AFRICAN STUDIES QUARTERLY

Susan M. Vogel. Baule: African Art/Western Eyes. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1997 313pp., 197 color and 62 b/w, 2 maps, glossary, bibliography, index. Hardbound $65, Softbound $35.©

This is a welcome addition to the growing list of in-depth studies now revolutionizing the scholarship of African art. The book is unique not only because it is, so far, the most comprehensive study of the sculptures of the Baule of Cote d'Ivoire, but also because it charts a new course by examining issues seldom raised by previous researchers.

The central thesis of the book is that the Western idea of "art" as something created for its own sake does not exist among the Baule. According to the author: " To approach art from the Baule perspective entails speaking of experiences that are not primarily visual, and of art objects that are animate presence's indistinguishable from persons, spirits, and certain prosaic things. Even when Baule people are clearly talking only of a wood sculpture, they may describe it as capable of volition and action that most Western reader will find incredible" (p. 83). Equally significant is the fact that many of the Baule sculptures now displayed in European and American museums for "Western Eyes" were once concealed from public view by their original owners. For the "more important a Baule sculpture is, the less it is displayed" (p. 108). Why is this so? What are the cultural factors underlying the creation and uses of Baule sculpture?

Susan Vogel examines these questions and several others by focusing not only on the context and significance of carved objects in Baule culture, but also on how the people relate to them. The book is divided into two sections of four chapters each. In her introduction, the author explains how more than two decades of research among the Baule have taught her to appreciate and to write about Baule art from the perspectives of the people for whom it is created. In the process, she has also learned to separate her conclusions from theirs.
The first chapter introduces the reader to the history and social geography of the Baule, in addition to highlighting the formal characteristics of Baule art such as the "subtle rhythm," "balanced asymmetry," and "peaceful containment of form"-- characteristics that influenced many modern European artists, most especially the Italian Amedeo Modigliani.

The second chapter offers a detailed account of Baule world-view, drawing attention to Baule perception of nature as an interaction of opposing yet related elements such as the spiritual and material, the visible and invisible, the human and non-human, the male and female, among others. Perhaps the most conspicuous aspect of this dualism is the dichotomy between the village and wilderness to which almost all Baule works of art are related. The village signifies the ordered, social and human, and the wilderness, the bush, savage and non-human. In the words of the author, "many works of Baule art are classified as either women's or men's; male art forms ... are associated with the wilderness, women's, with the village" (p. 46). Also discussed in this chapter are the Baule concepts of power (amuin), bush spirits (asye usu) and otherworldly spouses (blolo bian/bla) as well as how sculpture is used to localize and manipulate them.

The third chapter deals with the ontological function of sculpture. So important is this function that a representation and what it represents are perceived as one and the same. In other words, a signifier is as potent as the signified. This explains why certain carved objects, especially masks, are thought to cause death if seen with the naked eye or by the uninitiated. The author then discusses the various modes of looking/seeing different categories of objects.
The fourth chapter focuses on the Baule concept of visuality, that is, the ways members of the culture learn to interpret what they see, as well as the secrecy and the taboos that govern the gaze.

The fifth chapter concentrates on masks used in entertainment dances (Mblo and Goli) and intended to be watched and appreciated by the general public. Here, the author throws more light on the Baule tradition of portrait masks (ndoma), first described in some detail in the 1930s by Hans Himmelheber. One significant aspect of this tradition is that, because less emphasis is placed on physical resemblance, a given mask can easily be identified with a new person--usually a relative--after the death of the original subject, thus enacting the drama of decay and renewal (pp. 166-7).

The sixth chapter deals with assorted gold plated objects, stools, staffs, men's sacred masks, and human figures associated with the spirits of the wilderness. This category of sacred objects is described by the author as "Art that is Seen Without Looking" because they are not meant to be stared at on pain of death.

In chapter seven, the author discusses miscellaneous personal objects associated with hunting spirits (bo usu) and otherworldly spouses (blolo bla/bian), while in the eighth, she focuses on various utilitarian items such as divination vessels, ancestral stools, weaver's pulleys, spoons, wooden fans, carved doors, pottery and drums which are decorated to enhance their appearance and fulfill the desire for beauty. As a result, these articles are often displayed for all to see.

In her conclusion, the author notes that Baule sculptures have many things in common with those of their neighbors (such as Wan and Yaure) and with those of the Akan to the east in what is now present-day Ghana, whence came, according to oral tradition, some ancestors of the Baule led by the legendary Queen Abla Poku.

The author has taken great pains to separate her own observations, interpretations, and conclusions from those of her Baule field informants. She nevertheless highlights points of agreement and disagreement, thus deepening our understanding of Baule sculpture and its reception both among the Baule and in the West. Her discussion of Baule etiquette of the gaze (Chapter 4) is one of the most interesting sections of the book because it challenges the premises of recent Western discourse that associate the gaze with power, desire, manipulation and, sometimes, scopophilia (erotic pleasures derived from looking). For the Baule, on the other hand, the act of looking at a work of art, or at spiritually significant objects, is for the most part privileged and potentially dangerous. Even an inadvertent glimpse of a forbidden object can make a person sick, can expose them to huge fines or sacrifices, or can even be fatal.

The power and danger of looking lie in a belief that objects are potent, capable of polluting those who see them (p. 110). In other words, the nature, context, function, importance and power of a given work determine whether or not it can be looked at closely or from afar. This explains why certain sacred objects are secreted in shrines and private rooms, accessible only to the initiated. As a result, the author regards as somewhat exaggerated the widely held view that African art is inseparable from life, since, judging from the Baule evidence, "little art used to be actually seen by most people most of the time" (p. 291). Unfortunately, Vogel does not provide the statistics from other parts of Africa to corroborate this hypothesis. Even then, the Baule evidence points in the opposite direction. For while it is true that sacred or awesome objects such as the num amuin bo masks are rarely seen "by most people most of the time," the fact remains that such restricted objects are few compared to the entertainment dance masks (Mblo and Goli), as well as the carved doors, stools, spoons, weaver's pulleys, drums and divination vessels, among others, that may be seen by all. Indeed, Hans Himmelheber, who conducted fieldwork among the Baule in the 1930s, reported that the entertainment masks were used in performances almost everyday. Moreover, many Baule commission sculptures for personal or family uses. For example, "Infants and small children are given miniature carved wooden stools ... or small figures that they may wear as amulets ..." (p. 247). Baule adults, on the other hand, keep statues embodying bush spirits (asye usu), hunting spirits (bo usu) and otherworldly spouses (blolo bla/bian). In Susan Vogel's words, the latter "are probably the most abundant and among the most completely realized art works the Baule make ..." (p. 249). Not only that, these statues receive regular sacrifices, so that they are inseparable from the daily lives of their owners who see them most of the time.

Although the author asserts that the concept of "art for art's sake" does not exist among the Baule, Hans Himmelheber reported several cases in the early 1930s. The fact that Vogel does not dispute Himmelheber's account but merely describes it as "ironic" (p. 83)--without further comments--leaves the reader to wonder what happened between the early 1930's and the late 1960s when she began her own fieldwork among the Baule. Could the cases of "art for art's sake" reported by Himmelheber in the 1930s be possibly due to French colonial influence, as Adrian Gerbrands surmises? Incidentally, the late Philip Ravenhill has drawn attention to the impact of colonialism on Baule statues representing otherworldly spouses (blolo bian/bla). For many of them now wear European dresses to reflect fashion, aspiration, prestige and modernity. Susan Vogel illustrates some (pp. 71, 83, 253, 254, 257): one female spirit spouse figure (blolo bla) wears a yellow brassiere, while a male spirit spouse figure (blolo bian) is dressed in a blue French suit. The caption for the female figure (p. 83) indicates that such works might be made either for sale to foreigners or to modern Baule to decorate their houses. The male figure (p. 254) wears "city clothes" because "he had a salaried job" (p. 255). In the absence of any other information or contextual analysis, one is left with an impression (which may very well be erroneous) that the author is more interested in the traditional, so-called "classical" Baule pieces and less in the modernization process within the canon.

According to Ravenhill, the modernization of statuary form by the introduction of Western clothes and the attendant accessories of shoes, hats, watches, and the like has distressed some art critics in the same way that the use of Western clothes by the younger generation has distressed some Baule elders. The facile criticism of modern Baule statuary in pejorative terms of degeneration finds an echo in the attitudes of some irascible old men who assume that young men, for example, wear modern dress simply to hide their physical faults, saying of them "they take their skinny scrawny legs and put them in pants...." Both these attitudes--of the art critic and of the social critic--demonstrate a basic conservatism which would deny innovation and changing social realities; but the similarity of views points out the relation between the aesthetics of art and the aesthetics of the artist's patrons. It is my contention that the development of Baule statuary art throughout this century shows an increasing preoccupation with modern fashions that is part of a wider social movement toward the exploitation of new cultural and technical forms introduced by the crisis of colonization--in brief, that Baule art exhibits the same emulative processes as the wider society.

In short, from the illustrations published in this book, it appears as if Baule sculpture has remained relatively unchanged since pre-colonial times--contrary to what we already know about the Baule and their response to increasing Westernization and urbanization. Admittedly, it would be unfair to expect the author to squeeze into a single volume all the results of more than two decades of fieldwork and museum research on Baule sculpture. Let us hope that she will fully address the issue of modernization in a future publication. But, given the richness of the materials and the rare insights of the author, Baule: African Art/Western Eyes is a groundbreaking work. It is a monumental contribution not only to the art history and anthropology of the Baule, but also to the study of African and non-Western art as a whole. Despite its intimidating size, the book is a pleasure to read; it is written in a very simple yet sophisticated language, free of academic pretensions and jargon. Both the text and illustrations complement one another. The field photographs are superb; the author's interpretations, remarkable. The book is extremely useful, well conceived, well produced, and highly recommended.

Babatunde Lawal
Department of Art History
Commonwealth University