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AROUND HOME : Notes on African Sculpture, and Garden and Animal Events : African Sculpture

June 11, 1989|SAM BURCHELL

IN AFRICA, art in the European sense was unknown. Wood sculpture was largely utilitarian, produced either for housekeeping or for ceremonial purposes. The predominant forms of sculpture, masks and figures, were generally made for religious ceremonies. Wood was often decorated with clay, shells, beads, feathers or shredded raffia, and sometimes bronze and ivory.

Styles are distinctive to different areas and tribes: The Guinea Coast has a highly abstract style, seen in spectacular Senufo masks; in Nigeria, there are Yoruba polychromes, Ibo ceremonial masks and Benin ceremonial art; in Gabon, the Fang tribes use decorative motifs--on spoons, stringed musical instruments and drums--in which the human figure is naturalistic but often elongated. In Zaire, Bakongo sculpture is naturalistic; small fetish figures are made by the Bateke tribe.

The tools used by the traditional carver are simple and limited. The matchete is used for the felling of trees and the cutting of the blocks into shape. Adzes of different calibers serve for the more detailed work. In the final stages, a small knife or awl is used, and the surface of an object is smoothed with abrasive leaves or sandpaper.

The variety of household articles made from wood is enormous: wooden spoons, scoops and ladles; decoratively carved cups, weaving bobbins and cosmetic boxes, and door panels, bolts and house posts sculpted with elaborate geometrical designs. There are food vessels, Ashanti dolls, palm-wine cups, head rests, bow stands and musical instruments. Artistic elegance reaches a degree of perfection in the caryatid stools of the northeastern Luba in Zaire. Such tools are found throughout Africa. The Bamileke in Cameroon, for example, carve leopards, baboons, spiders and elephants in the form of caryatids.

Today, wood carving, though not as prevalent as it once was, is still--along with pottery, weaving and basketry--one of the great crafts of Africa south of the Sahara. It is a rich field for the collector.

African wood sculpture can be found at Thoraya in Santa Monica; Bwanacon in Venice; The Pygmy Fund in Westwood; Gallery K and Dalu Designs & Gallery in West Los Angeles; African Arts & Beads in West Hollywood, and San Diego Zoo Jungle Bazaar (the gift shop) and San Diego Wild Animal Park Bazaar Gift Shop, both in San Diego.

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