PAUL SOLMAN: A major exhibit of African art. It debuted at the Smithsonian in Washington this summer, opened in Fort Worth, Texas, in November, and will tour America and Europe for the next two years, before returning home to Belgium's Tervuren Museum, outside Brussels. Founded by King Leopold II one hundred years ago, the Tervuren boasts the world's greatest collection of Central Afican art--a quarter of a million objects, including some key works of African art history. It's been a mecca to scholars like the Dallas Museum of Art's Ramona Austin.
RAMONA AUSTIN: When I was a pre-doctoral fellow at Tervuren, the Royal Museum for Central Africa, I used to pass by this object every day, and it just knocked me out. You know, it was in such contrast to this big, colonial building. And what got me was the gesture of the object. Because you usually think of African art as static, you know just facing you frontally. But this guy was twisted around, and he had this incredible back, and you could feel the notches of his spine and that tongue that's sticking out.
African art's impact on Western art.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now for African art, as we know it, this is pretty naturalistic--as are these two Yombe masks, worn by priests to connect with the spirits of the dead, whose color is white. In Yombe culture, masks were called "ngobudi," from the word that means "a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach." There's huge range to central African art styles, no surprise since the so-called Congo region, from which most of this comes, is home to more than 250 different cultures. But the African art that so affected the West is more abstract: simple and dramatic, startling and exaggerated. Above all, this African art packed an emotional wallop. In generalizing forms and emotions, its impact became more immediate, especially on the early masters of European modernism at the turn of the century; artists like Picasso.
RAMONA AUSTIN: What it did for the modernist was to allow them to get away from realistic representation, was to give them a visual vocabulary to use. It gave an idea about how to give a psychological truth to the human form or to any other figures or to a scene that they wished to depict.
PAUL SOLMAN: Even today's cliches of modern art, remember, were breakthroughs a hundred years ago.
RAMONA AUSTIN: Edvard Munch--"The Scream"--the face is very plain; it's very simplified. There's a wonderful Luba vase that you have with the mouth open and up, and it's like it's yelling. It allows us to tell a great deal economically by taking the figure away from the realm of reality.
PAUL SOLMAN: Austin points to this Suku statue of a clan mother as a case in point: a reminder of its culture's origins, with distortions that inspired modern artists, and still have the power to impress.
PAUL SOLMAN: This is the woman.
RAMONA AUSTIN: Yes. She is the essence of womanhood. She is fertile; and she has us.
PAUL SOLMAN: So, when someone says, gee, they couldn't, you know, do naturalistic images of people; they were very primitive, you say no, no, these are abstract ideas that called for abstract means to get 'em across.
RAMONA AUSTIN: Exactly. The form that it takes really is a system of signs in the way that things were put together that can be read by the people in their society.
PAUL SOLMAN: The artists of central Africa glorified the motherness of their mothers--the chiefness of their chiefs--the blade here symbolizing the power of the chief's word--and the artists gave a grandeur to even the most workaday objects: From hair combs--to a wooden cup--to part of a bed--this from a house of seclusion in which young girls were prepared for marriage. But many of these art objects were magical more literally than western art almost ever is. These figures are what noted anthropologist Wyatt MacGaffey has called forces from the land of the dead, with actual containers for magical potions to augment their potency. Often, they are totems of revenge, nails driven into them to stick it to an enemy. The most common magical art objects of all were masks.
Two sides of the mask.
RAMONA AUSTIN: This is a mask that has two sides; it has a white side; it's the side that is of a healthy person. The black side is the side of illness. We can see the small spots where this was a victim of small pox; we can see the nose twists; we can see that the face falls and the mouth twists --this is a person who has been paralyzed. The side of the face is black because in this person's awkward, paralytic movements, the person has fallen into the fire and blackened this side of the face.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now masks like this were designed to scare you--in this case, so you'd treat handicapped people well because, hey, it could happen to you. And this mask served to frighten young candidates for manhood into respecting their elders. Unfortunately, much of the magic is lost today, at least on a Westerner like me.
PAUL SOLMAN: I feel bad sometimes when I look at an object like this that I'm not scared of it the way it was meant to make people feel when they looked at it.
RAMONA AUSTIN: That's okay.
PAUL SOLMAN: You're not scared by it?
RAMONA AUSTIN: No.
PAUL SOLMAN: Were you ever scared by it?
RAMONA AUSTIN: No. Because I find it wonderful to get into these swelling forms. And I want to understand it visually. And then I go after it intellectually. So how can you--you're not frightened by it because you get over that first fear of the unknown because there's something else far more exciting.
The other half of the story.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now as you look at this mask, from the Boa culture, I should warn you: our story is about to take a very sharp turn. Masks like this one were meant to intimidate enemies in battle. The Boa stopped making them when it became. clear the magic didn't work. "Didn't work against whom?" you might ask. Against us westerners.
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: From about 1880 on it became very clear that masks were not good protection against machine gun bullets.
PAUL SOLMAN: Journalist and author Adam Hochschild has spent the last three years researching a book about Central Africa and its colonization by Belgium's King Leopold II. He's surprised there's no mention of this history in the exhibit.
The Congo's bloody history.
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: It's a little bit as if we were in an art exhibit that the government of Germany had sent around the world of great pieces of Jewish art and sculpture but within this exhibit there was nothing said about the Holocaust. The Congo was the scene of "the" bloodiest part of the European conquest of Africa. During about a 40-year period the population of that territory was cut in half. It dropped by 10 million people.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now, the Belgian massacre wasn't the deliberate extermination of a people so much as the result of, in essence, slave labor, over an area one-fourth the size of the United States. King Leopold II conquered and bought off local chiefs, then played the major European powers against one another so he could make the Congo "Free State" his own personal, very profitable colony. Wrote a Belgian senator and reformer in. 1898, referring to the area from which these objects came: "Unceasingly we meet these porters--Black, black, black, miserable, frizzy and bare heads supporting the load. They come and go like this by the thousands, dying along the road or the journey over, heading off to die from overwork in their villages."
PAUL SOLMAN: At first, they hauled ivory, being used by African artists at the time to make icons like this Yombe clan mother, whose open mouth, it so happens, spoke to the departed dead. Then, when bicycle tires were invented, rubber was discovered growing wild in Central Africa. A man of vast appetites, Leopold wanted to get the rubber out--fast. His private army of 19,000, under white officers, would go into villages, buying slaves from local chiefs, or often simply taking women and children hostage to force the men into the forest.
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: The hostages were treated terribly. You know, the women were frequently raped. They were given nothing to eat. The men would have to go into the forest sometimes for a week, two weeks, three weeks at a time, in order to get enough rubber to, you know, meet their quotas. The whole thing was administered by the whip and gun. And then when you have a traumatized, malnourished population like that, as we know from the concentration camps, disease takes a terrible toll.
PAUL SOLMAN: The most chilling images of the atrocities became standard reformist propaganda at the turn of the century: severed right hands. Bullets, it seems, were expensive in the 1800's, to be used only to kill mutinous workers. To prove this, soldiers had to bring back a right hand for every bullet fired. Apparently, sometimes they'd miss, shoot an animal, even hoard the bullets for a mutiny of their own. So they'd chop off and deliver the right hand of a living native.
PAUL SOLMAN: So there were lots of people in the Congo at that time who had no right hand, just so that somebody could prove they hadn't wasted a bullet?
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Yes, and there are photographs of them that British missionaries took, and this was something that really shocked the world at that time.
PAUL SOLMAN: While they were doing all this, the Belgians were also bringing back objects--to them, curiosities of a primitive people. Leopold set up the museum in Tervuren in 1897 as part of a world's fair which also featured live Africans on display.
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: They set them up living in two "uncivilized villages" and one "civilized village" on the fair grounds. More than a million people came to look at these folks. Several of them died during the time that they were there. But they were basically put on exhibit as if they were animals at a zoo.
PAUL SOLMAN: Exotic curiosities. For many, that's what Africans were in the West just a hundred years ago, as was their art. And yet, the images began to take hold to suggest new ways of looking at the world, to enrich western culture, though not in the way King Leopold imagined. The West won all the battles, Ramona Austin says, but in their art, the cultures of Central Africa have managed to outlive, even transcend, the horrors they endured.
RAMONA AUSTIN: If we see Africa or other places in the world as falling to Western dominance because the Gatling gun was an invention of such destruction it allowed the Europeans to dominate in a technical way, we misunderstand what culture is all about. It's all about the nature of existence.
PAUL SOLMAN: And to Austin, the nature of existence is what this art, what all art maybe, explores--for those who are willing to take the time to explore it.