“The wisdom of ancestors”
—Edmund Burke, 1756, and a common saying
“A Mighty Tree has Fallen”
—a proverb for death among many African peoples1
Several African peoples, on the passing of a great man, will avoid the word “death,” preferring the poetic indirection of a mighty tree falling. Mortality is not final in Africa, nor is it for us. Fallen trees regenerate; they still exist, if on a new plane, and remain active. We survivors have grown from the seeds of those trees, whose broad branches in life sheltered councils of elders and provided the fruits we eat and the wood from which we have built our own houses. In much of Africa ancestors are venerated because they are believed to observe and affect the living. Their funerary sendoffs are often quite elaborate festivals for those very reasons—ancestors are not truly and finally dead; rather, they live on a different plane in another world, and often nearby. So it is with our academic forebears, whose wisdom we cherish, whose memory we honor.
Our respect and affection for those ancestors, and their teachings, are great—hence this issue of African Arts. Academic “generations” are often compressed, even to ten years or less. Thus Douglas Fraser studied with Paul Wingert in the 1950s, and I studied with Fraser in the 1960s, with my third generation students starting off in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: three “generations” cycling through in under thirty years. Yet because Doug Fraser died some thirty-four years ago, his venerated ancestral status is firmly assured for many, and especially for me.
Douglas F. Fraser, a Columbia professor of art history and archaeology for twenty-seven years, joined the ancestral plane at the age of 52 in 1982, dying of complications of Legionnaire's disease (Fig. 1). He has long been remembered as a fine and principled man, if sometimes quixotic, as a forceful and charismatic teacher and generous friend. He had a rangy, inquisitive mind and keen wit, a global command of art, architecture, and bibliography. He encouraged students to explore uncharted waters, as he himself did. These together meant that his contributions to the world of African art history (and Indonesian, Oceanic, Native American, and Pre-Columbian art history, which he also knew and taught) far exceed his published work. I'll refer to most of his publications here, but they are not the best measures of his contribution to art history or his influence on the field.
Fraser graduated from Columbia in 1951 and became a lieutenant junior grade in the US Navy. He wrote his 1955 Columbia MA thesis on mask styles of the Northwest Coast and joined the Columbia faculty as an instructor the same year. He completed his PhD on the art of the Torres Straits in 1959, under Paul S. Wingert, counting also Meyer Schapiro and Rudolf Wittkower among his mentors. Already his purview was wide, even as in his later years he settled on Africa as a focus of teaching and writing. In 1962 (the fall I entered the Columbia art history graduate program), both Fraser and Wingert were teaching, and both brought out general books on the broad fields then called “primitive”: Wingert's Primitive Art: Its Traditions and Styles and Fraser's Primitive Art, the latter including some Pre-Columbian art in addition to African, Oceanic, Indonesian, and Native American. The facts that the serious university study of African art began only in the late 1950s—at Indiana under Roy Sieber, NYU under Robert Goldwater, and Columbia with Wingert and Fraser—and that the field was still called “primitive” in the 1960s, shows how far we have travelled in fifty-odd years. Notably, of those pioneers, only Sieber had set foot on the African continent before the 1960s.
Fraser's 1962 book, and his 1966 The Many Faces of Primitive Art: A Critical Anthology, espoused diffusionist theories about global contacts accounting for the migration of forms and styles, elaborated by Fraser from the work of Robert Heine-Geldern, along with other approaches: style and morphology, environmental effects, functionalism, social control, techniques, correlations with mythology among them. Three fairly short essays on Africa were included: Julius Gluck on architecture, Paul Bohannan on the artist and critic among the Tiv, and Roy Sieber on masks as agents of social control. This book shows Fraser's strong interest in theory in the introductions he wrote for its gathered essays which, as he put it, “reflect various ways of looking at primitive art” (1966:vii). His own contribution was “The Heraldic Woman: A Study in Diffusion,” which showed his love of iconography and the possible historical migration of forms and styles. Diffusionism dominated much of his teaching and writing in the 1960s.
Another diffusionist project was Fraser's edited 1969 catalogue: Early Chinese Art and the Pacific Basin: A Photographic Exhibition, organized for a conference on this subject at Columbia in 1967. In student essays, eleven ancient Chinese motifs (mainly Zhou period, but also Shang and Han) were compared with strikingly similar visual parallels in Pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru, Indonesia, New Zealand Maori, and the Northwest Coast—and not just single motifs but clusters of them appearing in the arts of these far-flung regions. Fraser's essay traced these visual complexes to China. The many compelling visual similarities have never been proven as resulting from historical contacts, but as Esther Pasztory has written recently (Pasztory 2105:40–46), the relationships remain intriguing and a “curious theory.”
Fraser's embrace of diffusionism and the history of art forms seem to have been his not-so-subtle rebuke of Wingert's conservative “style area” approach, which was largely ahistoric, with a set of formal conventions the norm for each separate “tribal” style. Fraser disdained such an approach and was more convinced that African (and other) forms were not so simply defined and validated as art, but were in fact messy, the result of all sorts of historical and contextual contingencies. Fraser wanted to see how the Trees made up the Forest, what varied forces were involved in their realities and meanings, which were almost always more interesting than their forms alone. He was also fond of asking the Larger Questions, and at times he valued ideas more than the arts they announced and represented. He abjured formalism in the Wingert mode, yet as a dedicated iconographer, he analyzed forms carefully.
In looking at some larger issues in Africa art, for example, he “discovered” the three-part-horizontal composite human/animal mask, which is so widely distributed across West Africa especially. The Senufo kponyugo, popularly the “firespitter” (Fig. 2), is a typical example, the “three parts” being horns, head, and snout. Fraser asked questions about these masks, how they are worn and what they mean; he felt they almost certainly represented an early historical form with similar purposes that had somehow spread to many different areas. Such masks, at Fraser's suggestion, were the subject of Monni Adams's Columbia master's thesis (Adams 1963), which basically proved Fraser correct. Their broad dispersal and meanings were later taken up and extended by Patrick McNaughton in two excellent articles in African Arts (McNaughton 1991, 1992). I would suggest, though, that the last word has yet to be written on these masks.
In the late 1960s and ‘70s his African courses were mostly different each time he taught them, sometimes by materials, sometimes by concepts or themes, sometimes by geographical area or with a historical focus. His seminars were often adventurous, sometimes quirky, and usually very stimulating. At times he included architecture and planning in his courses, and he authored Village Planning in the Primitive World (1968), which explored the social dimensions of spatial planning in eight cultures; Africa was represented by the Mbuti pygmies, the Bushman (San), and the Yoruba. He was especially pleased with the creative, conceptual index he devised for that slim volume, part of a series on planning initiated by his Columbia colleague George Collins.
In the late 1960s Fraser embraced a theory of structuralism that he introduced in seminars (modified from Levi-Strauss, and “in the air” in anthropology and art history at that time) resulting in his edited volume, African Art and Philosophy (1974b), which contains short essays by thirteen graduate students on patterns underlying works of art. Some thirty subjects/patterns, most of them opposing pairs (i.e., upper half/nether half, male/female, nature/culture, sky/earth, king/commoner, creative/destructive, beauty/beast, hot/cool) were grouped under five overlapping Orders: the Cosmic, Natural, Political, Social, and Aesthetic. Examples and illustrations were taken from more than fourteen mostly West African cultures. Involving student writing in his publications was an aspect of Fraser's generosity. But he was a relentless, exacting editor, his way of teaching people to write well. Fraser wrote an essay for that book on what he called “The Legendary Ancestor Tradition in African Art” (Fraser 1974a). Its type example was the Dandai mask (seen as a bush/village complementarity within the political order) of the Gbande peoples of Sierra Leone, but he traced its form (if not always its meaning) to several other peoples nearby and as far away as the Dogon and Bamana. The involvement of students with this project and book demonstrate well Fraser's merging of his own scholarship with teaching and publishing, as he constantly shared his latest thinking and frequently set students off on adventures related to his new ideas, and sometimes collaborative publications followed.
Fraser's involving graduate students with his publications began earlier, with the Many Faces book, which included an essay by Deborah Waite (1966), who went on to write several books on the Solomon Islands, and again after the 1965 Columbia symposium “The Aristocratic Traditions in African Art” that he organized. The resulting book (co-edited with me) came out much later, in 1972, as African Art and Leadership (Fraser abd Cole 1972b). This anthology included essays by Fraser and two students as well as Daniel Biebuyck, Rene Bravmann, Daniel Crowley, Hans Himmelheber, Simon Ottenberg, Roy Sieber, Leon Siroto, Robert Farris Thompson, Jan Vansina, and Frank Willett, and is still in print. Its “Overview” (Fraser and Cole 1972a), especially, became a fairly influential statement about the varied ramifications of arts stimulated or held by priests, chiefs and kings. I quote here its conclusion, called “The Nexus of Art and Leadership”:
Regardless of political system or stylistic idiom, African leaders have attached enormous significance to their art forms. The strength of this nexus is surely no accident but rather something inhering in the roles that art and leadership play in relation to one another. Art has a unique power to intensify, mobilize, and indeed create public opinion. Leaders for their part have an extraordinary capacity to call art forms into existence, to ramify their meanings, and to cause them to change. In these respects, no one else in African societies—including the artists—approaches their capacities.
The ability of art to endure through time and space permits the formation of an alliance with the personality of the leader, through whom art and leadership project an image of power. Art contributes the more static element: the tangible, residual symbolic continuity without which neither the office nor the public trust would have meaning. The leader contributes the more dynamic part: the vital energy and flexibility without which authority dissipates for lack of use. Interacting, man and symbol achieve a higher existence than either can reach alone. Together they can transform ordinary time and ordinary space into an extraordinary event—one of those intensified moments in human existence that combine pageantry with mystery, spectacle with order, theater with majesty—moments that are so rightly termed occasions of state (Fraser and Cole 1972a:325, 326).
Fraser taught art and architectural history and supervised many PhDs (and still more MAs) in all the above-mentioned fields2 throughout his career until Esther Pasztory, the brilliant Pre-Columbian scholar, began teaching that specialty in the early 1970s. Part of the Fraser legacy, surely, are the dozens of books and hundreds of articles published by his students over the years in all the varied art areas he commanded.
By the 1970s Fraser had embraced Africa as a primary if hardly exclusive interest. He was especially interested in the iconography of Benin and Ile Ife, and published on “The fish-legged Figure in Benin and Yoruba Art” (Fraser 1972) and the “snake-wing bird” on Tsoede bronzes (Fraser 1975). He invited Dr. Hans Himmelheber to teach African art at Columbia during his 1972–1973 sabbatical absence. In the 1970s Fraser obtained funding to initiate the University Seminars in Primitive and Pre-Columbian Art. A stream of specialists, many distinguished, some just returning from fieldwork, spoke (almost) monthly on a vast range of subjects, with Fraser leading far-reaching, stimulating discussions after the talks. These seminars were extracurricular but important adjuncts to his regular teaching, where his questioning, flexible mind was much in evidence. The seminars helped Fraser build the program in all the areas he taught. As Esther Pasztory has said, Fraser started a “movement,” with his many students as foot soldiers.3 I would guess that there have been very few African art historians with Fraser's intellectual breadth and knowledge. How he kept up in those varied fields was a mystery, but of course, the literature in “primitive” art was small, relatively speaking, in the 1660s and early ‘70s.
In 1989 Doug Fraser was honored posthumously with an ACASA Leadership Award for his manifold contributions to the field and his students. His distinguished Africanist student, Suzanne Blier, wrote the insightful citation, which I quote at some length:
Douglas Fraser viewed art as critical to the shaping of history, culture, and society. The son of a classicist, he also had a keen interest in orders and taxonomies, showing as much concern for the unique pieces as for those patterns that served to connect these works to a larger whole. This fascination with the singular work and the shaping of related intellectual discourse underlay much of Doug's scholarship, teaching, and work in building Columbia University's program in African, Oceanic, Native American and Pre-Columbian art history in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. He was a man of great passion, energy and conviction, continually pressing for seriousness and scholarly rigor in his own work and that of colleagues and students (Blier 1989:79).
His sense of humor and keen perceptions about things of value also extended to scholarship. Academics often are known for the titles of their papers and books, Accordingly, Doug kept a running list of the all-time worst titles; “The Bite of Benin,” the working title for his paper “… on the Benin altar with its projecting elephant teeth, might have made the list were it not for the enormous delight he took in its humor” (Blier 1989:79).
During my first few years of graduate study (1962–‘64), I was frankly daunted by the formal, somewhat rigid Professor Fraser I encountered, awed by his vast knowledge in many dispersed fields, his quick bibliographic citations, his dense, illuminating lectures and challenging seminars, his keen discipline and hard-working ethic. After his instruction to submit a seminar paper of only 10 pages, I whined that I had written 25 and didn't see a way to make it shorter; he said “fine, but I'll read only the first 10.” At home, edit after painful edit, I boiled it down—to become my best paper in graduate school. It was an exercise in tight writing, making every word count, that some of my own students have objected to! Again, when chosen to represent Columbia for a talk at the annual Frick Symposium of Ivy League graduate students, I went through fourteen iterations before Fraser was satisfied. (After the first five I kept careful track as they accumulated.) As Blier said: “Doug taught through example, continually pressing those who studied with him through probing questions and critique. He had an extraordinary memory for works of art and bibliographic sources, insisting on thoroughness at every turn” (Blier 1989:79).
Yet it was also my personal relationship with Doug that became a great gift and privilege, rich and lasting. It began after formal Columbia classes ended, in England in 1965, when his wife Chula (a.k.a. Betty) found an apartment for my wife, two small kids, and me in Putney, from which I did research on southeastern Nigerian art at the British Museum and other museums to solidify my choice of the Igbo for fieldwork.4 Our families (including his children David, Michael, and Victoria) had a few meals together, and we developed a close working and joking relationship and correspondence as African Art and Leadership took shape, with several authors added to those who spoke at the symposium. Seven months later, on his first trip to Africa (1966), he visited us in Enugu, and we took a five-day research trip in Igboland, revisiting some people and sites I had come to know, discovering a few new ones. We witnessed our first masquerade together (Fig. 3), on that adventure.
We shared several field experiences, especially when I was in Ghana for six months in 1972, and he was on sabbatical there and in Nigeria. We spent a lot of time together—five or six trips, the most memorable from Accra North on the West side, stopping briefly in Wa to photograph the palace (Fig. 4). Then to the Burkina border, stopping at a market in Babile, a Lobi community, where cowry shells continued to be used as currency. There we discovered a cowry merchant, in effect a banker (Fig. 5), sitting on a burlap bag full of cowries, used mostly at that time as funerary offerings, but also in markets. We drove across northern Ghana to Bolgatanga, then south to Tamale, where Mexican tamales were invented, and past the village of Nakon, where Nikon cameras were invented, or so we mused. Only occasionally could we find cold beer, but we saw marvelous architecture and compound decoration among many different ethnic groups (Figs. 6–8). It was during that tour that the seeds of the 1977 Arts of Ghana project were planted, surely with Fraser's help. At that time Doug worked with a sound-synced movie camera but never really mastered it; we both took a lot of still pictures (slides, remember them?) on that trip and others along the coast of Ghana, as among the Fante, where I once caught him on film in front of an elaborate military shrine and monument—posuban—dripping with sweat and equipment (Fig. 9). On these trips he left most of the local arrangements for lodging and interpreters to me, on purpose, I suppose, as good training for a young researcher.
Starting in 1974, a group of eight UCSB students and I camped out in Fraser's Riverside Drive apartment on our way to Ghana (the focus on the Arts of Ghana project I had begun earlier; see Cole and Ross 1977). Doran Ross and I stayed with Fraser several more times on our way to and from Ghana (1975 and ‘76, watching the Bicentennial Tall Ships on the Hudson from his Riverside Drive windows) and we all joked about his growing African art collection, made by a man who—in 1965—said collecting was unethical, plus a waste of time and money.
As Suzanne Blier has said, Doug himself was a collection, of striking paradoxes (Blier 1989:79): strict yet humorous, disdainful early on of collectors but later at home with them. He wore casual Ghanaian strip cloth tunics in the tweedy corridors of Ivy League Columbia. He could be gruff and severe with students, yet was open and friendly with many, and valued good humor even at his own expense. He was at times a relentless perfectionist, yet he also inspired risk-taking and confidence. He loved terrific objects, but had some awful ones and fakes in his office. During the Columbia riots of 1968 and around 1980 he had health issues that altered his mien and perspectives, sometimes puzzling students and faculty colleagues alike. He was certainly a complex person, one of few leopards, perhaps, not afraid to change his spots. In the late 1970s, for example, he laughed at his earlier passion for trans-Pacific diffusion. I'm told that Doug was at times in the 1980s unpleasant, even difficult, but he remained a fine teacher. And I think his core goodness prevailed. His earlier boundless energy flagged at times, but his humanity and wisdom did so only rarely.
Withal, Douglas Fraser was a pioneer in non-Western arts generally and specifically in the study of African art, one among our ancestors well and fondly remembered for his intellectual acuity, good humor, and stimulating teaching.
Invoked, for example at the deaths of Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, Chinua Achebe, Asante, Igbo, and other kings and leaders. Richard Henderson's extensive website on Onitsha Igbo people, and their sacred kingship, is called “A Mighty Tree” and the largest mask in West Africa, the Igbo ijele, symbolizes a great tree and ancestors, among many other things (see Henderson and Uminna 1988). Our own Roy Sieber narrated a 1973 film, A Great Tree Has Fallen, that commemorated the death of Asantehene Prempeh II.
In African: Suzanne P. Blier. H.M. Cole, Barbara DeMott, Barbara Guggenheim, Edward Lifschitz, George N. Preston; in Native American, Marvin Cahodas, Aldona Jonaitis, Joan Vastokas; in Oceanic: Mino Badner, George Corbin, Deborah Waite; Indonesian: Monni Adams, Sarah Gill, Mattiebelle Gittinger, Jerry Feldman; Pre-Columbian: Cecelia Klein, Esther Pasztory, John Scott.
Esther Pasztory, personal communication, 2016.
I was the first Columbia Africanist graduate student in art history to conduct fieldwork in Africa, and I believe only the fifth from any American university, following Sieber, Thompson, Rubin, and Bravmann.