Art, Antiquities, and African-Rooted Spiritual Systems, Part II

 Brooklyn Museum [CC BY 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Brooklyn Museum [CC BY 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In Part I, I gave a cursory overview of the topic. In Part II you get my personal opinion as a spiritual practitioner and a curator.

As a curator
As I mentioned in part I, without the museum, all antiquities would be off limits to interested parties in the Western world. This position is a very basic and not-nuanced. It considers a single question: that of access to cultural knowledge.

Within this consideration, one can not deny the reality that objects that comprise antiquities, and very specifically African antiquities, are often objects created and used for spiritual rites. They are not art, they are sacred vessels. The way in which these objects found themselves into museum and private collections constitutes several significant chapters in the European and American imperial colonial histories. These objects' location in European and American museums is very explicitly tied to a history that is violent, destructive, with legacies that are still being lived out today in the territories from which these objects were taken.

I would like to see more curation of these works that contextualizes these objects within the grandeur of the African empires and societies from whence they came. I'd also like to see these objects be given a more prominent place as significant influencers of some of our most beloved and infamous 20th century European artists. Moreover, I would love to see more contemporary artists of the African continent and Diaspora in conversation with these works, because they represent an entire canon from which a continuous aesthetic through line can be traced from the African continent of the pre-colonial period to the Diaspora of the present day.

As a priestess
As I have mentioned elsewhere, I hold the title Yayi Nkisi Malongo in the Palo Mayombe tradition, Palo Mayombe is an Afro Cuban spiritual tradition with roots in and around the Kingdom of Kikongo, which included the Bakongo people but also various other groups, related and not related. This tradition took hold in Cuba as early as the 15th century, and formalized, in its present mode, more or less, in the late 19th century.

These objects, like the one pictured above, were the precursors to the nganga that Afro-Cuban practitioners developed for liturgical use. I must reiterate, objects connected to these spiritual traditions were sacred vessels made with the express purpose, and consecrated with spiritual intent to achieve a very specific objective. They were not and are not art works, despite their incredible aesthetic prowess. They were not created to remain in a temperature controlled gallery, or to be restored using modern art conservation methods. They were made to be used.

Use meant - and still means for those of us who are priest practitioners - divination, alleviation of suffering through various means. These vessels would have various layers of soil, animal parts, plants, and other natural matter incorporated over time with each use. They would not have the pristine, almost sterile appearance they have now, being housed in museum and private collections.

Taking these two perspectives in mind, as they live side by side within my intellect and being, the question always arises: how do we solve this. The curator in me says educate through exhibition making and scholarly, accessible writing. The priestess in me says repatriate. Because I am also pessimistic, about the willingness to repatriate, despite recent efforts particularly from African countries to recover their stolen objects, I tend to focus heavily on education.

This is why I write, this is why I make exhibitions, this is why a portion of my practice is dedicated to the contemporary art of the African continent and its Diaspora. I observe contemporary artists making in ways similar to, or in conversation with ancient African modes or making. The continual line - to borrow a portion of the title from a 2014 performance by the Black Constellation - is still present and still being drawn in the now.

Negarra A. Kudumu

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