Magical Faces of Africa
PARIS - If sculpture is the
projection of one's thoughts into three dimensions, then the African
continent has produced many of the greatest sculptors of all time, even
though no single name has ever been passed down.
With the permanent exhibition,
which occupies three floors of the (too) little known Musée Dapper
in Paris, we are shown not only the most riveting examples of African art,
but also the most disconcerting. Disconcerting because our western minds,
despite a century of contemporary art which has been concerned with
decompartmentalizing and reconstructing esthetic ideals, always thirst for
classifications and categories which are not possible in this context.
The African mask is not an objet
d'art in itself, but neither is it a simple cultural or theatrical
accessory. At the same time, the sculptor is not an "artist",
but his function goes much further than that of a simple craftsman. The
majority of the pieces on display radiate a beauty and strength which were
admired by Braque, Picasso or Vlaminck, and the sculptors can only be
considered as geniuses.
The mask was traditionally used
in Africa in the majority of ceremonies: feritility or initiation rites,
religious or funeral celebrations, but also theatrical or comic
performances often linked to the deepest ethnic myths. The mask confers on
the person wearing it - for the duration of the ceremony - the essence and
the powers of the spirits or ancestors it symbolizes. Secret societies,
almost always composed of adult males, are simultaneously repositories and
creators. The wearers of masks, sworn to secrecy, are subject to
constraints and taboos which protect them from the dangerous magic powers
of these objects.
The bulk of the pieces were
assemblages, and those on exhibition as a simple refined face have lost
their former decorations of vegetable fibers and dried leaves whose
rustling accompanied the disjointed movements of the dance and contributed
to the performance. Wood, sometimes set off by nails or shells, is most
often utilised for the face, but the oldest mask (12th century?), from the
Niger delta, is in terra cotta. Human or animal teeth or hair may
sometimes be added.
The diversity of forms and composition, the richness of plastic
invention, all seem to be one of the major features of the exhibition: the
slender and geometric forms for the Dogons of Mali, the soothing sculpture
in the round of the white
masks of the Punus of Baon, the complex, multi-layered architecture
of the Bambaras of Mali, the terrifying,
caricatured faces of the Krahns of Liberia,
the expressive realism of the Wakonde of Tansania.
The immensity of Africa is rivalled only by the inventivity of its
Most of these pieces may be
admired after the exhibition closes because the Musée Dapper is
also the owner. Moreover, a magnificent catalogue, as is the custom with
publications from this source, is available for a modest sum. A deep bow
for the efforts of the Dapper Foundation which does so much to make
African art known to the rest of the world and to give it back its
significant position in man's esthetic heritage.
Musée Dapper - Paris
50, avenue Victor Hugo
Tel : (1) 45 00 01 50
The Gallery of Masks
Rilly is a professor of classical languages and literature in Paris. He is
also an egyptologist and specialist of meroitic language and civilisation.
Claude Rilly has contributed on Greek archaeology in GEO (France), and on
meroitic phonology in the Göttinger Miszellen (Germany). He is
archaeology editor of Culturekiosque.com.
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