Marc L. Ginzberg has done a wonderful job in assembling an impressive collection for the current Davenport Museum of Art show African Forms: Masterworks of Design, Beauty, & Innovation, but in his catalog he makes no mention of the atrocities suffered by the African people whose art might have been stolen so we can have this show. Ginzberg, the founder of the Museum of African Art in New York, states: "What came before the arrival of Europeans was authentic, valid; what came after, weak, corrupted. And innumerable examples can be given where this is so. But it also has to be remembered that there was always contact - we have simply learned to accept only some of it."
My argument with Ginzberg is in calling the genocide, slavery, and forced labor (as well as the kind of brutality described in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness) visited upon the African peoples merely "contact." Exporting slaves from Africa reached its heights in the 1830s, but that was nothing compared to the bloodshed that took place between 1890 and 1910. The use of slave labor in Africa and the brutal treatment of the tribal peoples of central Africa became profitable in the 1890s, when Dunlop fitted the pneumatic tire onto his son's tricycle wheel, triggering a worldwide demand for rubber. The exploitation continued until after World War I, when cultivated rubber from plantations replaced wild rubber gathered by people being sent into the jungles.
Some estimates set the death toll as high as 10 million during that timeframe. The reasons the estimates vary so widely is that no census was taken when the traders arrived, and numbers are based on reconstructions of the number of people who inhabited villages that had been burned to the ground. Furthermore, when King Leopold was forced to relinquish his control over the Congo River basin in 1908, he ordered all records in Belgium and Africa burned. As recently as 1975, the records of the Belgian government's Commission of Inquiry of 1904-1905 were sealed in Brussels.
To get a feel for why art after "contact" became "lesser," a British vice-consul report from 1899 regarding the Belgian military's methods of gathering wild rubber along the Ubangi River might be instructive: "This officer['s] ... method ... was to arrive in canoes at a village, the inhabitants of which invariably bolted on their arrival; the soldiers were then landed, and commenced looting, taking all the chickens, grain, etc., out of the houses; after this they attacked the natives until able to seize their women; these women were kept as hostages until the chief of the district brought in the required number of kilograms of rubber."
How can we expect a culture to flourish when contact means subjugation? How can we expect any art to survive? The current show at the Davenport Museum of Art is made all the more remarkable given the devastation undergone by African peoples at the hands of Europeans from the late 1800s through early 1900s.
Ginzberg traces the "discovery" of African Art to "explorers" who came to Africa between 1870 and 1915. While villages were being looted and women taken as hostages, art was being sent back to Europe in an attempt by King Leopold to diffuse the mounting opposition to his use of slave labor. Ginzberg glosses over an obvious reference to the mistreatment of Africa when he states, "But with all this, thousands upon thousands of objects were assembled, crated, and shipped back to European and American museums."
Ginzberg implies that the objects were paid for, but the record shows that they were more likely the fruits of plunder. Ginzberg continues his narrative on how Europeans came to appreciate African Art: "In 1905 our explorer friend Frederick Starr sets sail from Belgium on his first trip to Africa and is able to get information from fellow travelers about where the best pieces are to be found and how much they should cost. A year later Matisse is passing a little shop in Paris advertising curiosities and 'savages' weapons'; he buys a small Vili figure and goes over to Gertrude Stein's apartment to show it to Picasso: The rest is history."
While I would have liked to see some more notice of the history of what had been done to the African people, that in no way detracts from what is a marvelous show. This exhibit is a must-see for anyone interested in African art or history from the European viewpoint.
There are more than 400 objects grouped as furniture (stools and chairs, headrests and other furniture), containers (bottles, wood pots, boxes, powder horns, gourds, pottery, etc.), musical instruments (strings, percussion, trumpets, whistles, and games), weapons (shields, knives, staffs, and clubs), adornment (bracelets and anklets, necklaces and yokes, rings, and pendants), textiles, and devotional items (Christian, Moslem, and Animist). There are 156 ethnic groups represented with names familiar (such as Zulu and Swazi) and unfamiliar (such as Ingessana and Shoowa). The exhibit also contains a map of Africa showing where each of these tribes was located.
Gold is always an attraction, and the show contains a beautiful necklace and pendant set. The gold is from Ghana, which was previously known as the Gold Coast. The jewelry was worked by Baule craftsmen from Ghana's neighboring Ivory Coast. The gold necklace is a bridespiece comprised of rectangles, spiral disks, and tapered beads. The spiral disks represent the setting sun, the rectangles are named "srala," and the small tapered beads have the meaning "I don't need to marry to live."
There is a hollow silver anklet, which the catalog describes as follows: "Hollow silver anklet opens on a hinge when the bolt is removed. It was used in Zanzibar, possibly in the slave markets, and it could have been made there by a Swahili craftsman or imported from Oman or further east." The decorative work is beautiful and intricate, with the hinge and bolt hidden or incorporated into the design.
The wooden furniture exhibits a skill in carving and design that is quite remarkable. Anyone interested in sculpting in wood should view this show. The forms consistently transcend the media. The headrests are delicate, decorative, and functional, as are the stools. The message comes through clearly that beauty and art were integrated into the African culture for the mundane as well as the ceremonial.
This show provides evidence of the elevation and integration of all aspects of African life into a homogenous whole, something we in the Americas are beginning to appreciate. We see less separation between our aesthetics and our ethics, our factories and our families, and our lives and our religion. This exhibition of African art expresses this integration with a simple dignity, eloquence, and power. It is a wonderful show to remind us of cultures that had achieved the ability to create wonderful art on a continent devastated before the dawn of the 20th Century.