On 10 June 2017 at 16:20

Gabon: Twists in the Tradition

Frédéric Cloth

Whether one speaks of Art Nègre, Tribal art, African art, or the Primal arts, the 20th century will have been the one during which the Western world opened itself to the arts of the African continent – and whosoever says “art”, says “art collector”. What until then had been a relatively quiet activity reserved to a few colonial households, natural history museums and other curiosity cabinets would expand in the 20th century and begin to involve a much larger sphere of art aficionados and collectors everywhere.


This increase in demand would obviously give rise to the production of works made to satisfy this new market, and those works would in turn (and rightly) awaken suspicion and wariness among collectors. This is how the need “to bring order” to these “savage objects” came to be. Our way of apprehending African art would progressively crystallize: first, we would divide the continent into “tribes” (now we say “peoples”) each with its own particular style, as if we were dealing with myriad little independent kingdoms.


For a tribal art enthusiast, an object is above all defined by its function (mask, ancestor figure, etc.), by the “tribe” that made it, and by the object’s “pedigree” or “provenance”, which is to say the list of collectors or other people and institutions it previously belonged to. To a very great extent, this definition omits the concepts of authorship, of artistic movements and of iconography. One will reply that information relating to these attributes of the objects is generally not accessible, but there can on the other hand be no

doubt that if collectors and the Western African art community had valued it, efforts would have been made to obtain and conserve it. It is thus quite paradoxical to observe that at the very moment at which we are conferring the status of art on a part of African material culture, we give ourselves a model for apprehending it which is better suited to the description of craft work or a “lost art”, like the one we use for medieval illuminated

manuscripts for example. But is that fundamentally true? Are the tribal aesthetic canons so all-powerful that the sculptor must be relegated to the rank of a more or less talented anonymous executor?


To begin with, we propose to show some of the limitations of the notions of tribal attribution, and to show that the concept, if it does exist, is far from being as strict as one most often thinks. There are sculptors that worked in more than one tribal style. Sigho Ndutumu, born in 1857, was an Okak sculptor, but he lived among the Ntumu, and produced Mvai style sculptures. That shows that a “tribal” African sculptor can not only adopt a cultural style, but can even evolve in the course of his career.


Conversely, there are sculptors that worked for different ethnic groups while still preserving their own original style. In the 19th century, a Wumbu sculptor named Semangoy produced reliquaries for neighboring tribes, which were highly prized and valued by those they were made for. This demonstrates that traditional tribal cultures were perfectly capable of appreciating and of using works from other cultures.


Moreover, borders between tribes were generally speaking blurred, and it was not unusual to see different groups cohabiting in a village. That inevitably led to borrowing and exchange. An example of this would be the so-called Vuvi masks, which were in fact produced as much by the Tsogho as they were by the Vuvi. Indeed, upon closer scrutiny and examination, one becomes aware that there are styles which are better described as regional than as tribal, and that there are “style centers” which sometimes coincide with ethnic groups, but often only cover a part of their area, or on the contrary go beyond tribal limits. The Kwele Edyon/Daakwyal mask, the Mahongwe Mbawe/Ehukulukulu and the flat Fang masks are an example of a same and very recognizable mask that is found among different ethnic groups which are culturally very dissimilar. It behooves us to understand how and why a concept can move beyond tribal limits which we used to think of as being quite well defined.


While tribal attributions are an excellent tool for the cursory description of the contents of a collection, it is thus important when making them to be careful not to lose sight of the fact that, far from being isolated, these groups communicated and shared their knowledge with one another, very much including cultural knowledge, on an ongoing basis. The result is that there are many objects that defy classification, because they display characteristics that are partly or even completely borrowed from other cultures.


One might object that these styles borrowed from neighboring cultures are no less traditional than the ones they were derived from, and that their practitioners can be seen as the proponents of a tradition even if they do even if they do venture beyond “their cultural limits”. Are there “absolute” forms of invention? Unique works? Artistic movements?

All three of these questions can be answered in the affirmative.

Unlike the very beautiful little Fang figure in Finality without End, which is an object that is rare because of its diminutive size and because it was probably used as a “bulletproofing” fetish, but is otherwise completely traditional, the large white Fang figure from the Vérité collection is an example of one of these unique objects.

It is exceptional not only for its white color, in opposition to the black generally used for Fang statuary, but also for the style of its sculpture and decoration.

Another example are these figures with heads that resemble those of Kota reliquaries, seated on (or “extending from”, I should say) a stool. Nearly all of these objects were produced by the same hand (or by a same workshop in any event). They were, one might say, produced neither before nor after. We are thus confronted by an object that not only deviates in its formal characteristics, but also, even though it was apparently intended for ritual use, appears to be the expression of a single artist. This is astonishing, and attests to the existence of a freedom of expression and a capacity for innovation far in excess of what one supposed these creators were allowed.

The Gabon: Entorses à la tradition (Gabon: Twists in the Tradition) lecture uses the Gabon area as a starting point in its endeavor to explore the limits of the traditional model, and to

demonstrate that African art is much closer to our conception of modern art than we imagine it to be.



BIP - Rue Royale 2-4, 1000 Bruxelles


On 10 June 2017 at 16:20

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Frédéric Cloth

Frédéric Cloth, a trained computer scientist, attempts to apply his knowledge to furthering the understanding of tribal art through statistical mathematical and computational methods. he developed the tools used by the Yale university African Art Archive, and was the co-curator of an exhibition devoted to the Kotaat the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in Saint Louis (USA).