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H U N T E R S SA N D SW A R R I O R S


By Claude Rilly

PARIS, 17 May 1998 - Africa - land of magic, but also land of blood, the blood of war, which has flowed endlessly and so tragically in recent years, but also the life-giving blood of game which allows man to survive.

After several well-targeted exhibitions (read our earlier reviews: The Magical Faces of Africa and "Magies", Power Objects of the Kings and Peoples of Africa), the Musée Dapper in Paris puts on a final dazzling display before closing for renovation and expansion at the end of September.

Although rich and copious, this climax is nonetheless somewhat confused. "Hunters & Warriors" sweeps far and wide, from Ethiopia to Mali, from Nigeria to South Africa, taking in practically the whole African continent in one fell swoop. The title, too, wanders from the usual sober elegance of previous exhibitions and smacks of a rather mixed bag of exhibits with vaguely ethnographic undertones. This having been said, the Musée Dapper never mounts a bad exhibition seeing the richness of its collections. If the theme lacks precision, the rarity and quality of the artefacts themslves more than compensate for the lack of focus.

The eye is immediately drawn to the weapons fashioned for both battle and parade. The blacksmiths who forged them were a caste of their own who held the fearful secret of life and death. Feared yet respected in southern Africa, they were positively glorified in central Africa. Their incredible technical mastery, fueled by an unequalled sense of imagination and artistic creativity, is apparent in the war knives they produced. One cannot but be astonished by the amazingly shaped throwing knives of the Wada (Central African Republic) and Ngbaka (Democratic Congo Republic) tribes, whose multiple blades fan out into points, harpoons, leaves which are themselves a veritable repertory in the art of metal.

Other highlights of the exhibition include the terra cotta equestrian statues from Mali and Nigeria, some quite big, a number of which date back to the thirteenth/fourteenth century. An excellent example is the important Soninke piece with its elegant, serene lines which convey the self-assurance and nobility of the horsemen who built the successive empires of Mali.

A very different work from Djenne, the religious capital of Mali, that of a bearded war chief with bulging eyes, mounted on a small, richly harnessed and brightly painted horse, takes on a baroque look with its heavy decoration. Other Dogon and Yoruba equestrian statues are of equal standing with these two items from Mali and are well worth the visit on their own.

Less spectacular, but just as interesting, are the many statues of warriors wearing the attributes of their caste, weapons and sometimes severed heads as on the Igbo (Nigeria) pillar portraying a powerfully muscled warrior bearing at hip level a head whose traits curiously resemble his own.

Special attention has been given in the exhibition to the great empires of Africa, as well as to their creators known to us historically or through legend. This particular theme, which is covered somewhat anecdotally, would justify an exhibition on its own. Exhibits include works in bronze from the Empire of Benin, other objects from the Wagadu Empire (Mali), and lithographs by Europeans on armies and chiefs of the Zulu Empire which accompany traditional arms from South Africa, such as an astonishing Zulu skull cracker whose mace is decorated with a pair of legs in animal horn as though emerging from an egg in which the rest of the body was still encased.

As usual, the exhibition is accompanied by a published catalogue which contains a fine iconography and bibliography which any African specialist would be pleased to own. Texts, on the other hand, are of uneven quality, and frequently lack the historical points of reference indispensable to such an ambitious exhibition.

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