Masks in a Church (part 1)

De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam is the temporary home to an exhibition of masks, statutes and other works of art. From Ivory Coast. On display until February 15 next year, so there is plenty of time for you to make up your own mind. This is my take on the event. In two parts.

 

The intentions surely were beyond reproach: let’s make a presentation of “African” masks and familiarize the public with their aesthetic value, their creators and their authenticity. The event was sponsored by – among others – KPMG, an accountancy firm, the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts, the Prince Clause Foundation and two largish Dutch public broadcasters, TROS and AVRO, usually on the lighter side of entertainment. (Ironically, these two now occupy the building that was once home to Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the former Dutch international broadcaster.)

Do excellent intentions lead to excellent results? Not always. On the last day of my brief visit to The Netherlands in November I visited De Nieuwe Kerk, an austere Protestant church on Dam Square, in the heart of old Amsterdam. The church forms the backdrop for an exhibition that is entitled: Magical Africa.

That is a bit of an exaggeration. The country in question is not “Africa”, in fact it is, as the folder announces, Côte d’Ivoire, my next station. And then not even all of it: Côte d’Ivoire is the size of France and home to at least 64 languages. The subject matter of the exhibition, masks, statues and a few contemporary works of art, have been taken from four regions: the lagoon area around the largest city of Abidjan on the southern coast, the centre of the country where the second-largest city Bouaké and the capital Yamoussoukro are located, a portion of the Grand West where the Dan and the Wê live and the savannah area of the North, were the Senoufo live and were you find the town of Korhogo. That’s not “Africa”, that’s a few parts of Côte d’Ivoire. I can understand the PR value of the name but it annoys nevertheless.

Magical Africa

Even within that limited setting the differences proved to be astonishing. Compare the fear-inspiring masks that came from the forests that straddle Liberia, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire to the more tranquil poses produced in the centre. The Baulé, who live in that part of the country have been a central presence in Ivorian politics and business for many decades, dominating the plantation economy and delivering the first two heads of state after independence. Aristocracy, if you like, which predates Independence. By contrast, the Dan and the Wê in the forest have been much more marginal to political life and, in fact, have had to live with numerous groups of newcomers, driven there by French colonialists and post-independent governments. It is a political configuration that is reflected, although in different ways, in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. To my (admittedly, still Marxist) mind, at least, material culture informs artistic expression here. It is tempting to call the forest masks “raw” and the central statues “refined” but that feeds into another issue that I will deal with later. Suffice for now that what is missing from the exhibition, as with so much Africa reporting, is context.

Well, there is some, in the anthropological sense of the word. We see words like “Dan”, Sénoufo”, “Baulé” and “Lobi” hung like neon signs over the various carefully assembled works of art and explanations are offered about their functions and their makers. Fair enough. But what does that do with the viewer? Not unreasonably, the viewer will associate a particular work of art with a particular people from a particular region. And will freeze those in time. Again, it stands to reason that this happens but anyone who has ever been to Côte d’Ivoire knows that, self-declared or ascribed origins apart, these monikers are essentially meaningless. There is probably not a single Ivorian alive who can claim to be a 100% pure and undiluted member of any “tribe”. The French word for this mixed state of affairs is brassage and it is a reality inside the borders and indeed across them.

“Tribe”, “origin” or indeed “Ivorianness” (or Ivoirité, as it was called) only becomes an issue when it is turned into a instrument in the hands of unscrupulous politicians on the prowl for cheap and easy vote winners. Toxification of the political debate is the inevitable result, as anyone witnessing the arrival of the Geert Wilders Dog & Pony Show in The Netherlands can testify. The same happened in Côte d’Ivoire in the 1990s. Suddenly people became the champions of the Wê, the Bété, the Baulé, or indeed The True Ivorians.

So my problem here is the essentialism: this is how the Sénoufo portray people during particular festivities or rites. This is how the People Around The Lagoon do things. Reality is a lot more fluid (what to think, for instance, of the Sénoufo who live in the Grand West, or the giant melting pot known as Abidjan?). It is of course a major challenge to point that out during an exhibition and the curators did find at least one credible way around that problem. More on that in the second and final part.

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