Anyone who has given the British Museum’s Sainsbury Gallery of African Art anything more than a very brief visit (in and out to gawk at the Benin bronzes) will surely have admired the extent to which the curators have attempted, through a series of short films on loop, to show how some of the artefacts on display have been used – and the lives they continue, in many cases, to lead in West and Central Africa in particular. Viewers can learn about pottery, bronze casting, the rivalries between asafo banner-bearing Fante youth companies in Ghana and, most memorably for me, about the extraordinary masquerades performed by secret societies.
Watching the vivid, chaotic spectacles on film, then turning to see some of the masks and headdresses featured, I was struck by the tension between these catalogued things behind wire cordons or glass, and the social and spiritual functions they perform in dusty village squares or family compounds across the equatorial African grasslands. As Jean-Baptiste Bacquart suggests in his informative and well-illustrated The Tribal Arts of Africa (1998), ‘African tribal art is not just about an aesthetic, it is also about meaning and function. African objects were almost never created as “art for art’s sake”, rather these objects always related to magical or social rites – to the supernatural world . . .’
We all know the electrifying jolt administered to Western European art by the effect of African masks on artists like Braque and Picasso. But what they encountered were the things – collected, displayed out of context, arrayed for the gaze of polite metropolitan gallery-goers. In 1934, an eccentric young Englishman, Geoffrey Gorer (1905–85), set out to traverse West Africa, among other reasons to see for himself how these objects were used in dances and ceremonies, to witness the rich spiritual and aesthetic lives with which they were so intimately connected.
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