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  • Writer's pictureVan Weyenbergh Fine Art

Tribal art, between sacred and tourist souvenir.

In our western societies and until the Middle Ages, artists remained, with a few exceptions, utterly anonymous behind their works.

Indeed, it is God guided that the hand of the craftsman transcended the material by reproducing an image dictated from Heaven. The skill of the performer only reinforced the idea that such achievements could only have a divine origin.

It was from the end of the Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance that workshops and then artists became "Stars" in the art world and began to sign their works. The same phenomenon is found in tribal societies. There are of course, large workshops (Lukuga or Kinkondja workshop, in Luba country, DRC) and well-known sculptors (Buli master in DRC, Ateu Atsa in Cameroon or Olowé d'Isé in Nigeria), before the 20th century. Still, it will be necessary to wait for its second half to see the identity of an artist. We recognize today the sculptor Ousmane Sow (Senegal), the painters Chéri Samba (DRC), and John Mawurndjul (Australia) or the photographer Malik Sidibé (Mali) as artists in their own right.

The approach of the current artist is very different from that of the artisans who officiate within an ethnic group. The artists today are responsible for serving as a vector for supernatural power and for producing an image of it.

With them, the notion of "Art" does not exist. Much more than an ornament, the ritual object serves as a communication between spirits and humans.

Many of these tribal societies still practice, despite intense proselytism of the "great" religions (Christianity, Islamism, Judaism, etc.), animism, or shamanism. It is a return to the ancestors tradition, or has been practiced alongside the religion of the invader.

We can also observe the evolution of religious objects (mask, statue, etc.) such as everyday objects (pottery, spoons, etc.) or instruments of power (weapon, scepter) according to the influences received. It is not rare to see in the iconography of certain sacred objects, attributes to the religion of the colonizer or elements of Western objects "relooked" in the native fashion. It is probably the combination of great openness and a certain fatalism that gives these societies the capacity to absorb by transforming and adapting to the elements of their culture of our so-called developed cultures.

The concept of decoration is also completely absent within the tribe and it is only when the piece integrates the sanitized universe of a gallery or the secret garden of a "manic-depressive" collector that its lines take on a different meaning.

We are then very far from its function and its original environment. For its cultivation, we simply ask the sacred object to have the symbolic elements necessary for the rite. No matter the skill of the craftsman who made it and the quality of its execution. The sacred work will erase in the eyes of its worshipers all the imperfections of a sculpture and whether it is an "artistic masterpiece" or a "tribal flea market," the faithful will dedicate the same devotion to it and will defend it, even if it means paying his life. As soon as an item has finished its service (mask, for example, following the death of its wearer),it will be desacralized. It can then be destroyed or, as is often the case today, sold. Thus the object will leave for a new life, towards new worshipers. Besides, apart from those who made it their profession, there are few people from tribal societies who pay attention to objects of their cultural origin exhibited in a gallery. Last point which marks a difference between our artistic canons and those of tribal societies: the ugly, the beautiful! Traditionally we establish a value scale that goes from the "ugly" to the "beautiful." This notion is downright shaken up in matters of tribal art and is close in that to contemporary art. Indeed, these two concepts tend to evolve in parallel, depending on the objective of the ritual. Aesthetic research is undeniable in the perfection of certain sculptures, and it then becomes much more meaningful and accessible for neophytes who discover this form of art if it comes close to our academism.

In contrast, we find sculptures that appear appalling to us by the monstrosities and deformities that they offer us. However, they are always the result of particularly extensive research to symbolize the physical force and the magic power of a genius. These sculptures also show immense creativity, which did not remain without echo on the sensitivity of the artists of the beginning of the XXth century, such as Derain, Braque, Picasso, Brancusi. They still have, today, an important impact on contemporary creation.

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