|View of The Eiteljorg Suite of African and Oceanic Art. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art|
I loved these two realistic, female forms with their empty, outstretched hands, the one standing, the other kneeling on a base with a fish, as if by a riverside awkwardly depicted by a carver. Too beautifully modeled to be beggars, perhaps they were religious suppliants, I wondered? Quite the opposite, the notes informed me: They are deities. For some people, it is quite natural that they look exactly like human women. The standing figure apparently would be kept in a shrine. Her image is thought to protect and heal those who make sacrifices to her. The kneeling water deity expects to have her hands filled with offerings.
This extraordinary head crest made by the Efik people of Nigeria left me completely agape with its weirdness and beauty. The tough extravagance of the hide-wrapped horns that grow from this small head exquisitely inlaid with marquetry designs makes it hard to believe one's eyes. A label suggests that this represents a "spiraling hairstyle." My own reaction though, made me laugh remembering David Small's book that my children and I loved, Imogene's Antlers. It's the story of a girl who wakes up one morning to find that she's sprouted an antler rack of stunning size, and that it's real. She takes it in stride, leaving those around her to find ways to cope. In the Museum, we can elect to be either Imogene or her fainting mother, appalled by the very sight.
A Yoruba men's society fashioned a phenomenal headdress in the early 20th century, the Magbo Society Mask. The Magbo Society enforces community penalties but also insures burial for every member of the society, regardless of rank or wealth. The mask, therefore, is decorated with thirteen figures that represent the many kinds of people that constitute the community: a soldier, a farmer, musician, and nursing mother among them.
Hinge-jawed masks from the Ogoni people of Nigeria are character studies that focus on unique features and attitudes. A cap mask from Cameroon, made of wood, pigment, shells, hair and various fibers, has no realistic features, but to the people who made it, it clearly represents a king: Note the beard and the extravagant use of prized cowrie shells.
One of Harrison Eiteljorg's most beloved objects was a mask from the We people of the Ivory Coast, composed of wood and cloth, nails, shells, used cartridges, leopard teeth, porcupine quills, fur, pigment, and on and on. Were it not in a case but still in the world, each generation would add yet more to it, for the idea is that such a mask enters the world as a piece of wood that accretes offerings forever, gaining potency with each generation's enhancements. The idea is that it embodies forest spirits that become accessible through dreams. It could have been a model for Maurice Sendak's wild things, a sort of benign, protective terror.
For me, the Eiteljorg African galleries are a wonderland where the real world of a century we've just left is treated with joy and reverence; where nature and humankind are presented in myriad ways, each one observant, penetrating, and packed with meaning. The abundance of points of view, the multitude of solutions to the same practical and design problems (how to make a pipe; how to indicate the presence of royalty) fill me with the delight of pure abundance.
|man's hat, Pokot people, Kenya|
The innumerable worlds of Africa merely hinted at within these rooms in Indianapolis make this viewer long not only for modern Africa, but for the the world I never notice around me for lack attention and imagination—how it sifts and drifts around me, perhaps changing form and color, animated with wonder back behind the squawk of the alarm clock and the aggravating sequence of traffic lights.
|kind feminine spirits|
Photographs by the author of materials on display in the Eiteljorg Galleries of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.