Los Angeles

“Myth and Man in Primitive Art”

Harry A. Franklin Gallery

Examples of African and Oceanic art drawn from museums and private collections combine in an exhibition of significant quality. The small gallery encompasses an initially bewildering variety of masks, figures, suspension hooks, drums, gaming boards, cosmetic dishes and spoons.

Eventually one begins to piece out distinctive varieties of styles. There is the smooth black polish of the Baule, whose bearded princes and kings have the posture and dignity of ancient Egypt. This handsome Ivory Coast people, we are told, are the only African tribe to have made objects for pure esthetic enjoyment.

A mask and a uli—a cult figure—from New Ireland contrast the Brancusi sophistication of the Baule with complex entwinements of polychromed wood. The blocklike uli figure glowers glassily over its hermaphroditic body, representing, in one sense, a unity of opposites, a quality shared by the yin-yang of oriental cultures and opposed by our own either-or, black-white conceptions.

Most impressive are totemlike figures of two men from the Bis of Dutch New Guinea. One stands atop the shoulders of the other, holding a canoe prow. They bear traces of their typical black, white and ochre coloration. Despite their size—originally over twenty feet—they were carved from a single piece of wood—a condition necessary to their magic potency. Presumably they represent men of tribal importance who have been killed. Among the Bis such a carving was used only once. After a ceremony to guide the spirits of the dead to the next world these extraordinary pieces were discarded to rot in the bush.

Equally absorbing is a wooden fetish figure from the Belgian Congo. It bristles with crude nails driven to exorcise an evil spirit or, on other occasions, to seal a contract. A box inset in its abdomen once contained magical herbs and was covered by a mirror which deflected any evil eye that might attempt to compromise its potency.

One is quite done in by the inexhaustible interest of the show. Suffice it to say that it is extraordinarily satisfying to enjoy beautiful form and at the same time know that it has been good for something.

––William Wilson