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.
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
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