Mask Sculpture and Social Practice

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

Frank Willet reminds us that viewing African art out of its complete social context, which includes the social practices that surround it, can create a false view.

Most people interested in African sculpture are unable to see it in use, and must form their own impressions from museum displays. A museum usually possesses only the wooden part of a mask, which it may display under a spotlight which projects a single interpretation of the sculpture. Kenneth Murray has pointed out that masks "are intended to be seen in movement in a dance; frequently one which is inferior when held in the hand looks more effective than a finer carving when seen with its costume. It is, moreover, essential to see masks in use before judging what they express, for it is easy to read into an isolated mask what was never meant to be there." Chinua Achebe in his novel The Arrow of God brings this out very well. One of his characters, Edogo, is a carver. "When he had finished carving the face and head he had been a little disappointed. . . . But the owners of the work had not complained; in fact they had praised it very highly. Edogo knew, however, that he must see the Mask in action to know whether it was good or bad." [African Art, Thames and Hudson, 172-73]

Willett's point reminds us that the modern European and American conception of art as a separate class of objects requires both secularist and pluralist modes of thought -- and that contemporary Western attitudes do the same thing to ancient Eygptian and medieval Christian art as they do to African mask sculpture. They also raise the fundamental question, Can one have an "African art" in indigenous societies -- that is, if the conception of art is in fact a Western import, do all treatments of African objects as art objects involve westernization? What evidence can you adduce on either side of this argument? And how does it relate to the problematics of African postcolonial literature, or, for that matter, of any literature produced in societies that did not originally possess alphabetic writing?

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