New York

“Boliw: Shrine Figures of the Bamana, Mali”

The Boliw are the most sacred of the magical objects in the Bamana culture of Mali. Utilized in each village by a secret society of elders, these spooky little bovinelike fetishes are said to embody forces, hold court, pass judgment, and extract punishment. They are regarded as tyrants, and on them all social force depends. Villages steal one another’s Boliw to sap their strength, for a village without Boliw is, as a Bamana saying goes, a village in chaos.

Haunting, seemingly “other,” the Boliw are composed of a remarkable set of materials: around a central core, layers are built up of bits of wood, bark, tree root, and clay; horns, hair, nails, and claws of humans and various animals; and honey, beer, venom, and various bodily fluids, often related to death, such as foam gathered from the mouths of cadavers and the blood of sacrificial victims. Also prominent are urine and feces, including that gathered from the anuses of cadavers. Usually a scrap of hyena intestine is thrown in to top it off. Such a recipe could loosely be compared to those of primitivizing works—both sculpture and performance—by Eric Orr (who has combined blood, hair, skull fragments, and so on), Michael Tracy (blood, semen, hair, etc.), Terry Fox, Gunther Brus, and numerous others, and, more distantly, resonances may be found in Joseph Beuys’ use of animal fat and Richard Long’s use of mud.

Of course, comparisons based only on similarities that may be coincidental are not deeply impressive, and this little exhibition, in implicitly proposing them, may seem to have naively repeated the primitivist fallacy of assuming underlying spiritual affinities beneath similar artistic surfaces. Nevertheless, it has, I think, articulated a new nuance in the primitivism-Modernism debate that is still unfolding. Intended as an unofficial appendage to the “Africa” exhibition at the Guggenheim, which some have criticized for offering up connoisseurship with no ideological point, the Boliw show attempts to combine connoisseurship with adventurous curatorial strategy: the act of exhibiting these pieces in a gallery of Modern and contemporary art without explanation, and without Modernist objects to draw them into that arena by similarity, is, in effect, to declare that they are not merely like Modern art, they are Modern art. Of course this equation begs many questions: Above all, isn’t Modernism as much an ideological as a periodizing conceit? Has the premise here confused the terms modern (the period in which these objects happen to have been made) and Modernist (a particular development within the history of Western art)? Is this act of recontextualization finally just a cover for the market as it snares another type of object in its net? Finally, how did these objects get from their original context in a West African secret society to a contemporary-art gallery in SoHo? This is the story that has yet to be told.

Thomas McEvilley