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            African Mirror, An Essay by Paul Rossi

Songye Community Fetish, named Lupika
Dimondstein Tribal Arts Collection
  The masks and statuary that one sees here are part of an ageless and unbroken tradition of objects created throughout human history and across many cultures that reflect the need for identity, continuity, and beauty as we go through times of transition and transformation in our lives. Although diverse in origin and purpose, they all address some spiritual or social need.

  The interior lives of these objects and their original uses have been my central concern as I was assembling this show. For several years now my good friend, Willy Okwerekwu, who is Igbo, and I have discussed and compared Western aesthetics and the Igbo concept of juju or interior power in the objects. Although Christian and western-educated, Willy sees into an entirely different world in the presence of these objects. We might call this world magic—for him it is part of the complex flow of daily life. There is something very holistic and healthy about how he sees, and I thought of this as I chose the pieces for this exhibit. Aesthetics and taste did play their part, but each piece spoke to me at a level different from that of aesthetic response. Each had, as it were, a different song or resonance. Hopefully, the understanding that I’ve learned from Willy has guided me in the choices here.

  I, NOT I

  The title for the exhibit came to me as I was researching the two Igbira masks in the show (#33 and #55), notably the awesomely ferocious mask from the Dimondstein Collection (#55). Ekuecici, “slave (or servant) of the dead”, is the name given to the apparition wearing the mask. This mask accompanies another masquerader who personifies a recently deceased person from the Igbira community. The Ekuecici is a violent manifestation that protects the passage for the dead. While the other dancer representing the deceased is shrouded in white and moves gracefully and languidly through the village, the Ekuecici is armed with clubs and acts to guard the deceased, beating bystanders caught in its way or destroying dwellings or other structures interfering with the movement of the dead. The dancer is in a trance, and has given up his identity, his “I”, to become the mask. The trance is part of the sacred nature of the masquerade, bringing the dancer beyond the everyday limits of his life and activities. The dancer may also chew on a hallucinogenic root, intensifying the trance and bringing him to the edge of the spirit world. In any case this altered state will transform him—fill him with the nearly super-human stamina and strength that the Ekuecici represents. The masquerade is a very treacherous time for the masquerader as he risks being possessed by a violent or evil spirit while he is in the trance.

Senufo Mask
Charles & Blanche Derby Collection

  Who then is the Ekuecici? A man in a trance? Is he himself? Was he himself before? Many of these objects make clear the fact that the question of identity, of “I”, is constantly being redefined. Is it our individual identity or the identity of a mask, transcending life and death, which is greater? If a man becomes a mask, can we say that the mask is just a man? The “I” from his daily life is gone and he has become another, something super-real, comprised of an emotional force woven together from all members of the community. The Ekuecici is a physical manifestation of the anger that accompanies the grief surrounding the death and loss. The focus this mask brings to the funerary ceremony serves to purge the community of this anger and restore a balance as the deceased is ushered into the next world. With the restitution of psychic balance brought by the mask’s appearance continuity is assured within the community.

  From the earliest times, the creation of objects has contributed to our sense of identity, allowing us to produce an exterior “other” which acts as a mirror to give us a more multi-facetted awareness of self. If self-confirmation is part of the creation of a sacred object, then the use of these objects ritually can be a way to validate the community’s identity. As they touch on questions of existence that concern us all, their eloquence becomes universal.

  The rituals help to maintain a continuity which flows like a great river for generations. Linking past, present and future together into one endless whole, individuals within the culture are assured of survival beyond the limits of mortal life as death is seen as a transitory phase in the circular movement of existence.

  At death one enters into the pantheon of the ancestors, living in the spirit world, venerated by the living, interacting with both. An individual’s place in the universal order is assured. The understanding of the overlapping of generations that this represents cannot be underestimated. Just as we are composed of bits of genetic material inherited from past generations, we also possess inherited remnants of psychic or psychological materials. Who then can say that any of us are not in some way in contact with our ancestors on a daily basis? This is understood and lived by most of the cultures in sub-Saharan Africa, where time is circular, and not linear. Modern Western psychotherapy often probes into issues inherited from family history. By fully recognizing and incorporating an understanding of these relationships into the structures of daily life and focusing on them in many rituals, these ethnic groups often have a more holistic view of life. I would also say they have a more realistic view of life as all of these elements, still subject to debate in the post-Freudian West, are regularly parts of their daily interactions.

  Many rituals are performed for the ancestors since elements of their lives, now past, still need present attention and resolution. In this way it is recognized that the ancestors are still very much alive and part of daily life. Are we not, then, ourselves and our ancestors as well? By extension, the destinies of our children are being written by our actions and choices, even before their birth. Where, then, does the story of their lives begin? In many cultures a new-born child is greeted as a returning ancestor. There is neither birth nor death if there is the continuity of the circular flow of time.

  Individual identity should not be considered as separate from cultural identity. In cultures throughout sub-Sahara Africa, this is also reinforced by the secret societies. Generally each ethnic group has several of these societies, which are usually sexually segregated and often age-related. They maintain the traditions and practices by which a given culture identifies itself, and serve many purposes within the culture. These can include, for example, educating members of the community during the adolescent rites of passage, healing and shamanism, war-making, and consolidating various sacred or secular powers within the community.

  These societies, such as the Poro society which is located throughout Liberia, Sierra Leone, and other countries in western Africa, often include many ethnic groups. So for example, a Poro initiate from the Dan culture would be welcomed and treated as a brother by initiates of the Poro among the Toma were he to travel in Toma country.

  I AS I

  Many of the objects in this exhibit were made specifically to represent someone as they lived or to honor their place in a society. Additional attributes on the carvings, such as the dignity of a posture or the accompanying elements or emblems on a statue, served as devices to illustrate and impart important qualities or lessons in life. As these were cultures with oral and not written traditions, the significance of this should not be overlooked.

  The Dogon Maternity Figure (#44) was probably carved for the woman portrayed to mark some significant event in her life. The statue was either buried with her when she died, or placed in a closed shrine of some sort. Both the burial sites and the burial shrines of the Dogon are found in caves high in the cliff walls of the Bandiagara plateau, which is the prominent geological feature in Dogon country. The statue bears this out as it has the type of patina one sees on statues that have spent extended periods of time covered in bat guano, which preserves and dries the wood. She is represented at her most regal and beautiful. Note the grace of the pose, the high firm breasts and youthful line and the feeling of calm and centeredness. She holds a child, indicating the significance of childbearing both for her and for the culture. The love and care of children represented here is the great untold story of history, far more important in shaping human destiny than wars, conquests, or trade routes. In these cultures motherhood is an occupation of great importance and honor.

  Does the Kongo shaman’s statue (#8), chewing a hallucenogenic root and standing astride his dog, (the animal that is the interlocutor to the spirits), represent him as he travelled to the spirit world? Did looking at this statue validate his identity and reinforce his courage as he undertook this most perilous voyage?

  The hunter’s shirt (#59) is woven with visible and invisible signs of his lifelong and dangerous journey. Each object represents an aspect of his wisdom, insight and understanding of the powers and dangers in the African bush. His death was never further away than the thickness of this shirt, which represented his wisdom, knowledge, humility and power. Hunters throughout sub-Saharan Africa occupy positions of great importance and respect.


  In all cultures myths form the architecture by which a society is structured. Indeed they are the foundation of the material reality of a culture. Villages are physically shaped by myth, and myth is shaped by the earth itself. Many of the mythologies of the peoples represented in this exhibit speak of our place in the cosmos and the responsibilities we have in maintaining universal order.

  Dance and ritual in these cultures are seen as necessary in maintaining cosmic order and helping the universe continue. The creation of the world was not an act of the past but is an ongoing event in which we all have our place, our part, and our responsibilities. These people do not see their identity as separate from the identity of the world at large, elements of which flow through all parts of humanity’s spiritual make-up. The objects we humans make also reflect an elemental need for beauty. Beauty, so essential in our lives, has eluded definition. Yet by its presence or absence a culture is largely measured. Great military or economic forces may come and go and have their influence on history. But what touches us most is the vitality and immediacy of the beauty left by a people. Through the work of art we can be brought into the presence of a person or society long since gone as if they were alive and with us.

  The Bamana doorlock (#45) is a good example of the interwoven aspects of beauty, identity, and continuity in everyday life. Considered in the west to be a “utilitarian” object, for the Bamana no such distinction was made. The lock contains in it allusions to a personal story intertwined with Bamana myth. The doorlocks (or doors and doorlocks together ) were most often given to a young bride as a wedding present to consecrate the marriage. On one level the doorlock represents male and female—the male crossbolt penetrates the female vertical body of the lock, representing sexual intercourse each time it is used. Hence it symbolizes conjugal happiness and fidelity (and ultimately procreation) of the couple. It is also one of the first elements seen as one enters a home or compound, right at the threshold, a sacred place over which one steps into the home. The actual iconography of the doorlock is chosen specifically with the bride or family in mind. In this particular case, the figure represented is Faro, one of the major deities in the Bamana creation myths, and one closely associated with water. Faro is also very important to the Komo society, a major age/grade society within Bamana culture. Faro helps in the manifestation of Komo’s power. The long ears have several meanings—they are indeed ears with which Faro hears all things, detects all movements, thus protecting the house from thieves. The ears also represent the jaws of the crocodile, indicative of Komo’s power to neutralize witchcraft, and they represent the raised index and 5th finger of the left hand, symbol of the Komo society. The breasts refer to Faro’s androgynous nature. The legs represent scorpions tails, which recall the story of Mouso Koroni Koundye, a central female entity in the Bamana creation myths who died of a scorpion bite and who was buried with scorpion tails attached to her legs. All the incised carvings on the surface have a rich complexity of meanings, some visible, some invisible.

  Certainly there are elements that probably have meaning only to initiates of the Komo society. However, intuitively it reminded people in their daily lives of the continuity (hence strength and security) that their beliefs provided. Their identity was manifest in each of these beautifully carved objects. What it meant to be Bamana was part of the rhythm of every day life. Hence with the overlapping of personal and social iconography, personal and cultural identities were mutually supported, respected, and intertwined. Existential isolation, so prevalent in modern culture, is unknown here.


  One of the great paradoxes surrounding African art is the question of what is and is not “real”. To the Western eye, the objects themselves are real—tangible elements with a greater or lesser aesthetic or emotionally expressive value. And yet for the people for whom these objects were made, as often as not the real is the invisible and intangible links to powers and spirits occupying a parallel universe, or energies that have been absorbed and contained in the objects themselves.

  Many objects in Africa that are considered the most significant would hardly be recognized as anything by a Western viewer. From the standpoint of our museum culture this begs the question of just what is “art”. When it gets this close to religion and spiritual belief, the boundaries and definitions become very fuzzy. Context plays a significant part in the defining and redefining of the objects, which in turn significantly affects the way we see and respond to them. A mask in a glass case in a museum is not a mask roaring through a village armed with clubs, or a representation of a beautiful young woman teaching the young girls elements of mature womanhood. It has become an object contemplated more or less for itself outside of other references, and oftentimes it is incomplete relative to its original use or conception. Significant parts of the mask are missing: the costume, the music, and movement. It is true that the mask/object has been preserved, but have we not saved that which we think is real only? The object is no longer the same. The juju becomes dormant, and that which is most important is lost. While I can hold the object in my hands, the great energy that brought it to life is diminished. What reality is indeed left? While the histories, cultural ideas and other facts surrounding these objects and their uses may be preserved, this intellectual relationship to the original beliefs has nothing to do with the beliefs as they were lived.
In the encounter with objects such as these lies the possibility that we can develop a greater intercultural respect and more profound self-questioning as we seek to understand the dynamic currents in our own lives.
With which eyes do we then see as we look into this African mirror? Although no longer part of the peoples or rituals that gave them life, these objects still remain representatives of spiritual and philosophical understandings that can rearrange our relationship to time, place, culture, each other, and ourselves. These objects can open up paths to more profound human insight if we can see them in terms of their genesis.

  In the past, objects such as these were dismissed as representations of superstitious peoples or destroyed as being the works of heathens. They were sometimes admired simply for their beauty and craftsmanship. As our own appreciation of other cultures has matured, we can now understand the significant role they play in addressing the major questions of life that confront us all. In the encounter with objects such as these lies the possibility that we can develop a greater intercultural respect and more profound self-questioning as we seek to understand the dynamic currents in our own lives.
Aesthetics and taste did play their part...each piece spoke to me at a level different from that of aesthetic response. Each had, as it were, a different song or resonance.


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