The African Masquerade

What if art is not for decoration?

Is there a difference in the way that art is valued and used in African culture?

The African-American author/poet Leroy Jones once said, accurately: “Hunting is not those heads on the wall.” In Africa, masks are the heads of spirits, part of an ensemble danced in rituals and ceremonies that get things done: move boys to become men, or move a deceased person to the land of ancestors. You will never see an African mask in its parent culture hanging on a wall for decoration. Never!

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The ancestral spirits are much more than just dead relatives, they play an active role in the daily life of the living. Believed to provide protection and guidance, there are numerous ways the ancestors communicate with the living, one of the most unique is their manifestation on earth in the form of masked spirits or sculpture.

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Figures are gods and spirits (or sometimes their devotees), not objects to be spotlighted on museum pedestals. Mostly they “live” in shrines and are often the recipients of sacrifices that, again, get things done: bring rain, children, productive fields, or settle disputes. Often they are thought of as living beings, subject to human persuasion, often through sacrificial offerings.

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In Africa, art works actively for the benefit of humankind, not as décor or a pretty painting to match the couch, not as an accessory to a decorator’s scheme for a pretty home. Art provides assistance in necessary transitions that are an important part of human life:  transitions of boys into manhood to preserve the future and viability of the tribe, transitions at death as the loved one makes a safe return to the ancestors.

The esteemed African art historian, Herbert Cole, brings THREE PRESENTATIONS to Houston to illuminate the role of art in the lives of Africans:  mother/child art that celebrates childbirth and nurture, art that helps with important transitions in life, and art that reveals archetypes that are universal in nature.  Prof. Cole was one of the first art historians that actually took the study of African art out of the halls of academia and into the field with this research among people in Africa. 

The Womb of Culture–Mother/Child Art:  The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, May 19, 6:30 pm

Rites of Passage:  African Art for Life and Afterlife: The Jung Center, May 20, 7:00 pm

Icons in African Art :  Five Universal Themes: The Women’s Institute, May 22, 4:00 pm

Join us to help close our 2014-2015 series of events with these important talks on the role of art in rituals that began in Africa and that transcend time and culture.  Call today at 713.364.6344 for tickets or more information. 

We’re grateful to Annette Bracey and Greg McCord, the Jung Center, the Women’s Institute, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston for their support of these talks.