African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power / the Making of Bamana Sculpture: Creativity and Gender / Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England

By Okoye, Ikem Stanley | The Art Bulletin, June 1998 | Go to article overview

African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power / the Making of Bamana Sculpture: Creativity and Gender / Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England


Okoye, Ikem Stanley, The Art Bulletin


SUZANNE PRESTON BLIER African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. 486 pp.; 8 color ills., 161 b/w. $50.00

SARAH C. BRETT-SMITH The Making of Bamana Sculpture: Creativity and Gender

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 352 pp.; 60 b/w ills. $95.00 ANNIE COOMBES

Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. 280 pp.; 112 b/w ills. $45.00 With a few exceptions, Africanist art histories have not taken us simultaneously (and to a sufficient depth) into the historical, productional, semantic, and circulatory universes of their objects to the extent that such universes become easily and coherently imagined. For example, our knowledge is scanty about an African work's reception and travel within its consuming local cultures, let alone the way such objects traversed the differentiated terrains of possession and control through which many objects perished, as others came to survive and rest largely within the museums of the West. African cultures, of course, know and understand themselves.l Difficulties arise when, seeking to know, our epistemology (specifically our art historiography) abuts theirs. At such a conjunction is art history's problem: whether or not the art history of Africa should simply be art ethnography,2 whether or not Africa is a feasible site for constituting art history. However, the problem itself raises troubling questions. Why is Africanist art history in need of ethnological illumination, and not, say, Western art history and its representations? Why does anthropology covet the African aestheticized object so much more than it does most other objects? Is this desire necessarily a reflection of the imago that Africa occupies institutionally, despite challenges to the view that Africa is any more strange than other places (and times)? Or, does such covetousness suggest the hardiness of humanistic studies' roots in colonialism? Is it not possible that such a desire also suggests that an anachronistic West European and American academy still seems to savor a rooting of this kind? What role is African art expected to perform within such academies? Should what would pass for African art history in an African academic location necessarily transform itself in the pedagogy of the North American and European contexts into an art anthropology? If so, why do Asianist art historians not feel equally obliged to rely on an anthropological model? Even more pointedly, what is assumed in teaching European art history to American students in the absence, relatively speaking, of an anthropological approach? Are they able to grasp, for example, the social relations of British working-class life from which emerged several of its art movements, just by reading A History of the British Working Class? Perhaps paradoxically, such questions are relevant for judging the import of the three books reviewed here. A more accurate title for Suzanne Preston Blier's African Vodun would be Fon Vod un, since the phenomenon she explores-apparently messy assemblies known variously as bocio and b0was produced in Fon-speaking Wrest Africa for several centuries and does not exist (nor is it so named where it does) across all of Africa. These nonfigural constructions (bo), typically in mixed media and often constituting a sculpted figure (bocio), are utilized for the projection of spiritual power in the service, finally, of self-(or group-)protection. Blier's project is, however, a more ambitious one than it might at first appear. She is intent on historicizing bocio and in providing an exhaustive interpretation of them. Her approach ranges from research questions framed by Freudian psychoanalytical theory, Wilhelm Dilthey's philosophy, and a plentiful use of linguistic evidence to an acute attention to bocio's materiality. In addition, readings of her objects' physicality are made across Fon conceptions of their objects' efficacy, and the centrality of aesthetics to efficacy, including an interest in the process of the objects' production. …

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