Masters of Sculpture from Cote d'Ivoire: traditional masterpieces are often grouped by region and ethnic group, but rarely by their individual masters.

Author:Williams, Stephen

The exhibition 'Masters of Sculpture from Ivory Coast' showcases traditional African art, but with a twist. Exhibitions of African art are increasingly common, but based at the musee du quai Branly in Paris, the curators of this display have not only managed to identify the regional and ethnic origins of these old works, but the individual artists who made them.

Stephane Martin, the president of the musee du quai Branly, observes: "The conditions for the creation of these works and the artists' perspective and individuality are rarely mentioned," which is exactly what the exhibition uniquely attempts to rectify.

The showcase of 330 masterworks from the end of the 19th century onwards, many on loan from the Musee des civilisations de Cote d'Ivoire, features six distinctive ethnic groups: the Guro and Baoule of the central region; the Dan of the west; Senoufo in the north; the Lobi in the northeast; and the lagoon peoples of the southeast littoral.

Three contemporary works occupy another space: two monumental works of Jems Robert Koko Bi; a collaborative piece by Emile Guebehi and Nicolas Damas; and three of Koffi Kouakou's wood carvings of robots.

Co-curator Eberhard Fischer points out that while ethnic identity is important to all Ivorians, borders between languages and cultures "were never barriers to the transmission of artistic notions, which could spread like wildfire." As a rule, Fischer explains, "a good carver worked exclusively for the village elder, who defended him in emergencies with his warriors, gave him women as gifts, gave him some of his surplus food in times of hunger, and in return used the works made by the artists out of valuable material under his own name within his trading circles." And yet African sculptors' individual identities have typically been neglected. Even so, the difficulties of attributing artworks to particular master craftsmen (and they were invariably men) cannot be underestimated.

As Lorenz Homberger, a leading expert on the art of Cote...

To continue reading