Changing perspectives on African art

Student Art Exhibit
Gabriel de Guzman

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African art and artifacts were often discussed as the curiosities of a culture we could not understand. Terms like fetishism and idolatry were used to describe African art. Discussion begins to move away from these terms and are becoming recognized as derrogatory. More descriptive terms like power figure, dance staff, and fertility figure are used to better address the contextual functions of objects formerly know as fetishes. In an effort to recognize African objects for their aesthtetic qualities, works of African art are being discussed in terms of form. We must be careful not to completely ignore the contextual function of African art which is often created for functional purposes rather than as pure decoration or for display in a gallery. As we recognize African objects as art, we must realize that art combines both form and function.

The term fetishism was first used by Portuguese sailors who landed off the coast of West Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries to describe this so-called primitive culture's religion as the worship of inanimate things and of animals. Today fetishism is defined as the worhip of material objects supposed to have inherent power. This term often contains condescending implications such as the belief in magic and superstitions. It implies that Westerners are at one level of the scale of human progress and Africans are at the other end. To Christian traders and missionaries, African culture was alien. They felt that Africans confused the religious and the material which Europeans thought of as completely separate. It became conventional to describe Africans as worshippers of "trifles".

This exhibit examines African art objects and their shift in Western conception from fetishes to cultural objects of power and then to objects of aesthetic merit. The objects included are those which were once viewed as fetishes, now they are being exhibited and related to broader concepts.

Click on Africa for the location of the societies represented.

*Click on the highlighted titles for more information about the objects*


Ensuring a safe delivery

(Bayly Art Museum)

maternity figure
When you awaken,
you provide money;
you provide children;
you provide long life;
You, who are dual spirits.
(Owoade P.C. 1981)

(Bayly Art Museum)

twin figures
ere ibeji


Defining man's position
in relation to God,
to his ethnic group, to himself,
and to the world.

(Bayly Art Museum)

Helmet Mask
Transition to Manhood
Boys reborn as men

(Bayly Art Museum)

Initiation Mask

Community and Ancestors

Eyes that express an aesthetic of fear.

(Bayly Art Museum)

Pumbu chief's mask
pumbu a mfumu
Everything in which resides a secret
and incomprehensible virtue to do good or ill
and to reveal events past and future

(Bayly Art Museum)

power figure


the opening of a furnace,
the snout of a crocodile
the swellings of sorcerers

(Bayly Art Museum)

Mask (female)
the chain unites male to female
to create a third,
the presence of Earth.

(Fowler Museum)

kneeling female figure
edan oshugbo


For those who acknowledge him,
he is the roadmaker.
For those who do not,
he is the troublemaker
reversing the fortunes of humans.

(Fowler Museum)

dance staff
ogo elegba
a troubled wind
like a cloud full of rain
(Banibi Ojo P.C. 1974)

(Fowler Museum)

dance staff
oshe shango