AFRICAN SCULPTURE

Speaker: Professor Michael Pennie, Bath Spa University College, on 12 October 1998

Michael Pennie outlined the growth of his interest in African sculpture, from Roger Fry's appreciation in his Vision and Design (1920) ‘that some of these things are great sculpture’ and ‘African artists really conceive form in three dimensions, now this is rare in sculpture’ to making many travels in West Africa to see and understand the origins of such sculptures for himself.
He had been particularly drawn to the Lobi people in the far north-west corner of Ghana and in neighbouring Burkino Faso by, as he describes,

‘the quiet dignity of the few carved figures . . . usually standing, gazing. Lobi sculptors have a refreshing disregard for unnecessary detail and superficial description, making works of deceptive simplicity with an economy of decoration; pared down to the minimum number of parts or elements to make the sculpture work. In African art, working has little to do with appearances but more to do with efficacy; the art that can intensify spiritual experience is a working art.’

Michael Pennie explained that the Lobi, hunters and farmers, are pressed by spirits in the bush to make carved figures. Most living things, animal and vegetable, have spirits. Local spirits, thila, are supernatural beings charged by God with the well-being of the Lobi. Spirits can communicate with people to whom something bad has happened through sculptures and
soothsayers at shrines which personify thila, in their dark windowless mud houses. The Lobi believe that all problems are caused by witches. The figures ‘are not seen . . . not altered a thousand times a day by changing light, they stand in darkness on an earth floor, often half-buried and obscured by libations of blood, beer and flour.’

So fed, they give guidance to the clients of the soothsayer. Also, if wooden, so treated they do not last long.
It was particularly interesting that soothsayers were not ‘in it’ for gain or to exploit others, but as a calling with little or no reward, calls often reluctantly answered because consultations took away a lot of time from their own subsistence farming. They had, however, to answer their calling because refusal would lead to misfortune for themselves, even punishment by spirits. The sculptors are not therefore artists freely expressing themselves (or making a living) as in the Western World, but people pressed by spirits to make carvings. These are figures whose poses have a generally understood functional or symbolic significance; no abstract symbols appear as part of or in association with them. They are not identifiable sexually and some are androgynous. They are mostly of wood but the Lobi also work in bronze and iron.

‘Beauty is not the primary aspiration of an [African] sculptor - perhaps power is more important. The question is not whether a carving is beautiful, but whether it functions as it was intended. Beauty is a by-product of an activity that disregards fashion and current taste.’

Professor Pennie showed slides illustrating Lobi life and some sculptures; they were made more enjoyable by questions and discussion as they were shown, and as the place of sculpture in the Lobi culture became plain. The Lobi, numbering about 300,000, are at the bottom of society in their region. They are unco-operative people, who move on to new territory as they exhaust land. They refuse to send their children to school. They resisted the colonial policies of the French (in what is now Burkina Faso) which were more dirigiste than the British. The Lobi have no leader, only a headman in each village, and no formal political assembly. In spite of the growing influences of the world at large, the drift of their young men to work in towns and their extreme physical deprivation, the Lobi people are sustained by their beliefs in which their sculptures play an important part.
Excellent photographs of Lobi sculptures have been published in Adventures with Lobi - An ABC - Part One: The Wood Sculpture, by Michael Pennie (ISBN 0 9513023 5 3).
Michael Pennie has shown an exhibition called LOBI in England and in Ghana, where it helped locally to pacify endemic hostility between tribal factions. He is preparing another called West African Albums which may be on view in the near future at Bath Spa University College.
John Coates