ON PRIMITIVE ART
Extract from an article by Erna Vamos (to be placed in the context of its time !)
In: Jeune Afrique, Cahiers de l’Union Africaine des Arts et des Lettres, (*), n°16, pp 33-34, 1951
(*) not to be confused with the nowadays periodical “Jeune Afrique”
There was an ongoing debate among the intellectual circles in Belgian Congo as well as in Europe, about the acculturation of African artists under the influence of colonization. The question was namely whether European esthetic canons should be introduced in the education of African artists. One example, among others, was the presence of floral and animal motives in the paintings of the now famous artists (Bela, Piliplili, Mwenze Kibwanga), pupils of Pierre Romain Desfossés who founded in the 1940’s in Elisabethville/ Lubumbashi (RDC) an Academy of Popular Art for Congolese artists. Do the so-called « primitive » arts aim at esthetic expression, or are they dedicated to other functions, i.e. religious cult? Erna Vamos, in the absence of anthropologic education but with her capacity for observation, her experience acquired in Chad rural areas and her artistic intuition, expressed her own opinion on this issue in an article published in 1951.
“Man mainly feared imaginary dangers beyond his purview, that his imagination limited to human beings and powerful animals could not represent otherwise. He had to react against this distressing invisible threat. He had to express it and cast it in pictures on the walls of his cave. He materialized it into idols and drew inspiration from it to create his fetishes and rituals objects.
Thus prayer was born, thus Art was born.
[…] In the African savanna, he wove pliable stalks into thick, tall matting to build his first huts and village enclosures. By means of this matting, a defense against “evil” was created; in this way the African man could also carry it over as a kind of fetish for every useful object he needed. The variety of geometric designs of those weaves is to be seen as main patterns on terracotta pots, pyro graphic gourds, on the shafts of utensils and weapons, on burial mounds and, on their very own body as tattoos. It would be quite erroneous to believe that the primitive man invented and was willing to undergo this painful practice exclusively for the sake of embellishing himself.
Transition from a utilitarian purpose to a purely aesthetic goal is lengthy, but as long as the indigenous African is free from any European influence, his ornamental designs remain linear, geometrical, even when he introduces the massive stylized shape of varied animals which vividly affect the black African unconscious. The flowers, foliage, magical butterflies swarming all over certain regions do not inspire him, there is no inner impulse forcing his hand to reproduce them. The idols, ritual masks and figurines are reduced to the simplest expression: they are shaped into bulky, rigorous geometric constructions, the foundation of which remains the straight-line.
As it evolves, the art of black Africans does not deny its origins. Acquiring a taste for representation, they still represent the power bearers, dreaded characters. The effigies of famous chiefs, white walls engraved with specific patterns, the spontaneous drawings of bush children who hold a pencil for the first time, are all proofs of it. (I did experience this, while in Afrique Equatoriale Française, now Chad Republic, in 1935-1936). Next to big hoofed animals and crocodiles, these bush children draw human shapes with exaggerated limbs, a sort of human turned devil who represents Evil. Sometimes it is the witchdoctor, sometimes it is the chief or his “padia“ (associate or representative, in Sara language), sometimes it is simply the Father ; very often, after having drawn these characters on the paper, they fill the empty space with bolts of lightning, as projected symbols of their power.
The idea being that at the base of any “primitive” decoration, motives, designs and shapes there is more than the pure search for esthetic effect.”
It is worth noting that the Sara tribes which populate the Ubangi-Chari region of Chad (from whence the major part of my documentation ) know two Gods ; Sou ‘n kiradji (*), the Creator-, Foster- God, and Sou, the God of Evil.
The latter, being more feared, more respected, is therefore given better worship.
An obvious analogy can be drawn between these facts and the mythology-inspired arts of the Antiquity. Actually all arts originate from the fear of often merciless gods and their supernatural powers. It might be suggested that the arts developed when faith and fear became more deeply rooted and took control of the human mind.
(*) ethym. In Sara language; Kira= us, thus the one who created us.
NB: On this topic, it is interesting to refer to a conference given in 1938 at the Leuven University by prof. Frans M. Olbrechts (who later became head of the Royal Museum of Central Africa). Talking to missionaries, he pleaded for the respect of esthetic and autonomous choices made by African artists, whatever the meaning (religious in this case) of their works. He harshly criticized the education in visual arts as taught to African children in mission schools, imposing European figurative and ornamental motives.
« Inheemsche Kunst en de Missie in Afrika » (“Art indigène et l’action missionnaire en Afrique”) (uittreksel uit het Verslagboeck van de XVIe Missiologische Week van Leuven 1938) 26 p. Boekhandel Uitgeverij Universum, N.V., Koninlijke straat 53 Brussels.