Viewing Baule Art

Review of:

Baule: African Art/Western Eyes
National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C., Feb. 7-May 9, 1999
Curator Susan M. Vogel


Deborah Wyrick

North Carolina State University

Copyright © 1999 by Deborah Wyrick, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. To reach the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) from Independence Avenue, one enters through the Enid Haupt Garden. Straight ahead, looming above formal knots of flowers, rise the neo-medieval turrets of the Smithsonian Castle; pansy baskets hanging from Victorian wrought-iron street lamps conduct museum-goers from the street to the green. On either side of this entrance stand handsome contemporary buildings of polished limestone and glass: the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art on the left, the NMAfA on the right. This highly organized entrance situates a visitor within a three-dimensional emblem of colonial history. Disciplining the view, the overdeterminedly faux-European castle, which recalls the Smithsonian Institution's foundational mimicry of Britain's Royal Geographic Society, presides over a strictly ordered architectonics, consigning the galleries enclosing imperially-acquired artifacts to the periphery of 'civilized' space.
  2. On the one hand, this entrance makes visitors complicit in a colonial vision of the world, a complicity increased by having to descend below ground in order to view exhibits at the NMAfA and the Sackler. On the other hand, experiencing colonial space is an excellent introduction to a recent show at the NMAfA, "Baule: African Art/Western Eyes." Curated by Susan M. Vogel and originating at Yale University, this is an exhibit about viewing objects in space, both the constructed spaces of a museum and the cultural spaces of indigenous use. It confronts what are becoming axiological considerations about exhibiting art from non-Western cultures, particularly 'tribal' art: the epistemological problem of extracting objects from their contexts, whereby the 'meaning' of an artifact changes radically; and the practical problem of how to design a museum exhibit to avoid replicating the colonial gaze. It does not confront, however, the political problem of having the objects at all, as in many cases their acquisition history involves colonial plunder or neo-colonial exploitation, wherein for trifling sums 'First-World' collectors buy artifacts from impoverished 'Third-World' peoples.
  3. A primary technique used to discriminate between indigenous and non-indignous viewing is the exhibit's reliance on doubled informational captions, one written by Vogel and one by Koffi Nguessan Etienne, a Baule man who assisted and translated for Vogel in the Côte d'Ivoire. At the threshold, for instance, sits a mannequin of a masked dancer in full costume, as if resting after a performance. On a near wall, Vogel's notes explain the mask's genre, provenance, and use, whereas Nguessan's comments recount his memories of such masks and the emotions they evoked. A bit farther away is a videoscreen showing the mask dancing in situ, the first of a number of videos illustrating cultural use of the artifacts on display. Such video addenda are increasingly commonplace, and welcome. Yet this exhibit, like others I've attended that include filmed ritual and performance, suffers from extremely small videoscreens that unfortunately reinforce a Western hierarchy of seeing. The objects themselves, enclosed in well-lit vitrines and surrounded by the open spaces necessary for crowd management, seem larger-than-life; the people in the films, often shrunk to a few inches high, appear as tangential footnotes to what's really important--the art object in its serene, even reverential isolation.
  4. Vogel emphasizes the material circumstances of Baule seeing more than the hermeneutic or philosophical aspects. Living in an equatorial region with twelve hours of darkness year round, in villages where electricity and eyeglasses remain rare, in a culture that regards staring as a threatening or dangerous breach of etiquette, Baule people rarely see major artworks clearly. Publicly performed masks are complicated and obscured by motion and costume; personal spirit figures and family gold objects are hidden from view; sacred masks are seen only by cult members, often at night, and their surfaces are encrusted with sacrificial materials. To suggest these conditions, the exhibit is bathed in crepuscular light reflected from the smoky mulberry and blue walls, and the interior walls have been arranged with sharp angles that obstruct room-to-room lines of sight. The embedded installations--a sacred forest shed containing bo nun amuin masks, a room for ancestral spirits, and a funeral bed arranged with gold objects and elegant cloths--are illuminated by timers that slowly bring the spaces in and out of total darkness to shadowy visibility. The exhibit's overall organization categorizes how the Baule view their art: art that is watched (e.g. festival masks), art that is glimpsed (e.g. spirit spouses), art that is observed with awe (e.g. objects used in sacred rituals), and art that is displayed (e.g.. decorated everyday implements).
  5. As early as 1930, when the ethnologist Heinrich Himmelheber proclaimed that the Baule people produced and enjoyed 'art for art's sake,' Baule art has been prized by Western collectors. In particular, the prototypical Baule carved face--in the aspect of a danced mask, spirit spouse, or ornamental detail--appealed to a deco sensibility, Man Ray's famous photograph of a white woman and a Baule mask being a case in point. The stylized mimesis and tranquil beauty of the Baule carved face contrast with more spectacularly exotic artifacts from other areas of Africa, ranging from the resolutely abstract, such as Hongwe burial figures, to the horrifically representational, such as Kongo metal 'fetishes.' It would have been helpful if this exhibit had interrogated the assumptions behind unexamined aesthetic preferences and explored the history of collecting Baule art. Did French connoisseurs and dealers value Baule artifacts more than aficienados in other countries? Was the availability of lovely but affordable small objects, like carved combs and weaving pulleys, a factor in recognizing the Baule as producers of "important" art? How did European reception of Baule art change with the putative independence of the former French colony in which Baule peoples live? When and under what conditions were threatening, non-representational Baule pieces collected? Without addressing such questions, the exhibit keeps the "Western Eyes" invoked in its title a totalized and uncontextualized notion.
  6. Nevertheless, the exhibit does allow one to indulge (guiltily?) in the splendid aesthetic delights of Baule art. Spectators familiar with some of its masterpieces, to use a resoundingly Western term, will feel the excitement of seeing 'in person' an object previously known only through photographs and the thrill of discovering new wonders, such as an intricately carved gong mallet that discloses a microcosm of human and animal activity. For the most part, the displays are excellently arranged for optimal viewing, although in a few cases the objects are so close to the vitrine's back wall that one cannot see the posterior details mentioned in the explanatory captions. As I have suggested above, the exhibit's organizational logic, spatial architecture, ethnologic materials, and double-voiced explanations admirably reinforce its focus on seeing. It makes concrete its controlling premises and, in so doing, delivers an eye-opening museum experience.
  7. For those who cannot attend the exhibit, the accompanying catalogue (Susan M. Vogel, Baule: African Art, Western Eyes [New Haven CN: Yale UP, 1997], 312 pp., US$42) may be an acceptable alternative. Organized via the same categories of Baule seeing as is the exhibit, this large-format book provides additional information about Baule culture and aesthetics, gleaned from Vogel's extensive field research and scholarship, as well as hundreds of full-color and black-and-white photographs of art objects and of Baule life. The book does not address the questions about "Western Eyes" raised above, nor does it fill a strange lacuna in Vogel's work--the virtual lack of explanation about the deep structures of Baule religious belief. It does, however, give interesting insight about cultural transmission and gendered representation (e.g., how and why a ceremony such as the Goli dance changed significance and sexually specificity upon being adopted by the Baule from the Wan, a neighboring Mande people) that are not part of the museum exhibit. Unlike many scholars of African art, Vogel does not read artifacts as texts, reconstructing and deconstructing the semiotics of shape, detail, and material; she depends instead on 'native informants' and largely synchronic cultural analysis. Whether one finds this type of ethnographic art history completely adequate is a matter of scholarly taste or conviction, but the illustrative and informative strengths of Baule: African Art, Western Eyes justify its price.

The Smithsonian Website contains quick-time images from the Baule exhibit, as well as a sample of the doubled explanations. It can be accessed at:

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