Voodoo... in Greenwich?

Forget the headline — the Bruce Museum's Congolese carved-figure show brings the "v" word to mind, but it's really an exploration of one culture's attempt to connect, and possibly control, the unseen world.

The Picasso etching show currently at the Bruce Museum shows an artist “taking a breath” — re-energizing himself by returning to basic lines, by portraying things only in his studio. The exhibit (which closes October 16) nicely complement's the Bruce's other main art show, Power Incarnate: Allan Stone’s Collection of Sculpture from the Congo (closes September 4), as it also touches on elemental forms of representation. But with one major difference: you'll find no Western neoclassicism here, no "art for art's sake." “Power Incarnate” is composed entirely of Congolese sculptures, and they are “art with a purpose”: by creating figurines that represented spirits in the unseen world, the artisits hoped to gain some control over Nature.

The figurines, mostly from the Kongo and Songye cultures of the Congo, were collected by collector Allan Stone, an art dealer best known for championing Joseph Cornell's "assemblage art" and shadow boxes. Their appeal is quite different, though: while Cornell's work is often formal, literally “framing” commonplace objects, the Congolese artwork here seems barely to contain the energy that the spirit figure emanates.

Made by blacksmiths, carvers, and other craftsmen and healers using the tools and materials of their trades — feathers, beads, cowrie shells, animal horn, wood, copper, nuts-and-bolts and so on — the figures were not just decorative objects. They were dressed up, added on to, for religious, status and community purposes, making them very much a “living” art.

As “power figures,” or nkishi, they gave these Congolese cultures a "way into" the mysteries of illness and death, famine and fertility.

Among the figures not to be missed are those in the accompanying photographs, early 20th-Century and from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Perhaps the most beautiful piece is the male "power figure" by an artist distinctive enough to be identified as the “Master of the Bulbous Copper Eye.” It is a startling piece: the skull-like head, distended belly, flat feet and mutiple necklaces all dovetail with our childhood, National Geographic images of Africa, but the feathers and bell adorning the figure give it a festive, Mardi Gras air. You can see why African sculptures had such enormous appeal to European artists at the turn of the last century, as expressed in “Primitivism”: the attempt to capture the spiritual world in human form.

What makes the Master of the Copper Eye's sculpture a nkishi (plural: “minkishi"), in part, is his belly's containing a storage area for herbs, medicine, or items associated with the dead. And if you're thinking “shaman!” — to use the word that's replaced the misleading and politically incorrect “witch doctor” — yes, such statuettes were used to communicate with emissaries of the dead, to negotiate and warn, heal and avenge.

Some nkisi, called “nkondi,” had nails driven into them to “wake up” the spirit being represented, and they are displayed here, too. Though Western Hemisphere “voodoo dolls” seem a natural descendant, these figures aren't the least creepy, perhaps because the nails and blades seem decorative as much as anything else.

Some anthropologists speculate these “nail-fetish” figures may have been inspired by images of the crucified Jesus brought to West Africa by 15th-Century missionaries. That seems unlikely, but it goes along with a central aspect of these figures — that they “collect” objects and decorations from the culture around them, evolving according to a culture's needs more than the artist's desires.

These works are more craft than art, in short... but that's all to the good, for there's nothing precious, or academic, about them. An idea, interestingly, often rejected by early, Western collectors: they would remove nails, ground-in dirt, objects clearly "modern," valuing the Congolese understanding of the human form more than the culture from which it came.

“Power Incarnate,” guest curated by Kevin D. Dumouchelle of the Brooklyn Museum, closes on September 4. Admission to the museum is free on Tuesdays.


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