Ethnographic art

Ethnographic art

HORNBLOWER, from Benin. Late 16th-early 18th century. Bronze, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Ethnographic art

There are as we hav e seen, a few human groups for whom the Old Stone Age lasted until the present day. Modern survivors of the Neolithic are far easier to find I hey include all the so called primitive societies of tropical Africa, the islands of the South Pathetic and the Americas. Primitive” is a somevvli.il unlnitunale word: suggests quite vrongly— that these societies represent the original human condition, and has cbus come to be burdened with main conflicting emotional overtones. The term “ethnographic” will serve us better. What this means is that ethnographic societies arc essentially rural and self-suficient; their social and political units are the village and the tribe, rather than the city and the state; they perpetuate themselves by custom and tradition without the aid of written records: hence they depend on oral tradition for their own history.

Guardian figure, from the Kota area, Gabon. I9lh-20th century. Metal hammered on wood,The Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona

Guardian figure, from the Kota area, Gabon. I9lh-20th century. Metal hammered on wood,The Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona

The entire pattern of ethnographic life is static rather than dynamic, without the inner drive for change and expansion that we take for granted in ours.
ANCESTOR SPIRITS. The rewards of this concern with the world of ethnographic societies have been manifold. Among them is a better understanding of the origins of our own culture in (he Neolithic of the Near last and Europe.
Though the iffliterials on which we base our knowledge of ethnographic peoples and their ways arc almost in\ ariahly d quite recent date very lew of them go hack beyond the seventeenth Century -they offer striking AWAlogies with the Neolithic of the distant past; and of course, they are infinitely richer. Thus the meaning of the cull of skulls at Jericho is illuminated by countless parallels in primitive art.
The closest parallel is to be found in the Sepik River district of New Guinea, where until quite recently the skulls of ancestors (and of important enemies > were given features in much the same fashion, including the use of seashells for eyes. And here we know that the purpose was to “trap” and thereby to gain power over the spirit of the dead. On the1 other hand, the Jericho cult probably differed from the New Guinea version in some significant respects for the sculptured skulls limn the Sepik River lack the delicate, realistic modeling of those from Jericho; the painted status markings on the faces, rather than any actual portrait resemblance. establishes the identity of the deceased, I heir savagery of expression makes it hard for us to think of these heads as works of art, vet the) embody the same liwdief as the splendid wood can sings ohmcvstral figures produced in that area, such as the one in figure. The entire design is centered on the head, with its intensely staring shell eyes while the body—as in ethnographic art generally-—has been reduced to the role of a mere support the limbs suggest the embryo position in which so mam stuh peoples like to burr their dead.

MALE FIGURE SURMOUNTED BY A BIRD from the Sepik River. New Guinea. 19lh—20th century. Wood, height 48 (122 cm). Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis. University Purchase, Kende Sale Fund. 1945

MALE FIGURE SURMOUNTED BY A BIRD from the Sepik River. New Guinea. 19lh—20th century. Wood, height 48 (122 cm). Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis. University Purchase, Kende Sale Fund. 1945

The bird emerging from behind the head with its great wings outspread represents the Ancestor’s vital Spirit or life force; from its appearance, it must be a frigate bird oi some other sea bird noted for its powers of Might. Its soaring movement, contrasted with the rigidity of the human ligtire, forms a compelling image- and a strange familiar one: for our own tradition, too, includes the “soul bird.” from the dove of the Holy Spirit to the albatross of the Ancient Mariner, so that we find coursers responding to work of art that at first glance might seem to be both puzzling and disconcerting.
GUARDIANS Ancestor rituals are the most persistent feature of early religions and the strongest cohesive force in ethnographic societies but since the ‘’primitive” world consists of countless isolated tribal groups, it can take an almost infinite variety of Forms, and its artistic expression tries even more. On Kaster Island, for instant, we find huge a central figures carved from volcanic rock lined up on raised platforms like giant guardians, must have cast a powerful protective spell. Here the Carver sellout has again centered on the elongated craggy feature of the lace, and the hack of the head is suppressed entirely. These figures seems to reflect an impulse akin to that behind the megalithic monuments of Europe.
Among the native tribes of Gabon in Equatorial Africa, the skulls of ancestors used to be collected in large containers that were protected a carved guardian figure, a sort of communal dwelling place of the ancestral spirits. Figure 58 show’s such a guardian in the form traditional among the Kota. This tribe, like a number of others along the west coast of Central Africa, was familial with nonferrous metals to some extent, so that its artists were able to sheathe their guardian images in polished brass, thus endowing them with special importance. This figure is a remarkable exam­ple of the geometric abstraction that occurs, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout the realm of primitive art. Except for the head, the entire design has been flattened into a sin git plane; body and limbs are contracted to a hollow diamond shape, and the headdress consists of two segments of circles. I he face, in contrast, is a concave oval within which two spherical eyes and a pyramid like nose nestle as they would in the center of a dish. The effect of the whole is extraordinarily calm, disciplined, and harmonious—a finely balanced sequence of shapes so unaggressive that one might almost mistake it for mere decoration. Surely this guardian could not have been meant to frighten anybody.
Tribal secrets are not readily betrayed, hence the available accounts do not tell us very much about the exact significance of the Kota guardians. Well and good—hut how are we to account for the varying degrees of abstraction in primitive art? Must we assume that the more abstract its form, the more “spiritual” its meaning? If so, does the difference between the Kota and Sepik River figures reflect an equally great difference in the kinds of ancestor worship from which they spring, or are there perhaps other factors to be taken into account as well?
As it happens, the Kota guardians provide a good test for these assumptions. They have been collected in considerable numbers, and the differences among them are notable, even though they all clearly belong to a single type and must have been employed for exactly the same purpose. Our second example is almost identical with the first, excel for the head, which in comparison seems almost gruesomely realistic; its shape is strongly convex rather than concave, and every detail has an unmistakably representational meaning. This face, with its open mouth full of pointed teeth, seems designed to frighten. Here, we feel, is a guardian figure that does indeed up to its function. Vet the members of the tribe failed lo share our reaction, for they found the more abstract guardian figure equally acceptable.
What, then, is the relation between the two guardians? They were probably made at different times, but the interval could not have been more than a century or two, inasmuch as wooden sculpture does not survive long under tropical conditions, and European travelers, so far as we know, did not begin to bring back any Kota guardians until the eighteenth century. In any event, given the rigidly conservative nature of this society. we can hardly believe that the ancestor cull of the Kola underwent any significant change during the time span that separates figure from figure. Which of them came first, or to put the question more cautiously which represents the older, more nearly original version Figure surely is, since we cannot imagine how its realistic left lures could have evolved from the spare geometry of figure. The line of development thus leads from figure59 to figure, from representation to abstraction (we also have a good man intermediate examples). This change seems to have taken place while the religious meaning remained the same. Must we then credit the artist and Ins public with an interest in abstraction for its own sake? That hardly sounds plausible. There is, in fact, a far easier explanation: the increasingly abstract quality of the Kota guardians resulted from endless repetition.
We do not know how many such figures were in use at the same time but the number must have been considerable, since each guardian presided over a container of not more than a dozen skulls. Their life expectant being limited, they had to be replaced at frequent intervals, and the conservative’ temper of such a society demanded that ever\ new guardian follow the pattern of its predecessor. Vet. as we know no copy is ever completely faithful to its model; so long as he repeated the basic outlines of the traditional design, the Kota jarver enjoyed a certain latitude, for no two of the many surviving guardian figures have exactly the same facial structure Maybe these slight variations were even expected of him so as to distinguish the newly created guardian from the one it replaced. Any gesture or shape that is endlessly repeated tends to lose its original character it becomes ground down, simplified, more abstract. We see a good example of this in the ideographs of Chinese writing, which started out as tun pictures but before lung lost all trace of their representational origin and became mere, signs. The same kind of transformation, although not neath as far-reaching, can be traced among the Kota guardians they grew simpler and more abstract, since this was the only direction in which they could develop.

Sand painting ritual for a sick child Navajo Arizona

Sand painting ritual for a sick child Navajo Arizona

We have discussed the process at such length because it is a fundamental characteristic of Neolithic and ethnographic art, though we cannot often observe it as dearly as m the case of the Kota figures. But let us be careful not to take a negative view of this abstraction. It has its dangers, to he sure, but it also leads to the creation of an infinite variety of new and distinctive designs, finally. we should note that transformation has its ultimate source in the artist’s concern with the otherness of the spirit world; for it is tins concern that makes him repeat the same designs over and over again. After all, if he sets out to Create a guardian of ancestral skulls, the only model he can use is another such guardian figure, and he cannot know whether he has succeeded unless the two resemble each other.
RULKRS. The strong traditionalism in ethnographic art can be interrupted in two ways: there may he a cross-fertilization of different cultures as the consequence of migration or conquest, or conditions ma develop that favor a return to the world of visible appearances. Such conditions prey ailed for a lime along the coast of Kquatqrial Aim a few hundred miles northwest of Gabon. I here, through contact with the historic civilizations of the Mediterranean, a number of native kingdoms arose, but none If them proved very enduring. A king, unlike a tribal chieftain, bases his authority on the claim that it has been given to him he supernatural forces; he rules “by the grace of God, embodying the divine will m his own person, or he may even assume the status of a deity himself I here are thus no inherent limits, ethnic linguistic, or otherwise, to royal authority Every king is, at least in theory all-conquering. I fence his domain is not only larger and more complex than that of the tribal chief; lie also has to exact lar greater obedience from his subjects. He does so with the aid of a favored ruling elite, the aristocracy, to whom he delegates some of his authority They enforce security and order among the rest of the population, which in return must support the aristocracy and the roval court by contributing a share of its goods and services.

Mask, from the Gazelle Peninsula. New Britain. Museo National de Antropologia. Mexico City

Mask, from the Gazelle Peninsula. New Britain. Museo National de Antropologia. Mexico City

The institution of kingship, then, demands a society divided into classes rather than the loose association of family or clan groups that makes up a tribe It means the victory of the town over Che countryside, and thus runs counter to the1 rural tenor of ethnographic society. The African kingdoms never quite achieved this victory, so their instability is perhaps not Surprising. The decisive factor may have been their failure to develop or adopt a system of writing. They existed, as it were, along the outer edge of the historic civilizations, and their rise and tall, therefore, are known to us only in fragmentary fashion.
Artistically, the most impressive remains of these vanished native kingdoms are the portrait heads excavated at life, Nigeria somewhat lo the west of the lower course of the Niger River. Some are of terracotta: others, such as the splendid example in figure, of bronze. I he casting technique, called the cire-perdue (lost wax) process, surely had been imported from the Mediterranean but it was used here with great skill: the actual modeling is done in wax over an earthen core, another layer of earth is firmly packed around the head, the whole is then heated to melt out the wax, and molten bronze is poured into the hollow form thus created. When more astonishing than its technical refinement, how ever, is the subtle and assured realism of our lie head. The features are thorough individual yet so harmonious and noble in expression as to recall the classical art of Greece and Rome.

Male portrait head, from lie. Nigeria. 12th century. Bronze. Collection the Oni of ife

Male portrait head, from lie. Nigeria. 12th century. Bronze. Collection the Oni of ife

At the time this head was produced, the twelfth century, nothing of comparable character can be found in Kumpe. Only the tribal scars on the face, and the holes for attaching hair and beard, relate it to ethnographic art elsewhere; these, and the purpose for which it was made, ancestor ritual. But since the rulers each had individual importance, their spirits, unlike those of the tribal ancestors, could not be merged into an impersonal collective entity; in order to be an effective’ trap, every head had to be an authentic, clearly distinguishable portrait. It is possible, in fact, that these heads were made (if not ol’bronze, then at least of terracotta) while their subjects were still alive, and became spirit traps only after the ruler’s death, through the addition of his hair. Clearly, each of these heads is unique and irreplaceable. It had to last forever, hence it was executed in laborious bronze rather than wood. It is no accident, then, that the lie heads bear a closer resemblance to the Jericho skulls than to the ancestor figures of primitive art, for the rulers of lie had indeed recaptured something of the urban quality of the Jericho ancestor cult.
The bronze technique of lie was handed on to the kingdom of Benin, which arose in the same area and did not disappear until the early eighteenth century. The Hornbloiver is characteristic of this art for display. By the standards of ethnographic sculpture as a whole, it seems exceptionally realistic, but when measured against the art of the it betrays its close kinship with tribal wood carvings in the emphasis on the head and the geometric simplification of every detail.

Stone images, Akivi Kaster Island 17th century or earlier. Height c. 30' (9.1 m)

Stone images, Akivi Kaster Island 17th century or earlier. Height c. 30′ (9.1 m)

MASKS. In these early societies, the acting-out ceremonials as sunmd a vast variety of patterns and purposes; and the costumes, always with a mask as the central feature, became Correspondingly varied and elaborate. Nor has the fascination of the mask died out to this day We still feel the thrill of a real change of identity when we wear one it Halloween or carnival time, and among the folk custom1 of the European peasantry there wore, until recently, certain survivals of pinstripe ceremonies m which the participants impersonal ed demons In means of cabled masks of truly primitive.
Masks form In Car the richest chapter in “primitive” art; the proliferation of shapes, materials and functions is almost limitless I veil the manner of wearing them varies surprisingly: some cover only the face, others the entire head; some rest on the shoulders; some may be worn above the head, attached to a headdress or atop a pole. There are masks of human laces, ranging from the realistic to the most fantastic, and animal masks or combinations of both in every conceivable form. There are also masks that are not made to be worn at all but to be displayed independently as images complete in themselves.
The lew samples reproduced here can convey no more than the faintest suggestion of the wealth of the available material. Their meaning, more often than not, is impossible to ascertain: the ceremonies they served usually had elements of secrecy that were jealously guarded from the uninitiated, especially if the performers themselves formed a secret society.

Mask Eskimo from southwest Uaska Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation New York

Mask Eskimo from southwest Uaska Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation New York

Africa masks, such as the one in figure 64, are distinguished for symmetry of design and the precision and sharpness of their carving, in our example, the features of the human face have not been rearranged hut restructured, so to speak with the tremendous eyebrows rising above the rest like a protective canopy The solidity of these shapes becomes strikingly evident as we turn to the fluid, ghostly features of the mask from the Gazelle Peninsula on the island of New Britain in the South Pacific made of bark cloth over a bamboo frame. It is meant to represent an animal spirit, said to he a crocodile’ and was worn in nocturnal ceremonies by dancers carrying snakes. 1 veil stranger is the Eskimo mask from southwest Alaska, with its symmetrical design of seemingly unrelated elements, especially the dangling leaves or sticks attached to curved “branches ”. The single eve and the mouth lull of teeth are the only recognizable details to the outsider yet to those» who know how to “read” this assembly of shapes it is the condensed representation of a tribal myth about as m that drives white whales to the hunters Such radical displacement of facial details is characteristic of Eskimo masks generally though it is seldom carried as far as here.
The wooden war helmet from southeast Alaska, in contrast, strikes us by its powerful realism, which may he clue Plot only to the fact that this is a work of American Indian rather than Eskimo origin, hut also to its (unction. It, too, is a kind of mask, a second face intended to disconcert the enemy by us fierce expression. Our final example, one of the most fascinating of all, comes from an Indian hunar mound in Tennessee. It has been estimated as being between 100 and 1,000 years old. The material is a single large seashell, whose rim has been smoothed and whose gently convex outer surface has been transformed into a face by simple but strangely evocative carving and drilling. Shell masks such as this seem to have been placed in graves for the purpose of providing the dead with a second, permanent lace to trap his spirit underground.

Plastered skull, from the Sepik River, New Guinea. 19th century. British Museum, London

Plastered skull, from the Sepik River, New Guinea. 19th century. British Museum, London

PAINTING. Compared to sculpture, painting plays a subordinate role in ethnographic societies. Though the technique was widely known, its use was restricted in most areas to the coloring of wood carvings or of the human body sometimes with intricate ornamental designs. As an independent art, however, painting could establish itself only when exceptional conditions provided suitable surfaces. Thus the Nootka Indians on Vancouver Island, off the northwest coast of North America, developed fairly large wooden houses with walls of smooth boards which they liked to decorate with scenes of tribal legends. Figure shows a section of such a wall, representing a thunder bird on a killer whale flanked by a lightning snake and a wolf. The animals are clearly recognizable, but they do not form a meaningful scene unless we happen to know the context of the story. The ow ner of the house obviously did, so the painter’s main concern was how to combine the four creatures into an effective pattern tilling the area at his disposal.

Guardian figure, from the Kota area, Gabon. I9lh-20th century. Wood and copper, Musee Ethnographie, Geneva Gift of Dr Graz, 1929

Guardian figure, from the Kota area, Gabon. I9lh-20th century. Wood and copper, Musee Ethnographie, Geneva Gift of Dr Graz, 1929

It is apparent that these animals, which play important parts in the tribal mythology, must have been represented countless times before; each of them is assembled in accordance with a well-established traditional formula made up of fixed ingredients—small, firmly outlined pieces of solid color that look as if they have been cut out separately.
SAND PAINTING. Formal and abstract as the Nootka wall painting may seem in comparison with the animals of the Paleolithic, it becomes downright realistic if we judge it by the standards of the sand painting visible in figure 70. That unique art grew up among the Indian tubes inhabiting the arid Southwest of the United States; its main practitioners today are die Navajo of Arizona and New Mexico. The technique which demands considerable skill, consists of pouring powdered rock or earth of various colors on a Hat bed of sand. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they are impermanent and must be made fresh for each occasion that demands them, the designs are rigidly fixed by tradition. I he various compositions are rather like recipes, prescribed by the medicine man and “filled” under his supervision by the painter, for the main use of sand paintings is m ceremonies of healing.
That these ceremonies are session# of great emotional intensity on the part of both doctor and patient is well attested by our illustration. Such a close among or even at times identity of priest healer, and artist may difficult to understand in mode in Western terms. But for people trying to bend nature to then needs by magic and ritual, the lime lions appear as different aspect of a single process and the Success or failure of this process to them virtually a matter of life and death.

KNEELING woman from the Baluba area. Kinshasa, Zaire.

KNEELING woman from the Baluba area. Kinshasa, Zaire.

LIGHTNING SNAKE, WOLF, AND THUNDER BIRD ON KILLER WHALE Nootka. c. 1850 Wood. The American Museum of Natural History, New York

LIGHTNING SNAKE, WOLF, AND THUNDER BIRD ON KILLER WHALE Nootka. c. 1850 Wood. The American Museum of Natural History, New York

Mask, from Kippel. Iotse henlal, Switzerland. Rietberg Museum. Zurich. E.V.d. Heidi Collection

Mask, from Kippel. Iotse henlal, Switzerland. Rietberg Museum. Zurich. E.V.d. Heidi Collection

Mask, from the Bamenda area. Cameroon. Rietberg Museum, Zurich. E.V.d. Heydt Collection

Mask, from the Bamenda area. Cameroon. Rietberg Museum, Zurich. E.V.d. Heydt Collection

War helmet. Tlingit, from southeast Alaska. The American Museum of Natural History, New York

War helmet. Tlingit, from southeast Alaska. The American Museum of Natural History, New York