Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 5, 2016
Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers and Alexander Bortolot, eds. Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone Exh. cat. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2014. 240 pp.; 500 color ills. Paper $39.95 (9780989371810)
Exhibition schedule: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, April 9–August 17, 2014; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, September 20, 2014–February 8, 2015; Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington, March 7–May 10, 2015

Amid their dense vegetation, the forests of West Africa’s Upper Guinea Coast yield a bounty of contradictory impressions. They host both captivating natural beauty and obscure supernatural terrors. They appear intrinsically wild, yet are carefully cultivated by neighboring communities. Their muddy feeder roads and indistinct bush paths render them seemingly remote and impenetrable, but they have served as conduits for countless movements in the name of exchange and conflict.

This complex terrain mirrors and inspires complex cultures. Centuries of invasions and alliances, trade and theft, and creativity and mimesis have motivated an array of social affiliations defined by categories that include nationality, ethnicity, language, chiefdom, sodality, gender, and village. Such complexity is purposeful, since an ability to negotiate this idiosyncratic cultural variation is a crucial demonstration of one’s tenure in the area and right to local citizenship. The Guinea Forests and their surrounding cultures produce parallels among their members; however, the inescapably individual nature of any encounter with them nurtures feelings of profoundly personal intimacy. Like a walk through the woods, everyone who engages with the territory is intensely aware of the uniqueness of her or his own experience.

Effectively reflecting such conditions, the exhibition catalogue Visions of the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone takes a piecemeal approach to describing the artistic diversity of the region, including neighboring parts of Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. Rather than attempting a systematic survey of different groups, each of the eight chapters applies a different combination of disciplinary approach, artistic convention, and geographic setting. The result is a series of distinct, legible accounts pulled from the midst of a cultural complex that appropriately remains only partially comprehensible.

Personal intimacy is a fitting theme for the project, as it is rooted in the material collections and professional contributions of the late William C. Siegmann, whose bequests to six major U.S. museums make up the heart of the exhibition. A celebrated curator, collector, and researcher, Siegmann held tenure at institutions ranging from the National Museum of Liberia to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, shaping wider understanding and appreciation of the region’s arts. In spite of his continuous inquiry into and advancement of art-historical research, Siegmann authored relatively few publications. This volume is thus a welcome and necessary tribute to a legacy that otherwise may not be legible within the public archive.

Two chapters explicitly recall Siegmann and bookend the text. The first is a compilation of quotes and reflections well selected by the coeditor Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers to outline Siegmann’s career and personality. The final chapter is a paean to Siegmann’s commitment to connoisseurship and firsthand, object-based study. Fellow curator and former classmate Christine Mullen Kreamer strikes a sensible balance between the two sides of many contemporary debates over the study of African artistic traditions originating before the 1950s: a call for renewed attention to rigor, on the one hand, and an acknowledgement of nostalgia for an irretrievable era, on the other.

For a contextual view of the physical and social environment inspiring much of the art in question, Mariane C. Ferme and Paul Richards serve as ideal guides. Anthropologists who both work primarily in southeast Sierra Leone, Ferme and Richards have separately authored exceptional works on the elaborate relationship between Mende-speaking peoples and their landscape, which serves as a fertile terrain for agriculture, religion, and warfare. Those acquainted with Ferme’s and Richards’s earlier writings will not necessarily find much new here, but readers receive an excellent summary of the dynamics that govern local relations with the forests, especially the central role of gender and the ways in which various Mende projects have reshaped the bush over time.

Although regional women’s societies, known as Sande in Mende and Bondo or Bundu in Temne and other neighboring languages, have already received a great deal of scholarly attention, their popular and elegant arts remain a fecund site for continued study, and they receive the focus of two chapters in this volume. Nanina Guyer offers a valuable historical perspective via a visual analysis of colonial-era photographs depicting initiatory associations. Photography is a fascinating approach to exploring the public dimensions of so-called secret societies, and attests to the variety of solutions that members have used to mitigate tensions between exposure and privacy during swiftly changing political and technological conditions. Although well beyond her stated purview, Guyer kindles interest regarding how her arguments might be extended forward in time and even self-referentially, so as to include the images deployed in art catalogues such as the present title.

In the volume’s second examination of women’s society affairs, Frederick John Lamp applies his signature art-historical rigor to the discernment of ninety-four different styles representing artists and workshops who carved Sande and Bondo headdresses. This is a risky endeavor, as Lamp himself acknowledges, since in these cultural contexts, the individual identities of artists are of little consequence to local practitioners, and carvers’ efforts are usually subsumed beneath the names of their patrons. Moreover, most Mende artists are equally proud of their ability to duplicate each other’s work as they are of creating their own original stylistic variation. Even so, by epitomizing the close consideration of detail advocated by Kreamer elsewhere in the text, Lamp draws attention and appreciation to often overlooked minutiae of aesthetic variations among one of the most familiar and celebrated forms of African art.

Such close scrutiny of physical objects provides little opportunity to explore how they are actually used and experienced in often hectic ritual and festive contexts. This omission is corrected by Daniel B. Reed’s contribution, which takes the reader into western Côte d’Ivoire. Trained in ethnomusicology, Reed focuses on how performers of ge spirit manifestations engage the public, using immersive firsthand accounts to convey the atmosphere during festival season when one walks among the spirits. Amid other authors’ focus on material details to differentiate various genres, Reed argues that the immediate function of any particular ge as it is performed often trumps taxonomic assumptions based on its built form.

Barbara C. Johnson returns the reader to an object-based, art-historical approach, yet in counterpoint to Lamp, she details a very limited corpus rather than an extensive one. Johnson discusses a pair of Liberian metalworkers who drove a brief era of brass casting, a fad spurred by new forms of colonial trade but already on the wane by the time she and Siegmann conducted their research in the 1980s. With the advantage of firsthand experience and focused inquiry, Johnson is able to convey details about the objects’ use and manufacture, as well as the artists’ biographic details and philosophies. While the other articles cover cultural conventions with such long histories that they often appear eternal to both readers and their participants, this article highlights one of those forms that continuously bubble up and fizzle out in such a creative milieu.

Nomoli, small statues of unknown origin occasionally unearthed by farmers tilling fields, are among the oldest, most recognizable, and most mysterious art objects of the region, and Grootaers submits a compelling, comprehensive summary of what is known thus far about these and similar artifacts. The subject would seem to presuppose a disciplinary frame of archaeology, yet the circumstances of nomoli discovery and their use undermine typical assumptions of what archaeology looks like. While most existing literature emphasizes historical breach by attributing these statues to lost civilizations, Grootaers stresses that the figures have nonetheless persisted in continuous circulation among local populations who reuse them for their own projects.

The catalogue section of the text is handsomely produced with clear, bright photography. The organization is a bit irregular, as the divisions alternately represent ethnicities (e.g., “Dan, Mano, Kono, and Bassa Peoples”), media (e.g., “Brass” or “Textiles”), purpose (e.g., “Prestige Arts”), or specific forms (e.g., “Sande Society Masks”); however, the format does succeed in breaking the collection into manageable segments. After reading the chapters, much of the commentary may seem somewhat redundant, but such reiteration is understandable, and the new context allows for some productive variation in interpretations between the scholars and the editors. The captions are not without a handful of apparent errors, whether of self-contradiction, misattribution, or misidentification. In the section commentary, a textile (cat. no. 65) is reported as purchased directly from its artisan in Monrovia, yet the caption labels it as being of Sierra Leonean origin without clarification. The exhibition’s Kono mask (cat. no. 39) is credited to Sierra Leone, but the region hosts two separate ethnicities known as Kono, and the mask is more likely from southeast Guinea where artists share aesthetic models with Dan culture. One of Siegmann’s photographs purports to show a quartet of gongoli comedians (fig. 9.1), but while it may be prudent to defer to his records, the image almost certainly depicts a group of jobuli, masked dancers known for their beautiful singing. This confusion is common since both are entertainers with wooden masks; however, gongoli wear shabby castoff clothes and scanty raffia tatters, whereas jobuli wear full cloaks of lush raffia and their faces are usually less grotesque, as is the case with the performers depicted in the photo. These are minor quibbles, but they are notable given the care taken with the rest of the text.

The scope of the exhibition materials leads to certain limitations that Visions from the Forests cannot quite transcend. Reflecting the conditions and priorities of collection between the 1960s and 1980s, the body of work rarely touches on such consequential issues as the influence of patronage by politicians and political parties, the influx of urban aesthetics, or the many innovations made by artists over the last fifty years—a period that represents the entire history of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire as independent states. The effects of almost two decades of warfare in the region are referenced, yet only in terms of familiar narratives of cultural destruction and resilience, disregarding the role of conflict in actually shaping local creativity, whether through propaganda, protest, or memorial works. When the editors do address contemporary changes, they do so through a clumsy comment on initiatory circumcision, which remains a fraught, hotly contested issue. The eruption of the Ebola crisis during the exhibition schedule did prompt hosting museums to organize discussions about recent challenges and transformations in the region, and such topics perhaps remain subjects for future exhibitions and scholarship.

In the meantime, the present volume offers both an exemplary introduction and considerable new contributions to the study of Sierra Leonean and Liberian creativity. As a testament to the diverse and beguiling arts of the Upper Guinea Forests and the rigorous scholarship of William Siegmann, Visions from the Forests is a compelling, evocative success.

Samuel Mark Anderson
Research Associate, Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard, Harvard University