In anticipation of another temporary exhibition on one of the many facets of the arts of Africa, I do look forward to the pleasure of welcoming you back to the Cleveland Museum of Art to view our new permanent gallery of African art in the summer of 2010. Located on the lower level of the refurbished 1916 building, adjacent to the gallery devoted to the arts of Ancient Egypt, our African gallery will house approximately 75 keywords from our museum’s holdings.

Among these will be a number of the famous works which our institution received from the late Katherine C. White in the 1960s and 70s, one of America’s pioneering collectors of African art. These include our bushcow mask from the Bwa people of Burkina Faso. The CMA is also the proud owner of a handful of works in brass and ivory from the Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria, including an altar head tentatively dated to the mid 16th or early 17th century which was included in a historic exhibition of Benin art which we hosted in 1938.

However, aside from these old friends – which are all featured in my publication South of the Sahara: Selected Works of African Art (Cleveland, 2003) – our future gallery of African art will also present a dozen or more new acquisitions in addition to the magnificent Janus-shaped staff from the Luba people included in Art and Power. Some of these new works, which entered our collection since the closing of the old African gallery in 2005, have been illustrated in our museum’s Members Magazine. They include a helmet mask from the Mandinka people of Mali (vol. 46, no. 2), a female statuette in ivory from the Lega people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (vol. 46, no. 7), and a bead-covered leopard stool from the Kingdom of Bandjoun in Cameroon (vol. 47, no. 5/6).

I sincerely hope that your visit of Art and Power will entice you to return to the Cleveland Museum of Art to come and admire the intellectual and aesthetic riches of our own collection of sub-Saharan art, which as said has been significantly enriched with new acquisitions since it was last accessible to the public, when we reopen the lower level of our museum’s 1916 building in June 2010.

Costa

*Please visit the Cleveland Museum of Art’s ‘Summer of CMA‘ blog to get all the details on the museum’s East Wing Opening Celebration!

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Myths of African Art

June 1, 2009

Yesterday was the closing day of our exhibition Art and Power in the Central African Savanna. Although I am somewhat sad to see the gathered works of art – many of which had previously not been exhibited on this side of the Atlantic – leave Cleveland, I am delighted to share the exhibition with a new audience in San Francisco where it will be on view at the de Young Museum from June 20 through October 11.

We are happy to report that the attendance of the exhibition surpassed our expectations. On behalf of the Cleveland Museum of Art, I would like to take advantage of this opportunity to thank you for your interest and support. It has been a great pleasure for me personally to meet many of you during one of my countless tours and lectures. I sincerely appreciate your insightful comments and pertinent questions and I look forward to continuing the dialogue in the future.

Aside from the visual and emotional impact of the works grouped in the exhibition, I also hope that Art and Power in the Central African Savanna has revealed some aspects of the arts of sub-Saharan Africa our visitors may not have been familiar with. Among other things, it may have indicated that contrary to popular belief African art did and does NOT exist outside of the realm of time and that, like elsewhere in the world, it has always been influenced by changes in society at large. It must also be clear that African objects and styles traveled over time and spaces as a result of migrations and long-distance trade. Also, African works of art like those included in Art and Power have been produced and used by true civilizations of great complexity and diversity and are ultimately the creations of individual, often inventive artists with specialized knowledge and having enjoyed lengthy and in-depth training.

In fact, if you are interested in learning more about this, you should know that the many myths and misconceptions that have until recently impeded the appreciation and understanding of the arts of sub-Saharan Africa are discussed in an enlightening way by the reputed art historian Suzanne Preston Blier, a professor at Harvard University, in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition ‘Africa: The Art of the Continent,’ presented at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 1996. This title and many other relevant publications on African art are on course readily available at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s excellent Ingalls Library.

Costa

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The Luluwa

May 8, 2009

In my past blog entries, you can see I have shared some facts and history about the Luba, Chokwe and Songye. Last, but not least, I want to give you some background on the fourth culture whose arts are exhibited in Art and Power from the Central African Savanna – the Luluwa.

The Luluwa comprise a number of subgroups which are different on various levels. They are said to have emigrated in successive ways from their homeland in Katanga Province in southeastern Congo between the 17th and 18th centuries. Around 1875 they entered into a commercial relationship with Chokwe traders who had settled in the Luluwa region.

Female Figure. Luluwa. The Detroit Institute of Arts (Dirk Bakker)

Female Figure. Luluwa. The Detroit Institute of Arts (Dirk Bakker)

Luluwa body decoration, architecture and masking show traces of Chokwe influence. Some Luluwa chiefs also emulated the Chokwe people’s more centralized authority. One of the results the involvement in long-distance trade had on Luluwa economy was the creation of a class hierarchy, a social opposition between noblemen and commoners. Women close to powerful leaders also gained prominence, serving as advisors and councilors. The developments on the socio-political and economic levels were paralleled with the emergence of sculptural styles characterized by refinement, large scale and a degree of naturalism, which were populated by professional artists for men and women in positions of authority.

Without losing their original religious functions, such new figures also served a political symbols denoting status and prestige. However, both the production of such naturalistic figures and the stratification of Luluwa society were curtailed by the colonial powers in the early 20th century.

Among the Luluwa, like among the other peoples discussed in this exhibition, power objects, which they were called manga (sing. bwanga), did not require a figurative carving to support the magical ingredients which gave them their efficacy. More frequently, animal horns, snail shells, baskets, earthenware containers and leather and cloth bags were instead used as receptacles for substances. This exhibition includes two such non-sculptural and non-figurative manga, which have too often been overlooked in the literature and are poorly represented in Western collections. Both are perhaps examples of the bwanga bwa cibawu, which offers protection against sorcery and lightning. However, because similar types of objects were used among different neighboring peoples, and the works were in the field acquired without first-hand contextual information, their attribution to the Luluwa has not been confirmed.

It is also important to note that contrary to the refined and rather large female and male figures united in the exhibition Art and Power, Luluwa sculpture entails a wide range of small-scale and schematically rendered figures of which the gender cannot be determined. Often, like non-figurative and non-sculptural manga, such figure sculptures cannot be attributed to the Luluwa on stylistic grounds only.

Hopefully, now that you have been introduced to aspects of the Luluwa people’s rich culture you will feel compelled to visit CMA and see Art and Power in the Central African Savanna before it closes on May 31.

Costa

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Despite many cultural and artistic differences, Songye, Luba, Luluwa and Chokwe peoples all belong to the Bantu language family. For about 5,000 years, they all have shared a worldview, institutions, and practices that derive from a single ancestral society.

Originating in the region bordering contemporary Nigeria and Cameroon, Bantu-speaking communities have been established in Equatorial Africa since the beginning of the Christian era. The Luba Kingdom and the closely related Luunda Kingdom reached their peak of population and extent around 1600 A.D.

A crucial event in Central African history was the introduction of the Luba principles of government into Luundaland under Chibinda Ilunga, whose image is immortalized in some of Central Africa’s most magnificent carvings, two of which are included in this exhibition. The spread from 1600 until 1850 of a new political pattern, entailing a tradition of sacred kingship and a cultural revolution, was to influence the culture of a vast area.

Even in the Songye, Luluwa and Chokwe never formed “kingdoms,” they were each affected by the exchange of institutions, titles and emblems between the Luunda and Luba kingdoms which resulted in a common political culture expanding from the Kwango River in the west to the Luapula River in the east.

Costa

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The Chokwe

April 29, 2009

The Chokwe

Today I thought it would be a good time to introduce the third culture presented in Art and Power in the Central African Savanna, the Chokwe.

When the Luba prince Chibinda IIunga arrived in the Luunda region, married a princess named Lewji and founded a more centralized form of authority, some of Lweji’s brothers and other titleholders left the Luunda court and established themselves among the Chokwe at the sources of the Kasai and Kwango rivers. The immigrants transmitted some of their newly acquired customs and knowledge to their Chokwe hosts.

Male figure. Chokwe. Collection of Sidney and Bernice Clyman.

Male figure. Chokwe. Collection of Sidney and Bernice Clyman.

Although they never formed a kingdom, some Chokwe chiefs built large chiefdoms and ruled over vast territories. The development of these chiefdoms gave rise to a type of court art, while the import of luxury goods added to the refinement of court life. From 1850 onwards, the Chokwe left their homelands in Angola in search of beeswax and rubber to sustain their commercial activity and settled in parts of present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia.

At the end of the 19th century, thanks to their involvement in the long-distance trace, the Chokwe overruled the Luunda Kingdom of which they had been vassals for nearly 300 years. However, internal war, famine, disease and the consquences of colonization, led to the decline of the great chiefdoms and their court art in the early 20th century.

The term hamba (plur. mahamba) – denoting a central concept in Chokwe region – can be considered the equivalent of the terms bwanga and nkishi which the three other peoples discussed in this exhibition employ for power objects and power figures. It also refers to a tutelary, nature or ancestor spirit that mediates between God and man and is visualized in different material forms, including wooden carvings.

The village chief keeps mahamba that safeguard the community in an enclosure behind his residence. The mahamba spirits receive prayers and offerings to ensure their protection or to soothe them. Interestingly, mahamba spirits sometimes cause illness by possessing an individual. The healing process is often a public event accompanied by music and singing during which possession is provoked in the patient. Ultimately, by crying out its name, s/he will expel the spirit through her/his mouth. The cure is consummated by initiation of the paient into the cult.

Often a carved figure, also called hamba, is created as a  home for the spirit from which the patient has been freed. Although most mahamba sculptures are conceptual or abstract in nature, rendered in simplified and schematic forms, and crudely carved, some examples are meticulously and carefully carved. In the exhibition and its companion publication it is argued that the famous Chokwe figures representing chiefs and the culture-hero Chibinda IIunga, representing the culmination of Chokwe court art as it flourished in Angola in the 18th and 19th centuries, also belonged to the category of mahamba and functioned as power figures with protective and curative purposes. Intended to safeguard the chief’s authority and the well-being of his population, they were probably kept in a shrine within the enclosure adjacent to the chief’s residence.

Please come and see Art and Power in the Central African Savanna to learn more about this fascinating culture and its rich and varied artistic legacy before the exhibition closes its doors on May 31.

Costa

 

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It is hard to believe we are reaching the hallway point of Art and Power in The Central African Savanna at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I hope you have been able to enjoy the free exhibition more than once and if not, don’t fret; Art and Power is on view until May 31.

I’d like to spend some time in this entry discussing the sensitive issue of the acquisition of works of art like those included in Art and Power at the time of the colonial occupation of Central Africa by foreign powers.

The responses of missionaries and explorers who first encountered power figures among the Kongo culture in the region along the Atlantic Coast in the late 1600s were unanimously negative. In the context of the conversation to Christianity, destruction in the flames of a bonfire seems to have been the fate of many of the “devilish” power objects, symbols of irrational superstition, until early in the 20th century.

From the 1910s onward, however, the Belgian colonial administration started to remunerate missionaries and administrators in the Congo for buying “ethnographic objects” and as a result many works were shipped to Belgium. In recent years, scholars in Europe and the United States have argued that presentations of African art should reveal something of the circumstances by which objects were removed from their original setting during colonialism, a tense and sometimes even violent period dominated by profound inequality.

Although first-hand documentation about the “collecting history” of African works of art is often absent, the information that is available about the power figures showcased in Art and Power is shared in the exhibition’s object labels. A dramatic field photograph made by a Swedish protestant missionary in 1912 or 1913, which is included in a wall panel text in the exhibition, illustrates how men of the Beembe people living around the mission post of Kingoyi in today’s Republic of Congo were asked to destroy their power figures in a bonfire. It should be mentioned, however, that religious conversions and the concurrent destruction of materials be related to an “old” belief system, also occurred before the imposition of colonial rule.

Moreover, some treasured works of art were gifted by local chiefs to missionaries and administrators in light of establishing diplomatic relationships or for propaganda purposes. Thus, the Luba staff of office, which the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired in 2004, and which had never before been exhibited in our city, was brought back to Europe by the British protestant missionary Frederick Stanley Arnot who had received it as a parting gift from the reputed chief and elephant hunter, Msiri, the founder of a “trade empire” southwest of Lake Mweru, in 1888. Interestingly, Arnot repoduced an image of the staff on the cover of a book of recollections of his four years in the Congo which was published in London in 1893.

Check back for more interesting stories.

Costa

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The Songye

April 10, 2009

The Songye

A few weeks ago, I discussed the arts of the Luba, which show a predilection for the female image because of the central position women held and still hold in Luba religious life. This week, I would like to share some insights on the Songye and their arts. The Songye power figures are not only the largest but arguably also the most imposing of all the figurative carvings included in Art and Power from the Central African Savanna.

The Songye inhabit a vast territory between the Sankuru and Lubilash rivers in the west and the Lualaba in the east. Closely related historically to the Luba people, the Songye are subdivided into a number of subgroups, the largest of which constitute chiefdoms bearing the same names, such as Kalebwe, Eki and Tempa.

The eastern Songye region is more isolated and “traditional” and has remained relatively unaffected by foreign influences. Benevolent spirits of the dead were involved in power objects called manga (sing. bwanga) or power figures known as mankishi (sing. nkishi). Specialists known as banganga possessed the knowledge necessary to fabricate such power objects. Sometimes they created power figures as well. Both manga and mankishi were considered benign and protective forms of medicine.

Male figure. Songye. Ethnographic Museum, Antwerp (Bart Huysmans)
Male figure. Songye. Ethnographic Museum, Antwerp (Bart Huysmans)

 Aside from the ingredients inserted into the belly or head, the figures received offerings, they were rubbed with oils, and their users had to respect certain prohibitions and rules. External paraphernalia on some of the largest mankishi imitated protective manga worn by banganga, chiefs, hunters, and blacksmiths in real life, reinforcing the powers of the figures to which they were attached.

More than the three other traditions featured in this exhibition, large standing mankishi power figures among the Songye people are impressive examples of accumulative sculpture, their bodies originally bedecked with a variety of paraphernalia and accessories. Accumulation of composite materials over many years of use sometimes resulted in a complete obliteration of the carved figure serving as support to the materials that had been added to it, transforming it into a real assemblage or even collage.

 The fact that the life of a power figure extends well beyond the artist’s creation may account for the failure to recognize such objects as works of art until well into the 20th century. Indeed, in using the power figure the patron or client would influence and alter the work drastically. For many of the users of the power figures the intervention of the ritual expert, the owner, or the custodian was considered at least as important as the creation of the initial sculpture by the artist. However, often such power figures were stripped of their perishable accoutrements in the process of their transfer from Africa to the West. Divested of their allegedly “infectious” attributes by collectors and curators alike, they remain fragmented and incomplete.

The creation of large community figures, which were characterized by their high level of craftsmanship, was entrusted to an established artist specialized in wood carving. It was often still the case that the ritual expert would determine the figure’s specific formal features and even the type of wood the carver had to use. Whereas a personal nkishi was usually secretly stored in its owner’s house and carried along when he or she traveled outside the village, a special structure in the village center or near the chief’s house served as the nkishi‘s permanent residence.

It was cared for by an elder man or woman, who served as its guardian and interpreted the messages the nkishi transmitted through dreams or spirit possession. In particular the day after the guardian had dreamed of danger, the nkishi would be carried through the village by two men who held the figure by means of wooden poles attached under its arms.

As you visit Art and Power and admire the sheer visual impact of the multitude of Songye figures on display, I hope you will also consider the complex and deep meanings these powerful works embodied for the people who once produced and used them.

Costa

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An award-winning catalog

April 9, 2009

Hello!

As we move into the midway point of my exhibition, Art and Power in the Central African Savanna, I invite you once again to the Cleveland Museum of Art to see with your own eyes the power figures and traditions featured on this blog.

But more importantly, I welcome you to attend my two free, public lectures at CMA, where I will be signing my exhibition catalog, Art and Power in the Central African Savanna. At 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 22, I will present From “Fetish” to Power Figure, exploring the political and religious dimensions of power figures in Central Africa dating to the late 1500s.

catalogue-cover

Petridis, Constantine (2008). Art and Power in the Central African Savanna: Luba. Songye. Chokew. Luluwa. Brussels, Belgium/Cleveland, Ohio: Mercatorfonds/Cleveland Museum of Art.

Then, at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 29, I will talk about Nkishi and Bwanga among Luba, Songye, and Luluwa Peoples. Nkishi and bwanga are two of the power figures these three cultures created, and I will explain the complex beliefs and activities that go along with these figures.

I will sign catalogs following both lectures. I am quite honored to say that this catalog recently won the Midwest Art History Society Award for Outstanding Catalog for 2008. It is my hope that you will read it and have a greater understanding about power figures and their importance within the Luba, Songye, Luluwa and Chokwe.

Please feel welcome to attend one or both of these free, public lectures. I look forward to seeing you there; please stop by and say hello at my book signings!

Costa

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Greetings! And please call me Costa. I hope you have had the chance to enjoy the first month of the exhibition I conceived and organized for the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), Art and Power in the Central African Savanna. While I think I have told you a good amount so far about the show and how it came into being, I thought it was only fair to share a bit about myself.

Of Greek descent, as my name clearly indicates, I was born and raised in Belgium. I earned my M.A. in art history and archaeology, with a specialization in so-called ethnic art, in 1991 and my Ph.D. in Art History in 1997, both from Ghent University in Belgium. My dissertation was on the figurative sculpture of the Luluwa people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of four artistic traditions represented in Art and Power from the Central African Savanna.

Costa Petridis, CMA curator of African Art

Costa Petridis, CMA curator of African art

I joined the Cleveland Museum of Art as assistant curator of African art in 2002. I was promoted to full curator in July 2007. Until May 2008, I combined my curatorial duties with a professorship at Case Western Reserve University. Since then, I occasionally teach in the art history and art department at Case as an adjunct faculty.

Other than a two-year fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 1997 to 1999, I was affiliated with the (Belgium) Fund for Scientific Research. In this capacity I lectured at my alma mater, Ghent University, and served as a guest exhibition curator at the Ethnographic Museum in my hometown of Antwerp. While in Antwerp, I organized the exhibition Frans M. Olbrechts (1899-1958): In Search of Art in Africa (Antwerp, 2001), which was accompanied by a 464-page book containing 15 essays by 11 authors.

My first experience as a museum professional dates back to 1991-93, when as an intern at the Antwerp Ethnographic Museum, I had the privilege to co-curate the exhibition Face of the Spirits: Masks from the Zaire Basin (Antwerp, 1993), which subsequently traveled to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

Shortly upon my arrival in Cleveland, I reinstalled the CMA’s permanent collection of African art and published a catalogue of collection highlights titled South of the Sahara: Selected Works of African Art (Cleveland, 2003). In the past few years, I also had the honor to serve as a consulting curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Toronto, where I was responsible for the installation of the Frum Collection of African Art in the Frank Gehry-designed “transformed AGO,” which was inaugurated this past fall.

Aside from the organization of exhibitions, I much enjoy researching and writing on various facets of the fascinating arts of sub-Saharan Africa. I published my first scholarly article – based on my master’s thesis on Pendes masks and masquerades – in the journal of the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil in 1992. My most recent scholarly publication, on buffalo helmets of Tussian and Siemu peoples, appeared in the journal African Arts from the University of California, Los Angeles, in fall 2008. It reflects the preliminary results of a museum-sponsored field trip to Burkina Faso which I conducted in fall 2004.

Although I obviously devote must of my time to the study of African art, I confess that I have yet another passion: classical music. I enjoy reading about music, attending concerts, and listening to recordings. I am also proud to serve on the boards of two of Cleveland’s most prestigious musical organizations, The Cleveland Chamber Music Society and the Art Song Festival. However, my primary passion is African art, and I hope this is reflected when you visit Art and Power in the Central African Savanna at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Costa

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The Luba

March 23, 2009

The Luba

Artists today are often hungry for recognition. However, one of the civilizations showcased in Art and Power in the Central African Savanna, that of the Luba culture in southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, did not care about remembering the names of the artists responsible for some of their greatest masterworks.

Bowl bearer. Luba. Felix Collection.
Bowl bearer. Luba. Felix Collection.

The Luba received their name from Arab traders and European colonizers. “Luba” is applied to distinguish a group of historically related, but culturally diverse peoples in southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a strict sense the name refers to the dignitaries of the capital of the kingdom founded by a man named Kalala Ilunga. The Luba kingdom, which flourished from the 17th century until the late 19th century, once extended from the Lomami River in the west to the Lualaba River in the east. It consisted of a center under the direct rule of the king and a periphery governed by sacred chiefs that enjoyed considerable autonomy.

However, despite profound changes in Luba society, the ideology of kingship and its political praxis have remained remarkably intact. Luba art is characterized by a wide range of objects, often naturalistic in style with rounded volumes and fleshy forms, and dominated by the idealized rendering of female images. Luba women held central positions in the religious and political domains. Many of the best known genres of Luba art relate to ideas of kingship and the kingdom’s ceremonial and ritual life, but some genres can also be considered as variants on the theme of the power object.

Although there are literally thousands of Luba works in collections in Europe and America, very few artists’ names have been preserved, despite the importance of remembrance in Luba culture. Thus, nothing is known about the virtuoso identified as the “Kunda Master” who is held responsible for a corpus of stylistically related works in different genres, including the magnificent bowstand from the Katcher Collection in this exhibition.

There is no doubt that this neglect is due in part to the lack of interest on the part of the colonizers. Indeed, those who acquired the objects in the field were rarely interested in the identities of the artists who made them. However, contrary to Western art-historical practice, it seems that the Luba themselves were not preoccupied with artists’ names either and that they had very different ideas about “originality.”

Indeed, for the Luba, all royal art forms were considered replicas of the original insignia introduced by their culture heroes several centuries ago. Moreover, for the Luba what objects are is much less important that what objects do. Since the Luba still view most of their art works as receptacles for spiritual power, it would be inappropriate to discuss their human authorship.

To witness what the objects did do for the Luba, I personally invite you to view Art and Power, as it is free and open to all.

Costa

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