African Masterworks in the Detroit Institute of Arts
Essays by Michael Kan and Roy Sieber
Text by David W. Penney, Mary Nooter Roberts, and Helen M.
Smithsonian Institute Press
180 pp., $34.95
The Western world's appreciation of traditional African art has
grown and deepened throughout the 20th century.
On its face, it seems ironic that this development coincides
with the disruption by foreign influence (often but not always from
the Western world) of the very African cultural beliefs and
practices that brought these "works of art" into existence in the
These outside influences - often religious and of the missionary
stripe - have been opposed to exactly the same "primitivism" (as it
is perceived by non-Africans) that appeals so strongly to the
modern Western art world.
Indeed, it was often the fact that African art was so completely
alien to Western art and its religious roots that made it seem
radical, daring, and enigmatic to 20th century pioneers of modern
art such as Matisse, Picasso, or Modigliani.
The result of one continent's long tradition appeared utterly
modern to another; it provided a basis for upsetting a tired
Yet interestingly, the fetishistic systems of African witch
doctors, for example, were as much anathema to orthodox Christian
missionaries in Africa as they are to more recent waves of
religious persuaders from the world of Islam.
As the outsiders' ideas have taken root, many of the carved
works that Africans once believed to be invested with magical
potency - either benign or malignant - have become irrelevant to
their very creators. (Although even when still considered powerful,
they were prone to be discarded - and replaced with a frank
disregard for their importance as "permanent" material objects.)
Roy Sieber, an American authority on African art, points out
that wood has long been the "medium of choice for most sculptural
art of Africa." He adds that unlike "stone or metal, wood is easy
prey to the climate and insects.
"With few exceptions, the life span of a wooden object, even
when carefully protected, was limited to a generation or two. Once
it had succumbed to the elements, it had to be replaced....
"The preciousness we attribute to the works is our evaluation,
for the African owners and users, despite their respect and often
awe of them, were more practical minded."
Sieber writes this in a thought-provoking essay for a fine book,
"African Masterworks in the Detroit Institute of Arts."
As this book's elegantly photographed and lucidly presented
plates indicate, Detroit is the proud owner of one of America's
finest collections of African art.
African art has become a subject of academic study and aesthetic
admiration in the Western world.
And the history of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection
demonstrates how attitudes have changed in the last century: What
were at first seen as "ethnographic materials" or "exotica" - the
19th century equivalent of the "curiosities" accumulated by
antiquaries and travelers in earlier centuries - have now taken
their revered place in Western art galleries such as the DIA. …