Monday, July 20, 2009

Why do I like African masks?

A Kwakiutl mask from British Columbia and Picasso's painting "Girl before a Mirror"
A Tusyan mask from Upper Volta and Max Ernst's sculpture "Bird Head"

Now that we have five African masks, I set out to try to learn what they are and why I find them so appealing. I began by browsing the images in this 2-volume catalog of a 1984 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art: "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art edited by William Rubin. The juxtaposed images on the covers point to the authors' and curators' approach: learning how Picasso and many subsequent artists assimilated (or appropriated) primitive images into their creative vision. Understanding the appeal of tribal art for the artists whose work I admire is a beginning of my fascination with these masks, and with many museum exhibits of similar works.

First, the author uses primitivisim to denote the art that's influenced by primitives, not to describe the primitive objects or artists themselves. The term tribal, he finds, is more appropriate for the non-western artists than the term primitive. I think this is a useful distinction.

In his long introduction Rubin points out is that tribal art works have normally been studied by ethnologists. The art historians who write about the 20th century modern movement often misunderstood the tribal material their subjects used. Rubin writes:
"The ethnologists' primary concern -- the specific function and significance of each of these objects -- is irrelevant to my topic, except insofar as these facts might have been known to the modern artists in question. Prior to the 1920s ... artists did not generally know -- nor evidently much care -- about such matters." (p. 1)
Rubin, who also wrote the chapter on Picasso, is quite concerned with determining which objects influenced specific artists -- in Paris 100 years ago the museums, flea markets, and shops offered a limited selection of items, and it's possible to know just which ones Picasso and his contemporaries were looking at. I find this historical reconstruction very interesting, as well as the basic point that these artists found the primitive works compatible, but that they were already well on the way -- in case after case -- to a vision that was influenced, not created, by their encounter with them.

Here is Picasso's very famous work from 1907, the first to be influenced by African masks: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Rubin describes exactly which types of African masks Picasso was looking at, stressing that Picasso was already forming a vision in the simplified, cubist-style, and that the masks to him were an "elective affinity" -- an interesting term that attempts to capture the somewhat coincidental nature of Picasso's encounter with tribal, or primitive, art.

I also would like to know the anthropological side: what is the meaning and function of these objects for the African people (and in many cases the American native people, the Polynesian people, or others) who created the objects. Rubin provides several photos of African masks that resemble les demoiselles.

For example, I especially liked the mask with the twisted face, which is a Mbuya, or sickness mask from the Pende people of Zaire. This is illustrated in juxtaposition with the demoiselle at the lower right in the painting.

I am quite interested in the aesthetic of this mask, as well as its meaning for the tribe that made it and for Picasso. Like the masks we bought it is characterized by a geometric simplification of the planes and curves of a face. I find this very beautiful, and I think my taste has been formed, among other things, by looking at the works of Picasso, Matisse, and other twentieth century artists. Perhaps my masks, like those that Picasso bought at flea markets 100 years ago, are not the most perfectly authentic examples of the work of the African tribe -- perhaps they were made for the tourist trade, rather than for internal use in tribal ceremonies. I find Rubin's point comforting -- that Picasso did not feel this was important.

Yesterday after reading for a while, we went to the University Art Museum to see their small but interesting collection of African tribal art. I took a picture (last photo) of a similar mask, labeled "mbangu" from the Congo (presumably also Pende -- the people live in both countries, I believe).

I also found a website that describes the type of Pende sickness masks:
The mask is recognized by an opposition of black and white that bisects the face and a general distortion of facial features specifically the twisted nose and mouth. The color white, symbolic of the spirits of the dead, in this case represents the hope of being cured of illness. The black pigment stands for the sickness and illness that ravages one throughout life. The combination of black against white symbolizes this struggle. It is very rare in Africa to find any work of art that depicts an individual strickened by sickness,infirmity or any type of disease.

It is believed that disease can be brought about by an act offending spirits of ancestors and is often viewed as a punishment. Thus, many objects showing disease are used to instruct the community and to caution against destructive behavior. This is especially true of masks, which are danced to teach or remind members of the community about rules and responsibilities. A selection of Nigerian Ibibio and Congolese Pende masks underline the connection between disease and moral values.

Disease is also attributed to sorcery. Sorcerers are believed to be capable of activating malevolent forces against individuals, families or the community, often in the form of physical or mental illness.


Olga said...

Mae: I just find these masks absolutely beautiful. Thanks for giving them space in your blog.

Mae Travels said...

Note: I misstated the identity of Zaire and the Congo. Zaire was the name used from 1971 to 1997 for the country now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo.