Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 20, 2001
Evan M. Maurer and Niangi Batulukisi Spirits Embodied: Art of the Congo; Selections from the Helmut F. Stern Collection Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Art in association with University of Minnesota Press, 1998. 154 pp.; 76 color ills.; 79 b/w ills. Paper $34.95 (0816636559)
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN, October 1, 1999-July 2, 2000.

Spirits Embodied: Art of the Congo; Selections from the Helmut F. Stern Collection was published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title held in 1999 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. All the works came from the Congo. Helmut Stern purchased most of them from Marc Léo Félix, the Belgian connoisseur and African art dealer. The core of the collection, twenty-two out of seventy-one pieces, formerly belonged to the late Belgian artist Joseph Henrion; the rest came from French, Belgian, and Portuguese collectors. The quality of the works varies considerably: some are quite remarkable for their forms and designs, while others, especially many of the Henrion pieces, are crudely carved. The book includes three essays, two by Evan Maurer, Director of the museum, and one by Niangi Batulukisi, an African-born scholar (Muyaka) who is also responsible for the catalogue section.

Evan Maurer begins the book with a very useful, relatively long review of the parts played by politicians, anthropologists, art collectors, and dealers in the history of American relations with Africa. In 1907, King Leopold II of Belgium, eager to “educate” the American public about his Congo Free State (now Democratic Republic of Congo), donated 3,500 objects from the Royal Museum of Central Africa at Tervuren to the American Museum of Natural History. In 1910, the museum acquired more than 4,000 objects from Frederick Starr, a University of Chicago professor of anthropology, who had toured the Congo Free State in 1907 and later wrote a series of articles on the Congo for the Chicago Tribune. Maurer examines the significance of the Congo acquisitions for the American Museum of Natural History, the development of other African art collections in the United States, and the eventual differentiation of art and material culture from natural history. He also discusses recent exhibitions. In spite of his scholarly presentation, Maurer’s perspective comes across as rather old-fashioned. He sees only benefits in the colonization and exploitation of the Congo Free State and seems to endorse Frederick Starr’s view that the widespread stories of human rights violations in the Congo were exaggerated, a position apparently aimed at furthering the political aspirations of American businessmen and Protestant missionaries. He does not mention Starr’s commitment to the evolutionary assumptions of Social Darwinism. Starr first became interested in this part of Africa during a visit to the St. Louis Exposition in 1903, “which provided visitors with a fascinating firsthand experience of exotic peoples.” At such fairs, “African villages” were staffed by Africans hired to work “much like the period costumed staff at Williamsburg” (25). In fact, the Africans imported by showmen were virtual slaves, exhibited in humiliating conditions and obliged to dress and behave in the fullness of “savagery” as imagined by Americans. The explicit intention of such shows was to prove the folly of extending civil liberties to African Americans (see R.W. Rydell, “‘Darkest Africa’: African shows at America’s World’s Fairs,” in B. Lindfors, ed., Africans on Stage [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999], 135-155). Maurer applauds Herbert Ward’s “realistic” life-size bronze sculptures of Congo peoples, but without noticing the exoticism of their message, which their owner, the Smithsonian Institution, now regards as embarrassing (see H. Marles, “Arrested Development: Race and Evolution in the Sculpture of Herbert Ward,” Oxford Art Journal 19, 1996: 16-28). His account of the relationship between collectors and dealers in the African art market avoids any suggestion that transactions were not always motivated by high-minded respect for Africans and their cultures (see R. Corbey, “African art in Brussels,” Anthropology Today 1999: 11-16). He refers to African art throughout as “tribal,” a term that misrepresents the dynamics of style and artistic exchanges in Africa. In fact, an entire issue of the journal African Arts (vol. 10, 1987) was devoted to exposing the inadequacy of this term because it assumes that each African ethnic or linguistic group is an artistic universe unto itself—uninfluenced by neighboring groups—an assumption contradicted by field evidence (see African Art Studies: The State of the Discipline, [Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990], 115).

Batulukisi’s essay, “Central African Art Today: Degeneracy or Altered Identity?” focuses on the crisis confronting African cultures and artistic creativity in the wake of European colonization. Incidentally, she once worked as an assistant to art dealer Marc Léo Félix, being one of the principal contributors to his beautifully illustrated but idiosyncratic volume Art & Kongos (1995), a work that shares many features with the one in hand. The central theme of the essay is “ethnicity,” where a person’s nature is taken for granted and assimilated to an artistic style. Her commentaries on the artwork combine ethnographic information with formal description. Widely read, Batulukisi amalgamates all her sources indiscriminately, including oral tradition and mythology along with scholarship that is good, bad, and indifferent. She says that her use of the present tense corresponds to the period in which the objects were collected, “1800-1940” (50). A great deal of change occurred over that span of time, but the real horizon of the work is the 1930s; its style is that of colonial ethnography, which sought to record—but in fact largely invented—timeless portraits of indigenous cultures as they had supposedly existed in a pre-European era. This imaginative reconstruction characterizes the catalogue section of the book. Unlikely migrations and suspiciously stable hierarchies are prominently featured. The cultures of the various “tribes” are represented by exotic and seemingly arbitrary traits: “Among the Songye the system of lineage is patrilinear, and they engage in agriculture and hunting in addition to trading” (130); the Zande “believe in sorcery and metempsychosis” (140). Much of this purported ethnography is irrelevant to the art and would be better left out. The reliability of the details is often open to serious question; the Zande are said to raise cattle, although the anthropologist E. Evans-Pritchard, who did fieldwork among them in the 1930s, declared that they had none. The history of the Congo “empire” (56) is simply a tissue of chronological confusion and factual errors. A dogbell is not worn around the dog’s neck, as one experienced in the study of traditional African cultures should know, nor is it a hunting charm.

Admittedly, Batulukisi has been ill-served by her translator, Noah A.S. Maurer, whose text is sprinkled with errors of English diction (“the tantamount member of the court”; Kalala Ilunga established “a new political hierarchy in the midst of the royalty,” 109), Gallicism (“patrilinear descendence”), and simple errors. We are told that an nkondi statue has a figurine hung around its dagger, but a glance at the illustration shows that the translator has mistaken “poignet” for “poignard.” Editing should have taken care of such defects, but even Evan Maurer’s essays have misspelled names and inaccurate dates.

In the midst of all this, it is a pleasant surprise to find in Batulukisi’s essay, based on her field observations, a fervent appeal for the recognition of the dynamic character of African life and artistic creativity, both now and in the past: “African art in mutation,” rather than a glorified past contrasted with a deplorable present. This message is not new, but evidently it needs to be heard more widely. Fortunately, art criticism relative to Africa is also dynamic and evolving, albeit irregularly.

Wyatt MacGaffey
Haverford College