Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Cultural Encounters: Western Scholarship and Fang Statuary from Equatorial Africa

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Cultural Encounters: Western Scholarship and Fang Statuary from Equatorial Africa

Article excerpt

In this inaugural address, delivered on the acceptance of an extraordinary professorship at Tilburg University, Netherlands, in 2011, Wilfried van Damme examines three approaches that have been characteristically applied within the Western anthropology of art during the last half century. Illustrating these approaches with reference to the study of Fang statuary from equatorial Africa, he discusses a stylistic approach, focusing on anatomical details and proportions of Fang anthropomorphic sculptures; a culturalist approach, highlighting the local meaning and values these sculptures express; and a postcolonial approach, dealing with the Western appropriation and commodification of Fang statues.

Mijnheer De Rector Magnificus, Leden van het Bestuur van de Maatschappij voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek in de Tropen (Treub Maatschappij), Zeer gewaardeerde toehoorders

In his book Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration, the world historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto suggests dividing the history of humanity into two parts: divergence and convergence. Divergence refers to the gradual drifting apart of human populations, after our species, Homo sapiens, had arisen in Africa some 200,000 years ago. Human dispersal became especially marked when, more than 100,000 years later, people left the continent eventually to colonize the rest of the habitable world. The process of diver- gence takes up by far the largest part of human history. Convergence, as discussed by Fernández-Armesto, is a much more recent phenomenon, and refers to the reconnecting of human populations over ever larger distances. Initiating this coming together again of groups of humans, it is stressed, are voyages of exploration, prompted by a spirit of adventure and commerce.1

As befits a world historian, Fernández-Armesto considers the process of gradual con- vergence from a multifocal point of view, discussing the geographical explorations of, say, Chinese, Europeans, and Meso-Americans alike. Convergence not only issues from various places and dates in recent human history, but can be seen to operate on various geographical scales. When it comes to convergence on a global scale, the beginnings of this process are to be found in Europe around 1500. It is here and then that indig- enous seafarers started not only to intensify contacts with Africa, India, and China, but to connect the "Old World" with the Americas and later Australia and the island worlds of the Pacific. Human populations that had diverged sometimes tens of millennia ago were slowly beginning to be incorporated into global networks, albeit not always to their own consent, eventually leading to the degree of interconnectedness that characterizes our world today - again, not to everyone's satisfaction.

The reconnaissance of ever larger parts of the globe, wherever it was instigated, led to a substantial extension of geographical and maritime knowledge, as described by Fernández-Armesto. However, extension of knowledge also occurred on other planes. The increased spatial interconnections engendered by exploration led to a growing awareness of the existence of other peoples and their cultural traditions. This in turn prompted the slow accumulation of knowledge about these other human populations, their customs, beliefs, and cultural products. This is a process that again occurred in various places around the globe, as attested, for example, in the Islamic world, Europe, China, and Japan (Fig. 1). In some cases, the interest in other peoples and their cultures would eventually lead to asking questions about the human condition more generally. This quest for what it means to be human, which should arguably be at the forefront of the humanities today, would also profit from taking into account current insights into humans' shared bioevo- lutionary history. Indeed, no "understanding society," Tilburg University's motto, without understanding the human animals that make it up.

There does not yet exist a global history that documents and examines the ways in which disparate traditions around the world have gone about describing, analyzing, and inter- preting what from their perspective is culturally alien or unfamiliar. …

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