African Art and the Colonial Encounter: Inventing a Global Commodity

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Focusing on the theme of warriorhood, Sidney Littlefield Kasfir weaves a complex history of how colonial influence forever changed artistic practice, objects, and their meaning. Looking at two widely diverse cultures, the Idoma in Nigeria and the Samburu in Kenya, Kasfir makes a bold statement about the links between colonialism, the Europeans' image of Africans, Africans' changing self representation, and the impact of global trade on cultural artifacts and the making of art. This intriguing history of the interaction between peoples, aesthetics, morals, artistic objects and practices, and the global trade in African art challenges current ideas about artistic production and representation.

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Introduction: Colonial Power and Aesthetic Practice

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Introduction

COLONIAL POWER AND AESTHETIC PRACTICE

A Masai warrior is a fine sight. Those young men have, to the utmost extent, that particular form of intelligence that we call chic:—daring, and wildly fantastical as they seem, they are still unswervingly true to their own nature … and their weapons and finery are as much a part of their being as are a stag’s antlers.

—ISAK DINESEN, Out of Africa (1937)

The South was, for the most part, held in thrall by Fetish worship and the hideous ordeals of witchcraft, human sacrifice and twin murder. The great Ibo race to the East of the Niger… and their cognate tribes had not developed beyond the stage of primitive savagery.

—FREDERICK LUGARD, “Report on the Amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria” (1919/1968)

Where does the new come from in an artist’s practice? In this book, I explore an unexpected source, colonial authority, and trace the ways widely different late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European impressions of Kenya and Nigeria and the subsequent British colonizing policies toward their imperfectly understood subject peoples intervened in and transformed the objects and practices of two groups of African artists. Equally, this book is about the ways those artists—sculptors and smiths—reinvented these objects and created a new artisanal practice. Because the two cultures, Idoma in Nigeria (one of Lugard’s “cognate tribes”) and Maa-speaking Samburu in Kenya, are geographically remote and superficially very different, the common thread of the institution of warriorhood helps weave the comparison. At a more immediate level, this book is also about real people—the warriors, the artists, and the blacksmiths—and how they strategized and made choices to circumvent the authority of colonial rule and to create new forms.

 

1. Maa Warriorhood and British Colonial Discourse

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MAA WARRIORHOOD AND BRITISH COLONIAL DISCOURSE

If ever the dreams of European colonists are realised in Central Africa it will, without doubt, be on those portions of the Leikipia and Kenia [Kenya] plateau which are between 5,000 and 7,000 feet above the sea-level.

LUDWIG VON HÖHNEL, Discovery of Lakes Rudolf and Stefanie (1894)

The vultures are dropping on the Pinguan to eat one loved by the people of Nairobi.

—Song of Samburu warriors after the Powys murder, quoted in Atieno Odhiambo “‘The Song of the Vultures’: Concepts of Kenyan Nationalism Revisited” (1973)

The Samburu (Lokop)1 are Maa-speaking pastoralists who herd cattle, sheep, goats, and sometimes camels in the remote mountain fastnesses, temperate highlands, and hot dry lowlands of the Great Rift Valley corridor and its surrounding ranges south and east of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.2 Their social relations are structured and mediated by an age-grade system in which formal warriorhood occupies an extended period of up to fourteen years between the major life-cycle transitions of circumcision and marriage.3 It is a stage of life that is not only ritually marked but sharply focused on body arts and weaponry as highly visible and volatile metaphors for virility and bravery. Admired by their girlfriends and indulged by their mothers, these young moran4 exist in a state of tension and rivalry with both the warriors of unallied Samburu sections and the older age-sets of men who have left warrior status for a more sober and powerful (but considerably less glamorous) elderhood.

 

2. Idoma Warriorhood and the Pax Britannica

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IDOMA WARRIORHOOD AND THE PAX BRITANNICA

Ichahoho olébè òche (Ichahoho eats [the meat of] human beings)!

—War cry formerly sung by the Ichahoho mask, Ekpari clan, Akpa District

By contrast with that of the East African pastoralists, Idoma warriorhood in central Nigeria was inscribed within a much more widespread and formulaic colonizing discourse: barbarism that had to be eradicated in order to bring civilization in Africa. David Livingstone, the nineteenth century’s most popular explorer-missionary, summed up the more benign representation of this civilizing mission: “We come upon them as members of a superior race and servants of a God that desires to elevate the more degraded portions of the human family” (Jeal 1973, 382).1 Frederick Lugard, the great architect of British colonial policy, justified colonization much more graphically fifty years later:

The South [in Nigeria] was, for the most part, held in thrall by Fetish worship and the hideous ordeals of witchcraft, human sacrifice, and twin murder. The great Ibo race to the East of the Niger … and their cognate tribes [e.g., Idoma] had not developed beyond the stage of primitive savagery. In the West, the Kingdom of Benin—like its counterpart in Dahomey—had up to 1897 groaned under a despotism which revelled in holocausts of human victims for its Fetish rites. (Lugard 1919/1968, 56)

 

3. Colonial Rupture and Innovation: The Colonizer as Inadvertent Patron

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COLONIAL RUPTURE AND INNOVATION: THE COLONIZER AS INADVERTENT PATRON

Narrating warriorhood in early colonial Kenya and Nigeria invoked parallel stories of what the British referred to as “spear-blooding” and “headhunting.” In both situations, the British colonial administration directly intervened to contain (in Samburu) or suppress (in Idoma) a cultural practice that seemed to flagrantly undermine what the colonizers saw as their civilizing mission. I now take up the backstory, which is about the spears and the heads and their own subsequent transformations, for what they reveal about the capacity of colonialism to affect artisanal practice. Far from suppressing the inventiveness or creativity of blacksmiths and woodcarvers, colonial interventions unintentionally stimulated it. Quite simply, while literary representations and informal discourse both reflected and influenced colonial policy, those policies often misfired, and what began as an attempt to coerce or control was either impossible to implement or contained internal spaces and contradictions that allowed unintended and unforeseen results to emerge. This was the case for both the Samburu spear ban and the banning of Idoma war dances that used skulls.

 

4. Samburu Smiths, Idoma Maskmakers: Power at a Distance

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SAMBURU SMITHS, IDOMA MASKMAKERS: POWER AT A DISTANCE

There is a creative tension between representation1 (a likeness called up in the mind by description) and identity (the condition of being something described or asserted): the first is used to construct the second. But since identity is partly self-constructed and partly fabricated by others (e.g., Waller 1993, 300), its corresponding representations may be very different. I begin with this simple observation because as a witness to the lives of Samburu blacksmith (lkunono) families and therefore one who is exposed daily to their representations of themselves, I continue to find it very difficult to reconcile these with the representations of lkunono proffered by nonsmiths, especially in the descriptions recorded by Europeans at the time of initial contact. This chapter attempts to explain these disparities and connect them directly to the power and creativity of Samburu smiths. I then apply some of the observations about cultural separation and distancing, both self-proclaimed and externally imposed, to Idoma maskmakers, some of whom are sculptors and others ritual tailors of ancestral masquerades.

 

5. Mask and Spear: Art, Thing, Commodity

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MASK AND SPEAR: ART, THING, COMMODITY

Material objects are chains along which social relationships run.

—E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer (1940)

Every material object is constituted as an object of discourse.

—Christopher Tilley, “Michel Foucault: Towards an Archaeology of Archaeology” (1990)

OBJECTS AS TEXTS

In this chapter I reach the core of the book’s second and more aesthetically focused set of arguments, which concern the interpretations, both indigenous and exogenous, of the masks and spears of my historical narrative. In earlier chapters (1 and 2), I argued that missionaries’ and explorers’ accounts, novels, the popular press, and colonial government reports created a discursive field around the institutions and practices of warriorhood in what became the British colonies of Nigeria and Kenya. The inscriptions were very different in the two locales and resulted in markedly dissimilar governing policies. And because these policies had a direct effect upon artisanal practice related to warriorhood, I have argued that they inadvertently set the conditions for artistic and technical innovation. Because the Idoma and Samburu cultural scripts were very divergent, innovation meant something different in each case: the transformation of a mask genre for the Idoma and the opening up of the smith’s previously limited spear repertory for the Samburu. In the next section (chapters 3 and 4), I turned to a closer scrutiny of the power and limitations of the Idoma sculptor and the Samburu smith within a larger cultural script of African practice. But the argument cannot end there, because although I have traced the innovations in certain kinds of objects as they relate to a repertory and practice, I have not looked at them as visual texts. To understand the place these objects have come to inhabit in an externally structured art-world or material-culture concept, one has to trace the variations in ways they have been talked and written about in the colonial and postcolonial spaces they have inhabited.

 

6. Warrior Theatre and the Ritualized Body

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WARRIOR THEATRE AND THE RITUALIZED BODY

The body of a warrior is both an aesthetic locus and a site of signification, bridging what often appears to be a conceptual discontinuity by blurring the structurally imposed boundary between nature (the body experienced as an anatomical fact) and culture (the body as aesthetic object and signifier). Moving from artisan back to warrior again, this chapter explores the issue of how not only certain objects (masks, spears) but also the decorated, mutilated, or sexually androgynous body as an artifact of culture acquires meaning in relationship to the institution of warriorhood. Both Idoma and Samburu warriors were deeply enmeshed in their own ritual systems and their respective systems of objects that structured cultural practice at the beginning of the twentieth century. These two systems were linked through a series of performative practices that included dancing and masquerading for the Idoma, dances and lmugit ceremonies for the Samburu, and of course warfare itself, also a type of performance. The most ritually marked objects were (at least so far in this reading) Samburu spears and Idoma enemy heads and mimetic carved representations of such heads.

 

7. Idoma Sculpture: Colonialism and the Market for African Art

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IDOMA SCULPTURE: COLONIALISM AND THE MARKET FOR AFRICAN ART

The next two chapters describe the bridging from the colonial to the postcolonial phase in the trajectories of certain objects as they became collectible commodities. But first I clarify what I mean here by “the postcolonial” as a historical phase versus an experiential condition, how clearly it can be distinguished from the late colonial, and whether this is even a right way to characterize the changes I am describing in the African art world. There is a qualitative difference between using “postcolonial” as a temporal marker meaning “after formal colonialism ended” and using “postcolonial” as an intellectual construct involving a broad new kind of consciousness, a stepping away from one’s old identity as colonial subject and adoption of a critical stance toward the colonial experience. Today this second sense of postcoloniality is fading into abstraction as the colonial experience has become less personal and more remote in time and is morphing, often due to migration (Papastergiadis 2000), into the African artist’s experience of an expanded horizon in a global cultural field (Liep 2001, 46). For the Samburu pastoralists, these migrations are a new form of seasonal transhumance without cattle and, like the experiences of more urban Africans, they involve encounters with strangers and their ideas. But Idoma artisanal practice has remained largely local and rural so that the second sense of the postcolonial as a form of changed subjectivity is a mantle to be worn lightly, if at all.

 

8. Samburu Encounters with Modernity: Spears as Tourist Souvenirs

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SAMBURU ENCOUNTERS WITH MODERNITY: SPEARS AS TOURIST SOUVENIRS

This chapter concerns the interplay between commodified and noncommodified forms and the situating of Samburu cultural practice within the creative tension between representation and identity. The souvenir, an object that both represents and identifies, operates at the intersection of memory and experience. More specifically, souvenirs commodify a particular type of memory associated with the tourist experience, which in Kenya is centered on the safari.1

SAFARI TOURISM AND THE SAMBURU

The way the process of cultural commodification took hold was very different in British-held East and West African colonies. While West Africa, and especially Nigeria after the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897, became a major site of specimen-collecting by museums of ethnology, East Africa instead became a safari destination. Beginning with Teddy Roosevelt’s legendary elephant-hunting safari early in the century, affluent foreigners journeyed to Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika to hunt among the vast herds of wild game and the spectacular landscape of snow-capped mountains (Mt. Kenya, Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Rwenzoris) that frame the two branches of the Great Rift Valley.

 

9. Samburu Warriors in Hollywood Films: Cinematic Commodities

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SAMBURU WARRIORS IN HOLLYWOOD FILMS: CINEMATIC COMMODITIES

Prior to the 1970s, the Samburu living in the closed Northern Frontier District of Kenya were known only to their fellow pastoralists and a few district administrators and traders. Like Papua New Guinea highlanders, their entry into the global flow is recent, so their exoticism quotient is still high. The way they have been represented in commercial feature films and some of the ways the Samburu have learned through this experience to trade on their own commodification form two aspects of a complex story. In addition, Samburu perceptions of the films and their making were markedly different from those of the filmmakers, and I examine these contrasts in interpretation for what they reveal about cultural identity and its volatility.

DREAMS AND GHOSTS, MAU MAU, AND BASKETBALL

In Justin Cartwright’s 1993 novel Masai Dreaming, the protagonist-author is in East Africa researching and writing a film script about the incommensurate lives of Claudia, an ill-fated young French Jewish anthropologist in the early 1940s and her equally ill-fated Maasai lover, Tepilit. The writer discovers that Claudia’s legitimacy among the Maasai with whom she lived was undermined by an accident involving an American film crew and a staged lion hunt that went tragically wrong and resulted in the death of two warriors and a major fight between two Maasai sections.

 

Reprise: The Three C’s: Colonialism, Commodities, and Complex Representations

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Reprise

THE THREE C’S: COLONIALISM, COMMODITIES, AND COMPLEX REPRESENTATIONS

It remains to summarize these changing representations and practices within the particular historical circumstances the book describes. There were many colonialisms operating simultaneously in sub-Saharan Africa following its partition among the European powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. British colonial policy, following the implementation of Lord Lugard’s mandate for indirect rule after World War I, was less intrusive than most. Throughout most of the colonial period, the whole of Nigeria was administered by a corps of about 200 district officers (Smith 1968). Local rulers were expected to continue to govern their subjects as they had before and at the same time recognize the overarching authority of the British administration. Kenya, which had few towns or precolonial governing structures, had to be administered by direct rule implemented by about the same number of officers (Gavaghan 1999). “Native custom” was to be respected as long as it did not interfere seriously with what the British saw as their civilizing mission. Unlike French colonial policy, which assumed that Africans, when properly educated and enculturated, could become black Frenchmen, British policy was based on the racial assumptions that the African was too different from the European to ever assimilate European culture beyond formal changes and that any attempts in that direction could only result in a cruel parody (see Joyce Carey’s Mr. Johnson). This had very important implications for the rate at which change took place, since it left the institutions intact that directed and regulated life at the local levels.

 

Coda: From Spears to Guns in the North Rift

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Coda

FROM SPEARS TO GUNS IN THE NORTH RIFT

This book has asked: What happens to a complex representation when the cultural script undergoes a major change? The original context was British colonialism, but just such a thing has occurred again during the decade in which this book was researched and written. In this last section, I attempt an updated reading on the fighting spear in Samburu culture, the evidence for which comes from reports on the radio, on the Internet, and in newspapers and from first-hand accounts within Samburu District.

In Idomaland, it took the Pax Britannica and the banning of headhunting in 1917 to aestheticize and memorialize warriorhood and turn a disappearing supply of enemy crania into carved representations and a war dance into a masquerade. Nearly a century later, Samburu warriorhood is still a recognized and clearly marked stage of life, but in the past decade its main symbol, the spear, has begun to undergo a similar kind of transformation.

 

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