This collection of essays plus integrated catalogue accompanies a traveling exhibition of art from Liberia and Sierra Leone, collected over several decades by the late William Siegmann and bequeathed to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts in 2011. Emphasizing the forest regions of the Upper Guinea Coast, this publication includes both well-known and lesser-known artistic traditions and practices. Sande and Dan masks, brass casting, early photography, and contemporary use of ancient nomoli and other stone sculptures feature prominently.
The volume opens appropriately with a memoriam to Siegmann's dedication, energy, insight, and communication skills, as well as his generosity. He enabled several institutions in the United States and Liberia to significantly enrich their collections and acquire in-depth insights into the arts of Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The opening essay by Mariane C. Ferme and Paul Richards provides the reader with an almost impressionistic set of observations concerning the primary and “secondary” forest (where humans have interfered) that characterizes the regional landscape. This essay switches between historical explanations, agricultural analysis, ethnocultural observations, and references to material culture.
The authors pay attention to the materials used for the construction of masks, costumes, and other ritual paraphernalia, and the current state of affairs concerning deforestation. The impact of trade upon the forest is touched upon, but no conclusion is drawn other than that, for masked ceremonies, natural elements are combined with items imported through trade. The double authorship of the article might explain this lack of clear purpose as the authors hail from very different fields: sociocultural anthropology on one side and technology and agrarian development on the other.
The next essay, by Nanina Guyer, is on the subject of photographic material of Sande society initiates from Sierra Leone kept in European and American collections. The author describes how photography had already become a widespread commodity by the early twentieth century, even in the hinterland outside of the coastal areas. Sande had obviously relaxed their strict rules of secrecy when a camera was near: Most of the pictures were taken during the process, albeit never within the sacred enclosure, but always on the public road. Guyer analyzes a set of pictures of the initiates and concludes that they are not spontaneous records but fully staged: Both photographer and subjects are careful to present the initiates according to a required standard.
The emergence of the popular picture postcard helped spread images of Sande initiation throughout the world, but the pictures, turned into profitable items of trade, made them victims of exploitation: Correct captions were replaced by sensationalist stereotyped exoticism feeding Western prejudices. Even blunt, pre-Photoshop manipulation can be detected, as one particularly telling example shows. This article is a welcome contribution to the subject of the publication; not all cultures have been that lavishly illustrated in history and it seems really worthwhile to analyze carefully the images and the contexts in which they were produced.
Lamp's essay on Sande mask carvers adds another fruit to the basket of recent research on the identity of so-called anonymous African artists. After an efficient introduction into the helmet masks of the Sande/Bundu society, he uses his database of 30,000 images of masks from the region resulting from decades of study in order to identify the Siegmann masks exhibited. Thus, from the ninety-odd workshops/carvers identified so far, he attributes the Siegmann Sande masks to eight different workshops. In passing, Lamp presents a clear insight into the difficulties, dilemmas, and doubts arising whenever one tries to attribute firmly a certain mask to a specific workshop or carver.
Lamp dedicates a separate section to the much rarer and lesser-studied men's masks in the region. He proposes a possible provenance for the Bundu male mask in the exhibition, but his main conclusion is that the men's masks in Sierra Leone and Liberia form a complete field of study still to be explored.
The next essay is on the subject of a number of the masks that Siegmann acquired from Dan territory. Daniel Reed starts with an update of the Ge phenomenon (defined as the spirit intermediating between humans and god) at the end of the twentieth century among Dan people. Examples are given to demonstrate the importance of Ge in an array of contemporary settings.
The author concludes that at the turn of the twenty-first century, in spite of (de)colonization, Dan have managed to integrate their Ge traditions with other institutions to deal with contemporary everyday issues.
The exhibition includes work from bronze casters who have been identified: Ldamie and John Leh. Contributing author Barbara Johnson researched and thereby succeeded in identifying the casters herself. Her article starts with a historical sketch of the copper/brass trade in Liberia and then continues to describe the practice of wearing bronze jewelery, commenting on the pieces exhibited, adding interesting contexts to the objects that were held in high esteem. An adequate description of the lost wax method and colorful biographical details of both identified casters complete her article. The final word is given to Siegmann, who wrote as early as 1977 that “the brass caster's art is virtually dead.”
Grootaers contributes his views on several aspects concerning the mysterious stone sculptures (nomoli) from the region. Rare comparable wooden carvings from the Kissi territory have been carbon dated between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, and the well-known sixteenth–seventeenth century ivory carvings studied by Fagg show enough stylistic similarities to consider them contemporaries of the stone carvings, thus providing conjectural dating of the stone carvings between the thirteenth and twentieth centuries. Three styles are distinguished in the literature. Grootaers charts the stylistic differences and discusses the local naming of the carvings.
A Portuguese sixteenth-century description of a courtly ritual could possibly have taken shape in one of Siegmann's pomdo, thus establishing a high-status environment for the figures. This is underscored by the finding of figures mounted on animals, even nowadays associated with nobility, leading Grootaers to the conclusion that the figures probably depict dignitaries. The fact that they are unearthed (and according to one source buried in a tumulus that could contain fifty figures) could point to a funeral context.
In the second half of his essay, Grootaers describes the practice of ritual recycling, a process that can still be observed among the peoples inhabiting the region. Through X-rays and CT-scans, the incorporation of stone carvings into ritual artifacts can be demonstrated.
In his final words, Grootaers emphasizes the dynamics of a culture that is forever developing, adapting, changing. It is sad that this point still needs to be made whenever African sub-Saharan civilization is concerned, and I deliberately use the word civilization in this context for, I hope, obvious reasons.
The final contribution is a more personal celebration by a lifelong friend and colleague of Siegmann's. Evaluating connoisseurship as a disappearing value in academia, Christine Mullen Kreamer acknowledges the widening perspectives and interdisciplinary approach developed over the last decades; however, the gradual disappearance of connoisseurship might have led (as Herbert Cole remarked earlier) to the admission of high quality fakes in museum and private collections.
In her final paragraph, Kreamer pleads for a renewed interest in field research in order to (re)assess and expand our understanding of African tradition-based arts, recommending to put the study of the object at the core of the artistic research.
The catalogue section provides an introduction to each of its collections of objects, and references to the articles in the first half. The miniature photographs there are repeated in well-spaced layout in the catalogue itself.
The publication is a hybrid between catalogue, study, and Festschrift highlighting the personality and work of William Siegmann.