn, a renewal of magic materials, or marks caused by handling and rubbing, provides insight into how an object was regarded in its own culture and thus served as an important point of reference in the selection process. Even though these works could never carry the same meaning for us as they had for their creators, owners, and users, it was necessary to learn as much as possible about the purposes they served within their societies, and this information has been included in the catalogue entries.

Although this exhibition cannot be regarded as a survey of the major style areas of Africa, the objects represent three principal factors that underlie the creation of African art. First, art is used to transmit the laws, moral codes, and history of each group to its young. Among most African peoples, boys-and in some cases girls-are sent away from their villages to attend bush schools for varying periods. There they are taught about the ethics, values, religion, and traditions of their culture that will enable them to become responsible adult members of their community. The art form most often used for this instruction is the mask, which may represent any number of significant figures within the traditions of the group, including ancestors, powerful spirits, cultural heroes, and important past or present members of the society. Figure sculptures are occasionally used for this purpose as well.

Second, African art serves to facilitate communication between people and supernatural forces and beings. Objects made to fulfill this function are chiefly in the form of human or animal figures. They are given their powers by religious practitioners who are able to make contact with the spirit world and to work with magic. Sculptures of this nature serve such essential purposes as warding off disease, natural calamities, and other evil; bringing fertility to people, animals, or crops; and rendering difficult judgments. They are frequently rubbed with palm oil and coated with other potent materials both to imbue them with their magical powers and to maintain their effectiveness. Certain large sculptures in this category are invoked to assure the general well-being of the entire community. Smaller examples are used by individuals to bring similar benefits to themselves and their families.

Art is also made in Africa to indicate the wealth and status of its owner. Objects of daily use such as neck rests, stools, cups, boxes, staffs, and pipes are carefully carved to proclaim the taste and social position of those who use them. Much of this art is purely decorative, made to be seen and casually admired by all members of the community. Other examples serve to signify that their owners have undergone the process of investiture to become rulers and are therefore entitled to the prerogatives of leadership.

Art plays an essential role in the lives of the African peoples and their communities. It serves a much more vital purpose than merely to beautify the human environment, as art is usually employed in contemporary Western societies. The beauty of African art is simply an element of its function, for these objects would not be effective if they were not aesthetically pleasing. Its beauty and its content thus combine to make art the vehicle that ensures the survival of traditions, protects the community and the individual, and tells much of the person or persons who use it.

In this catalogue, the use of past or present tense in the entries is intended to indicate whether the philosophies that produced the objects remain alive. Most of the entries are accordingly written in the present tense, for although the majority of the works were collected over fifty years ago and many changes have been occurring in Africa, the traditional values, systems, and motivations for creating art often still hold force.

In addition, the recently adopted practice of dropping the prefixes "Ba-" and "Ma-" from the names of the Bantu-speaking peoples has been followed. In the Bantu language, "Ba-" or "Ma-" means "people," and the use of these prefixes with the name of a group, such as Kongo or Luba, is therefore redundant. It should also be noted that

geographical terms referred to in a historical context are those that were in use at the time being discussed. Furthermore, i n accordance with standard practices, the placement of the various groups on the maps in this catalogue is intended to indicate their approximate locations and not to define their exact boundaries.

A major source for information on the location and populations of various groups was George Peter 4 Murdock's Africa: Its Peoples and Their Culture History (1959). Material has also been drawn from published studies of particular African styles. Much of | the general history of the early years of the formation of The University Museum's African collections was drawn from Percy C. Madeira, Jr.'s Men in Search of Man (1964), which was published to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the museum. Documentation from correspondence and other primary sources was found in The University Museum Archives and in accession files in the Registrar's Office; citations for quotations from specific records have been abbreviated in the text an appear in full in the Bibliographic Abbreviations at the back of the catalogue.