The conceptual dichotomy of civilization and the wilderness in African systems of thought w.r.t. Mande art and Kongo minkisi

Discuss the conceptual dichotomy of civilization and the wilderness in African systems of thought, and the significance of civilization and/or wilderness for Mande art and artistic practice. Discuss Kongo views of supernatural power, and the embodiment of this power in the ‘personhood’ of Kongo minkisi.

Anderson and Kreamer capture the essence of the African idea of the wilderness in their article titled Wild Spirits: Strong Medicine, African Art and the Wilderness. They identify the Kponyugo masquerade as one essential artifact representing the idea o the wilderness. Practiced by the Senufo community in Ivory Coast, the masquerade is quite a spectacle that accompanies annual ceremonies or special occasions. It is a mélange of composite features, snarling snout, projecting horns and tusks, etc, which epitomize the dangers of life in the African ‘bush’. It is equally a statement on the perceived tranquility and safety of the village communal life. Moreover, the wilderness and its conquest is a rite of passage for tribesmen. The Senufo men, for example, treat the negotiation of the wild as part of their masculinity. The masquerade, which is an artwork of high quality, can be admired for its own intrinsic beauty, as well as the social connotations. The men who wear it acknowledge the fear invoked by the wilderness. At the same time they seek to avail of the mystical powers it offers through their valor.

More importantly, wilderness has served as a catalyst for art and thought in the region. African oral traditions have preserved the glories, mysteries and hazards posed by the wilderness. African systems of thought have been captured in their art, in their language as well as in rites and rituals. Sculpture, in particular, has proved to be a medium most conducive to capturing images of the wilderness. The surviving paraphernalia related to hunting and healing are testament to this, just as leadership regalia are. The particular features of the masquerades invoke a sense of awe and fear of the wild. Features of carnivorous animals such as canine tooth, claws, and gaping mouth are abstracted into the artwork of the masquerade. But masks are just one piece of apparel. They are complimented with matching paraphernalia in the form of bulky fiber clothing which are adorned with seed pods, porcupine quills and bits of metal.

Anderson and Kreamer go on to explain how the mode of living is a key determinant of how the wilderness is perceived. There is no homogenous way of life in African societies. Usually, the mode of social organization depended on the most suited method of subsistence and adaptation to local climate and ecology. So, for instance, those communities who were able to harness the local ecology to practice agriculture lived in fixed settlements. On the other hand, communities depending on a hunter-gatherer way of subsistence had a nomadic existence. The meaning and outlook on wilderness is contrasted for these two modes of living. Fixed settlers, who represent the civilized, saw the wilderness as dangerous and yet alluring, magical and potent. For the nomads who are most intertwined with it, the wilderness is part of nature and is equated to the divine. Since oral and artistic traditions flourished most commonly among fixed settlements, it is only their perception of wilderness which has come to us through recorded history. Hence despite lopsided evidence as to what the wilderness actually meant, it is fair to claim that there was diversity of belief in how it was treated.

1 2