Sculpture in Central Africa

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Central Africa has always been generally speaking and for a long time already, a “scandal”. It is from the mining and geological point of view: the basement of its countries is full of immense mineral resources; it is also because of the potential for hydroelectric power generation through its waterways. It is also from the artistic point of view: for more than half a century, the entire continent has been dancing to its rhythms. The visual arts are not left out. Since the 16th century at least, the meeting with the Portuguese has offered artists from these places the opportunity to prove their mastery by sculpting ivory horns. The creative genius of the populations of Central Africa has never dried up; he does not There is hardly a single socio-cultural group that has not produced plays worthy of posterity. It can still be seen today in his contemporary art that offers the world painting, works on repousse copper and sculptures.

Traditional sculpture occupies a place of choice in the artistic expression of the populations of Central Africa. It is part of everyday life as everywhere else on the continent. The difference, however, lies in the large number of “styles” that can be inventoried and which practically coincide with the names of human groups. It is also found in the exceptional contribution of certain pieces, at the beginning of the century, to the formulation of the plastic solutions of cubism.

The great wealth of sculpture in Central Africa makes it difficult to fully present each style in each country. However, we will present some forms whose strength is due to their relationship to history or the habits and customs of the people.

In this region of Africa, statuary has been able to put itself at the service of history to perpetuate its memory. The statuary Kuba illustrates it very well. The Kuba founded in 1625, a kingdom of the same name whose apogee was in the nineteenth century, between 1870 and 1890. Their kings have always given great importance to the art that has made them well. Some of them practiced it. We hold portraits of sovereigns made during their lifetime.Apart from this conventional art, the Bakuba have created various masks: bombo, shene-lulua or mashamboy. The latter, made of rattan, are covered with raffia and decorated with cowries, pearls, pieces of fur. The nose and ears are made of wood. The mashamboy mask once embodied the spirit of illness and served to ward off it; but it was also an instrument of social control: the chief carried it to compel women to obey. Today, various trades use it for entertainment dances in the market square, a sign that times have changed.

The Angolan court sculpture has immortalized the character of the civilizing hero Chibinda Ilunga . He is often represented in the foot, his legs slightly bent, holding in his hand the weapons of the good hunter of the nineteenth century: a milking rifle and a stick of command. It can also be represented holding in the hands an antelope horn containing magical substances or a turtle shell.

From this region of the continent, more precisely from today’s Gabon, come the sculptures Fang, Kota and Pounou, known in Europe since the 1875s. This sculpture left us a legacy, the figures of reliquaries Kota. They are souls of wood covered with plates and thin slats of copper or brass. Some of these figures are bi-dimensional: this gives them an appearance of great abstraction and if it were not the “buttons” of copper that recall the eyes on a face, it would be difficult to identify the shape that the artist wants to represent , that of a man’s head. Others, on the contrary, are of a great realism: they are covered with plates or slats of hammered copper and decorated by incisions which delimit the different planes of the sculpture. The face thus represented can be prolonged by a sometimes visible neck, often transformed into a handle. As the name suggests, the reliquary figure rests on the top of dead bones. This art says the importance of ancestor worship in these societies. Byeri among pangwe (Fang) belong to the same genus.

The pounou masks of the same country are famous since the beginning of the century at least: their shape, free from all that decorates it, offers acceptable volumes in Western standards. The faces pounou were certainly white, but the shape was soft to look at. They could not scare the truth, and were not monstrous. It is easy to understand that many Cubist artists have collected them. Paul Guillaume, in the 1910s, held more than fifty punished masks which he appreciated the classicism. Matisse, Vlaminck, were not left out. The study of these pieces has certainly inspired some of the paintings of these authors.

We can not ignore the minkisi , sculptures of wood magically loaded by a Nganga (diviner-healer) so as to allow them to punish the guilty, heal the evils and attract the benevolence of the forces of the beyond on individuals or the groups. The minkisi nkondi are covered with metal tips that integrate well with the room. Visually, the ensemble expresses in a particularly powerful way the accumulation of various forces directed by the nganga in directions and for specific purposes … The art of Central Africa makes a magisterial presence, what the eyes do not can perceive, the divine likely to manifest each time qualified priests call upon him.

Joseph Adandé
Art Historian
University of Abomey-Calavi, Benin