dinsdag 4 november 2014

Magical Africa?

I would not totally, on forehand, exclude the remote possibility that I might be a “museum buff”. There is something about the serene place focussed on “learning” and information that I find appealing and satisfying. Much of my trips and travels I made during my life have therefore consisted relatively much of museum visits, with few restrictions on “what kind” of museums. I am also very much interested in Africa, since I was young.

Combining these interests, I recently visited the exhibition ‘Magisch Afrika’ (Magical Africa, in English), held in de Nieuwe Kerk: a large – and very high! - church building on the Dam square in my hometown Amsterdam, Netherlands. Apparently there were enough budgetary funds to undertake an extensive promotional effort, because all over Amsterdam I repeatedly encountered posters promoting this particular exhibition, including a global description on its content in the subtitle. That aroused my interest even more (translated): ‘Magical Africa : masks and sculptures from Ivory Coast : the artists revealed’.

In short, I visited this exhibition, and I will give my impression and opinion in this post. This “museum review”, however, will be contextualized by me in a broader cultural and personal frame (people who have read other “essayistic” blog articles of mine, would not be too surprised).


I have much interest in music, in dance, as well as in social and cultural structures within Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa. Within all this, however, “masks” or “masquerades” have up to now gotten less of my attention than other aspects. I got some interest in it, though, and even have some African masks (and a few small sculptures) hanging in my house. These masks have more of a representative function for me, though they also look intriguing. Also, regarding the (Afro-) Caribbean, carnivals, and masquerades somehow escaped my lasting attention, while I focussed more on other cultural aspects.

The said exhibition in fact offered me an opportunity to sharpen my focus on it, as I am a man who loves to learn throughout life. It continues also on other lasting interest of mine, such as African retentions in the Americas. It seems probable that there are equally African origins within the masquerade and dance traditions found in the carnivals in Trinidad, or elsewhere in the Caribbean, as well as in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - to name some famous carnivals. Jamaica has less of a carnival tradition of itself (recent efforts to introduce Trinidad-style carnivals notwithstanding), but does have an own masquerade tradition, known as Junkanoo. Cuba, another Caribbean island, has carnivals, but also a mask tradition in the secret society tradition called Abakua, which derives from African retentions from the Calabar/Cross River region in and around what is now South-Eastern Nigeria, Africa (mostly of Efik/Ibibio-speaking groups ending up in Cuba with the slave trade).

Interestingly, the ancestral African mask tradition adds another layer to the carnivals in the Americas. These carnivals are commonly described as ways by slaves or lower classes in colonial societies to parody upper classes and whites through costumes, on special days. Beyond mimicking white or French/Portuguese colonial cultural life, however, an own African masquerade heritage therefore also seems to have shaped carnival expressions. This “African roots” aspect of carnival/masquerade traditions in the Caribbean is somewhat underrepresented in scholarly studies, I found.


The exhibition on Ivory Coast masks and sculptures in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam thus helped me to gain more insight in how masks/masquerade functioned and function culturally and traditionally in at least this part of Africa.

Like many African countries, the Ivory Coast’s borders are the result of colonial constructions, separating ethnic groups in different countries. The exhibition was indeed divided in different ethnic/cultural groups within Ivory Coast. There were separate sections on the Baule, the Guro, Laguna peoples (around the capital Abidjan), the Dan, the Senufo, and the Lobi peoples. Each of the sections showed masks in these distinct cultures, with some textual explanation on their traditional functions, history, and on the artists whose names are now known.

The latter is significant because the masks functioned in the cultural and spiritual traditions of the community. The artist as gifted individual, separate from society, is said to be a Western concept. Mask makers and cutters were people with special and revered skills, passed often within families, but remaining further anonymous due to the community function. This function often involves a connection with what is known as “the spiritual world” of the foreparents, still parallel to the own world, and influencing events in it. Appeasing “angry” or disheartened spirits of foreparents is one of those functions of the sculptures, masks and masquerades, including accompanying dances.


The Baule are an Akan-speaking group living in eastern/central Ivory Coast. The Akan speakers (e.g. Ashanti, or Coromantee) in what is now Ghana do not have anything like a “mask” or masquerade tradition. The Baule took on the mask tradition from neighbouring peoples in Ivory Coast. An interesting example of cultural interchange in two bordering African regions. The Baule believe that everyone (men and women) had a spouse in the “other” world (before one’s birth). This spouse was left behind, and therefore haunts as spirit the now living “former spouse” with e.g. disease or bad dreams. In part, Baule masks and offers to it serve to appease this “former spouse”. Objects exhibited in this Baule section include both masks and sculptures.

Largely related to Akan-speaking groups in Ghana as well, are the Laguna peoples in southeastern Ivory Coast. Like the Akan relatives in Ghana, a “mask” tradition is not really part of these peoples’ culture, but sculptures are. The Laguna peoples section as part of the exhibition showed some of these sculptures, that function traditionally to enable contact with the “spiritual world”.

In the savannah area of northern Ivory Coast, continuing in Mali, live the Senufo, who do have a mask tradition, as well as a sculpture tradition. The Senufo – who speak a Mande language – even have, unlike other African peoples, professional sculptors solely devoted to it. They also have male secret societies, for which sculptures, masks, and masquerades also function (as part of initiation rites as well as community festivities, or funerals, and/or to connect with the ancestral spirits). Of course, some of these masks and sculptures were on display in the exhibition. Senufo are known for animal motifs in masks.

The Dan people live in western Ivory Coast and continue in bordering Liberia. Masks and sculptures have important social and spiritual functions in Dan society, with different appearances befitting “issues to solve”: war, police, or commenting/chastising (or “advising”) functions, also in connection with spirits. Masks and wood/sculpture cutting is here the domain of men, while “ceremonial spoons” are the domain of women. These, also spoons, were on display as well. Among the mentioned Laguna peoples, on the other hand, sculptures are also made by women. The Dan further believe in reincarnation, and masks also serve to ”house” and appease spirits (Du, a divine spirit present in all humans) who have not found a new body yet to dwell in.

Interesting, these differences between bordering peoples, but of course to be expected. In Europe also, Celtic, Germanic, or Slavic peoples (Or Ligurian, Basque, Iberian, Etruscan, Dinaric, and others), often lived in bordering areas within Europe, but had quite different customs, values, and social structures as well. Part of this remains noticeable, despite shared Christianization and Romanization.

Between the Dan and the Baule, live the Guro people, more or less in central/western inland Ivory Coast. In the Guro section of the exhibition, several interesting masks and sculptures were shown. The focus in Guro culture is more on masks than on sculptures, due to the importance of masked dances. The Guro worship different spirits, and also know secret societies. Masqueraded and dressed performers represented “holy” characters in ceremonies , and cannot be touched.

The Lobi, including related subgroups, live in the far North East of Ivory Coast, and continue in Burkina Faso. The Lobi speak a language related to that of the Guro, but are culturally rather different.. Here the focus is on sculptures, rather than masks, for instance. The sculptures are among the Lobi regarded as living beings, functioning to ward off evil spirits: a function I have heard of before.


Most masks and sculptures shown were made around 1900, so quite some time ago, though modern art based on them was also exhibited. I still mostly use the present tense, though, because partly at least these mask and masquerade traditions live on in the regions. Recent limitations of such expressions relate to modernization, or maybe Christian or Islamic mainstreaming. This last aspect is also relative. Nominally, many among the mentioned peoples are Islamic or Christian; in practice what are called “animist” beliefs live on underneath these religions, or got intertwined with it. As some may know, Islam forbids images of living beings (people, animals) because it is expected to stimulate idolatry. Both Islamic and Christian hardliners also object to spirit possession activities, often combining with these masquerades. Current figures are interesting: in present-day Ivory Coast about a third is nominally Christian (especially in the south), another third Muslim (especially in the north), and another third “animist”. I assume there is some overlap..


Masks are in fact known in many cultures historically, world wide. The Halloween holidays in the US (and increasingly celebrated in Europe, as well) originates from a masquerade, with (as is assumed) some Celtic Scottish antecedents. The masquerading related to spirits coming from the other world, and needed to be appeased, or hidden from. Also Ireland, or for instance Celtic-influenced parts of Spain like Galicia, had interesting mask cultures, sometimes still related to spirits or ancient Celtic deities like Lugh. My family on my mother’s side is Spanish, though not from Galicia (more to the south west of Spain, Extremadura), but I remember we had in our paternal house a somewhat mysterious Galician wooden mask of a face as a sort of tourist souvenir from Orense (a province of Galicia), possibly once received as a gift by an acquaintance. Scandinavian and other Germanic/Teutonic peoples knew masks as well. Celtic and other European cultures had interesting mask cultures, but so did Amerindians and cultures in Asia and Oceania. And, of course, Africa.

That “broader picture” is what I missed a bit in the museum exhibition. It was very locally focussed. Understandably, of course: it was also about Ivory Coast artists whose names we know now. It was of course the Ivory Coast context where all these masks and sculptures developed and function(ed).

Still..masks and sculptures appear in several cultures world wide, often with connections to “spirits”, or magic. For that reason, some more information and illustrations how masks (and sculptures) functioned in more unique ways in African culture – according to African values -, would be welcome on the exhibition. There is much cultural variety within Africa, but certain values are shared throughout large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Even comparisons with masks or sculptures in other parts of Africa were rarely made in the exhibition, despite apparent similarities. Masks functioning for secret societies, for policing in communities etcetera is – to give an example - found also in the Ekpe secret society in Nigeria/Cameroon (predecessor of Abakua in Cuba).

The connection of masqueraded dances with polyrhythmic drum-based music is one such African aspect. I’ve seen such masked dances on YouTube films (from the Guro in Ivory Coast, see film hereunder), and the masqueraded dancer interacted with specific drum patterns and rhythms. African music, as well as dance, was however mentioned little in connection to the masks or sculptures, in the exhibition. I found this to be a pity. A missed opportunity, really.

Maybe they wanted to let the masks speak for themselves, and these were also uniquely African in shape, visually. This uniqueness, however, connects to other cultural aspects (music, dance), likewise uniquely African.

These cultural aspects have travelled, of course, to the West with the Atlantic slave trade. This includes the belief in ancestral, nature, and other spirits, spirit possession, typically considered as active among the living, while there is often a higher, sole god recognized, that on the other hand does not interfere with the human world. This is found in present-day, what are called “spirit based” or “animist” religions/faiths, including Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, Jamaican Kumina, Trinidadian Orisha, and Surinamese Winti. As may be known, institutionalized religion – i.e. Christianity – forbid and marginalized these African spirit beliefs during colonial history. Yet, aspects of it are still found, as well as African mask dance traditions: the Abakua society in Cuba derives from the mentioned Ekpe secret society (Cross River region, southeastern Nigeria/Cameroon), including masked dances with similarities – also in social function – with masked dances among the Guro, and other peoples discussed in the exhibition. However, a link with such Afro-American retentions was neither made in the exhibition.


These African spirit-based (or animist) religions are marginalized in colonial history. Also in the minds of African descendants themselves. Also, in Africa itself, these are changing or limited in influence in some parts. Belief systems like Vodou in Haiti, Kumina or Myal in Jamaica, Orisha in Trinidad, Santería and Palo Monte in Cuba, Winti in Suriname, and Candomblé in Brazil, tend to be associated with magic and the supernatural. Many discard it as vestiges of more irrational, now outdated contexts. Others see it as maybe interesting folklore, or historically somehow interesting.

Also among anthropologists – who must professionally (ideally) take these practices for their own value, without valuations – nonetheless at times show a hidden disdain, in some cases.

A book I bought at the museum, titled ‘Art in Black Africa’, mostly focussed on photos, with somewhat general, contextualizing texts. It stressed that art in Africa is not meant for reflection, but has a practical function (appeasing spirits to get rid of diseases, conflicts, or disasters). This is an example of such hidden disdain, though it might not be obvious to everyone.

The exhibition I am discussing here, and other African cultural aspects I studied before, made clear to me that people discrediting spirit-based African religions miss one point: the human need to make sense of the world through art and cultural expressions of human beings. The human need, too, to find comfort. That all humans are spiritual beings, to differing degrees. One may not believe in supernatural beings, and think of oneself as too rational for that. I myself consider myself quite rational, mostly (though not in all aspects, maybe). I still find beauty in African music, masks/dances, sculptures – or other expressions – even if I know that they are connected functionally to belief in certain spirits as supernatural beings “taking possession” of humans. Processes of which I may doubt whether they are really possible. Yet: I find intriguing how people try to make sense of the surrounding (often complex) world through cultural expressions of their own human creation; that is what “higher art” is all about. This can only be appreciated when one opens one’s mind to all human beings, and all cultures.

Unfortunately, the present-day world developed from a long period of colonialism, inequality, oppression, and power-based, evangelizing religions (Christianity and Islam notably) imposing their will and ideas on others. These become the cultural norm, and have created for all intents and purposes a “Euro-centric world”, even affecting the minds of people of non-European descent. Without such blinding bias, I sincerely think that there are no quality differences in the art between Europe and Africa. Classical music by Bach is not inherently more valuable or “better” than equally complex sub-Saharan polyrhythmic music pieces, with also a long history and varied cultural connections.


The Jamaican-originated Rastafari movement is Afro-centric – focussed on ancestral Africa - but also largely Bible-based. That makes it I think an interesting movement to discuss in this light.

Recently I saw a newly made documentary called ‘Dreadlocks Story’ (2014), documenting the influence of Indian culture on aspects of the Rastafari movement. While the Rastafari movement arose among African-Jamaicans in the 1930s, and aimed at freedom of Africans, African redemption, and hailed the African (Ethiopian) Emperor Haile Selassie, apparently there was interaction between the African and Indian community in Jamaica. While I heard that artist Peter Tosh disputed this, others confirm that the smoking of marijuana was a custom adopted from the Indians. Also scholar Kenneth Bilby, by the way, assumes another, African source of “religious” use of ganja, namely from Central Africa/Congo, where ganja/marijuana use has been known since the 18th c. Anyway, especially certain subgroups among the Hindus, priests excluded from mainstream society, known as sadhu’s, have been using ganja (as marijuana is called in Hindi, also as term used in Jamaica) since a long time. These saddhu’s in India even wear dreadlocks, which might constitute another influence, though studying African history one finds many groups in sub-Saharan Africa who have been wearing dreadlocks for a long time as well. Some Hindu or Indian rituals have however been taken over within the Rastafari movement.

This is relevant for this post, because it is argued in the documentary that of the traditional African spirit based/animist beliefs many slaves once had, too little remained in Jamaica - or was not appreciated enough - to serve functionally as rituals. This is due to the marginalization of Kumina or Vodou-like religions I mentioned, and the Euro-Christian socialization Jamaica went through. As Rastafari thinker Mutabaruka pointed out: Rastafari arose after and amidst this socialization, not apart from it, explaining the Judeo-Christian - and subtly Europeanized! - Biblical focus and mindset in the movement from its beginning in the 1930s.

This attributed to the somewhat remarkable situation that an Afro-centric movement was partly influenced by non-African Hindu and Indian traditions, while denouncing Vodou or Obeah. Maybe not all Rastafari adherents, but many of them criticize Vodou and Obeah (described as evil witchcraft), or “Science” (used in the same sense as witchcraft). Musically, especially percussively, Rastafari was on the other hand influenced by such spirit-based religions, though this influence was undone of its literal “spirit possession” association. The basic “heartbeat” (one-two) rhythm (by the drums called “fundeh”) found in Nyabinghi drumming, and also the alternating/syncopating rhythms around this basic rhythm (with the drum called “repeater”), both have clear predecessors in such spirit-based religions (Burru and Kumina notably), though musically/rhythmically somewhat simplified. Beyond musical adaptations, this drum pattern was further spiritually undone of associations with things like “spirit possession”, at least formally.

Still, I understood that some of the early Rastafari leaders or “elders” (Robert Hinds and Archibald Dunkley), who were personally close to main elder and “First Rasta” Leonard Howell, were known for wanting to give a bit more space to such spirit-based African ideas and values within Rastafari. Also the “popular Christian” Zion Revival church in Jamaica mixed Christianity with some African animist retentions in form, and fed partly into the Rastafari movement. Other Rastafari leaders, however, were against this animist influence, associating it with outdated, un-progressive (divisive) witchcraft and magic. A later more orthodox group that arose within Rastafari in the 1950s (the movement existed by then a few decades), called the Youth Black Faith, attempted even “purges” when such influences like “spirit possession” from other religions entered Rastafari gatherings. Such practices were seen by some Rastas as “devilish” and needed to be kept away to keep the ‘Binghi’ (important Rastafari gathering, involving reasoning/discussion, drumming and chanting) - and the general Rastafari direction - “pure”.

“Purifying” a faith or religion occurs often, but in the wrong hands remind too much of historical “inquisition”, power play, and authoritarian repression. That being said, I think that some Rastafari thinkers critical of “spirit possession practices” may have some good arguments, namely that being occupied with contesting spirits within a community can have divisive, conservative effects, eventually working against “progressive unity” (and uniting Africans world wide). Yet, in a more derived sense, it can still have a “Black unity and pride” value. Many Europeans take for instance pride in massive, Catholic cultural architecture – the much-visited Sixtine Chapel for example or big cathedrals – while not even being practising Catholics. Or see Greek mythology as foundational for European culture, even if not believing in the fantasy stories figuring Zeus, Apollo and the like. Likewise actual “ancestral spirits” – i.e. the African foreparents who were enslaved, are in a sense ever-present among the Rastafari adherents, even if not in the Kumina or Vodou-like way of spirits literally possessing minds and bodies, and rendering people unconscious. The latter would be problematic in a movement aimed at “consciousness”.

Despite this avoidance of “spirit possession”, nonetheless African cultural values of course live on within Rastafari, such as in the way of worshipping, certain rituals, the role of music and dance as intertwined (traditionally in Africa music and dance are not separated) etcetera. In short, I would applaud more study on this matter, African spirit-based/animist belief retentions within Rastafari, eventually resulting also in a movie, just like the movie on the (partial) Indian influence, ‘Dreadlocks Story’, I just saw.


While I had some personal points of critique (I mentioned these earlier in the post.. the limited geographical focus, for instance), the exhibition ‘Magical Africa’ in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, on masks and sculptures in Ivory Coast, at least confirmed what I learned from earlier studies of sub-Saharan African culture. This is that they represent a beautiful, varied and fascinating cultural and artistic complex, including deeper layers (like in what Europeans call “high art”), such as moral aspects, philosophy, oral traditions, story telling, visual and musical art, and movement/dance. Perhaps partly outdated, but interesting in its time historically. While inscribed in the functional and community life, I argue that is contains inherently “reflection”. This is illustrated, just to give an example, by Senufo masks in the exhibition: these were reflections of deliberately made “imperfect faces” (called “concave faces” in the exhibition), meant to teach that no one is perfect. This is essentially a moral lesson, beyond the merely functional.

This contradicts that African art is purely functional as the book I mentioned stated, but has a deeper “reflection” layer as well. Nigerian writer Ben Okri also wrote: “the African mind is essentially abstract and Africans’ stories essentially philosophical”.

All this further goes to show that sub-Saharan traditional culture has an own beauty and intriguing complexity and philosophy behind it, that I think needs to be valued more for its own sake, without necessarily comparing it unfavourably to other belief systems or religious or spiritual ideas in the world. Art for art’s sake, so to speak. This would be merely a matter of open-mindedness, healthy curiosity, and recognition of shared humanity. You need not be a “museum buff” for that..

For those in the Netherlands: the exhibition is until 15 February 2015. More information here.