Art, Antiquities, and African Rooted Spiritual Traditions, Part I

Nkisi Nkondi, Mangaaka. Photographer: Urville Djasim.

Nkisi Nkondi, Mangaaka. Photographer: Urville Djasim.

Today's post is brought to you by my crowdsourced Facebook request topics for potential articles on ye olde blog. An acquaintance, responding to my inquiry, asked my thoughts on art that depicts certain aspects of African traditional and African rooted religions, and there I shall start. This is going to have to be multiple parts because, the topic is that broad and I need time.

One must tackle [this question] with careful consideration objects classified as antiquities in museums. To be specific, one should think about the way in which these objects ended up in the possession of some of the world's greatest museums. One must be willing to delve into the murky history of the European and American imperialist projects as exemplified by colonialism and manifest destiny. To be certain, the vast majority of these works were stolen from indigenous people of the places once referred to as the Third World, and now commonly called the Global South. These objects became a part of a carefully crafted narrative documenting the glory and grandeur of European and American imperialism, and unfortunately, framed the makers of these objects as extinct, inferior, and/or savage.

Another important point to note is that many, if not the majority, of the objects that comprise the antiquity categories were not created as art. In fact, many were common every day objects such as water jugs, utensils, and blankets. Others were religio-spiritual objects such as the one pictured in the image above. These objects were, most certainly, not created for the purpose of exhibiting. They were, in fact, created for use by priests whose practice included herbalism, spiritual works, and the general maintenance of the communities they served.

Because these objects were not made to be exhibited but rather to be used for very specific purposes, arguably these objects have fallen into disuse. They are experiencing a degree of wear, and depending on the age of the object, decay, that would have progressed differently had the object remained with it's maker (or owner) and continued to be used as it was intended. The notions of museum conservation, versus how these objects would have been cared for by their original owners and users, are, I can imagine, in some cases at least, diametrically opposed.

For the practitioner of an African rooted spiritual tradition, such as myself, who also happens to be a curator (both of exhibitions and public programs) this presents an interesting intellectual quandary. Where nkisi nkondi are concerned, it is rare, though not impossible, to come across an authentic figure outside of a museum or private collection; however, without museums, I would have no access to these and other kinds of objects, nor interpretation by scholars many of whom, like it or not, have a profound academic understanding of these objects and the people who created them. They don't - and this is important to note - possess the lived experience of the spiritual practices of the people who made these objects, and thus their assessments, however critical and contextualized, will always be lacking.

To add another layer for consideration, there is the question of repatriation. Over the past several years there has been an increase in the volume of requests by countries of the Global South to former colonial powers to return their cultural patrimony. While these requests have garnered much attention in the art world press, there hasn't been much movement. Amongst Native American and First Nations peoples in Canada and the United States there have been some successes but the struggle is still ongoing.

In the next edition of this topic, I will move into the realm of modern and contemporary art and look very specifically at contemporary artists who are including aesthetics and concepts drawn from African and African-rooted spiritual traditions. You'll also learn very squarely what my opinion is both as a curator and as priestess. It will be interesting to see where this takes us. Until then!

Negarra A. Kudumu

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