Traditional Art of Nigeria

The human figure

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Photo: Annabelle Fouquet, Perspective



Wood, antelope skin, metal and vegetable fibers. h.: 95 CMPrivate collection

The concern of the early twentieth century artists looking at African art seems to have been essentially aesthetic. Their interest for the forms, their angularity surpassed the interest in time, place and function of the objects they gathered in their studios. This is not however what we find in the approach of the collectors whose pieces compose the exhibition at the Musée de la Civilisation. If indeed, their passion for collecting sprung from more or less a twist of fate, as they came across these objects during a trip or a longer stay on the black continent, in time and with the expansion of their collection, they have come to a balanced attention to both the aesthetic and the scholarly. Such an attention must also be given by the visitor to the exhibition in order for it to be fully profitable. The visitor’s aesthetic considerations will come from his observation of the objects and his educated comprehension from reading the labels and ideally the well documented catalogue that accompanies the exhibition.

At first glance, on can realise that, although the exhibition deals with a particular region of the continent, the large number of ethnic groups in that region explains why there is such a wide variety of objects and styles. They all display remarkable craftsmanship, an essence of design, and while some display stylised and even abstract forms, the great majority of them are realistic representations of human forms. The representation of humans, as we can see, is not necessarily proportional allowing the sculptor to emphasize certain characteristics.

There are in the exhibition several representations of women. Although African societies are essentially male dominated, a Ghanaian proverb: "A Woman is a flower in a garden, her husband is the fence around", says the importance of women in such societies. It is impossible, in the context of these chronicles to consider all of these representations, but one in particular can help illustrate a few of the points put forward

The naturalistic way in which the figure is represented is striking. We sense here, as indicated in the description, the efforts made to represent the girl’s beautiful features. But the most striking element is the elaborate hairdo that duplicates the one worn by girls at the end of their initiation period, just before they marry. The proportion of the hairdo, its four plaits reaching up in big curls tells of its importance. The descriptions of such prenuptial hairdos all insist of the fact that they take long hours to create and obey very strict rules, indicating a significance that has yet to be determined. According to some experts, such hairdos are part of a masquerade that is of secular nature which would explain why it survived the interdictions of Christian churches over the years.

Sculptures such as these originate in the Cross river area where they first appeared at the end of the nineteenth century. They have since traveled to other areas farther north and west, illustrating the common interexchange between various groups in the region.