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The Status of the Sculptor in black Africa

  • For the statues

As we saw in the chapter “Art and Society” on art-africain.fr, sculptors took over from the divine healers to give visible form corresponding to one of the numerous genies or spirits that inhabited the African imagination.

The divine healer gave his patient all the necessary instructions to pass on to the sculptor in order for him to officiate. This was rarely a question of art, the sculptor was ofen just an artisan creating a statue that had a purpose, efficient in relation to the objective fixed by the diviner. The main goal was, most of the time, not to create an object that could be admired, but rather a medium susceptible in welcoming the genie or spirit into its midst, to attract it, seduce it, soothe it.

The sculptor was not trying to imitate nature. He was looking to create a new form that would be able to capture the wild energies of the genies and render them favorable to the group or person. The sculptor called upon his unconscious when creating a statue.

However, the sculptor did not have complete freedom; he had to respect the myths, the traditions of representation linked to the rites of each cult. The statue had to correspond to the supposed desires of the genies and the ancestors in order for them to agree be incarnated by it. In the case of the Baoule people from the Ivory Coast, generally sensitive to beauty, even a statue destined for a genie that was supposedly ugly must be beautiful, so that he would be flattered and thus accept to be incarnated by it.

Finally the work had to be accepted by the commissioner. He was capable in any case, of recognizing the esthetic quality of the statue which would bring esteem for both its sculptor and its owner.

Sometimes there was  both harsh and ongoing competition amongst clients to obtain the services of a reputed artist and use his work to raise their own prestige. Rivalries between Bamara blacksmiths went as far as using poison or witchcraft to destroy a rival’s family. Neither did they hesitate using slander to demolish the privileged relationships that existed between the blacksmith and his clients.


  •  For the masks : 

Very often, masks were created by a professional sculptor, who was never a woman, always a man. Generally they did not participate in the dances. Sometimes however, it was the dancer himself that created the mask. The form of a mask is traditional, timeless. On the Ivory Coast for example, if a mask was damaged or destroyed a small replica would be made to temporarily house the mask’s spirit. This spirit then revealed itself in a dream, to a future dancer who would place an order with a sculptor for the new mask. Professional or not, the sculptor had to conform to the existing model. He worked in great secret as the mask was not conceived as a creation of man. A supernatural origin was always given, found in the bush or provided by a spirit a very long time ago. Despite the importance given to all the preparations, it was only its first appearance in public, with the appropriate ritual that gave the mask its sacred character. Up until then, it wasn’t necessary to take particular precautions when handling the mask as it hadn’t yet acquired its powerful occult charge


  • Common to both Masks and Statues :

The sculptor was almost always a professional that had been an apprentice for between 6 – 10 years in order to prepare for the taboos, dangers, responsibilities and rights inherent in their profession. He would have been about thirty. At the end of his apprenticeship, an African artist had acquired a dexterity that equaled his vision. This meant that he was capable of sculpting directly, without any preliminary sketches, because from the outset he had a remarkable perception of the finished object. It was not unheard of for an extremely talented youngster to skip some years of training.  However, whether he stayed with his master or went out on his own it was unthinkable for him to be asked to undertake a sculpture that was destined for use by men of a superior age range. According to the region, he might be a blacksmith as well as fulfilling religious and social functions. Generally, these artistic activities were a sideline but nevertheless a source of revenue that often went beyond the principal profession of farming. In numerous ethnic groups, the responsibility of being an artist was passed down through the family. However, there were security valves, despite tradition. For example, the Senufu, who decided that if the young heirs lacked talent, the artist instructor could bring in distant cousins as apprentices instead. In other ethnic groups such as the Dan, Tshokwe, or the Igbo, a sculptor always become so as a vocation and by the recognition of his talent.

When  demand was great, a professional sculptor would have had a real workshop with workers and apprentices, especially if he had occasion to make objects for the surrounding populations, a case more frequent than might be believed and which also had an impact on stylistic exchange.

Often the sculptor said that the form of a mask or statue appeared to him during a dream, or a walk in the forest, at the instigation of a spirit. Throughout the working process of transforming this vision into reality, the sculptor had to carry out certain rites and remain in a state of purity.

The artist was conscious of the religious value of his work. Working in isolation, he often submitted himself to periods of fasting or sexual abstinence, his work sometimes accompanied by song and sacrifice.

In practice, the sculptor chose the tree that best corresponded to the work that he was making, and  cut the trunk. Where need be, he carried out rites to avoid angering the genies of the tree. The greater the importance of the statue in religious terms, the more the sculptor adhered rigidly to the rules of the fabrication process. The sculptor roughly hewed a block of wood and divided it, for a statue, in main masses: head, body, legs. He then drew out more precise forms (for example the elements of the face) and sculpted them in detail. Next the piece was polished, blackened or painted. The first phase required an axe. An adze was needed for the next three stages, and a knife and abrasive material for the last.

The heavy burden of tradition, but which still allowed for artistic innovation.

African sculpture was an art created without rough sketches, without studies or preparatory drawings. From the offset, sculptors had a remarkable vision of the finished object. They went directly from perception to execution, and the speed of delivery of an object to its commissioner was staggering. The judgment was often immediate and definitive. In reality, two forces were present in the creation of a traditional African sculpture: the style defined by the function of the object, and the personal vision of the sculpture. Despite the pressure of tradition, which wiped out  within the Baoule group any attempt at originality or development  there existed ‘rebel’ artists amongst certain ‘more flexible’ ethnic groups , that knew how to integrate new esthetic solutions for particular occasions, such as : the renewal of a cult, the variation of a myth, emigration, alliances, social conflict.

The distortions or awkwardness sometimes spotted in a sculpture through a Western eye, were not the fruit of inexperience, but rather the result of a desire to represent a form susceptible in satisfying a spirit, and not one of faithfully reproducing human nature.

The names of past sculptors are almost wholly unknown; however, some did gain a certain recognition in the past, and obtained commissions in villages that were often far from their own. Some might have rich clients who bought objects for their pleasure or who wanted to strengthen their reputation with possessing magnificient objects executed by famous sculptor.