By Claude Rilly
14 July 1997 - In Africa, just as elsewhere, and perhaps
more so there, magic and sorcery are not to be confused. While
sorcery, which is widespread but unanimously execrated, serves the
forces of evil, magic in all its forms and through its widely
differing practices tends to intercede for the good of peoples and
nations. The force by which the supernatural powers can be summoned is
housed most frequently in a statue or statuette, which can be
anthropomorphic or zoomorphic in style and which is only effective if
particular offerings and rituals have been accomplished and renewed.
When the Portugese landed in the Gulf of Guinea in the XVth
century they named these objects "feitissos": manufactured
objects or artifices from which is derived the word "fetish".
But in view of the disparaging connotations and misunderstandings
which have built up around this word over time, nowadays we prefer the
term "power objects". Admired and collected, they fell into
more or less enlightened hands and for a long time they were stripped
of all that was seen as trimmings: cloth, fibre, pouches, feathers,
string and organic or earthen coatings, to retain only "pure"
forms aesthetically more accessible to the European eye.
On view until 29 September, the Musée Dapper presents
ninety sacred objects of which many are in their original state. The
majority of objects exhibited stem from four geographical zones:
Congo-Zaïre (Teke, Kongo, Songhye and Yaka tribes); Benin (Fon
kingdom); Mali (Bambara tribe) and Ivory Coast (Senufa and Baule
statuettes come from the Congo and Zaïre. Made and endowed with
their powers by the medicine man or "nganga" as he is known
in Bantu languages, they most often comprise one or more cavities,
usually located around the abdomen, which have been filled with
different sacrificial materials: clay, blood, plants, which are placed
in a cloth pouch or a reliquary mounted with a mirror. This
bilongo is placed on the
statuette at precise moments only during the lunar cycle and, if its
powers are shown to work, it can be used separately or even sold. If
the object has been made for use by the community, it is called
a nkonde and can be used to
ward off sorcery and social strife as well as to regulate pacts and
alliances. Its powers are renewed each time by planting a blade or a
nail in the statue's body. The ngangas who make the nkisis and nkondes
are alone capable of bestowing them with these powers and are usually
richly paid for these objects which are indispensible to the good
workings of society.
An important part of the exhibition is given over to objects
from the Kingdom of Fon in Dahomey (nowadays Benin), brought back to
France by a colonial expedition under the name of "Treasure of
Behanzin". The reign of King Glele (1858-1889) corresponds to the
apogy of the Fon kingdom. Following in the footsteps of his father,
King Guezo (1818-1858), this monarch contributed to the freeing of his
country from allegiance to the Yoruba. Feared and respected, his name
was known as far away as Europe and Brazil. Like his forebears, he was
chosen among the many sons of the previous king by an oracle, the "Fa".
The oracle in its poetic and cryptic utterances also revealed his
destiny to him, the things which would be forbidden to him and the
symbols which would mark his reign. The king ordered from his
blacksmiths and goldsmiths a series of statues to commemorate and
renew the promises of the oracle: this is the case with
the silver lion, emblem of
power, or with the striking brass representation of
Glele holding two sabres.
Among the peoples of Africa, the Bamabaras from Mali have one
of the richest mythologies enshrined in the representation of the gods
of their ancient cult called Do: the primordial twins, Ba Faro,
goddess of water, and Bemba, the cavalier god, as well as a young girl
whose image bears the name of Do
Nyeleni ; "chosen one of the Do". She is central in Do
ceremonies to foster fertility among young womenfolk and safety in
first childbirths. "Do Nyeleni" statuettes with their
accentuated feminine forms, daring stylisation and the geometric
motifs used to decorate them, are among the most beautiful of African
artworks, and are represented here by three of the most striking
examples. Other power objects (bolis in Bambaran) are particularly
interesting, the hunting "bolis" representing the great Segu
god, Makungoba, in the form of a headless buffalo. The addition of
organic matter, notably sacrificial blood, to a structure of wood and
clay, gives them a massive and powerful aspect bordering on the
Present, too, in this exhibition are examples of Baule and
Senufo statuary from the Ivory Coast. Renowned for the quality of
their masks, they offer widely contrasting power objects, ranging from
the willfully ugly face of the "kafigeledio", a shapeless
spectre clad in coarse blood-stained cloth,to
feminine sculptures with
their slender forms and exquisite patina, or to delicately
hammers. In each and every case, what is important is the
supernatural power they bear and which is expressed by their
repulsive, or on the contrary attractive, aspect depending on the
purpose of their magical function.
As with all Musée Dapper exhibitions, particular attention
has been paid to the lighting of objects and readability of
explanatory texts. Commentary is, as always, laconic; no logorrhea,
but short, precise statements which are an incentive to buy the well
researched and fully documented and illustrated catalogue, "Magies".
"Magies" : on view until 29
Victor Hugo, Paris 16ème
Open daily (including Sundays and
holidays) from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Price - FF 180
The photographs in this review, taken from the exhibition
catalogue, are published by kind permission of the Musée
Dapper, Paris. Copyright © Musée Dapper.
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.