Happy #BlackHistoryMonth everybody! This week’s post was inspired by a reading I had in my English Class. We had been reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad which has been criticized for its racist remarks against Africans. One of the most notable critics of this book was Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. In 1975, he spoke in a lecture, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” about Conrad’s novella and called it “an offensive and deplorable book” that dehumanized Africans.
One of the things that Achebe talked about in this lecture was about the revolution of twentieth century art. This revolution was due to the influence of African art, particularly the masks of the Fang people. A mask that was made by the Fang people had been given to French painter Maurice de Vlaminck who proceeded to show it to Derain, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse who were all greatly influenced by the style. This event marks the start of cubism and the infusion of new life into European art. Picasso in particular blended the highly stylized treatment of the human figure in African sculptures with post-Impressionist styles. References to some of the African masks he had seen are perpetuated throughout his works.
These artists did not know the original meaning and function of the Central African sculptures. Going further, Picasso even denied that he had been inspired by African art. Credit must be given where credit’s due; we must celebrate the works of the Fang people.
The Fang people practice a cult devoted to ancestor lineages also known as the bieri, whose aim is to both protect themselves from the deceased and to recruit their aid in matters of daily life. The wooden sculptures were influenced by the style of the bieri, or ancestor sculpture. The bieri would be consulted before an important event, like when the village was to be relocated, before going hunting, fishing, or to war. These figures exemplify all the qualities that the Fang admire in people—tranquility, vitality, and the ability to hold opposites in balance. In the above picture, this is shown through the juxtaposition between the “large head of an infant and the fully developed body of an adult, and its static symmetrical pose and passive expressionless face are counterbalanced by the tension of bulging muscles (source: metmuseum.org).” These attributes also emphasizes the group’s continuity with its ancestor and with the three classes of the society: the unborn, the living, and the dead.
Here are some ways to celebrate the rest of Black History Month! Remember, that learning and further educating ourselves about Black History is every day, 365 days a year!